A stroke of bad luck turns life along a radically different path, leading to years of imprisonment in a foreign land, teaching the hero courage and endurance, and ending in a bold escape whose story brings fame and fortune… it sounds too dramatic to be true. And yet these are the facts of life for Billy Hayes, whose non-fiction book of the same name was adapted into the classic film Midnight Express in 1978. However, not all the attention towards Hayes was positive. The film sparked angry demonstrations in Turkey, where people took offense at the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Turks on screen.
In spite of it all, Hayes continued to stand by his real story – which underwent changes in the film version – and also apologized for the negative effect the film had on Turkey. Now, director Sally Sussman’s documentary film Midnight Return has brought Hayes back to Istanbul to redress the damages of the past. Tickets are available for two showings at the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival on February 20 and 26.
The aim of Midnight Return was to bring Hayes together with Turkish people in Istanbul once more, in order to hear their side of the story and retell his experiences in his own words. “I'd always wanted to return to Istanbul. It was the magical city of my youthful adventures. I'd been there three times prior to being arrested and had spent weeks wandering the cobblestoned streets, making friends and enjoying the vibrant culture of 1969 Istanbul,” Hayes told The Guide Istanbul. The spark that turned dream into documentary came when he mentioned this desire to return to Sussman and her husband Tony Morina, who is the executive producer of Midnight Return.
“I had always remembered Midnight Express and I knew it had a huge impact in Turkey, economically, politically, and socially,” Sussman recalls. “So as a writer, I immediately thought there would be an interesting story to tell, as Billy felt very strongly about going back to Turkey to apologize to the people for his role in the damage … But in order to make this film, I was adamant about getting the Turkish people’s reactions to the original Midnight Express to show a part of the story that no one ever knew before.”
Speaking of his first reaction to the original 1978 film, Hayes says, “I was overwhelmed. I knew there'd been changes made, and I knew I didn't kill the guard and that my escape in real life was totally different, but I was stunned by the power of the acting and the music and the memories it evoked in me.” He points to the courtroom scene in particular, where his character calls Turkey “a nation of pigs,” as antagonizing Turks and Americans against each other. In his actual statement in court he had expressed his forgiveness for the judges. “I don't have problems with the film's portrayal of Turkish prison, it was brutal, but it condemns the country and people as well... For many years I've said that the film doesn't represent the country or people, but my small voice is lost against the power of images on a screen,” he explains.
The Istanbul shooting for Midnight Return was done during Hayes’ visit to the Istanbul Conference on Democracy and Global Security in 2007. Because of the lasting sentiments generated by Midnight Express, they were concerned for his safety on the streets. But the country’s people proved to be more forgiving than they imagined. “After I was able to speak to the Turkish press and point out some of the major changes the film made to my story and how much I enjoyed Istanbul prior to prison, there was a perceived difference in how people responded to me. I was able to wander the streets of my memories, up over the Galata Bridge and down to Sultanahmet Square and old Yener's Pudding Shop... It reminded me of how well I got along with most of the Turks I'd known, exceptions being those who locked me up or beat my feet,” says Hayes.
The hero’s return
Just as stories can open wounds, so Hayes and Sussman believe that they can be a healing balm as well. This documentary offers a chance for understanding and reconciliation between everyone involved in the Hayes story. “In fiction, an enemy is created for dramatic effect and oftentimes has been a character from a foreign land to create the fear of the ‘other,’” says Sussman. “However in non-fiction like our documentary, everyone is presented equally, the story is told from all points of view and it’s a journalistic endeavor. I make no judgments on the story – everything is presented for the audience to decide.”
As for Hayes, it seems that he has recognized a kind of cosmic wisdom in his terrible ordeal. Like the pattern of “the hero’s journey” found in fairytales across the world, he came out of his long trials with a new sense of self and purpose. “Prison was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to grow up, to take responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned about strengths and weaknesses I'd never known before. I discovered my reason for being, which is simply to love,” he says.