One Hundred Years Of Turkish Cinema

Burçak Evren June 2014


One Hundred Years Of Turkish Cinema

Cameramen working for the Lumière Brothers, who had staged the world’s first public screening of a moving picture at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895, filmed the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge from the water in 1896, putting their signature on the first film shot in Turkey. The first public screening of a motion picture in Turkey also took place in 1896. From its inception in the Ottoman Empire, cinema gained instant popularity and soon became the cheapest and only form of public entertainment.

THE EARLY YEARS (1896-1922)
In its early years, cinema made use of the already existing venues and human resources of the theaters. As interest grew, films were first shown in coffeehouses and nightclubs, later moving in to the theaters where they were shown for entertainment between the acts of stage plays. Sigmund Weinberg, who is credited with bringing cinema to Turkey, opened the country’s first movie theater, called the Pathé, at Beyoğlu in 1908. It was followed by the Orientaux, which opened in Pera (Beyoğlu) in 1911, and the Central and Ideal, both of which opened in the same area in 1912.

To record it for posterity, the Ottoman government decided to film the demolition of the monument erected by the Russians at Ayastefanos (Present-day Yeşilköy), the farthest point to which they had penetrated during the Russo-Turkish War of 1876-77.  It was essential that the film be shot by a Turk, so Fuat Uzkınay undertook to do it. Shooting the film on November 14, 1914, he became the first director in Turkish cinema. This date is also regarded as the start of the Turkish film industry.

The first official movie theater in Turkey was set up by Enver Pasha in 1915 and called the MOSD (Central Army Cinematography Office). Sigmund Weinberg was placed in charge of it and Fuat Uzkınay appointed as his assistant.
This institution made a series of propaganda films aimed at rehabilitating the Ottomans’ “sick man” image. Concurrently, Weinberg made his first feature-length films, Leblebici Horhor (1916) and Himmet Ağa’nın İzdivacı/The Marriage of Himmet Aga (1916), but the latter was never completed due to the war.

All of MOSD’s film equipment was turned over to the Association of National Defense during the occupation of Istanbul at the end of World War I. To generate some revenue, the society commissioned two films to Sedat Semavi: Casus/The Spy (1917), a spy film set in the First World War, and Pençe/The Claw (1917), about an illicit love affair. These were the Turkish film industry’s first feature-length commercial films.

Muhsin Ertuğrul, the sole director in this period when Turkish cinema was in its infancy, set up the Kemal Film Studio, which made A Love Tragedy in Istanbul (1922), a film based on a real-life incident. Later he tried to adapt Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu’s novel Nur Baba (1922) to the screen, but the film, which led to tension already during the shooting, was later released under the title “The Bosphorus Mystery”.

Muhsin Ertuğrul’s third film, The Daughter of Smyrna (1923), was based on Halide Edip Adıvar’s novel of the same name and dealt with the theme of Turkey’s War of Independence. When a woman was needed to play in this highly patriotic film, an ad was placed in one of the Istanbul dailies, and Bedia Muvahhit, one of the two women who responded to the ad and played in the film, later became one of the doyennes of Turkish theater.

THE TRANSITION (1938-1950)
The Second World War broke out during this period of fresh initiatives in the Turkish film industry, and only 14 films were made between 1939 and 1944. During this dormant period, cinema in Turkey fell into the clutches of the U.S. film industry, which dominated the market. Due to the war, American films made it to the Middle East via Egypt, paving the way to a flood of Egyptian films in Turkey.

The quest to find actors without a theater background, the shift from synchronous dialogue to dubbing, and the first experiment with animation, Evvel Zaman İçinde, all occurred in this period. Among the other gains of the day we can site the rapid growth in the number of new movie theaters, new production studios and societies devoted to cinema.

This period began with the film Strike the Whore, an adaptation of Halide Edip Adıvar’s novel by Lütfî Akad in 1949. Akad became a pioneering director, a “masterless master”, in films like In the Name of the Law (1952), Murderous City (1954) and White Handkerchief (1955), which he, unlike theater directors, shot in a cinematic concept characterized by lively and dynamic cinematography. Another master, Atıf Yılmaz seized on the popular novels of the day, making films like The Sob (1953) and The Girl Who Watched the Mountain (1955) as well as The Fallow Deer (1959), in which Yılmaz Güney acted, and This Land’s Children (1959). Another master of this period was Metin Erksan, who prepared the ground for the emergence of the directors who would have an impact on Turkish cinema in years to come, figures who, in a sense, became the founding directors of Turkish cinema and determined its course in subsequent periods.

THE GOLDEN AGE (1960-1967)
Starting in 1960, Turkish cinema turned to films with social content, films that dealt with events previously considered to be taboo in the cinema. For the first time, the problems of the rural population were taken up and dealt with in terms of property ownership. Low in number but high in quality, a number of masterpieces appeared in this period. Metin Erksan won the Golden Bar, the biggest prize ever captured by Turkish cinema up to that time, at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival for his film Susuz Yaz/Dry Summer.

In a productive period for Turkish cinema in terms of quantity, the number of films shot annually rose from 200 in 1967 to 300 in 1972, and Turkey became the fourth largest producer of films after the U.S., India and Hong Kong. At the same time, this period was one in which melodramas on the theme poor girl-rich man or poor man-rich girl gained currency and the role of the star in cinema came to the fore as the number of movie theaters, producers and viewing audiences saw its biggest rise yet.

THE LOST YEARS (1974-1978)
As the cheapest and sole form of public entertainment, cinema was now trumped by television, which came into Turkish homes at the start of the seventies, and film production fell sharply by as much as eighty percent as audiences dwindled.
As movie theaters closed down one by one, filmmakers, who were seeking to bring audiences back, found a way out by turning to films that could not be shown on TV.

National Cinema movements, one led by Halit Refiğ and Metin Erksan, the other pioneered by Yücel Çakmaklı, emerged in the difficult conditions of this period and started producing films, albeit few in number.

Making social content films that reflected the socio-political climate of the time, young filmmakers turned to mainly youthful audiences, who were caught between television and cinema. Political issues focusing on the rural sector, the working class and the aftermath of the September 12th military takeover were dealt with as realistically as censorship would allow. Erden Kıral depicted cotton pickers in his films The Canal (1978) and On Fertile Lands (1979), and the clash of different cultures in A Season in Hakkari, which won four prizes at the Berlin Film Festival. Ali Özgentürk depicted honor killings in Hazal (1979), and the drama of a father struggling to educate his son in The Horse (1981), while Korhan Yurtsever depicted the conflict between landowners and farm workers in The Bad Spirits of the Euphrates (1977).

The films written by Yılmaz Güney in prison left their mark on this period. Among them, The Herd (1978) and The Enemy (1979), directed by Zeki Ökten, and Yol/The Way (1982), by Şerif Gören, took the Palme d’Or at Cannes along with the Costa Gavras film, Lost.

Hit by a video invasion in those years, the film industry turned to making cheap, low-brow video films. Color television and the rise of the private channels further fueled the crisis in the industry.

THE MAJORS (1987-1994)
Turkish cinema suffered its biggest crisis of all in the eighties. Films on political themes by a small number of directors had to compete at the box office with big American productions. The successful ones among them, Ertem Eğilmez’s last film, Arabesque (1988), Serif Gören’s The American (1993), Mustafa Altıoklar’s Istanbul Beneath My Wings (1995), Sinan Çetin’s Berlin in Berlin (1992), Yavuz Turgul’s Eşkıya/The Bandit (1996) and Gani Müjde’s Kahpe Bizans (1999), kindled renewed hope for the future.

THE INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS (1994 to the present)
The difference between these filmmakers and the young filmmakers of earlier periods is that today’s filmmakers incur myriads to become producers and scriptwriters, even actors and cameramen, portraying their own stories and situations and using unknown actors in a cinematic language unique unto themselves with no thought of commercial gain. Zeki Demirkurbuz and Yeşim Ustaoğlu are among the leading directors of this period.

Turkey’s independent filmmakers have achieved huge success, garnering close to ten times as many awards at the international film festivals as were won by Turkish cinema in the previous 85 years. Foremost among them are Derviş Zaim (Somersault in a Coffin - 1996, Dot - 2007), Serdar Akar (On Board - 1999, Offside - 2000), Handan İpekçi (Dad Is in the Army - 1994, Big Man, Little Love - 2001), Reha Erdem (Oh, Moon! - 1998, Times and Winds - 2006, Cosmos - 2010), Reis Çelik (Işıklar Sönmesin - 1996),Night of Silence - 2012), Ümit Ünal  (9 - 2001, Istanbul Tales - 2004), Yılmaz Erdoğan (The Butterfly’s Dream - 2012), Ahmet Uluçay (Boats Out of Watermelon Rinds - 2004), Semih Kaplanoğlu (Egg - 2007, Milk - 2008, and Honey, 2010, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), Tayfun Pirselimoğlu (In Nowhere Land - 2002), Semir Aslanyürek (Eve Giden Yol - 2006), and Özcan Alper (Autumn - 2008).

The one and only person in Turkey who knew what cinema was in the first half of the 19th century and was able to discern its future was Sigmund Weinberg, a Rumanian citizen who sold film and photography equipment in Beyoğlu and later went into the filmmaking business. Fuat Uzkınay learned cinema from Weinberg and began staging educational film screenings for students at the school where he was employed, thus becoming the second person in Turkey to know about cinema.

Turkish filmmaking was born on November 14, 1914, the day that Fuat Uzkınay shot his film, “The Demolition of the Russian Monument at Ayastefanos”. Nevertheless, there are films that were shot earlier, among them the films that were made starting in 1905 by the Manaki brothers, Yanaki (1878-1954) and Milton (1882-1964), the first Balkan filmmakers. One of those films is Sultan Reşat’s Visit to Monastir, made in 1911.
Film historians suggest that it would be more correct to regard the Manaki brothers as the first Turkish filmmakers since Macedonia was then part of the Ottoman Empire and the Manakis were naturally Ottoman citizens. The brothers always stamped the name of Turkey on their photographs and on the canisters of all the films they made.

Lütfî Akad produced original examples of the melodrama genre in his films, Hudutların Kanunu/The Law of the Border (1967), about the lives of smugglers on the border, and Vesikalı Yarim (1968). Atıf Yılmaz, who produced a political critique of the previous period in his Dolandırıcılar Şahı/King of the Swindlers (1961), tells the tragicomic story of an innocent, young girl who comes to the big city to become an actress in his Ah Güzel İstanbul/O Beautiful Istanbul (1966).

The golden age from 1960 to 1967 simultaneously ushered in an “age of enlightenment” in Turkish cinema. The Cinémathèque and Club 7 (later the State Film Archive) sprang up in this period, when the now long-standing national festivals, the Antalya Golden Orange and the Adana Golden Boll festivals, also had their inception. Thanks to these and other organizational efforts in cinema, developments in the literature were also among the positive developments of the time...

Şener Şen is one of the most unconventional comedians - perhaps the first of his kind - in Turkish cinema. While most comedy types are naive and honest fumbling bumpkins, Şen is a comedy actor who was loved and rose to prominence for being the exact opposite, namely, a devious, double-dealing rogue. Following his success with Kemal Sunal in Outrageous Class, this fabulous duo came to audiences in films like The Foster Brothers, Şabanoğlu Şaban, Tosun Paşa, Kibar Feyzo, Davaro and The King of the Street Cleaners. Playing character roles, Şener Şen have had his name written in gold letters in Turkish cinema with films as The Bandit (1996), Lovelorn (2005), For Love and Honor (2007), Hunting Season (2010)..

This film, directed by Erden Kiral with a script adapted by Onat Kutlar from Ferit’s Edgü’s novel “O”, poetically depicts an intellectual who spends his military service serving as a teacher in the eastern province of Hakkari where he is based, his relationship with the alien culture he encounters there, and the inner journey it takes him on.

One of Turkish cinema’s first actor-directors to gain international recognition, Güney, who started out in cinema as an actor in Atıf Yılmaz’s 1958 film Bu Vatanın Çocukları/This Land’s Children, got into directing as well in 1966 with his film At Avrat Silah/Horse, Woman and Gun, earning a reputation as the “Ugly King” in a series of films he shot one after the other. Surging to fame with his film Umut/Hope in 1970, he later directed Acı/Pain, Ağıt/Elegy, Baba/The Father, Umutsuzlar/The Hopeless One, Arkadaş/Friend and Duvar/The Wall. Forced to spend most of his life in prison, Güney nevertheless wrote the scripts for films like Sürü/The Herd, Düşman/The Enemy and Yol/The Way, which won top prizes at the international film festivals, and became the first Turkish director to be internationally recognized in world cinema..

The first examples of the films known in Turkish cinema as the “September 12th films” because they dealt with the repercussions of the September 12th military takeover in 1971 began emerging at the end of the 1980’s. Zeki Alasya’s "The Thorny Way" (1986), Sinan Çetin’s "Prenses" (1986), Şerif Gören’s Sen Türkülerini Söyle (1986), Zeki Ökten’s Ses (1986), Zülfü Livaneli’s "Fog" (1988) and Tunç Başaran’s "Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite" (1989) all bear witness to this period.

Following his 1995 film Koza/Cocoon, in 1999 Nuri Bilge Ceylan completed Mayıs Sıkıntısı/May Clouds, which walked off with big prizes at the national and international film festivals. Uzak took the Grand Prize of the Jury and the award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, İklimler/The Climate the Fibresci prize at Cannes in 2006, and Üç Maymun/Three Monkeys (2008) the award for best director, again at Cannes. With his film Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da/Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (2011), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes the same year, and, most recently, Winter Sleep (2014), which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Ceylan has become Turkey’s top prizewinning director at home and abroad.