Ekrem Dumanli / Todays Zaman
Will Yeşilçam apologize to Muslims?
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
In my previous article I had asked, "Will Hollywood apologize to Muslims?" and I expressed my views about cinema, beliefs, biases and stereotypes by drawing examples from Hollywood productions.
Actually, we don't have to go so far in order to ask this question. Who can say that the Muslim stereotyping in our own cinema industry is so true to reality that we should expect the cinema sectors in other countries to follow suit?
Before going any further, I would like to clarify what I mean by bias or stereotype: If the same cliché is insistently used to refer to the same group, then it certainly means that there is bias toward that group. This applies to every group or people, and it is a clear sign of discrimination and hate. If one group is always depicted with the same characterization of its members and these characters are always evil and if, as part of the same strategy, some people are always shown as good, then it is obvious that there is bias or some preconception at work. This is because no group can be collectively "good" or "evil."
The Turkish cinema sector has long pursued negative attitudes against religion and devout people and attempted to develop a negative stereotype of them. Until recently, almost all portrayals of clerical officials, kadıs (religious judges), hodcas and pilgrims have been negative. People who seem to be devout in appearance have been portrayed as secretly malicious. Is there no exception to these stereotypes? No, unfortunately. Moreover, this unrelenting attempt to create such stereotypes has never let up.
It is wrong to suggest that this can be explained by negative attitudes against religion on the part of scriptwriters or producers. Indeed, this attempt has been aggravated, in part, by official policies. The "fanatical cleric" stereotype is a recurring theme in all fictional works (novels, short stories, plays) published since the early years of the republic. Such characterizations of devout people (or other pandemic preconceptions about other groups) cannot be correctly diagnosed unless they are viewed from a political vantage point. It is for this reason that we can find various forms of this stereotype, from the single-party regime to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) era.
The negative portrayal of clerics and devout people that started after the establishment of the republic continued for some time and the nation perceived this portrayal as a "hatred of religion." There may be factors that justify this perception, but the point here is not about believing in or denying a certain religion. A new regime was established and, like every new regime, the Republic of Turkey thought that the previous era had to be defaced. Therefore, all values that belonged to the previous era were to be portrayed as evil while the values of the new regime were to be glorified. All people that represented the old regime were characterized in films as traitors, collaborators and liars. On the other hand, those who symbolized the new regime were promoted as idealistic, hardworking and self-sacrificing. The old regime was represented by fanatical religious people or superficial clerics, while the new regime was represented by teachers, physicians and engineers.
Ultimately it was religion and science that were pitted against each other. In an atmosphere where nothing is expressed openly, the row was going on between tradition and modernism. In the picture portrayed for the spectators were those who represented the return of the old regime (reactionary people) and those who fed on positivism but, at the same time, tried to cling to the nation through national values (progressive people). Later, the names and forms of these symbols changed, but the characterization remained the same. Advocates of innovation were always "progressive and intellectual" types, while proponents of tradition were always "reactionary and fanatical."
It seems that our cinema sector and democratic quest have made parallel progress. As the freedom of expression and belief has expanded, these characterizations were modified. Now let us look at the following main developments briefly and try to make sense of them according to eras: the single-party era, the introduction of the multiparty regime, the years of military coups, the rise of left-wing movements, the rise of nationalist movements and the rise of conservative movements. Now let us treat these main developments briefly and try to make sense of them according to eras.
The era of stage actors and the building of a new regime
Some of the striking films produced between 1922 and 1939, known as the era of stage actors in the history of Turkish cinema, should be viewed as an effort to contribute the nation building process that was in the works then. The dominant personality of this era was, without a doubt, Muhsin Ertuğrul. "Ateşten Gömlek," a film adapted from Halide Edip Adıvar's novel of the same title, is regarded as one of the first successful films on the War of Independence. "Bir Millet Uyanıyor," directed by Ertuğrul in 1923, serves as the unforgettable model for the subsequent wave of films about the war. The common theme of these films was the enthusiasm of building a new state. Two films, both directed by Ertuğrul, should be noted in particular, as they created the clerical official prototypes for subsequent films: "Aynaros Kadısı" and "Bir Kavuk Devrildi."
Another recurrent theme in the era of stage actors is the Bektaşi sheikh, seen first in "Nur Baba" (1922). This sheik is a lustful, ambitious and devious type and the Bektaşi lodges are places where wild parties are held. After Bektaşis raided the film set and several incidents broke out, the producers started to act with caution in their portrayals of Alevis and Bektaşis. Later, open references to Bektaşis were removed from the films. Instead, only sheiks and their lodges tended to be discussed. Nevertheless, there were still references to the struggle between the old and the new.
"Aynaros Kadısı," which was originally written as a play by Musahipzade in 1927 but was adapted for the screen by Ertuğrul in 1938, is the most striking example of the stereotyping of clerics and religious people. The film intentionally revolves around a kadı because this allows the director to offer his biased portrayal of a cleric and, at the same, denigrate the Ottoman legal system. It should be clear that this judge is deceitful and lustful and takes bribes, amongst other things. Despite some harsh criticism, Yeşilçam never found the courage to develop new perspectives. Ertuğrul maintained the same characterizations in his subsequent films. In "Bir Kavuk Devrildi," for example, you can find the same characters and themes.
These prototypes, which were invented with the motive of lending ideological support to the newly founded state, are understandable in the context of their time. But today the film sector must realize the realities behind them and engage in some self-criticism. While the clerical officials -- and devout people -- heartily supported the War of Independence and while the first Parliament's respect for religion is well known, the Turkish filmmaking sector insistently opted to denigrate and humiliate religion and devout people, which had bad consequences. The constant portrayal of clerics as evil and disgusting characters has led to the alienation of the nation from cinema.
For some reason, clerics were portrayed as opponents of the national struggle. Clearly this does not correspond to historical realities. As a matter of fact, while there were some clerics who were against the national liberation movement, one cannot deny the support provided by the majority. Yet one can never find a positive portrayal of them in film. I do not want to do injustice to the filmmaking sector, as these negative stereotyping attempts are not limited to cinema. All fictional works suffer from this defect. "New" is represented by teachers, while "old" is symbolized by clerics. This applies both to novels and plays.
The unchanging cliché of the transition era: religion and religious people
The eruption of World War II had negative effects both on world cinema in general and the Turkish filmmaking sector in particular. At the end of this phase, known as the transition era, stage actors left the scene to directors. But the influence of stage actors was still visible in the films of this era. In 1948, the sector became financially supported by the state following a series of legal measures and this ushered in a diversification of the themes of the films. In 1949 the landmark film of negatively stereotyping clerics was produced: "Vurun Kahpeye." Directed by Lütfü Ö. Akad, "Vurun Kahpeye" pits the idealistic and enlightened teacher Aliye and the devious, devout cleric Hacı Fettah against each other. The most striking scene in the film is the lynching of Aliye by the "pro-sultan Hacı Fettah and the ignorant mob led by him." The film was adapted from Halide Edip Adıvar's novel of the same title. Her novel has been adapted to cinema three times and each time it has created major reactions. In its latest adaptation, Halif Refiğ adopted a delicate and cautious approach. Nevertheless, its damage in terms of stereotyping is great.
Interestingly, the Turkish cinema sector tends to portray the clerics as devious, ambitious, unreliable or lustful types while it refrains from making similar negative generalizations about other professions. Teachers are always respected, police officers are characterized as dignified people, soldiers are shown as symbols of national dignity and judges are portrayed as models of justice. Is it possible for any profession to include nothing but good people? Of course not. However, this is a consequence of the nation-building process. The fact that our stereotypes do not correspond to the stereotypes of world cinema is clear proof of the influence of political and social engineering projects on the Turkish cinema sector. In a later article, we will continue to discuss how internal dynamics have affected the cinema sector from the point of view of their perception of religion and devout people.