YOUR FOCUS IS YOUR TRUTH: TURKISH CINEMA, “ALLUVIONIC” FILM-MAKERS AND INTERNATIONAL ACCEPTANCE, Derviş Zaim
Introduction: The aim of this paper is to focus on and offer an interpretation of Turkish directors’ views on Western perceptions of Turkish cinema today; and how and in what manner Turkish cinema is received in terms of the production-distribution-exhibition chain (ie – sales, festivals, etc). The significance of the subject stems from the fact that almost no national cinema in the world is nourished only by its own technical, financial and cultural resources. Today, cinema is a medium where multi-directional and diverse exchanges take place between countries. In order to be able to discuss the various aspects of this matter, an attempt will be made to link the issues at stake to the experiences of Turkish directors who produce films in the 2000s. In doing so, it is my hope that this effort contributes to the strengthening of relations between mainstream cinema and other, peripheral, cinemas. Of the reasons that led me to write this paper, I must mention, first and foremost, a number of incidents I encountered in Turkey and in Europe (For instance, while I was searching for an international partner for my film Çamur (Mud, 2003) I remember a Danish producer telling my co-producer, “We do not want to invest in any Turkish project.”). The fact that my films were exhibited in the Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian and Rotterdam film festivals; that some have been shown on ARTE; and that I have made co-productions with West European-based TV channels such as TSI and RAI, and collaborated with various international support organizations such as Eurimages and Montecinema Verita, have all contributed to the shaping of the context of and my arguments in this paper. At the same time, it must also be said that I have been interested in the different and diverse array of views of the directors I have worked side by side with in the realm of Turkish cinema for quite some time now, which also drove me to investigate how this issue is perceived in Turkey. Many of the Turkish directors mentioned in the paper were selected from among names that were involved in “reputable” festivals and distribution networks in the West during the last three decades, or took part in discussions and debates on the issues explored in this paper. Since the mid nineties, certain players in Turkish cinema have been experimenting with new national and international production models so as to be able to make critical and cutting-edge productions in terms of form and aesthetics. Shortly after this group emerged onto the scene, it started to be labeled with a variety of titles, including “new”, “young”, and ‘independent.” I believe these terms bring with them certain drawbacks, I will therefore attempt to offer another expression instead. It could be argued that the significant differences between independent cinema and mainstream cinema in Turkey occur in terms of sales, distribution and marketing within and outside of Turkey. It could also be said that while independent Turkish cinema boasts different levels of sales, distribution and exposure both outside and within Turkey in comparison to mainstream cinema, the target audience of mainstream cinema remains to be the Turkish diaspora. In describing the reasons as to why this has come to be the case, one will have to mention the fact that the drawbacks of the inner dynamics of Turkish cinema have driven independent cinema to look elsewhere for different financing models as an alternative to shoestring budget or guerrilla filmmaking. In the same vein, the efforts of Turkish independent cinema were towards partially securing financing, production, distribution, sales and exposure to have presence in the international arena, as well as in the domestic market. When asked about possible sources of support for either independent or mainstream Turkish cinema, various international and local funding sources such as Eurimages and TV channels come to mind. Eurimages, the Council of Europe cinema fund, seeks to strengthen co-productions between European countries, and is one of the primary sources Turkish cinema benefits the most from. However, particularly when selling films to major West European TV channels or distributors becomes an issue, the performance of the industry as a whole does not seem so bright. Turkish independent cinema has been much more successful in this respect. To examine how these funds have contributed to Turkish cinema, one would have to acknowledge the funding agencies’ increasing interest in recent years. In fact, one could also say that these funding agencies contribute to artistic projects that offer a critique for which funds are hard to come by domestically, and are therefore fulfilling a very constructive function. Nevertheless, those in the Turkish film industry have been questioning, with an increasingly louder voice, whether such organizations demand a specific form and content from Turkey. When asked about their views on relations with the West, it becomes apparent that the Turkish filmmakers embody discourses that are competitive, dynamic, at times ambivalent and sometimes exclusionary, that position Turkey and the West as side by side or within one another, in the context of a dialectic relationship. The question of eligibility to participate in festivals constitutes a good point to scrutinize all these issues and opinions under a magnifying glass. This has to do with the fact that international and multi-territory film sales or movie theater distribution etc. become possible only after being involved in the program of an important festival. Therefore, this paper will attempt to examine, in as much detail as possible, the conditions and criteria which determine acceptance into class A festivals, funding and sales opportunities, and the impression these processes leave in the minds of Turkish filmmakers. One of the first discourses that will be touched upon is the argument that international distribution and sales would be easier if films were made in line with Western political expectations. In addition, whether or not the orientalist perspective and orientalist expectations of the European cinematic institutions result in a “self-orientalist” attitude among Turkish filmmakers is one of the factors that needs to be examined. One of our points of departure will be the assumption that a Turkish filmmaker must have some insight about the content and formats European Cinematic institutions will consider acceptable from the Turkey. How such a person, who embarks on making a film acceptable for the European cinematic institutions and yet attempts to remain authentic, will be able to construct an honest representation of his or her own reality is crucially important. In the following section, first I will focus on brief history of relationship of Turkish cinema and West to discuss the issue in a more detailed way.
Turkish Cinema Screened at Western Festivals and the “Alluvionic” Film-makers
In 1934, Turkish cinema participated in the Venice Film Festival with Muhsin Ertuğrul’s Leblebici Horhor Aga (Chick pea Seller)and won an honorary diploma. This diploma was the first award granted to Turkish cinema from abroad. Similarly, in 1956, Sabahattin Eyuboglu and Mazhar İpşiroğlu’s short documentary entitled Hitit Günesi (Hittite Sun) won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The same duo won an honorable mention award a year later at the same festival for their short film Siyah Kalem (Black Pencil). Soon thereafter, in 1961, Atilla Tokatlı’s Denize İnen Yol (The Street That Descends to the Sea)was awarded the Diploma of Honor at the International Locarno Film Festival. However, due to the circumstances at home and abroad, these achievements did not result in a boost in terms of international distribution. The traffic between Turkish cinema and Western Europe became even more intense after Metin Erksan’s Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer) won the Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Ali Akay suggests that the interest in cinema in the ’60s runs parallel to the contemporaneous interest that arose in calligraphy and traditional Turkish arts, within the context of orientalist perspectives. However, Turkish cinema had to wait for Yılmaz Güney’s works in the seventies to earn great achievements at major festivals in Western Europe. Yılmaz Güney was followed by directors such as Erden Kıral, Zeki Ökten, Şerif Gören, Ömer Kavur, Tevfik Başer, Tunç Okan, and Ali Özgenturk, many of whom made films in the mid-seventies and eighties. Mainly active in the eighties, in their efforts to introduce Turkish cinema to audiences overseas, these directors dealt not only with the unfavourable conditions of production, distribution and exhibition, but with problems such as censorship, as well. Exposure at noteworthy festivals, thanks to the films produced during that time, unfortunately did not go a long way toward effectively disseminating Turkish cinema worldwide. The popular and so-called commercial works of Turkish cinema at the time were efforts not found appealing by audiences abroad. The above directors were active in the eighties. Another generation followed and took the scene in the mid-nineties. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Zeki Demirkubuz, Derviş Zaim, to name a few, are continuing to take part in important festivals in Europe and the US, representing Turkish cinema. Festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto made it somewhat easier for Turkish cinema to come into contact with the distribution and sales networks of international art films, and to a certain extent, for the above mentioned directors of the nineties to gain access to movie theater distribution in Europe and worldwide. However, collective, continuous and extensive distribution on an international level was still not observed during this time. Although, the state provided increasingly more support to filmmakers during this time, this support never gave way to a continuous, systematic and multi-dimensional cultural policy. Efforts of those “new”, “independent” directors remained to be individualistic initiatives.
A Limited Concept
As I said earlier, this was the case particularly for examples of Turkish “independent” cinema in the art film category. Mainstream cinema was still, not part of the picture. At this point, I want to reiterate that the term “independent” is a limited concept in terms of defining the generation that emerged during the mid-nineties. The young generation that emerged as filmmakers from the nineties onwards does, at times, follow the same path as those of mainstream cinema in terms of production methods and funding sources. For instance, the funding sources of Zeki Demirkubuz’s Kader (Destiny, 2006) and Abdullah Oğuz’s Mutluluk (Bliss, 2007) include similar organizations, such as Eurimages, which necessitates a reconsideration of the definition of “independent.” Additionally, the terms ‘young Turkish cinema’ or ‘new Turkish cinema’ are sometimes used interchangeably with ‘independent’ and do also consist of certain drawbacks. One such drawback is that the concepts of “young” and “new” are sometimes used in reference to Turkish directors that produced films in the 1980s, and sometimes to those in the nineties. Therefore, I would like to briefly state my objections to the word “independent” and offer another definition. Hence, at this point, I would like to introduce a term, borrowed from geography, that I think is instrumental in referring to the group of directors and their cinema that emerged in the nineties. The term I suggest is “alluvion.” A geographical expression, I utilize “alluvion” to denote that these directors are all flowing in the same direction, and to the linkages among them which can take different forms. Directors that emerged during this period conduct their activities independently but parallel to one another, similar to the sediments of alluvium that together form an alluvion. At times they come together, and at times, spread apart, as do alluvia. The anology of alluvion was chosen, for I believe it will be highly accurate and useful in defining the dynamics and diversities that abide in this group, which boasts different styles and different forms of production, financing and distribution. In the meantime, third generation diaspora directors of Turkish origin who make films in the Italian and German film industries, such as Ferzan Özpetek, Fatih Akın, Ayşe Polat, Neco Çelik and Yılmaz Aslan, create works under circumstances not similar to the production conditions of Turkish cinema. This issue and questions that emanate from that also need to be touched upon within the context of this paper. Moreover, directors such as Hakan Şahin, a Turkish national who makes films in Canada, and British citizens of Turkish Cypriot origin such as Erim Metto and Kenan Hüdaverdi, who actively work in Britain, can also be added to this list. However, since the conditions under which these directors produce, distribute and sell their work differ to a fair extent from those of Turkish cinema, I will not place particular emphasis on this group of Turkish directors in this chapter.
An Overview of External Funding for Turkish Cinema: European and US Funding Sources for Turkish “Alluvionic” Films
The sources I will list below could obviously not be considered the only valid financing sources for Turkish “alluvionic” cinema. While these external sources of funding are highly significant in the realization of films in the alluvionic category, as noted above, other production methods for alluvionic films also exist. These methods may be listed as utilizing personal resources, forming co-productions and producing films either on the margins of or outside the market, and at minimal cost. At this point, one must mention individuals like Reha Erdem, who try to generate funding for their films by also working in the advertising sector. It is my contention that because Turkish alluvionic cinema was not born from any specific manifesto (such as Dogme), and is not bound by very clear rules and systems, it has been effective in creating a wide range of production models. The flexibility of production methods can sometimes result in both mainstream and alluvionic cinema benefiting from the same financial resources. For instance, significant production companies such as Plato, Filmacass, Med Yapım, and ANS that produce popular films can at times secure funding from Eurimages along with producers from the domain of “alluvionic” cinema. Or individuals who produce films in the “alluvionic” category can at times try their hand at mainstream-style films at certain points in their career. In addition to two films, Gemide (On Board, 1998) and Maruf (Maruf, 2002), he produced in guerilla-style filmmaking, Serdar Akar has also made two commercial films Dar Alanda Kısa Paslaşmalar (Offside, 2000) and Kurtlar Vadisi Irak (Valley of the Wolves-Iraq, 2006) with two mainstream production/distribution companies (Umut Sanat and Panafilm companies). Such examples are what make the word “independent” problematic, as I suggested earlier.
Eurimages is the most obvious choice when it comes to possible European funding mechanisms for Turkish films in either the alluvionic or the mainstream categories. Since Turkey joined the group on February 28, 1990 as the eighteenth nation, over a hundred Turkish films have established co-productions with European nations and secured funding from this source. The important point for our discussion is the fact that a majority of Turkish producers have been able to secure funding from Eurimages for a variety of projects that represented different views, styles, subjects, and artistic conventions and formats. In interpreting this “favourable” position Turkish films enjoy with Eurimages—as observable in statistics as well—many directors I spoke with attributed this to the energy of Turkish projects, and to the active and skillful efforts of Turkish representatives in effectively building communication networks with representatives from other member states at the meetings. Eurimages has also been instrumental in the attainment of certain Turkish projects that would otherwise have had a slim chance of securing funds from within Turkey. One such film entitled Palto (Coat) (Kutluğ Ataman, 1997), the production of which was delayed for various reasons, and other films such as Güneşe Yolculuk (Journey to the Sun, dir:Yeşim Ustaoğlu, 1997), Büyük Adam Küçük Aşk (Hejar, dir: Handan Ipekci, 2003), Eve Dönüş (Home Coming, dir: Ömer Uğur, 2006), Hoşçakal Yarın (Goodbye Tomorrow, dir: Reis Çelik, 1998), and Usta Beni Öldürsene (Sawdust Tales, dir: Baris Pirhasan, 1997) may be considered examples of this. These films can be seen in the category of films that might experience difficulty in securing funds from the domestic sources, due to their subject matter and style. They are also examples of art cinema in which the Cyprus and Kurdish questions and issues related with the military coups are examined from different perspectives, thus raising a critical voice. The second point that needs to be touched upon in relation to Eurimages is the fact that projects originating from Turkey often prefer to establish partnerships with Balkan nations and countries in Central Europe. Directors and producers attribute this to pragmatic reasons. In partnerships established with those European countries whose cinema industries are more advanced, not only is it necessary to wait for a longer periods of time, but there are also specific requirements that a certain portion of the funding expected from the partner European nation must be spent in that country or region. Efforts to overcome these spending restrictions can at times create difficulties during the production phases of Turkish productions. This has driven Turkish producers to lean toward favoring producers from Balkan and Central European nations when looking for partners in Europe. It could be argued that factors such as geographical proximity, the existence of a historical tradition of collaboration in cinema, and similarities in work mentality all partially influence this preference.
Film Sales to European and US TV Channels
There is at least one response to the question of what sources other than Eurimages can Turkish alluvionic cinema benefit from: selling films to television channels abroad. Although it is possible for Turkish producers to pre-sell their projects to TV channels in Europe (such as France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain) or other developed nations across the world, (such as Japan) before actively beginning to shoot their projects, this happens on very rare occasions (as, indeed, is increasingly the case for domestic films in Europe). Such sales obviously depend very much on the achievements of Turkish directors at festivals and the rates of distribution of their films, as well as their personal contacts. Variables such as national and international agendas and how the nation is generally perceived worldwide can be expected to impact this process to a certain extent. Another distinctive factor in achieving TV pre-sales is the power and professional contacts of the co-producer in the European country where the TV channel is located. The credibility and reputation of the co-producer in TV circles in that particular country is crucial in determining whether or not the Turkish project is accepted during the pre-production, filming, and post-production phases. In cases where this does not happen, additional efforts are of crucial importance try to sell the film to foreign TV channels once the film is completed. Such efforts to sell completed films, until recently, have been limited to ensuring that a copy of the film and its poster is featured at the Turkish stand at the Cannes Film Festival. It must be noted that not a single film has been sold to a foreign buyer through this method to date. Tevfik Başer states that although he has been touring festivals since 1986, he has yet to come across a Turkish stand that works systematically, and notes that undertaking sales efforts with proper organization and in ways fitting a sales culture is an important condition of sales success. For the Turkish director, this results in a dilemma reminiscent of the chicken and egg situation. For foreign buyers to purchase the project of a Turkish director, whose films have never obtained distribution guarantees at the pre-production or production stage, is highly unlikely. Therefore, it becomes a more rational choice for possible buyers to wait for the final product prior to purchasing the film. However, when Turkish producers apply to sell a film once it is completed, the response they mostly get is that the project would have more of a chance of being purchased if they were contacted during the pre-production phase. Compared to the past, recently major TV channels in Europe have been increasingly less interested in all foreign productions due to economic concerns. It is apparent that as directors we need to be even less hopeful about potential attempts to sell films to foreign TV channels. Finally, mainstream Turkish cinema has yet to note a noteworthy achievement in its relations with foreign TV channels, as discussed above; the probable discrepancy between what Turkish viewers enjoy and what foreign decision-makers like can also be a reason as to why this option is not exploited a great deal.
In addition to Eurimages and TV broadcasters, a third source of funding found abroad by Turkish alluvionic filmmakers are the independent funds from Western Europe and the US, which provide financing for various phases of production, including pre-production, filming, post-production and distribution. Although these funds (such as Hubert Bals, the now defunct MonteCinemaVerità, and the World Cinema Fund) grant modest sums, ranging, on average, from €10,000 to €30,000, due to their prestige and their ability to carry chosen projects to other platforms, festivals and networks of contact, they have the potential to produce extremely valuable and effective outcomes. For instance, some projects that have been awarded a grant from these funding sources automatically earn the right, even before the filming begins, to be screened at an important festival (Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s Bulutları Beklerken [Waiting for the Clouds, 2003] is a case in point). It must be noted that most Turkish filmmakers who make use of these funds are mainly from the alluvionic cinema generation. Funds of this kind have boosted the energy of the Turkish cinema industry by backing productions that would be difficult to finance from within the Turkish cinema industry. Examples to such works are films that offer a critique and are not commercially-oriented, as well as those by female and gay directors. Projects such as Güneşe Yolculuk, dir: Yeşim Ustaoğlu, 1997), Palto (Coat, dir: Kutluğ Ataman, 1997), Fotoğraf (Photograph, dir: Kazım Öz, 2001), Hoşçakal Yarın (Goodbye Tomorrow, dir: Reis Çelik, 1998), Lola ve Billy The Kid (Lola and Billy the Kid, dir: Kutluğ Ataman, 1999) and Çamur (Mud, dir: Dervis Zaim, 2003) which touch upon issues such as the Kurdish question, the Cyprus issue, gender, past military coups, etc. were given the opportunity to benefit from said funds. Likewise, certain films that stood out as art cinema would probably have found it difficult to secure funds in the domestic market such as İklimler (Climates, dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006) and Uzak (Distant, dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002), Yumurta (Egg, dir:Semih Kaplanoğlu, 2007) and Tatil Kitabı (Summer Book, dir: Seyfi Teoman, 2007). Young filmmakers trying to make their first film, such as Kazım Öz, Hüseyin Karabey and Seyfi Teoman, have also made use of these types of funds. It should also be noted that a great number of projects from all over the world apply for these funds, that there is stiff competition on an international level. And as can be expected, very few Turkish projects that enter this competitive environment are deemed eligible for funds. Yet, it can also be said that support provided to Turkish films has relatively increased in the last five years. Nevertheless, I believe that this development should not prevent anyone from raising questions about the evaluation criteria funding sources use in relation to Turkish projects. Indeed, a certain degree of skepticism was voiced in Turkey in relation to the evaluation criteria of these funds in relation to the format and content of the projects by some of the former applicants. Ahmet Boyacıoğlu (2007), former Eurimages representative who is one of those skeptical persons remembers: Two young Turkish filmmakers’ proposal was selected by the Greenhouse project, a year-long screenplay development program. After they presented their project at a seminar in Italy, a foreign man came up to them and said, “Let’s change the script; let’s add features that depict Kurds in a good and Turks in a bad way. Then I’ll finance the film and we’ll make it a full length feature film”.
What Kinds of Projects does the West Want?
Are the films that make use of the above mentioned funds mostly films with a political agenda? Yeşim Ustaoğlu (2007) states that the backing provided to projects cannot be linked only to political reasons, and disagrees with the criticism that “if films are original, then ‘political content’ usually helps secure funding”. It is true that works backed by funding agencies, TV channels and Eurimages include—in addition to films with a political agenda—a high number of films that clearly do not have political issues at their center. Ceylan’s Uzak (Distant) and İklimler (Climates) are two significant examples of this fact. Producer Ali Akdeniz points out that the argument that the West leans more toward political films for the purposes of purchases for the TV medium or for other financial support mechanisms, might have been true for the seventies and eighties. Due to congestion in the West, films that explore the individual also stand a chance. Nuri Bilge Ceylan explores the individual. He has something original, something new to say. This might be why Westerners find it interesting. Here, it would be useful to have a look at the Turkish projects backed by film funds not only in terms of content, but also in terms of style. Discussions of style reveal that in the last decade, the large majority of Turkish projects backed by funding agencies affiliated with the Rotterdam and Berlin film festivals, such as Hubert Bals or the World Cinema Fund etc., are projects that are “minimalist,” “realistic,” and “simple” in style. What are we to make of the fact that the Turkish projects that do not display a minimalist style are awarded by Western funding agencies to a much lesser extent? Would it be possible to say that these funding agencies have preconceptions as to what kind of a style must be adopted by cinemas from the Turkey? Minimalism is usually perceived as a preference due to economic constraints. In addition, it could be argued that minimalism also offers an alternative to the dominant narratives in terms of enabling a different aesthetics. In her discussion on the acceptance of minimalist productions of Iranian cinema in the West, Serpil Kırel (2007) states: In analyzing the conditions under which minimalist cinema exists and the means through which it offers an alternative narrative, one observes that the production of these [Iran-based—DZ] films was indirectly supported in the nineties via international festivals. The important point to consider here is the differences between how minimalist narrative existed in the nineties vis-à-vis pre-nineties. A comparison of the minimalist work Turkish cinema produced prior to the nineties and those produced in the nineties and beyond, coupled with an examination of how both groups are perceived in the West, might yield remarkable findings. Yet, the question still remains: could it be that in addition to political expectations, the Western cinema elite have certain other preferences regarding style and content when it comes to Turkish cinema? If yes, how do such preferences influence the ways in which certain examples of Turkish cinema are assessed, accepted, supported, distributed and purchased in the West? Has any Turkish film that chose to manipulate the structural elements of the film in the name of creating a different style or discourse, instead of a minimalist narrative, been featured at noteworthy festivals? If any such film has ever been made in Turkey, how often could they be screened at Western film festivals or enter circulation via distribution networks? Unfortunately Turkish films that chose to create different styles rather than minimalistic or realistic ones relatively has less chance to find festival, distribution or wide acceptance at the Western circles till now. If it is the case that Turkish films that display a different narrative style than the minimalist ones are preferred to a relatively lesser degree in the West, then is it possible and sufficient to explain this preference by the poor execution, lack of originality and aesthetic problems of those films that display a different narrative style other than a minimalist or realist films does?
Acceptance to Festivals, Sales, Distribution
About this group, whose performance cannot really be termed a ceremony, but more a show accompanied by religious or traditional music, the former manager of the Avignon Festival, Alain Cromberg said, “I prefer them to Turks because they whirl really fast”. How can Turkish films become part of international distribution? What are the conditions to be able to important TV channels in various countries? Unless it has been produced in partnership with a noteworthy Western producer, regardless of whether it is mainstream or alluvionic, the first condition for any Turkish film to be sold abroad is admittance to the official program of a few important festivals, preferably into the main section, and screening at those festivals. Film festivals have undertaken the task of providing an environment where independent cinema finds a haven from dominant popular cinema. After the film participates at a festival, favorable reviews by critics taken seriously and by powerful media outlets are also among the “musts” to secure sales and distribution. As Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2007) says that no international buyer will easily purchase the work by an unknown Turkish producer, and adds that directors must first prove themselves by taking part at a noteworthy festival. But as things stand, barring exceptions, Turkish films are rarely accepted into the official programs of international festivals, let alone the competitive part. Unlike the cinemas of certain countries that have well-developed film industries or the capacity to create momentum in the international arena (France, US, Italy, Germany, China, Japan, Iran, etc.), Turkish cinema is not among the cinemas that can reserve seats at the main competitive section of the festival long in advance of the event, thanks to festival selection committees. This is due to the fact that compared to the potential of the cinemas of developed nations, Turkish cinema’s potential is considered weak in terms of its capacity to generate momentum that will garner international interest by producing movie stars and continuously and consistently offering “different” films that will benefit major festivals. Turkish cinema—again, barring exceptions—seems to be categorized more as a cinema that usually appears in the sidebars. Consequently, compared to a film screened in the main program, it will obviously be relatively more difficult for films shown in the sidebar to reach extensive distribution. Two of Zeki Demirkubuz’s films that were screened in the sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival, İtiraf (Confession, 2001) and Yazgı (Fate, 2001), unfortunately did not reach extensive sales and distribution figures. Similarly, Tayfun Pirselimoğlu’s Hiçbiryerde (Innowhereland, 2002) that competed at the Montreal Film Festival and was awarded the Special Grand Prize of the Jury is also among the films that gained festival success but did not find extensive international buyers (except for ZDF and Australia’s SBS TV). Another example is Erden Kiral’s Yolda (On the Road, 2005) which was screened at the sidebar of the Venice Film Festival. Despite the director’s impressive track record of festival success, and of distribution and sales, this film did not find a buyer. Up to a certain extent, this can be explained by factors such as Turkish cinema’s and filmmakers inexperience with sales and distribution; the relative lack of competence and power of the professionals contracted for sales and distribution on the international level; small marketing budgets; not receiving support from a systematic, centralized, official Turkish institution; and the slim chances of commercial success such productions have in general. But these explanations are inadequate in defining all the dimensions of the crucial issue at hand. International cinema professionals I am personally in contact with tell me how critically important the global image of a country as well as the popularity it enjoys in international circles, for sales and distribution purposes. In my opinion, one of the issues we need to think about the most is the question of inadequate country image and promotion. I believe we would be making a mistake if we view this matter merely on the basis of approaches such as promoting Turkey better on the international platform or image adjustment. Such simplistic approaches also carry the drawback of situating Turkey somewhere outside Europe and the West, with no hope of moving from there. Turkish cinema should dwell on each and every narrative that places Turkey outside Europe’s borders, and be able to critique each and every narrative of European origin that excludes Turkey. Otherwise, instead of classifying both European and Turkish cultures as two bodies that have the potential of influencing one another and establishing dialogue, we will have chosen to see two distinct entities that are fully constructed, static, and have never had and never will have the possibility of forming transformative and reciprocal discourses. Turkish director Reis Çelik’s observations are to the effect that the films accepted to the sidebars of major festivals are usually more interesting, of higher quality and energetic films than many of those in the main section. Similarly, Turkey’s former Eurimages representative and director of the European Festival on Wheels, Ahmet Boyacıoğlu expressed his views on the 2007 Berlin Film Festival in the newspaper Radikal as follows: The perennial problem of “not finding a good film to watch” becomes more evident as the festival progresses and increasingly more films are offered to the viewers… The best films of the festival are in the Panorama section [one of the sidebars—DZ]. It is no longer the quality of a film that determines being featured in the program at Berlin, but which famous actors are in it and how powerful its producers are. There are rumors that films that have achieved zero success in their own countries make it onto the program by pressure from their producers. Considering that only two of the 27 Turkish films that applied to Berlin Film Festival were accepted, one could say that something is amiss here. I saw some really bad films, many I even walked out of….. Just as mainly French co-productions are screened at Cannes; all the new productions of German cinema fill up the Berlin program. And so an international festival works to promote a national cinema. However, Turkish director Tevfik Başer, who has made films in Germany and attended major festivals, notes that the method followed in the development of festival programs cannot be reduced to pre-determined seats, adding that the selection committee also takes into consideration the quality of the films in drawing up the program. Keeping in mind that subjectivity inevitably forms the basis of each human choice made, it would be unrealistic to look for evaluation criteria that could be considered completely objective. For instance, eight months before the film Uzak (Distant) on an award at Cannes, it had applied to the Venice Film Festival but was not elected even for the sidebar. Thus, it is not possible to speak of a clear, explanatory model, a series of discourses that outline when and how a film will be elected for a given festival. Nevertheless, if an attempt was made to list some of the variables that could be considered if not determinant, at least influential factors, these would probably come up: Where the contextual realm of the film stands in terms of international balances of power; the film’s commercial potential; the strength of the seller; the strength of the distribution company; the producer’s capacity to influence festivals; the degree of film’s aesthetic level and production value; the director’s past festival, distribution, and sales record; whether or not the film has the capacity to bring added value to the festival’s prestige; attitudes of the critics affiliated with the festival toward the director’s career; attitudes of the critics toward the film; the film’s promotion and marketing budget, etc. Therefore these variables must be addressed and evaluated in terms of the particular unique conditions in which each film and the context of each film are situated.
The Critical Perspective of Turkish Film-makers
But, what do the Turkish Filmmakers and producers think Europeans and Americans use as basic criteria during the process of selection to participate in major film festivals? The pervasive response in Turkey to the question about what these criteria are is that Turkish films that receive favorable reviews in the West do so due to political reasons. The idea that if West European festivals accept a Turkish film, and if juries deem a Turkish film worthy of an award, then that film is being endorsed by Western circles to serve a specific “political” purpose, is an opinion that has gained exceptionally strong footing among conservative, nationalist Turkish cinema circles. Veteran film-maker Halit Refiğ says, “All Turkish films that find acceptance in the West are anti-nationalist”. He adds that Westerners see Turks in clichés, such as Asian, backward, believing in a primitive religion, and that they cannot free themselves from them. In his view, Westerners are obsessed with the idea that films that step outside the boundaries of these clichés will not be convincing for their audiences. He adds that Westerners subconsciously believe their audiences will consider a given film impressive only if existing clichés are molded together and conveyed in that film. Meanwhile, Ali Özgentürk’s views on and experiences regarding Turkish films, after attending dozens of festivals with his films Hazal (Hazal, 1979) and At (The Horse, 1983), are as follows: How do they view Turkish artists? Will my films be viewed only if I have something to say about the Kurds? That is how I felt. That is how Westerners made me feel. I received awards… But if I had made a film about Dostoyevsky, and made it well, would it still have met with interest, I’m not sure. I don’t know what the response would have been had I filmed an adaptation of Shakespeare. Özgentürk recalls the press conference for his film Bekçi (The Night-Watchman, 1985) at the Venice Film Festival in 1984 where a French journalist accused his film of not being a Turkish film, and asked Özgenturk why he was experimenting like that. The French journalist also said that people in Turkey were tortured, and told Özgenturk that in his opinion, it would have been better to come to the festival with stories about that. During the preliminary work for her project on honor killings entitled Sahte Yüzler (False Faces, 2006), a European asked Turkish director Handan İpekci, “You had portrayed the Kurds in a good-light in your previous film Büyük Adam Küçük Aşk [Hejar], Why are you depicting them as murderers now?” Handan İpekci said she felt “at a loss for words”. Some argue that the underlying reason why works depicting Turkey as a politically backward, oppressive and primitive country are favoured in the West is a past compulsion of approaching the East as a colonial fantasy. Proponents of this view openly—and sometimes not so openly— state that the reasons these films are endorsed by the West is due to covert beliefs that “The East must always remain the East”. However, the most significant example that contradicts this view is the fact that Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak (Distant) by no means a political film, returned from Cannes with an award. This is what Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2007) has to say on the issue: There was a solid belief that the West expected political or folkloric films from Turkey. I don’t subscribe to that view. If Gören’s Yol (The Way, 1982) received an award at Cannes, it did so because it is a good film. The West certainly expects political films. In my opinion, my films Distant and Climates shattered that belief. As did Tabutta Rövaşata (Somersault in a Coffin, dir: Dervis Zaim, 1996). Political content is not always a decisive factor. It is not possible for films lacking in artistic style to attract attention in the West. Exoticism is not a decisive factor. They are not after folklore. Festival managers are people that have no choice but to place greater importance on the criteria of originality. As it is observed Turkish filmmakers and producers mostly argues that orientalistic approach effects the acceptance of Turkish films abroad even though they have sometimes different, contradictory challenging opinions on the issue. However they add that even though orientalistic approach is an important factor that effects the acceptance process, originality of the work is as important as the orienatalism factor. According to them, originality of the film also effects the successful festival route and international sales.
Conclusion: Questions of Orientalism “Self-orientalism” and the Inappropriate Other
Another point that needs to be mentioned here is regarding the views that in addition to political films, an orientalist perspective is also at play as a decisive factore, thus shaping the ways in which Western sources influence the representation of Turkey and Turkish people. Therefore, questions such as how the West views the East and the concept of orientalism necessarily come to mind in considering issues at stake here. Kırel states that it is necessary to question the extent to which expectations of orientalism influence local filmmakers: Can the fact that co-productions and festivals are among the crucial dynamics of filmmaking lead to a sense of dependency with regard to the creativity of the artists and restrict the creative process?… The extent to which festivals influence the production process, the existence and weight of certain priorities and preferences resulting from addressing a Western audience must be taken into consideration from myriad aspects… Can such a production environment unknowingly drive its creators to see themselves from the perspective of others? Is it possible to speak of a contagious ‘self-orientalist’ tendency coming to the fore resulting from Western views on and expectations from the East? An orientalist perspective indeed exists. Ali Akdeniz (2007) notes that this perspective holds true for both films that come to Turkey from the West and vice versa. “Ferzan Ozpetek made use of this in his films Hamam (The Turkish Bath, 1997) and Harem (Harem Suare, 1999)”. Similarly, Reis Çelik’s (2007) views on how the West expects exotic and erotic films from Turkish cinema are as follows: There are some Turkish directors settled in Europe who have found a way to make films by using European resources to tell stories that take place within Turkey’s borders. For instance, Ferzan Ozpetek. Ferzan Ozpetek made a name and attracted attention by bringing the Eastern eroticism and concept of homosexuality to the West with his film Hamam. His second film, Harem Suare is similarly a film made in line with Western expectations and perspectives, thus making it easier to find a niche. This is why it was accepted by festivals and secured more backing from funding agencies. Look at Fatih Akin; he also examined the arabesque, secluded structure of Turkish people in Europe, and attracted attention in Europe by uncovering the same issues. However, we must not fail to see one thing in relation to these examples. If you make good cinema, they will help you go places. It should also be pointed out that some Turkish directors living in Europe confess that in order to be able to carry on with their careers, they constantly encounter demands for works that address Turkish immigrants’ relationship with Western society. Tevfik Başer (2007) is one of them and he confesses that he stopped making of films because of this fact. Here, I believe it will be apt to return to the “self-orientalism” phenomenon highlighted by Serpil Kırel. Kırel explains the self-orientalism concept as a realisation that features that the West finds acceptable in an Eastern film are an asset, a tourism-oriented and recyclable asset, which are then mobilized to that end. “Moreover, it is also sometimes the case that this perspective determines the produced work without ever being questioned, and after a while, the artist, unaware of this process, can normalise this”. Meanwhile, as was noted above, it might be assumed that the Eastern subject who internalises orientalism must have a conscious or subconscious idea about the conditions and formats under which Westerners accept the “other” hailing from the East. An Eastern subject seeking acceptance must be able to guess the probable questions a Western mind could raise, and provide the probable answers. Trinh T. Minh-Ha defines a subject in this kind of a situation as the “Inappropriate Other.” In the context of this Inappropriate Other, questions like ‘How loyal a representative of his/her people is s/he? (The filmmaker as insider), or ‘How authentic is his/her representation of the culture observed? (The filmmaker as outsider) are of little relevance. When the magic of essences ceases to impress and intimidate, there no longer is a position of authority from which one can definitely judge the verisimilitude value of the representation. In the first question, the questioning subject, even if s/he is an insider, is no more authentic and has no more authority than on the subject matter than the subject whom the questions concern. In attempts to overcome this alienating problem of creativity, one of the things people turn to, without a doubt, is the concept of “authenticity.” According to African filmmaker Gaston Kabore, in order to find a cinema language that will make them unique and reflect African history and civilization, film producers must “search for their authentic inner self. It is an endless and troublesome quest that requires the artist to constantly look for him/herself and his/her culture”. Certain circles use a similar argument for Turkish filmmakers. These circles argue that Turkish filmmaker’s capacity to be authentic has been groomed for failure by two centuries of Westernization and secularism efforts. Circles that endorse the same opinion link the problems discussed above to the disappearance of Turkey’s history, culture, civilization, consciousness, and character. Consequently, they define Turkish cinema as a cinema that has lost its authenticity in terms of format and content, situated within the Western paradigm. The remedy for this problem is to return to the past, revive the authentic spirit. Arguments such as cultural decolonization and gaining back national culture are the dominant themes of these discourses. …A country like that means it is a country obliged and manipulated to implement the projects of others. The Turkey that can fill that gap is a Muslim Turkey that boasts the soul, courage, enthusiasm and preparedness to act on the mission of the Ottoman Empire; that determines which path to take not in line with Western secular ideologies which thereby enslave us/make us into subcontractors, but based on the history, culture, experiences of civilisation, values and dynamics of this community. Although an approach such as this one does drive one to ponder the question of authenticity, it must still rest upon finding a clear definition of the other. Is representation that places neither ourselves, nor others into the position of the other, possible? In my opinion, the question of whether or not we will be able to create cultural artefacts during the cultural decolonisation process without making other cultures “the other” is a matter worth thinking about. Hakan Yılmaz (2005) suggests a few points of departure to examine the problem of cultural perceptions between Turkey and Europe. The first is that European culture is not a fully completed structure, but one that is still being constructed. Therefore, he argues that Turkey should be perceived as a structure that has the potential and right to contribute to this incomplete process and adds: “Both Europeans and Turks need to assess their views on European culture, Turkish culture and their place within them not as proven truths, but rather as subjective and relative narratives”. In this context, European culture must be addressed as an arena, a variable and dynamic fiction where different answers to questions such as, ‘Where does Europe begin and where does it end?’ or ‘What is a European?’ compete with the different ‘stories’ told. Consequently, Turkey’s contribution to European culture should be to walk into this arena with ‘distinctive’ narratives; to participate in the formation of this fiction with ‘original’ narratives. Here, there is one question that begs an answer: has Turkish cinema succeeded in presenting distinctive narratives to Europe and to the world? Is there a possibility that these potentially distinct narratives offered by Turkish cinema can make unique contributions to the discussion regarding the construction of European culture, differently than the cinemas of other non-Western nations? If yes, what are these possibilities? In trying to find answers to the questions above, it is crucial to emphasise the necessity to differentiate between different narratives and anti-narratives. Hakan Yılmaz notes that within the post-colonial paradigm, especially in countries that have been influenced by European colonialism, it has become common practice to construct “anti-sovereignty narratives” that oppose European culture and claim to be the narrator of a fundamentally different culture. The purpose of the efforts in this category is to embark from a common denominator (such as religion, nationality, cultural geography—being from the Mediterranean, for instance), and create a new sovereign narrative that will overthrow and replace the sovereignty of European culture. However, the common disadvantage to these types of alternative narratives is that they covertly acknowledge and increasingly internalise the exclusionary arguments that European orientalism puts forth regarding common non-European cultures. By the same token, post-colonial anti-sovereignty narratives usually become transformed into a mirror image of colonial sovereignty narratives. Since they can only be derivative narratives, this situation may be considered quite negatively. Hakan Yılmaz argues that Turkey is a country that has felt but not experienced European colonialism and says: …Turkey’s unique contribution to debates on European culture is her ability to provide the historical and intellectual grounds necessary to move beyond the post-colonial framework. On such grounds, it is possible to participate in debates on the foundations and borders of European culture with different, but not opposing, narratives; to offer, with an insider’s view, a critique of approaches that constrict and make European culture superficial; thereby deepening, diversifying, and enriching European culture. It has to be said that the same effort holds symmetrically true for Turkish culture. It is clear that Turkish cinema must embrace genuine, lively, and real aesthetic formats and production models in its efforts to produce films that meet aims such as cultural decolonisation and authenticity. To this end, the elite of culture and cinema must not exclude different or rival discourses, but embrace attitudes that prefer dialogue rather than monologues similar to those that emerged during debates in cinema circles in the 1960s. In addition, it is necessary to search for perspectives, financial resources and support mechanism that will add to efforts to portray the existing environment. It is necessary to make use of tradition, history and culture, but not in a way that makes them a part of a centralized discourse within the context of power relations. To be able to achieve this, Turkish cinema must, in the future, systematically continue to search for fresh and novel formats and content. Cinema could enjoy a more powerful presence if means that would contribute to original cinema works were explored.
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