Without Heroes

Cinema arrives in Turkey by way of a French clown named Bertrand. In 1896, Bertrand is tasked with entertaining the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who is at this time carrying out a series of massacres against the Armenians that will later bear his name. In the memoirs of the Sultan’s daughter, we learn about the clown: how Bertrand hung a damp curtain from the wall of the Yıldız Palace in Istanbul and projected images upon it using a machine fuelled by gasoline. (No electricity yet in the Ottoman Empire.) It made an awful noise and stunk up the room, but the images produced a keen sense of hayret, or wonder – a term of high praise for poetry and shadow plays in Ottoman culture – and the night was deemed a success. Though we aren’t told which films the Sultan was shown, we know that the first public screening took place only a short while later at a beer hall in Galatasaray, with the now-famous L’Arrivée du train en gare de la Ciotat and Cortège du Tsar Nicolas II à Paris on display. Audiences reportedly jumped from their seats when the train arrived; for the Tsar, they stood to applaud.

Cinema remained an itinerant European marvel for the next few years, with Pathé opening its first theatre in Istanbul in 1908. Turkey developed its own film industry thanks to the First World War: İsmail Enver Pasha founded the Military Office of Cinema in 1915 and began training soldiers to use filmmaking equipment, chiefly in service of propaganda, with the 1914 Censorship Act controlling what can be shown on Ottoman soil. (The earliest surviving Turkish film features a declaration of war against the Russian Empire; Enver Pasha was killed fighting the Red Army in 1922.) It was not until after the Second World War that cinema emerged as a form of popular entertainment. In the 1960s, ‘Yeşilçam’ films dominated – melodramas with mass appeal named after the location of their production companies (think Hollywood). By 1966, Turkey was the fourth largest film producer in the world, behind Egypt, India and the United States. A few people got rich, but the money was never invested in any coherent infrastructure, and with the various coups and constitutional crises over the next few decades, the industry soon collapsed – from producing two-hundred films per year to about ten by 1990.

You can trace the rise and fall of the Yeşilçam years through the career of Yılmaz Güney. Sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 1958 for ‘Communist propaganda’, Güney appealed the case and, thanks to the disruption of the 1960 coup d’état, spent only a year in jail (using his time to write an explicitly communist novel). Soon after his release, Güney became a star in the Yeşilçam system, dubbed its ‘Ugly King’ (think Belmondo), and later moved to directing in 1965. His films are often compared to Italian neorealism for their simple moral narratives, on-location shooting, and non-professional actors. Though the Turkish state had no interest in funding filmmaking at the time, it maintained the Central Film Control Commission as an ideological censorship apparatus, and films like Güney’s Umut (1970) were banned for ‘subversive’ content, making him a cause célèbre on the left. He was arrested in 1972 for harbouring Mahir Çayan and other members of the People’s Liberation Party-Front, and again in 1974 for shooting a judge. (His family lawyers are currently trying to relitigate the latter case.) Imprisoned for much of the decade, Güney nevertheless managed to produce some of his finest work, with the films directed by proxy – shot lists and scripts smuggled out, rushes smuggled in. Güney was so well-regarded at this time that he was often allowed to edit from his cell, the films projected on prison walls.

‘Read and write without rest,’ urges Nâzım Hikmet in Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison. ‘I also advise weaving / and making mirrors.’ All that time behind bars inspired Güney’s next film, Yol (1980), set during the military putsch of 1980, which follows five prisoners on a week of home leave. The yolk: it’s all a prison, with walls ‘not made of stone, but paved with stuck traditions and hypocritical morality’. The iron bars are evenly weighted – economic, social, religious, political – though Güney pays particular attention to the Kurdish plight, daring to title one location ‘Kurdistan’. (This scene was cut from subsequent state-approved releases in 1993 and 2017.) Güney escaped from prison in 1981 and fled to Paris, editing Yol in exile and announcing his support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982, with some four-hundred demonstrators on the Croisette calling for a free Kurdistan; Turkey meanwhile stripped Güney of his citizenship and demanded his extradition. He was sentenced to twenty-two years imprisonment should he return – which he hoped to one day, we learn from interviews, but Güney died of cancer in 1984.

Only one other Turkish filmmaker has won the Palme d’Or: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. At a glance, his films appear less radical, and his personal life certainly so. Yet Güney said that revolutionary cinema should function not as a blueprint for action, but a ‘guide to thinking’. Ceylan’s winning film, Winter Sleep (2014) is all thinking, no action. A bourgeois hotelier and former actor, Aydın, lives an idyllic life in Cappadocia with his younger wife, Nihal. The plot is set in motion when İlyas, son of one of Aydın’s tenants, throws a rock through his car window. İlyas’s father, İsmail, had failed to pay rent, and Aydın inadvertently has him beaten by police. Nihal takes pity, stealing a large sum of money from Aydın – enough to buy a house – and offering it to İsmail. He throws it in the fire. Drawing inspiration and sometimes dialogue from Chekhov and Dostoevsky, Winter Sleep presents a simple enough parable. Güney would have told it from the son’s point of view, but the message remains the same. Yet the film is over three hours long. What else is there in the ether – in the dark hollows of those Cappadocian caves, in that seemingly infinite winter? Aydın is a would-be historian who keeps delaying his work. Might there be some kind of blockage?

Ceylan’s career began with the ‘Provincial’ trilogy: the 1997 debut feature Small Town, Clouds of May (1999), and Distant (2002). Each was made for less than $100,000, with Ceylan eschewing public funds. The director and his family act in the films, which take an autobiographical approach – all centre on the agony of abandoning home. Ceylan grew up in Yenice, a small town in Çanakkale Province just southeast of Gallipoli, where he would be labelled taşralı (think hick) by the bourgeoise metropolis. He studied engineering at Boğaziçi University, later moving to London to pursue filmmaking, and considers himself as something of a transfuge de classe. ‘His trajectory embodies the tradition of the Turkish intellectual with the contradictions and impasses in which he finds himself today’, writes Ferhat Kentel. ‘He belongs to a sort of middle-class in the process of gentrification, keen to “enlighten” society while remaining cut off from it.’

This also describes many of Ceylan’s protagonists: well-educated men who think to know better than everyone else, who are never necessarily wrong, never totally irredeemable, but who nevertheless remain outside of history. Given Ceylan’s love of Russian literature, you might call them superfluous men: bastard sons of East and West, intelligent yet politically impotent, bearing a false dignity undermined by contact with reality – which only leads to alienation, neuroticism and self-destruction. ‘That so many Russian literary heroes should be “superfluous men” seems almost inevitable’, argued Irving Howe. In nineteenth-century Russia, ‘no other kind of hero is possible’. Do Ceylan’s films make the same case for Turkey today? Lifted by the hopes of the large and militant Turkish left before it was vanquished, Güney’s films believed in revolution, and envisaged a heroism of the masses. Ceylan’s instead offer what Howe calls ‘heroes of estrangement’ – self-exiled individuals ‘unable to act heroically’.

In The Wild Pear Tree (2018), the protagonist is another would-be historian, who can only get public funding for his novel if he engages with local myth. Sinan refuses, preferring something more ‘meta’; should his career fail, he will simply join the riot police with his friend who brags about beating protesters. The film concludes what some have called Ceylan’s ‘Land of Ghosts’ trilogy, following Winter Sleep and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011). All are about the impossibility of a present that ignores the past. Set in Çanakkale, it avoids the tourist view of Gallipoli, which has become one of Turkey’s major marketing tools – a kind of founding myth for the modern state that allows secular and Islamic histories to live concomitantly.

The Turkish title, Ahlat Ağacı, bears a significance missed by the English translation, pointing to the Turkified name of the region in East Anatolia, Khlat, the pre-Manzikert Armenian homeland. The wild pear tree is endemic to the region – described by Ceylan as ‘quite ugly’ and bearing ‘very bitter fruit’. It seems to represent the twisted outgrowth of Turkey’s sullied soil. ‘When they find one near a village’, Ceylan said in an interview, ‘the locals will graft it to make it into a normal pear tree’. The mythmaking of state officials functions in the same way: on 25 April, 1915, the Allies made landfall in Gallipoli and Atatürk fought them off; the day prior, the Armenian Genocide began. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – a slow-burning crime drama set over the course of a single night in the desert – is a film that asks where the bodies are buried. Nobody seems to know.

Ceylan’s latest film, About Dry Grasses, centres on the superfluous Samet, a schoolteacher from Istanbul begrudgingly assigned to a small town in Eastern Anatolia. For much of the film his politics are difficult to ascertain: he plays FIFA with a friend in the army; he drinks with dissidents; he loathes the locals yet takes pity on stray dogs. At first, we think he might even be a paedophile – Samet pays too much attention to one of his students, a young girl named Sevim, who openly courts his affection. When Samet is reported for inappropriate behaviour, presumably by Sevim, he lashes out, publicly shaming her and the other (predominantly Kurdish) students. ‘None of you will become artists’, he tells the class. ‘You’ll plant potatoes and sugar beets so the rich can live comfortably’. From here, Samet sours on everything but fellow schoolteacher Nuray, a recently crippled Socialist. He competes for her affection with his roommate, Kenan, who has similarly been accused of inappropriate behaviour (though seems the nicer guy). The two are invited to Nuray’s house one evening, and Samet, conniving and self-centred, fails to pass this on, arriving alone with a bottle of wine. He does his best to seduce Nuray, but before she or Ceylan can gratify this seemingly irredeemable figure, he must first be unmasked.

‘I don’t feel the need to define myself as anything’, he says, responding to Nuray’s question of what ‘ism’ he belongs to. She calls him lumpen, a coward, says he talks ‘like a liberal’ and should get involved, take action. ‘Should I get beaten by the cops?’ Nuray rolls her eyes. They discuss order and chaos, the limits of collectivism; the conversation turns apocalyptic. ‘For me’, Samet says, ‘history recalls the weariness of hope’. Nuray begins to cry. ‘I’m weary, too’, she says. ‘Like I’ve lived a really long time’. He kisses her tears, and they head for the bedroom, with Samet making a quick exit – out onto a film set – to take Viagra, his impotence apparently extra-filmic.

‘Turgenev’s heroes define their humiliation as a function of their hope’, writes Howe. Is the same true of Ceylan? Later in the film, Samet confesses that what he saw in Sevim was a vision of the future – an energy or transcendence of which he was personally incapable. ‘I just wanted to make her a means for a dream world I had built beyond her’. One thinks of Marx writing to Arnold Ruge: ‘The world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality’. Or of Herzen on the superfluous man: that ‘Decembrist’ ‘trembling with indignation and visionary feeling’ who ‘strives to discern, at least on the horizon, the promised land he will never see’.

Ceylan said in a 2004 interview that ‘winning the Palme d’Or could be a tragedy for me’, and since accomplishing this feat his stand-ins have only become more self-effacing. There is a sense, in Samet’s relationships with Nuray and Sevim, of Ceylan confronting Güney’s ghost. He can only squirm and apologise. Güney’s Palme served to celebrate the revolutionary spirit. Does Ceylan’s effectively represent capitulation to the Bertrand school of cinema, where French aesthetics satiate genocidal sultans? Samet is an emblem of guilt, a mode of apology – his role in the effective colonization of the Kurdish southeast mimicking Ceylan’s identity as leading mythmaker of a would-be Westernized state. (One character in Anatolia asks: ‘Is this how we’ll get into the European Union?’)

Ceylan has downplayed his political responsibilities in the past, arguing that a filmmaker is not a journalist and ‘should be more interested in the soul of the spectator’ – yet Ceylan’s tortured bourgeois soul seems the lonely subject of these later films. (A man is never such an egotist as at moments of spiritual ecstasy, Tolstoy said. What of spiritual agony?) Samet ends the film with a kind of soliloquy, delivered from the historical ruins of Mount Nemrut, with some advice intended for Sevim: ‘Time will pass, and if you survive in this land of unending setbacks, you will still dry up and turn yellow in the end. You will find yourself at the midpoint of your life and see you’ve gained nothing but the desert inside of you’. One hopes she would reply: speak for yourself.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads’, NLR 127.