LONDON — A new film about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, has become a sensation in his native country.
“Mustafa,” a docu written and directed by Can Dundar, which mixes original footage with re-enactments of the leader’s life, is the fastest grossing Turkish pic of the year. It has garnered almost a million admissions since its debut Oct. 29, only days before the 70th anniversary of Ataturk’s death Nov. 10.
It is also by some margin the most controversial Turkish pic of the year, with Ataturk-loyalists decrying its portrayal of the venerated leader as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking womanizer.
Some critics have also blasted Dundar’s attempts to humanize Ataturk — whose surname means “father of the Turks” — by referring to him by his first name and for using a Greek actor to portray Ataturk as a child.
Pic has even outgunned James Bond.
“Mustafa” is comfortably outgrossing “Quantum of Solace,” bringing in 43,000 admissions on Nov. 11 compared with the Bond sequel’s 20,000 admissions.
Turkey is a country virtually defined by its contradictions, with one foot in Asia and the other in Europe. With a population split between those who favor the fervently secularist ideals that Ataturk enshrined when he founded the modern state of Turkey in 1923 following the demise of the Ottoman Empire and those who follow the more Islamic views espoused by the current ruling AK party, the figure of Ataturk has often been seen as a rare unifier in the country. All of which has made Dundar’s warts-and-all approach dominate media coverage in recent weeks.
“There has been so much controversy,” says producer Nurhan Ozer. “There’s no film in Turkey that has been criticized so much. Every day we’re receiving between 50-100 news articles about the film. And controversial views are more frequent than the positive ones.”
That hasn’t stopped Turks from showing up in droves to see the pic, which is being distribbed by Warner Bros. locally.
The hot-potato subject matter of the pic also scared off potential investors. Turkcell, one of Turkey’s largest mobile phone operators, was due to be a sponsor until it backed out of the pic following the political furor. Ultimately, the $1.2 million project was fully funded by Turkish satcaster NTV and conglom Sabanci Holding.
Pic is on course to bring in nearly 1.5 million admissions by the end of its first month of release, but remains some way behind the all-time Turkish box office champ “Recep Ivedik,” from helmer Togan Bokbakar. That pic, a laffer based on a popular Turkish character, brought in better than 4 million admissions when released earlier this year.