What made 80s films so unique

Turkish film series

At the start of our "Turkish Cinema Series" at the beginning of January, we discussed the current Turkish-Kurdish production "Hejar - Big Man, Little Love"; and so we are already in the middle of a central topic. When we talk about Turkish cinema in the course of this year, we are not presuming to be able to give an overview of the entire film industry. Rather, we want to invite you on a journey of discovery of what makes Turkish film so special and unique. Historical facts, such as the Kurdish question, but also other aspects, are important because they shaped the people in Turkey and thus also shaped the expressions of their artists.

One of the most colorful and ambivalent characters is Yilmaz Güney (1937-1984). As an actor he was a folk hero, as a filmmaker he has maintained an undisputed cult status to this day. Every ambitious Turkish director has to be measured against him and often emancipate himself from him.
The beginnings of Turkish cinema were quite similar to those of other countries. First, around 1900, the short films of the cinema pioneers, such as those of the Lumiére brothers and their epigones, were shown. But resourceful Turkish producers quickly set out to make their own films. The business was lucrative. But since it was mostly run by business people such as wealthy carpet dealers, the artistic value was sometimes questionable. At the same time, Egyptian productions were accessed. As a film country in the Arab world, Egypt is just as important as Hollywood is for the world market. This proves a characteristic of Turkish film that no other country can offer in this form. Just as Turkey extends across Europe as well as Asia Minor, she can draw artistically from both European and Arab cultures.

Yilmaz Güney's work is so individual that it cannot be assigned to any of these traditions. He has developed a film aesthetic that takes account of the specific conditions in Turkey. Güney was of Kurdish descent, but as an artist is more likely to be classified as "all-Turkish". As an actor, he captured the hearts of all ethnic groups in Turkey and either he was not known to be Kurd or of no importance. His audience felt understood by him, as he himself played his villain roles with an outstanding humanity and often with a latent social conscience. As a director and screenwriter, he reformed the entire Turkish film and brought it to international recognition for the first time. At this point we don't want to deliver any filmography or retell Güney's adventurous life story. We would rather focus on a few leitmotifs in his filmmaking, so that we can later refer to them for comparative purposes in reviews of newer films.

In today's language one would describe his films as documentary dramas, they are so authentic and realistic. Güney often takes the material for his scripts from the life of his family and friends. Then he interweaves them in his inimitable way into the opaque political and social structures of Turkey in the 70s and 80s. He entangles his heroes in seemingly feudal tendencies such as the almost serfdom of women, which contrasts with the still valid reforms of Mustafa Kemal in the 1930s. The goals of the various post-war military regimes are still different. And Islam is difficult to reconcile with certain political currents. For Güney's protagonists, a supposed code of honor, which serves as an alibi for oppression and blind vindictiveness, is also fatal.

"Yol - the way"

His most famous film is "Yol - the way", for which he was awarded the Palme d'Or in 1982 at the Cannes Film Festival. In "Yol" the central themes from previous films are summarized in great detail. Since he finished "Yol" in French exile, he did not have to take the Turkish censorship into account this time.
Five prisoners are given a week of leave on their word of honor and begin the long journey to their families. The film begins in prison and ends with Seyit Ali (Tarik Akan) driving back to prison. This circular movement is symbolic in that there is usually no escape and no way out for Güney's heroes. They end where they started.
Even more striking is the prison issue, which is a constant feature of Güney's work. This leitmotif is reflected on several levels, which often affect the main characters at the same time. In "Yol" we have the physical environment of the detention center where the detainees are subject to authority control. Güney is partisan and loves his heroes, but his point of view is by no means one-sided. They have committed the acts of which they are accused. He only goes into the reasons for their crimes indirectly, but allows the viewer to draw conclusions that they are prisoners of need and poverty.
Even during their vacation, they are exposed to the repression of the military regime of the time. Even in "freedom" this is denied them by a constant state of emergency. The whole country is represented as a great prison.
Another prison are family constraints and traditions. Seyit Ali comes home to avenge the disgrace his unfaithful wife brought on the family. He should kill her to restore the family honor. Human considerations, such as his long absence through imprisonment, or the fact that he loves his wife and has actually already forgiven her, have no place in this social prison. He returns to custody as a widower.

His fellow inmate Mehmet Salih (Halil Ergün) also received anything but a warm welcome at home. He is denied access to his wife and two children. Years ago, when he was involved in a robbery, his brother-in-law was killed. His family blames him for the young man's death. Out of cowardice, Mehmet fled without his brother-in-law and built himself an inner prison out of his feelings of guilt. Nevertheless, he hopes for his wife's forgiveness. The only happy moment in the whole film is the escape of the two with their two children. For a brief moment it seems possible that love will triumph after all. But his younger brother-in-law finds the two and kills them.
Güney does not give the viewer any moral evaluation, rather he restricts himself to the pure representation. Its protagonists are neither good nor bad, but they kill and die like they have no choice. Whether they choose love or hate, they are always the losers. The picture that Güney paints of what was then Turkey is very gloomy. Neither the heads of families, the state, nor the religious leaders give the people much-needed hope or any reliable support. It looks like many of Güney's contemporaries were unable to get out of their situation on their own. Güney's importance may still be valid today because he made himself their advocate out of lived solidarity with the oppressed and poor. He captured unspeakable suffering in impressive images that do not require verbal language to reach the heart. And in doing so, he has given his films back what is largely lacking inherent in the film: hope. "Yol" means the way, but unfortunately not the way out. Obviously, Güney saw no way out, neither for himself nor for his Turkey. Even in exile he found no peace and was homesick. As relentlessly as his films depict the social, political and societal circumstances, they are the result of a deep connection between Güney and his homeland and its ethnic groups.

Helga Fitzner / February 2003

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