Characters in Turkish cinema before and after the 1980 coup: impotent men, mute women
The people of Turkey were left powerless and apoliticized by the Sept. 12, 1980 coup, and Turkish cinema, too, changed forever. Classic male and female roles were rewritten with impotence and disconnectedness taking center stage. Turkish cinema of Sept. 12 and beyond charts the ethos and meaning of the devastation of the ’80s, recounting the stories of losers and disconnected individuals, and their tenuous grip on life In the history of its republic, now approaching its 90th year, Turkey has experienced three military coups that have given rise to many societal, economic and social ills, polarized its people and set back the country’s development. Having converted to a multi-party system of democracy in the 1950s, Turkey then hastened its integration into the Western bloc by acceding to NATO membership. During the single-party reign of the Democratic Party (DP), elected in a series of landslide victories in the ’50, ’54 and ’57 general elections, Turkey, now working to become part of the Western bloc by bolstering its reputation abroad, also had its hands full at home as it struggled to achieve social and economic stability. Many of the DP policies made the old guard uneasy. The occasionally heavy-handed responses from the DP toward student protestors, exacerbated by the press’s tendency to exaggerate civil unrest, were used by the military to lend legitimacy to the coup of May 27, 1960. The coup was followed by the execution of thenPrime Minister Adnan Menderes and two other ministers. The following year saw the drafting of the 1961 constitution and a return to multi-party democracy.
On March 12, 1971, the army, rather than instigate a coup, issued a memorandum to the Justice Party (AP). The AP, trying but failing to contain the conflict between the left and right-wingers, was forced to resign.
On Sept. 12, 1980, the army deposed the government. After the coup, led by Gen. Kenan Evren, army rule lasted three years. Never before in the history of the republic had a military government maintained power for so long. This had harsh repercussions; the Sept. 12 coup shook Turkey to its very foundations. All dissent and leftist movements were crushed, with a wave of arrests and numerous deaths in detention. Severely traumatized by the left-right schism, the country, having already hit bottom, began to collapse.
The 1980s and films about Sept. 12
The transformation in society also had a negative impact on cinema. Rising inflation, the impoverishment of yesterday’s middle class alongside the rise of a new one, and Yeşilçam’s (a metonym for the Turkish film industry) losing battle with television and the video market were all instrumental in distancing the public from movie theaters. On offer during the ’80s were films by increasingly apolitical intellectuals, productions starring arabesque crooners -- then the champions of the distressed and the despondent -- and socalled “women’s films” This last genre, despite the
ongoing chaos, represented an expression of the liberation of urban women; with the fall of Yeşilçam they grasped the opportunity to emancipate themselves from the dominant male perspective. This was also an expression of the general appearance of the ’80s. In Nurdan Gürbilek’s words, the ’80s unveils a picture of Turkey as “comprising two distinct worlds”; an era of dual tendencies. To further quote Gürbilek: “On the one side you had Turkey as the land of possibility, engendering a relative freedom born out of economic liberalism, one in which a great many things could be expressed verbally and discussed and ground down as information by the media, and where the emergence of advertising popularized the ‘image’; and on the other you had Turkey as a country where political discourse was being curtailed by legal restrictions, a bloody war was being waged and censorship and torture were commonplace” (“Vitrinde Yaşamak” (Life on Display), Metis Yayınları, 1992, p. 8).
While the traumatizing effects of the coup and the oppressive regime and violence dominated the first half of the ’80s, the second half was defined by a discourse that was relatively modern and liberal. From the mid1980s onwards in particular this political climate, steered by the liberal policies of Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP), made it easier to produce films dealing with Sept. 12. Films of note depicting the Sept. 12 years include Şerif Gören’s 1986 film, “Sen Türkülerini Söyle” (You Sing Your Songs), based on the experiences of the lead character who, after serving his prison sentence for involvement in the political turmoil prior to Sept. 12, is forced to deal with the changes undergone by his family; “Prenses” (Princess) (Sinan Çetin, 1986), which makes the claim that leftist militants were responsible for the coup; “Dikenli Yol” (Barbed Road) (Zeki Alasya, 1986), which relates the dramatic story of the main character, responsible for his brother’s death due to his involvement in the political events preceding Sept. 12, and his journey to the big city; “Su Da Yanar” (Water Also Burns) (Ali Özgentürk, 1987), which attempts to convey a director’s take of the events that unfolded on Sept. 12; “Sis” (Fog) (Zülfü Livaneli, 1988), which tells the story of how a family is transformed during the years 1960 to ’78 and their crisis of faith in the government; and “Av Zamanı” (A Time for Hunting) (Erden Kıral, 1988), which questions the issues of violence and terror by expounding on the ironic situation of a writer who, tying to escape the political disorder of the time, fails to avoid terrorism.
While none of these films directly addresses the coup of Sept. 12, all the stories contained in them are set against the backdrop of that specific era. With the exception of Çetin’s “Prenses,” every one of these films holds an openly critical view of the coup. And yet none of these films approach the Sept. 12 coup in terms of cause and effect. Instead, they address the psychologi-
cal impact on the public rather than the coup’s origins. In this sense “Sis” can be considered top of its class, in that it best summarizes the general viewpoint and stance embodied by films dealing with the Sept. 12 coup. As Hilmi Maktav observes in an article published in the periodical, Birikim, (“Türk Sinemasında 12 Eylül” (Sept. 12 in Turkish film), Birikim, No. 138, October 2000, p.80), by blaming a system totally removed from any ideological basis, Livaneli speaks from a viewpoint that transcends all ideology. The film’s main characters are not the only ones oblivious to the identity of their oppressors. So too the audience, after viewing “Sis,” is unable to ascertain who its oppressors are or why the country was forced to endure the events of Sept. 12.
While films about Sept. 12 tend to be critical and anti-militaristic, they nonetheless remain movies that fail to decipher the system or convey the story of the coup and its consequences. Yet another shortcoming of these films is the way they handle their characters. Characters, whether of leftist or rightist persuasion, lack depth and occupy a caricaturized role. In terms of ideology their characters seem to be ancillary to plot, and there appears to be almost no connection between their politics and their existential outlook. Although characters appear to be members of the classic Yeşilçam “good old boys” club, taking issue with the coup and favoring pacifism, the films impart absolutely no information as to why they have sided with their chosen faction, be it left or right. They come across as extensions of typical Yeşilçam lads, wholesome and well-raised. Their defense of revolutionism is merely an offshoot of prevailing conditions; the ideological dimension of their identity carries little importance. So while films about Sept. 12 were made in the post-Yeşilçam era, they
nonetheless overlap with Yeşilçam’s existing model of melodrama. Just as with their approach to the Sept. 12 coup, the manner in which they handle their characters is also emphatically shallow and fraught with cliché.
Disconnected, impotent men
The defining influence of the Sept. 12 coup on characters in Turkish cinema is discernible in Turkish films of the 1990s. Films such as “Anayurt Oteli” (Mainland Hotel) (Ömer Kavur, 1987) and “Herşeye Rağmen” (In Spite of Everything) (Orhan Oğuz, 1998) were striking examples of the path Turkish cinema was taking. However, “Bekle Dedim Gölgeye” (I Asked the Shadow to Wait), a film directed by Atıf Yılmaz in 1990 that followed a spate of his “women’s films” in the ’80s, points to a break with tradition. The film recounts the story of four disconnected individuals of the ’68 generation in the lead up to the’80s, including their imprisonment, torture and ultimate estrangement from society. In addition to the backdrop of the coup, the film also demonstrates the increasing apoliticization of society. When viewed in this context, Zebercet in “Anayurt Oteli” and the characters of “Bekle Dedim Gölgeye” follow in the footsteps of Turkish authors like Yusuf Atılgan and Oğuz Atay in signaling the ascendance of the “disconnected” as the dominant male role of the ’90s.
Underlining the existential woes of these authors’ characters, the ’90s correspond to a time in which society is rapidly fragmented and divided; the conflict between society and the individual gradually peaks and people are overwhelmed by an onslaught of change. As the older generation deals with the disappointment of a defeat removed from all ideals, the new generation attempts to use this disenchantment to define itself. But as Zahit Atam argues, “The aesthetics and dynamics of escape were very powerful in Turkey, because the restoration of society failed to follow this defeat.” (“Yakın Plan Yeni Türkiye Sineması” (A Close-up of New Turkish Cinema), Cadde Yayınları, 2011, p. 123). As such, the films of the ’90s are about characters unable to keep up with the pace of changes precipitated by the ’80 coup and its aftermath; people who begin life having already lost and are unable to overcome their existential angst.
Characters desperately trying -- and failing -- to break away from Yeşilçam in the ’80s reappear in a completely different guise in the ’90s in the hands of directors who are themselves influenced by the Sept. 12 coup. Just as in Yılmaz’s “Bekle Dedim Gölgeye,” male characters of the ’90s, in addition to being apolitical characters bereft of belief in society, are troubled heroes with family problems, struggling to find mother-father surrogates. Impotent and unable to sustain functional relationships with the opposite sex, they trade in action for complacency; verging on madness, they are unable to resolve their psychological issues and use violence as a means of communication. They are continuously unable to justify their existence and fail to fulfill their role as subjects as they lose hold of their community and their lives.
When we consider models of masculinity as cultural constructions and recognize the defining impact existing circumstances (especially times of crisis) have on “masculinity,” it is possible to infer that the domi-
THE ’90S CORRESPOND TO A TIME IN WHICH SOCIETY IS RAPIDLY FRAGMENTED AND DIVIDED; PEOPLE ARE OVERWHELMED BY AN ONSLAUGHT OF CHANGE
nant male roles in ’90s Turkish cinema were just as much an expression of the traumatic experiences and changes in societal structure (especially in major cities) in the wake of the ’80s, as they were a response to ’80s “women’s cinema.” The revolt of ’80s female characters against Yeşilçam’s dominant male view and objectification, and the trauma experienced thereafter by male characters and attempts to alleviate this by bringing male friendship to the forefront in order to regain lost potency, manifest themselves as notable trends from the ’90s through to today.
From the ’90s to now: lost men, silent women
The early ’90s saw the founding directors of what is called “New Turkish Cinema” make their debut. Some of the pioneering films of this new era include Zeki Demirkubuz’s “C-Blok” (C-Block, 1993), Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s “İz” (The Track, 1994), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s debut short, “Koza” (Cocoon, 1995), Derviş Zaim’s “Tabutta Rövaşata” (Somersault in a Coffin, 1996) and Reha Erdem’s debut short “A Ay” (1988). Haled, the
passive male character in Demirkubuz’s “C-Blok,” ends up in a mental institution after losing his wits over Tülay. In Demirkubaz’s later film, “Masumiyet” (Innocence, 1997), Yusuf is reluctant to leave prison, while Bekir takes his own life because of Uğur’s love. In his “Üçüncü Sayfa” (The Third Page, 1999), Isa, who learns that Meryem, for whom he has committed an act of murder, is involved with someone else, finds relief in suicide. The leading character in the director’s “Yazgı” (Fate, 2001), adapted from an Albert Camus novel, embodies the totality of the apolitical, passive, existentialist, nihilist and impotent characters of the ’90s; he is, in a sense, Zebercet adapted for the 2000s. “İtiraf” (The Confession, 2001) recounts the story of a bourgeois couple’s faltering relationship and the dilemma that has befallen them. Nilgün is unable to confess her affair to her husband, Taylan. As a result, Taylan takes his own life.
Oppositions in Ceylan’s provincial trilogy, particularly “Mayıs Sıkıntısı” (Clouds of May, 1999), are especially noteworthy: Relationships between the central and the provincial, man and nature, and father and son are conveyed through contrasts. Viewed together, “Koza,” “Kasaba” (The Small Town, 1997) and “Mayıs Sıkıntısı” utilize these contrasts to draw attention to the individual’s defeat, illustrated through male characters with a tenuous grip on life and a problematic relationship with their fathers. “Uzak” (Distant, 2002) uncovers alienation, suppression, and exploitation as a means of communication in dual relationships in middle-class urban life. Male characters, unable to maintain control over their lives, find themselves anchorless. Atam’s thoughts on this last film are important in that they highlight the fundamental breaking point of male characters in the film: “‘Distant’ begins on Sept. 12, 1980. What is distant is not only the ideals from our past, but also our sense of self” (ibid., p. 188). Atam’s calling attention to the date on which the film begins is apposite: Demirkubuz’s films, mentioned earlier, and Zaim’s “Tabutta Rövaşata” all embody the same atmosphere and are distinct in the way in which they depict similar characters in similar problematic situations. The specter of Sept. 12 haunts all these characters, distancing them from society and all that comes with it; depriving them of their sense of belonging, it abandons them to wandering the face of the earth.
Male and female characters in mainstream cinema
In addition to independent films, male characters in the mainstream films of the ’90s and 2000s also attempt to recapture their potency through “male friendships.” The four male leads in “İstanbul Kanatlarımın Altında” (Istanbul Beneath My Wings) (Mustafa Altıoklar, 1996) can only muster the courage to defy their rulers after they have joined forces. “Eşkıya” (The Bandit) (Yavuz Tuğrul, 1996) depicts the epic story of an undying friendship between two men. Baran and Cumali’s battle against established order and authority, in a sense, works towards immortalizing and restoring integrity to the myth of the heroic male. The two gangsters in “Karışık Pizza” (Mixed Pizza) (Umur Turagay, 1998); the two brothers in “Herşey Çok Güzel Olacak” (Everything’s Gonna be Great) (Ömer Vargı, 1998); the three brothers in “Balalayka” (Ali Özgentürk, 2000); the old military buddies in “Deli Yürek: Bumerang Cehennemi” (Crazy Heart: Boomerang Hell) (Osman Sınav, 2001); the two sworn enemies in “Hemşo” (Ömer Uğur, 2000); the three friends in “Laleli’de Bir Azize” (A Saint in Laleli) (Kudret Sabancı, 1998); the neighborhood lads in “Bornova Bornova” (İnan Temelkuran, 2009); and the two male roommates in “Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz” (Our Grand Despair) (Seyfi Teoman, 2011)… All are representations of a crisis of “masculinity” prevalent since the ’90s.
While male camaraderie may take centre stage in these films, women tend to remain in the wings. Female characters are often foreign and therefore silent or taciturn, serving no function in the narrative, creating problems for the men, and depicted as corrupting and immoral characters. As Asuman Suner points out in her book “Hayalet Ev” (The Ghost House): “Women as entities are absent from a world saturated with their images. The stories are explicitly built around the ‘woman’s absence.’ New Turkish Cinema
speaks through the silence of women. Time and again we encounter mute women who have been repeatedly silenced and deprived of their voice” (Metiş Yayınları, 2006, p. 29). Baran’s love interest in “Eşkıya,” Keje, is mute; the women of “Balalayka” are Russian foreigners, brought over as prostitutes, unable to resist their fate -- the only female character who speaks out against her destiny is shot dead. The silence of the Romanian women in “Hemşo” and of the Romanian girl, unable to avoid being raped by the ship’s crew, in “Laleli’de Bir Azize” and Serdar Akar’s “Gemide” (On Board, 1998), respectively, are buried in the narrative. In “9” (Ümit Ünal, 2002) the story of a woman raped and subjected to violence by people from her own neighborhood is once again told by that same neighborhood’s male inhabitants. The central female character in “Dar Alanda Kısa Paslaşmalar” (Offside) (Akar, 2000) is a prostitute who constantly finds herself removed from the narrative as the “other” and the “external.” In “Mutluluk” (Bliss) (Abdullah Oğuz, 2007), there are calls for Meryem to be killed for have being raped, thereby dishonoring the family; she is expected to silently accept her fate as a victim of tradition.
Disconnected individuals, from Atay to new Turkish cinema
The failure to depict female characters with the depth reserved for male characters, and the absence of women’s stories and portrayals they can call their own, are indications of the failure of Turkish cinema to overcome the crisis of the ’80s in terms of representation. The breakdown and schism brought on by the political, economic and societal transformation of the country is apparent in the representations of the characters in these films. Contemporary Turkish film and Turkish literature, therefore, is led by the “disconnected individuals” of Yusuf Atılgan and Oğuz Atay. These men struggle to keep pace with modern life and have difficulty fitting in, seeming to secretly enjoy the melancholy that accompanies their solitude. Yusuf in “Yumurta” (Egg) (Semih Kaplanoğlu, 2007), who moves from the provinces to the city but is unable to settle in; Tayfun Pirselimoğlu’s eponymous “Rıza” (2007), living in the city’s outskirts and struggling to get by; his Reşat in “Pus” (Mist, 2009); the youth shattered by the Sept. 12 coup in “Bornova Bornova”; the father character in “Bahtı Kara” (Dark Cloud) (Theron Patterson, 2008), who cannot hold down a job or keep his family together; Egemen in “Karanlıktakiler” (In Darkness) (Çağan Irmak, 2009), who is depressed and unable to escape his overbearing mother; Kenan in “Gişe Memuru” (Toll Booth) (Tolga Karaçelik, 2010), who is crushed under the weight of his father’s authority; and Ender and Çetin in “Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz,” who only together are able to deal with life’s tribulations: They are all variations and adaptations of Atay’s “disconnected individuals.”
The Turkish cinema of Sept. 12 and beyond, therefore, inevitably avoids the influence of directors of the previous generation (Ömer Lütfi Akad, Metin Erksan, Halit Refiğ, Atıf Yılmaz), instead tracing the steps of Atay, who best charts the ethos and meaning of the devastation of the ’80s and gloomily recounts the stories of losers and disconnected individuals, and their tenuous grip on life. The “bittersweet” tales of Yeşilçam and stories of lives, seemingly consisting of events linked together to form what Atay calls a series of “comedies of errors,” are cleansed of any comedic appeal and become manifestations of loss and defeat.
The societal and collective trauma left in the wake of the Sept. 12 coup leads to the destruction of the individual’s plane of existence, their acceptance of defeat and their building an existence on this basis; all these make the disconnected individuals the dominant characters in both independent and mainstream cinema. Characters who repeatedly fail to become subjects are eventually objectified and fall by the wayside thanks to the transformative and isolating influence of modern life and the big city. Thus all the characters of New Turkish Cinema -- the cinema of a generation traumatized by the military coup -- are “disconnected individuals.”
A behind the scenes shot during filming in the heyday of Yeşilcam, showing director Şerif Gören (center).