100 years of Turkish cinema & what to watch
The Turkish film industry, which started with a documentary shot in 1914, has produced many internationally acclaimed movies. Critic Atilla Dorsay takes us through 104 years of Turkish cinema history.

By Zeynep Ardağ

Turkish cinema, which got a relatively late start, has had a tumultuous history at times intertwined with the country’s politics.  Throughout the years, it has held an important place in Turkey’s arts and culture scene, driving creativity and innovation beyond the big screen.

The first Turkish film was shot in 1914 when Army reserve officer Fuat Uzkınay filmed a documentary on the destruction of a Russian monument in Istanbul shortly after the beginning of World War I. In subsequent years, Turkish cinema would come to its own, experiencing a golden age starting in the 1960s called the Yesilçam Era, named after the street in Istanbul on which the industry was based.  Economic and political challenges following the golden age led to a decline in Turkish cinema until international recognition of Turkish films sparked a renewal in the 2000s.

The beginning

According to renowned Turkish cinema critic Atilla Dorsay, the first two decades of Turkish cinema were dominated by one director, Muhsin Ertuğrul. “There is no other example of a monopoly in the world,” he told The Guide Istanbul. While some historians criticize Ertuğrul’s work, Dorsay argues that the pioneer’s films were the first “baby steps” of Turkish cinema, with films such as Bataklı Damın Kızı Aysel (Aysel: The Girl From Bataklı Dam) blending different art movements in a surprising and promising way. In 1939 Ertuğrul’s monopoly over Turkish cinema was broken with the start of a transition period in which exaggerated theatrical performances were replaced by more realistic ones. Additionally, the number of film companies increased from one to four.

Dorsay notes 1949 was a pivotal year for Turkish cinema, when auteur cinema, or films with directors with a recognizable and unique style, began. The first such film was Vurun Kahpeye (Strike The Whore) by Ömer Lütfi Akad, which told the story of Aliye, a teacher who strongly opposed the occupying forces during the Turkish War of Independence and was lynched by the sultan’s supporters.

Atilla Dorsay
Atilla Dorsay

The Yeşilçam era

While some argue the golden age of Turkish cinema began in the 1950s, Dorsay argues it began in the 1960s. “The increasing number of films and auteurs, as well as the public’s attention paid to these films, made the 1960s a golden period for Turkish cinema,” the critic said.

On average, 200 films were produced a year during the 1960s, some of the most well-known being Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer) which received a Golden Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival in 1964; Sevmek Zamanı (Time to Love); Gurbet Kuşları (Birds of Exile); Haremde Dört Kadın (Four Women in the Harem); Yılanların Öcü (The Revenge of the Snakes); Vesikalı Yarim (My Prostitute Love); Ah Güzel İstanbul (Beautiful Istanbul); and Turist Ömer (Ömer the Tourist).  A film festival, which soon became the Oscars of Turkish cinema, started in 1964 to promote Turkish cinema and help gain international recognition.

“The 1960s was a period when political films thrived,” Dorsay said. “The constitution implemented after the 1960 coup allowed leftists and socialists to express themselves.” It was these political changes, he continued, that led to the emergence of the revolutionary cinema movement.  Films during this period also touched on the problems of workers and laborers who were facing challenges posed by industrialization, rural-urban migration, and poverty.

During the 1970s, Turkish cinema expanded to include comedies and warm family films. According to Dorsay, Hababam Sınıfı (The Chaos Class) is an example of good popular cinema from the time, which tells the story of a group of lazy and ignorant high school students without much desire to graduate. It was the most successful film in Turkish cinema when it was released in 1975 and remains popular today.

The downfall

Just as Turkish cinema was gaining steam, in 1974 TRT started its nationwide broadcast to televisions across the country. Turks turned to the small screen for entertainment, sparking the decline of the Yeşilçam Era. American film companies also opened offices in Turkey and began debuting movies the same day they would debut in the US. “For the first time the Turkish audience had the chance to see American movies without having to wait for months or years, so they rushed to see these movies,” Dorsay explained. With American films dominating the market, local productions lost their competitiveness and cinema operators were no longer willing to show Turkish films.

The decline was accelerated in September 1980 when Turkey experienced its third military coup, which led to a crackdown on political and independent films. While such films were banned, intrepid directors such as Yılmaz Güney smuggled their films abroad. Güney wrote Yol (The Road) while in prison, and worked with surrogate director Şerif Gören on the film. The picture was a harsh commentary on the military dictatorship through the eyes of five prisoners given a week’s home leave.

Despite political pressures, there was movement forward in Turkish cinema during this time, including the 1982 debut of the Istanbul Film Festival. Additionally, women gained better and more visible roles in the industry. While previously women were either depicted as innocent or femme fatales, during the 1980s these clichés disappeared and real women emerged. Despite improvements in quality and character development, however, the number of movies produced annually declined to two or three a year in the 1990s.  

A resurgence

Dorsay argues there were two golden ages in Turkish cinema: the Yeşilçam Era and the 2000s. Local popular films were released to commercial success as directors took the main elements of Yeşilçam’s successful melodramas and comedies and presented them with a new twist.

In his opinion, Turkish cinema continues to flourish. “The quality of Turkish films today is very high, especially art films,” Dorsay said. These films are shown at prestigious festivals worldwide and receive international recognition. Dorsay also noted 55-60 percent of the Turkish audience prefers Turkish films. “The US and Turkey are the only countries that prefer their own cinema over foreign films,” he noted. “This is something terrific.”

TÜRVAK Cinema Museum

Those interested in Turkish cinema may wish to visit TÜRVAK Cinema Museum in Beyoğlu as an interesting way to dig deeper into the history of Turkish cinema. The museum showcases a wide variety of content, including film posters, photographs, and full-length wax figures. What is more, thousands of films can be watched at the Image Viewing Center in the TÜRVAK Art Library.

Top 5 Turkish films to begin with: Atilla Dorsay’s recommendations

  • Üç Arkadaş (1958) : Three Friends by Memduh Ün is the most representative film of Turkish cinema containing the typical and cliché elements giving the viewer a better understanding of classic Yeşilçam movies.
  • Sevmek Zamani (1965): Time to Love by Metin Erksan is a story about a painter who falls in love with a photograph of a girl but refuses to love the girl herself. The film takes its inspiration from the legendary love stories of Eastern cultures, such as Leyla and Mecnun. Both its distinct story and its black-and-white cinematography make the film a masterpiece.
  • Yol (1982): The Road by Şerif Gören is a powerful film reflecting the political scene in Turkey after a military coup through the eyes of five prisoners given a week’s home leave. Strong cinematography and went on to win numerous awards, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
  • Anaayurt Oteli (1987): Motherland Hotel by Ömer Kavur is adapted from Yusuf Atılgan’s novel with the same name, the movie tells the story of Zebercet, a loner who runs a small hotel in a provincial Turkish town and is obsessed with a female guest who stayed there briefly. The film depicts his descent into madness, convulsed by sexual obsession and social isolation. It was the first time in Turkish cinema that a character is portrayed with such intense psychological depth.
  • Kış Uykusu (2014): Winter Sleep by Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a somber and compelling tragicomedy set in Cappadocia telling the story of Aydın, a former actor who runs a small hotel with his young wife and recently divorced sister. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into an inescapable place that fuels their animosities. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan paints an absorbing, compassionate portrait of the characters, who have painful relationships with one another. Although the story takes place in a local setting and is about the problems of locals, Ceylan turns this story to a universal movie with his narrative and cinematography. The film was critically acclaimed and received Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
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