Establishing shot: Istanbul in Turkish cinema
More than just the backdrop for many Turkish films, Istanbul is the centerpiece in the city’s evolving narrative.

By Işıl İlkter

Starting in the 1960s, Istanbul began to receive massive migration from other parts of the country, seeing its population almost double in size over the next 10 years. Once associated with wealth, prosperity, and populated by the “old Istanbulite,” Istanbul has undergone a drastic transformation, altering the fabric of city life. Istanbul has transformed into a heterogeneous mix of the city and the suburbs.

Istanbul is inseparable from the Turkish cinema. An opening shot revealing the iconic Haydarpaşa Station, which is the “gate” to the city, often signifies a change in the characters’ lives. This singular location was associated with the hopes and dreams of newcomers, but also with their defeats and disappointment. Directed by Halit Refiğ, Gurbet Kuşları is one of the first Turkish films with migration as the main theme. With high hopes and dreams, the Bakırcıoğlu family arrives in Istanbul from Kahramanmaraş to gain wealth and reputation and to return to their hometown as “people who have seen Istanbul.” This notion denotes a massive experience that one has to bear and go through in order to survive in the city. The moment they step out of the train, the father warns his family, “This is Istanbul. There is no joking about it.” This line establishes Istanbul as a place where nothing is certain and everything is dangerous. Playing with the dynamics of wealth, virtue, and identity, the film shows the disintegration of the characters. We see the family going back to their hometown after their failed attempt to make it in Istanbul.

Gurbet Kuşları

In the 1970s and 1980s, slum houses began to appear overnight in the hills of Istanbul near the Bosphorus due to an immense increase in migration to the city. Released between 1973–75, the first trilogy in Turkish cinema, Ömer Lütfi Akad’s Gelin, Düğün, and Diyet, deals with the new issues that came with the unplanned urbanization. The movie Gelin shows Istanbul with slums, terrible infrastructure, and bad working conditions. In the film, we see people resorting to peculiar jobs, going as far as selling human blood. The second movie, Düğün, tackles the story of a family of six, migrating to Istanbul, unable to adapt to the city’s disregard of virtue in the traditional sense. In the third film, Diyet, Istanbul has become a city of high demands, impossible to satiate and requiring blood money (diyet in Turkish).

Departing from the social film tradition, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Turkish films explored the back streets of Istanbul—the dirty jobs, unlawful conduct, and the changes in Taksim, literally realizing the meaning of the word, splitting the texture of the city into various levels. The films of the younger generation directors focused on the individual stories of ordinary people trying to hold onto the city. The iconic 60s opening shot of Haydarpaşa Railway Station was replaced by the back streets of Beyoğlu after the 90s. Yavuz Turgul’s Eşkıya (1996) depicts a world of “others” made up of bandits and mafia inflicting violence to survive in Istanbul. The film shows Istanbul’s crowded areas, the streets of Tarlabaşı, and the old settlements visible from the roofs of small hotels tucked between the buildings situated around the Golden Horn. 

In the 2000s, Istanbul becomes a silhouette—an overpowering presence that has an ominous nature. Reflected in the camera of contemporary directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Zeki Demirkubuz, the city conveys the loneliness of the individual as well as the changing urban image. Istanbul is no longer just a place, but a character in itself. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Uzak (2000) portrays the change and loneliness in Istanbul with the character of Mahmut, who is a photographer who has lost hope of making a film. Interrupting Mahmut’s lonely life, his relative Yusuf arrives at his house, hoping to find a job on the cargo ships in Istanbul. The two men live in the same house without much communication. Their loneliness is reflected in the solitary Istanbul shots, often covered in snow. The characters occupy a small area in the frames as opposed to the city. Istanbul is present in the background both as the reason and the consequence of the loneliness of the subjects.

In the last few years, the relationship between the city and the people grew more complex. People began to leave Istanbul because of the chaos, both in economic and social aspects, making it almost impossible to survive. However, Istanbul proves itself an irreplaceable home despite its broken pieces. This ever-changing city always has something to offer to everyone. There is the dichotomy of living in a city known for its hospitality and welcoming aura and the loneliness that it imposes on people at the same time.


“Do you belong to the city you were born or to the city that takes up space in your heart?” asks Arada director Mu Tunç speaking to The Guide Istanbul. “The film came out of this. I was in this dilemma.” Dubbed as the first Turkish punk film, Arada explores the state of being stuck “in-between” leaving the city and staying in Istanbul. Although set in the 90s, the film undertakes various currents in the social atmosphere of modern-day Istanbul in a timeless context, set in the punk scene through the lead character Ozan’s life. Disillusioned by the realities of his life, Ozan wants to move to California to establish a successful music career.

In contrast to many Turkish films, the film opens with a shot of Merter, which is a neighborhood located in the suburbs that is both an industrial and a residential area.  Mu Tunç says it is like a virus to be embarrassed to show where we came from and the Turkish cinema began to accept Istanbul despite its complex texture in the 2000s. Arada embraces that soul according to Mu Tunç. “After living abroad for a couple of years, I have realized that Merter, with its various subcultures, is no different than Shoreditch in London,” he says. Celebrating the unique texture of Istanbul, Mu Tunç includes his own family story in the film that represents the extremes in society; his father, a classical Turkish music singer, and his brother, a punk band member. This dichotomy of being stuck in between is present as a unifying theme in the film, which reflects the duality of Istanbul. “You cannot predict anything in Istanbul, everything is arbitrary and surreal,” says Mu Tunç. “This is what makes this city so unique.”

Pioneering Turkish films

In Turkish Cinema, Istanbul often takes center stage, shaping the whole storyline around itself. Below are some other Turkish films that revolve around Istanbul:

  • Keşanlı Ali Destanı (1964), Director: Atıf Yılmaz
  • Canım Kardeşim (1973), Director: Ertem Eğilmez
  • Bir Avuç Cennet (1985), Director: Muammer Özer
  • Dönersen Islık Çal (1993), Director: Orhan Oğuz
  • Tabutta Rövaşata (1996), Director: Derviş Zaim
  • Masumiyet (1997), Director: Zeki Demirkubuz
  • Hayat Var (2008), Director: Reha Erdem