Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book | Cinema in Turkey REVIEW

Cinespect REVIEW
Lost in Translation
Carlos J. Segura | Dec 08, 2010 |

What makes a film American, French, German, English or, in this case, Turkish? To answer that begs the question: what defines something (or someone) as Turkish? It’s an especially interesting curiosity in this case, particularly when you take into account how young Turkey is as a country (it was founded in 1923) and how many long standing influences stand behind it due to its Ottoman past and how much it is and has been influenced by countries in the west. Savas Arslan’s “Cinema in Turkey: A New Critical History” (336 pages; Oxford University Press, U.S.A.; $35.00) looks into what defines a film as Turkish, who gets to define a film as such and how Turkey’s production system, particularly in the golden age of its industry known as Yesilcam, operated and where it took inspiration from in terms of its production mode and its filmmaking styles.

Turkey’s film beginnings are relatively late; only sixty feature films were made before 1945 according to Arslan; this left Turkey to consume mainly imported cinema, namely American, Soviet and Western European films. However, once World War II began the number of films from these territories died down, leaving a void that is filled by the importation of Egyptian films. One should add that what makes these import practices notable is that while cinema was developing in Turkey the republican reformers—the elite responsible for shaping the identity of the country into something more modern, Westernized—almost completely ignored the cinema. No film schools or studios were opened by these folks.

Essentially, this means cinema in Turkey was up for grabs in terms of the way its identity was to be molded. And it is with Egyptian melodramas that the identity of Yesilcam, often operating under what Arslan refers to as a “melodramatic modality,” begins to take shape; the popularity of Egyptian films, and the direction of Yesilcam’s identity, were dictated by the very people the republican elite was looking to push by the wayside in terms of their influence on the identity of Turkey: the rural, lower-class filmgoer. With this groundwork laid Arslan establishes the identity of Yesilcam as often being tugged at from two opposing sides. One minute it is pro-Westernization and modernization and the next it’s not. It is because the cinema of Turkey began and evolved according to the spectators of Turkey rather than according to the dictates of the republican elite that Arslan’s thesis is especially interesting. The way the he creates links between Turkey’s history and cultural identity while interweaving these subjects with Turkey’s cinematic history and identity is easily the most interesting and compelling reason to read ”Cinema in Turkey.”

If you’re looking for more of a breezy guide to particular films, stars and directors then you may feel slightly shortchanged. To be clear and specific Arslan does touch on filmmakers, stars, and films. There is an entire chapter devoted to these subjects entitled “High Yesilcam II: Genres and Films.” However, it only accounts for 76 pages of the book. This chapter is more samples from across the board rather than an exhaustive and comprehensive list of examples it seems.

So where does Turkey, or rather Yesilcam, stand on the world stage at the moment? The chapter “Postmorterm for Yesilcam: Post-Yesilcam, or the New Cinema of Turkey” posits that some believe that Turkey is finally finding a filmic identity it can call its own, noting a film called “The Bandit” as the best example of this. Along with this possibility come films by art house or film festival directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan or directors like Faith Akin (arguably the most famous director of Turkish origin) and Ferzan Ozpetek, which the books points out some have called Orientalists, men guilty of exploiting their roots for western audiences, at worst. At best, they are going past representing any one culture or nation, instead moving over to the realm of world cinema. This is due in large part to the fact that newer generations are becoming more secular, educated, global and interconnected with the rest of the world. Interestingly, the book points out that the new generation of Turkish filmgoers, students or young people for example, find in Yesilcam ironic or so-bad-it’s-good pleasures (not far off at all from how so many of the young see certain films here in America).

As you will note by the content and analysis made in “Cinema in Turkey”, along with it having been pointed out earlier in this piece, the book is not strictly a primer on Turkish films. It is a critical, occasionally challenging work, typical of the kind written with the academic minded reader in mind; the language does occasionally get in the way of the history and ideas Arslan propose. (Arslan is an associate professor of film and television at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.) However, he fixes in and reiterates key words and ideas so often that you ultimately will not find yourself lost.

The final analysis that emerges from this book is of a cinematic identity that always seemed in flux until it came close to finding some kind of an idea of itself in the ‘60s and ‘70s; or at the very least it had the support of spectators that were unified by and validated these films by their attending them. However, due to the rise of television it soon lost support in the ‘80s and because of the rise of urban and educated spectators it is now forced to find a new identity. Filmic and cultural identities seem to be constantly searching for themselves in this instance.

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