Turkey’s films embrace east and west

Filmmakers dig into country's complex story

It is a measure of Turkey’s strategically important geographic position that when U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country in April, it could be counted as both the final leg of his European tour and his first visit to a Muslim country.

Turkey is a country defined by its contradictions, straddling East and West, Europe and Asia, its society a mix of secular and Islamic values and its outlook both modern and traditional.

Its film industry is similarly a fascinating blend of culture and commerce.

What’s more, the country’s tumultuous political backdrop, as well as the army’s ongoing fight against Kurdish guerrilla group the PKK, is proving fertile ground for its filmmakers.

In recent years, the Turkish film biz has grown to the point that local pics regularly outperform the bigger-budget offerings from the U.S. studios.

This year’s box office champ, for example, is Togan Gokbakar’s sequel “Recep Ivedik 2,” about the comic exploits of a popular Turkish everyman TV character.

Pic, which was produced and distributed by Ozen Films, has generated 4.3 million admissions since it opened in February.

The success of pics like “Recep Ivedik 2” underline the growing appetite among Turkish auds for Turkish fare. While comedies and melodramas, often based on TV skeins, remain the best performers at the Turkish box office, auds have shown increasing interest in more serious projects.

In October, a film about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, became a sensation in the country. “Mustafa,” a docu written and directed by Can Dundar that mixed original footage with re-enactments of the leader’s life, has garnered more than 1 million admissions since its debut Oct. 29, only days before the 70th anniversary of Ataturk’s death Nov. 10. The film comfortably outperformed the likes of “Quantum of Solace.”

It was also the most controversial Turkish pic in some time, with Ataturk loyalists decrying its portrayal of the venerated leader as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking womanizer.

That the film could even be made is indicative of a growing willingness by Turkish filmmakers to tackle sensitive and controversial subjects.

“We talk a lot more about recent history now — much more than we used to 10 years ago,” says helmer Semih Kaplanoglu, whose “Sut” won this year’s Fipresci prize at the Istanbul Film Festival. “It’s still a new thing for us. It’s very important that Turkish filmmakers become more politically engaged and say something about the Turkey of today and the world in general.”

In recent years, Turkey’s filmmaking community has become divided between those who make mainstream pics with huge domestic appeal but little international interest, such as Cem Yilmaz (“A.R.O.G.”), and the arthouse brigade led by the likes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Three Monkeys”) and Reha Erdem (“Times and Winds”).

The latter regularly find their films selected for and winning prizes at major international film fests. But their movies have modest appeal back home.

It is telling, however, that Ceylan scored his most commercial success so far with last year’s “Three Monkeys,” his most political project to date.

Pic, about a family struggling to come to terms with a dark secret, takes place against the backdrop of Turkey’s elections. It garnered more than 100,000 admissions for Ceylan — a modest sum by Turkey blockbuster standards but a reasonable performance by the filmmaker’s record.

More important, the fact that politics features at all in the film, given Ceylan’s famously poetic, elliptical style, is testament to the crucial political crossroads at which Turkish society finds itself.

“I wanted to keep the humanity of the characters in the foreground, but there is a strong political background in the film,” says Ceylan. “While we were shooting, there was a big political situation in the country because the government had called for early elections. The streets of Turkey changed a lot. There were flags everywhere, the cars of the different political parties, the shouting from the crowds. It was a mess. So I decided to use this situation to increase the inner emotions of the family and their loneliness.”

There also have been signs of late that the distinction between mainstream and auteur filmmakers may be blurring.

Zubeyr Sasmaz, for example, exec produced 2006 smash hit “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” based on the popular Turkish TV show about a crack platoon of Turkish commandos in Iraq. (The film proved hugely controversial for its negative portrayal of U.S. troops.)

Sasmaz also directed “Muro,” a mainstream black comedy about two Marxist Kurdish friends who leave jail and encounter two Russian girls who are resolutely capitalist in outlook. Pic has generated 2.3 million admissions since its release in December last year.

While Sasmaz may have previously been pigeon-holed as a commercial filmmaker, his next project, “The Root and the Branches,” is a resolutely arthouse offering about the intersecting lives of seven Turks.

“What we need to do is make films which are universal,” says Sasmaz. “We can make commercial films, and we can make arthouse films, but for me, the most important thing is just to make films that recognize our humanity.”

As with other places in the world, however, during these times of economic crisis, Turkish auds still want to leave theaters feeling better than when they walked in. Commercial pics will continue to dominate the marketplace as long as the market demands it.

But in an encouraging sign of the growing maturity of the Turkish film biz as more screens continue to pop up over the country, it is becoming easier for serious-minded fare to find space to attract auds.

“People who pay money want to be entertained,” says distrib Ozen Films prexy Mehmet Soyarslan. “What we are seeing, though, is that the Turkish people want to see their own history on the screen, their own heroes and their stories. The people are more interested in what is happening in Turkey.”

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