Turkey’s much vaunted “return to democracy” suffered an embarrassingly visible setback at last year’s Istanbul International Filmdays when censors banned four of the 92 films invited for the foreign section: three on grounds of obscenity and a fourth — Georgian filmmaker Tenguiz Abouladze’s 1968 classic, Incantation — as an insult to Islam. In the Turkish section, meanwhile, Ali Özgentürk’s Water Burns, Too was passed by the censors, but then banned by the governor of Istanbul after the police reported that the film contained “subversive elements” — it is, after all, the story of a director trying to make a film about poet Nazim Hikmet, who was himself considered sufficiently “subversive” to be deprived of his Turkish citizenship.
The incident can hardly have surprised Turkish filmmakers and their audiences who, in the wake of the 1980 military coup, saw all their cinematheques shut down as part of the sweep against popular organizations and whose major victory for free expression was to get the censorship commission shifted from the police to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 1987. This year the censors were held at bay and the festival went off without a hitch, but there was little doubt about the reason for this uncommonly enlightened gesture on the part of the authorities: Turkey’s pending bid for full membership in the European Economic Community.
Outside the limelight of the International Filmdays, the business of control goes on as usual. To this day, the very name of actor-director Yilmaz Güney, who was stripped of his citizenship in 1983 and died in exile two years later, remains banned, along with all 104 films in which he appeared or which he directed. Nor is censorship the only obstacle Turkish filmmakers have to contend with. As Güney’s widow pointed out at the day-long conference on “Cinema and Freedom” held at Cannes this year, the very popularity of cinema in Turkey has always made it the most closely watched of all the arts. Under the current regime, production has fallen to under 100 films a year, compared to 300 a year in the 1960s. The country’s movie theaters, which numbered some 4,000 in the 1960s, are now down to 350. As elsewhere, the demise of popular film culture is obviously tied to the spread of television and video, but according to Turkish filmmakers, what is particular to Turkey is the way the government has manipulated the situation to its own advantage, offering no state aid for production and discouraging private investment while fostering the state-run television network (two stations, one created in 1968 and the second in 1986) that can beam its own message directly into viewers’ homes.
In his report on the debacle of the 1988 Istanbul Filmdays, French journalist Jean Roy observed that “to build a festival in Turkey is to take a stand for democracy.” The same is obviously true for those who continue to build a Turkish cinema — several generations of filmmakers who are attempting to make the most of the limited arena for action available to them. (Producers and directors have formed their own association, the Center for Film Arts, which was responsible for the legislation that brought censorship under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and has succeeded in getting a monitoring system for royalties as well as a portion of TV licensing fees for a new cinema fund.)
Among the younger directors, one of the most creative and challenging figures is Ömer Kavur. His Hotel Motherland received first prize in the Turkish section of the 1987 Istanbul International Filmdays as well as the Grand Prize at the Three Continents Festival in Nantes later that year. Born in 1944, Kavur studied film and sociology in Paris in the late 1960s and returned to Turkey in 1971. Since that time, he has made nine features as well as a number of documentaries and advertising films. As he explains in this interview, recorded in Nantes in November 1987, the rural Anatolian cinema made famous by Yilmaz Güney reflects neither the totality of the Turkish experience nor the totality of Turkish cinema. Kavur has focused on urban life, initially in its collective, social dimensions but more recently in terms of individual psychology. In a stark, unrelenting style, Hotel Motherland filters all the anguish and degradation of urban existence through the psyche of a clerk in a provincial transient hotel. For want of anything better to do or hope for, the clerk fantasizes the return of a one-night woman guest. As fantasy gives way to obsession and finally despair, he turns away the other clients, kills the cat, then the cook, and finally hangs himself. Along the way, Kavur’s probing, provocative style confronts a variety of social taboos — masturbation, homosexuality, a hint of incest. “What I wanted for this film,” Kavur says, “was for viewers to try to identify themselves with Zebercet” — the clerk — “or at least with some of his feelings and emotions, and the way he had to suffer — to identify themselves and ask why it was this way.”
One thing that’s striking about Hotel Motherland is the leap you took beyond the usual critique of traditional society — the gamut of births, deaths and circumcisions that turn up in so many of the Turkish films we’ve seen here at Nantes. You seem to be saying, OK, here’s the real problem we’re facing: These people have cut their ties with the oppressive family. They’re not forced into arranged marriages, the husband isn’t beating his wife because he doesn’t have a wife, and they’re all so terribly alone.
You have to understand that modern Turkish cinema was introduced abroad through the works of Yilmaz Güney. He was from the rural part of the country, Anatolia, and this is where he situated his films, these were the traditional relationships he showed. Because he made such fine films, the West identified all of Turkish cinema with him. Some other Turkish directors tried to continue in the same way, showing the circumcisions and Ramadan, where they had to slaughter a sheep — what you might call exotic or picturesque images — which always took place in Anatolia. Frankly, I can’t understand why other kinds of films shouldn’t be made, because nearly half of the Turkish population lives in big cities, and our major problems are not those traditional ones but the problems of immigration, of cultural identity, problems that are, in fact, quite similar to those of an individual in Europe.
When Hotel Motherland was shown in festivals abroad people who are used to seeing these exotic or tourist types of films didn’t know how to place it. It was a film they didn’t expect — and my biggest problem was trying to explain to them that we have the same problems they do and that we have writers and filmmakers who’ve tried to deal with these problems. When they couldn’t find a familiar frame of reference within Turkey, they just connected Hotel Motherland with films like Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, or Polanski’s The Tenant. A Turkish Shining — that was in an Italian paper during the Venice film festival. I like Kubrick, I like Hitchcock a lot, and Polanski, but I have no desire to remake what they’ve already done. I think it’s time for us Turkish filmmakers to show that we can create different kinds of works and that our cinema is not constituted uniquely by Güney’s films or by that trend. Ever since I’ve been making films — this is my eighth — I’ve tried to deal with the contemporary problems of an individual living in the big city.
Doesn’t any film dealing with traditional society also meet a need to express cultural identity? If you talk about the city, as you said, that’s a problem shared with the West. If you talk about the countryside, that’s an assertion of an identity that’s being lost. It’s not simply because Güney came from Anatolia — you find these themes all over the world. In terms of form and language, that’s precisely where you don’t have such strong Western models, which creates a certain space for the imagination. But this is also where I think your film is very strong, because it’s much harder to find your own voice once you leave the traditional territory. Part of the strength, the beauty of your film is that you had a different language; you had a way of telling the story that’s not just the genres you inherited from the West.
But it isn’t anything I inherited from the Turkish cinema either. I think that style, the way you tell something, is as important as what you tell, and in the Turkish cinema the problem is the lack of personal style. There are only one or two directors with a style of their own; most of the stories are told in the same way, and they’re told over and over again. People are trying to do things that are too easy; because the West wants a certain type of films, they’re trying to make them. What interests me is to be able to delve deeply into a certain theme.
What about the response inside Turkey?
As you can imagine, this is a difficult film for Turkish audiences. Even though it was made in 1986, we waited a year to release it, until after it got some international awards and we were able to do some promotion. It ran for three weeks in Istanbul and was really a huge success, and the same is true in Ankara and Izmir. So something has changed in Turkish cinema, at least as far as the public is concerned, because two or three years ago no one would have gone to see this film. But now three of the best rated films, including Hotel Motherland, were so-called art films. All the others, which were supposed to be commercial, with big stars, flopped at the box office. I think there’s a real determination on the part of Turkish audiences to go and see things of quality.
You’re the one Turkish director trained formally in Europe, rather than making your way through the apprentice system. Other people have mentioned that this gap posed problems for a time.
No, actually, if that gap exists — and I think it does — it’s because of my personal choice. I never had the desire to be a part of the Turkish filmmaking system. Unfortunately, all the films made in Turkey are based on stars; we have a very strict commercial system where you have to shape your scripts around the stars. This then allows you to receive advances, but it also means that you’re never independent.
When I began filming in Turkey in 1971, this system was very strict, and there was absolutely no way of avoiding it. When I made my first film in 1974, which was financed by a company outside this system, I was relatively independent. But I understood that if I wanted to continue making films, either I had to give in to this system or I had to create other possibilities. I chose the second alternative. For five years, I made advertising films, in order to get a bit of money to put into my second film. Ever since then, I’ve produced my own films. Unfortunately, the first two had big problems with the censors, and both were banned.
The second was banned for political reasons. The Supreme Court gave me permission to shoot, but it took nearly two years, so between 1980 and 1985, until Hotel Motherland, I made films that I liked but that were in a way for the system. I call these my bastard films, because they’re not mine but they’re not theirs either. I think my biggest problem was in that period, between 1980 and 1985. But in 1985 I suddenly realized I’d get nowhere making those films, and I started working on a script about a director, Night Journey. But then I got the offer for Hotel Motherland, and wound up doing Night Journey afterwards.
I believe that the moment you completely reject the demands of such a commercial system — and this is true all over the world — you’re freer to do what you want. That’s the first step toward making a personal film, or a good film. The people in charge of the system in Turkey are behind the times: They’re out of touch with the wishes and the intellectual level of the Turkish public, which have changed tremendously.
Filmmakers often say that the public won’t accept their films because the taste has been shaped by Hollywood films. The Americans seize the market, create a taste, and that’s what people want. You seem to be saying something different — or maybe you’re talking about a different public?
Essentially, I’m talking about a different public. American cinema has conditioned a certain group, and today television is doing the same thing, even worse, because at least Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 1940s had a certain character to it and they made some very good films. But an alternative public is starting to emerge — mainly young people. We have over 400,000 university students who are really fed up with seeing the same actors, the same themes, the same stories over and over again. Of course the commercial films will always have a certain following. But I think we’ve created an alternative audience and this is important.