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Yilmaz Güney: The “Ugly King” of Turkish Cinema

By Vidyarthy Chatterjee • Published on December 19, 2012

The rapid strides taken by auteur Turkish cinema in recent times owes not a little to the daredevil, pioneering spirit of Yilmaz Güney who left a message to succeeding generations that they can achieve great things only if they are prepared to abandon the beaten track and set their sights on challenging summits.

 

Yilmaz Guney

Yilmaz Güney (1937 – 1984)

[T]he seventy-fifth birth anniversary this year of Yilmaz Güney (1937 – 1984), the stormy petrel of modern Turkish cinema, is certain to set the Bosphorus on fire. Güney’s phenomenal many-sided genius made him a force to reckon with when he came to direction after a long stint as Turkey’s most popular film hero. But in the post-Second World War history of the Turkish State and society, Güney occupies a higher place than just that of a trail-blazing film personality. His strong sympathies for the inhabitants of the ‘lower depths’ – a recurring theme in his films – combined with his fierce opposition to symbols of State power like the army, the police, the judiciary and the jail system, made him a folk hero par excellence.

 

The generals were as virulently opposed to Güney as were fundamentalist clerics. Along with other conservative forces, they made sure that Güney spent many years in prison, which however did not prevent him from making masterpieces like Umut (Hope, 1970), Suru (The Herd, 1979) or Yol (The Way, 1982), the Cannes grand prize winner. Far from being able to contain him, in a sense, prison walls aided Güney in his quest for personal expression as both artist and conscientious objector to state and social tyrannies. It was as if the dark of the dungeon gave him the space and the circumstance he needed to wrestle with the idea of how best to try and defeat injustice and oppression.

 

Umut, the Pather Panchali of Turkish Cinema

 

Umut, which marked Güney’s international breakthrough as a director, narrates the story of a phaeton-driver with a large family driven to the wall by a series of misfortunes. The film is as much a critique of the poverty and injustice built into the social system as it is of the superstitions which feed on the emotional vulnerability of the weak and the poor. The importance of Umut can be measured by the fact that prominent Turkish critics are inclined to discuss their national cinema in terms of pre-Umut and post-Umut films. The influences of Italian neo-realism – De Sica in particular – are undeniable.

 

With his dark angry looks, his energetic acting, tight control over storytelling and imaginative use of outdoor locales, Güney achieved an authenticity in Umut that had all been absent from Turkish films till then. Although it is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar films, it perhaps needs saying that Umut played the same pioneering role for Turkish cinema that Pather Panchali had done some fifteen years earlier for Bengali (read Indian) cinema.

 

Prison and revolt

Güney used a wider canvas in Suru to narrate individual dramas of destitution, madness and death with the proverbial rural-urban divide serving as the backdrop. Suru was directed by Güney’s trusted associate, Zeki Okten, from a meticulously detailed script smuggled out of prison by admiring jail staff! In 1981, Güney escaped from a Turkish prison where he was being held by the military junta of the day on charges of sedition. He spent the rest of his short, overworked and persecuted life in exile in Paris. In France, he directed The Wall, which won international acclaim and helped open the eyes of the world to the brutal regime of the generals. The film told the story of a children’s revolt similar to one that Güney had witnessed in an Ankara prison in 1976. One cannot escape the irony of the surviving generals currently facing trial for their crimes against humanity at a time when Turkey is observing the seventy-fifth birth anniversary of, arguably, their most celebrated victim.

 

However, it was in Yol that Güney was able to draw on varied aspects of prison life with the most moving accuracy. Through the tragic stories of several jail inmates out on parole, Güney took his viewers on a journey of hope and hopelessness through a society held to ransom by political repression, social backwardness and cruelty in the name of family honour and other obscenities.

 

Güney and his popularity

Güney’s inspired/inspiring art and his revolutionary example made him a legend in his lifetime. Central to that legend was the heavy price he had to pay for his public criticism of the military authorities and his espousal of radical political beliefs. But, strikingly, he never allowed his supporters to forget that he was above all a patriot and a nationalist deeply in love with his country, especially with the poorest of his people. He is perhaps the only Turkish filmmaker whose popularity has not waned with time; if anything, it has grown judging by, among other things, the brisk sales of special issues devoted to him brought out by periodicals and newspapers. It is amazing that even after almost three decades of his death in a foreign land, Güney is still an object of popular adulation, especially in the ranks of the lower and middle classes. If the Eurocentric Turkish upper classes have belatedly latched on to the Güney bandwagon, it is perhaps because of the West’s recognition of the archetypal outsider’s genius and achievements.

 

Different commentators have different explanations for Güney’s phenomenal popularity that has defied the ups and downs in Turkey’s political scenario. But they are agreed on one point – his brand of Communism was never of the extra-territorial variety; it never looked up to any non-Turkish source for its inspiration. Rather, his radicalism derived its strength and its relevance from his closeness to his native soil and to strategies of resistance springing from it. In fact, Güney started a trend of filmmaking that moved away rigorously from a largely sterile tradition in Turkish cinema of historical period pieces that spoke of nationalism in exaggerated tones, or social dramas overflowing with clichés.

 

Communism and Cinema

Since his strong attachment to egalitarianism caused many a crisis in Güney’s life, a few words on the subject of Communism in Turkey in the past few decades would not be out of context here. One remembers it as nothing if not a twist of irony that Turkey should have lifted its decades-old ban on the propagation of Communist ideas in the early 1990s when the tide had turned against the ideology in several countries physically close to it. In April 1991, seven years after Güney’s death, Turkey’s Grand Assembly decided to lift the ban on the Communist Party and commute death sentences on hundreds of prisoners for their involvement in party activities. But there was a catch in that pardon was applicable to religious fundamentalists as well, thereby equating political prisoners, who included many atheists, with people who regarded religion to be the be-all and end-all of life.

 

At the moment of writing, the secular, progressive forces with which Güney identified himself in both life and art to the extent of bringing upon himself years of State vindictiveness, are in disarray in the face of unprecedented resurgence/growth of the fundamentalist sentiment. In fact, the dreams of Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey who separated State matters from religious affairs in a statesmanlike manner, are being gradually given an unceremonious burial. Mullahs and other conservative elements are being able to have their way in present-day Turkey because there is no one with a fraction of Atatürk’s stature to counter them.

 

The great divide

The exodus of uneducated migrants from the villages to the cities has been of considerable help to conservatives. When the migrants are not lured by prospects of employment, they are energized by spurious tales of urban adventure and varied excitements. Which brings us to the cinematic theme of the huge gulf separating the city and the countryside. Admittedly, this is a theme as old as the hills in Turkish cinema, as indeed in the cinema of any nation, but the way it began to be addressed by Güney and some others who followed him, added to its urgency and its potential for in-depth discussion.

 

In Suru, where the rural patriarchal mindset of its principal protagonist takes a heavy beating with the big cruel city in the background, Güney brought into play a scorchingly realistic idiom to which not all later directors have been loyal. In the hands of some brilliant Turkish filmmakers who came into their own in the first decade of the twenty-first century, notably Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu, the rural-urban divide has come in for quieter interpretations where nothing much seems to be happening by way of overt drama but where directorial astuteness, emotional depth, and awareness of the need for humanity are difficult to miss.

 

Be that as it may, there is no denying that the rapid strides taken by auteur Turkish cinema in recent times owes not a little to the daredevil, pioneering spirit of Güney who left a message to succeeding generations that they can achieve great things only if they are prepared to abandon the beaten track and set their sights on challenging summits.

 

Ceylan is best-known for Uzak (Distance, 2003) with which the triumphal journey of Turkish cinema in this century may be said to have begun. The narrative is simple to begin with, but as it progresses a minefield of deceptions and betrayals more inevitable than intended, is revealed. A young man from a remote snow-covered village journeys to an equally snow-covered but more promising Istanbul in search of a job. He puts up with a relative, an established photographer, who has his own problems to contend with. The village ‘outsider’ is tolerated for sometime after which the relationship between the two incompatible characters starts cracking. In the end, the job-seeker chooses dignity over the need of employment; and, presumably, returns to his village.

 

Meanwhile, the Bosphorus, which has inspired legions of Turkish artists from writers, painters and musicians to poets and filmmakers, flows on – a mute witness to the silent dramas that unite the two players, each beset with his own demons, and also divide them. Uzak – a major achievement of which any filmmaker would be justly proud – won the grand jury prize at Cannes in 2003, as also the best actor prize shared by the film’s protagonists.

 

Ceylan sounds like a social scientist when he says: “My film (Uzak) not only talks about the lives of several characters but about life in a big city as well. City dwellers try to organize their lives in such a way that they don’t have to count on anyone but themselves and end up building their own prison cell. We don’t ask anything of anyone, nor do we give anything to anyone. Solidarity is a much more rural trait.”

 

Uzak’s almost boisterous big-city backdrop and the melancholic lives of its principal characters unite it with Kaplanoglu’s Melegin Dususu (Tha Angel’s Fall), a story of incest ending in murder and liberation for the victim at a terribly high cost. Clearly, a distinguished artist with an eye for detail, feel for atmosphere, and ability to extract high-class performances out of his cast, is in evidence here. The rural-urban divide is not clearly visible in the film, but the uncertainty and nervousness with which some of the characters conduct themselves perhaps hold a key to their inability to come to terms with the urban setting in which they find themselves. Some of the market scenes on the occasion of Eid throw up many a derelict-looking man or woman – buyer or seller – whose origins are clearly rural and whose behavior in public – low-key but noticeable all the same – point to their sense of unease.

 

Minimalist in style, specific in their socio-cultural delineations yet replete with universal meanings, both Uzak and Melegin Dususu are breathtakingly shot and extremely well-acted. Ceylan is without doubt a master; and Kaplanoglu is slowly but surely walking a similar path to the heart of loneliness. Indeed, the best films of these modern minstrels of the uprooted provincial in varied stages of alienation, deserve repeated viewings.

 

Güney’s Physical Cinema

The artist’s gaze may change or his focus may shift out of some deeply-felt need to do so, but what never changes or shifts is his awareness of the conditions that cause his fellows to go hungry and homeless, or make them feel lonely and sad even after they have food or a roof over their head. Güney’s censure of his times often took the form of a “physical cinema”; a “cinema of the exterior” which showed his characters reacting to domestic or societal conditions in terms of stark, rugged and raging images married to bold sounds which had an immediate mass appeal. Ceylan’s, in comparison, is a quieter, more personal film language that seeks to enter the dark spaces of an individual’s desolation of the spirit; his utter loneliness even as he is caught up in surging crowds of strangers and fellow-lonely hearts.

 

Ceylan’s use of silence – the most eloquent and supreme of all sounds, to quote Ghatak – as an integral element in the architecture of his narratives, is masterly; melancholy personified. It is as if the patient, unhurried viewer is invited to enter the soulful interior of the provincial loner left to fend for himself in the heartless labyrinth of the big city.

 

Even as Güney told hard stories of machos in trouble or in decline, he never lost sight of the bigger concerns, the social issues. He was both a poet and a pamphleteer, but he never allowed himself to descend to the level of a drummer-boy. His remarkable ability to hold the interest of his audience is to be analyzed in terms of his deep commitment as much to the individual as to the many difficult public issues that haunted him.

 

Ceylan’s preoccupation, on the other hand, is more with mental and psychological explorations, the intention being to show his protagonists’ inability to cope with the pace of life around them, or the demands made on them by a relentlessly changing society. How to say more by showing less – that seems to be Ceylan’s consistently ambitious goal. Year after year, Turkish cinema is at the centrestage in Cannes in the person of Ceylan or one of his fellow-countrymen, but there’s no forgetting that the journey to that coveted position began with Yilmaz Güney’s Yol.

 

The “Ugly King” of Turkish Cinema

 

I remember those exciting, beautiful days with a wistfulness difficult to describe. The Calcutta winter used to be incomplete then without at least one major international film festival. At one such event in the 1980s, we came to be introduced to the striking poetics and the subaltern politics of the Cirkin Kral (Ugly King) of Turkish cinema, Yilmaz Güney. It was a different Calcutta then; literally, thousands of film-lovers of varied ages, classes and political allegiances thronged the theatres once word got round about the quality of Güney’s films and the persecutions he had to put with before his incredible escape to France. Understandably, not everyone could gain admission to the screenings of Hope or The Herd, but it is difficult to forget the thrill of watching how so many people were simply swept off their feet by the man/artist/ideologue described by one critic as an irresistible combination of Che Guevara, Clint Eastwood and James Dean. Come to think of it, pray, what wrong did poor Robin Hood do to be left out of the pantheon? After all, it is so easy to read Güney as a latter-day consummation of the semi-legendary medieval outlaw of Sherwood Forest!

 

“Social injustice needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own”, wrote the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his distinguished biography, Interesting Times – A Twentieth Century Life. These words were written long after Güney was dead, but every film directed by him echoes the celebrated historian’s exhortation about the need for resistance to make this unhappy world a little less unhappy. Güney’s ethics and his aesthetics were those of the honourable highwayman who could shoot down an adversary as cleanly as he could shoot with feeling about injustices which drove him to lawlessness in the first place.

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