Coastal towns continue to inspire Turkish cinema
EMRAH GÜLER ANKARA
‘Winds’ follows a Turkish man facing the tragic history of Gökçeada Island, when Greeks were forced to leave their homes with the population exchange
The recent release “Rüzgarlar” (Winds) tells the story of the remaining Greeks in the northern Aegean island of Gökçeada. “The main character of the film is the island itself,” Hürriyet Daily News’s Vercihan Ziflioğlu wrote recently. Director Selim Evci’s film takes the picturesque island as its backdrop to take a look at the ghosts of the past, of abandoned Greek villages and houses in Gökçeada.
“Rüzgarlar” follows a Turkish man facing the tragic history of the island, when Greeks were forced to leave their homes with the population exchange, or Mübadele, of the 1920s, and later again, following the Cyprus incidents of 1964. With winding roads along the Aegean Sea, and sounds of the wind, the island truly becomes the central character here.
The Aegean, or broadly the Mediterranean Sea, has in fact been a central character in Turkish cinema for as far back as its Yeşilçam melodramas of the 1960s and 1970s. It has become a symbol of the last refuge of the Turkish intellectual, the political fighter. It has been the hometown where the urban character returns to clear his conscience and face his past. The coastal town has also served as the ultimate juxtaposition to the big city, in most cases Istanbul, and all that is wrong with city life.
Another Aegean town, this time on the coast of the mainland Turkey, was the setting for yet another movie on the population exchange last year. Writer and director Çağan Irmak’s “Dedemin İnsanları” (My Grandfather’s People) was a return to the past, both on screen and off, inspired by Irmak’s own family tree. Part coming-of-age story, part family drama, and part historical recounting of the painful past, the film followed three generations, the eldest ones coming from Crete and Thessalonica.
Similar to “Rüzgarlar,” the film took the Aegean town as a central character, making it a place that was at once Turkish and Greek, neighbors across the sea, a place of shared history. Irmak’s own history keeps taking him to the Aegean, to intricate dynamics of family across generations, and the 1980 coup that left its collective mark on many. His magnum opus to many, 2005’s “Babam ve Oğlum” (My Father and My Son), is, in a sense, the companion piece to “Dedemin İnsanları.”
The effects of the coup are told through the stories of three generations in this tearjerker, that went on to win various awards, including the Turkish Cinema Writers Association’s Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Director awards. The film was set in the Aegean town of Seferihisar, Irmak’s hometown.
Coastal towns to take refuge
The first feature film to deal with the 1980 coup was, in fact, one of the prototypes of the loner at the coastal town. Zeki Ökten’s “Ses” (The Voice) featured Tarık Akan, who himself was jailed after the coup, as a young man who moves to a coastal town to start a new life after spending years in prison. The effects of prison life were taken to a haunting level with the smooth tone of the film, with a focus on peaceful life on the coast, changing dramatically when the protagonist recognizes the voice of his torturer.
One movie deserves a special mention when talking about Turkish cinema’s close relationship with the western coast, as it manages to bring together disparate themes often seen in movies set in coastal towns. The runaways, the intellectual who has left urban life for a simpler, more peaceful existence, and the juxtaposition of city life vs. rural life are all central themes in “Mutluluk” (Bliss), director Abdullah Oğuz’s adaptation of writer, musician and filmmaker Zülfü Livaneli’s international bestseller.
The film sees a young man taking his distant cousin, the fresh-faced Meryem, for an execution on the grounds of the “töre,” the deeply rooted ethical principles condemning women to strict rules of sexual practice, death often becoming the family’s final decision. The two travel from rural Turkey to Istanbul, and finally on a long journey along the coast of Mediterranean.
They are dumbstruck to see Istanbul for the first time, more so to see equal relations defined by modern life. On their journey across the coast, they befriend the prototypical academic with existential angst that serves to help them steer from their bigotry and the narrow-minded view they are accustomed to.
In an interview with Serkan Kara, film critic Atilla Dorsay cites an increasing popularity in the use of Aegean and Mediterranean coastal towns as settings in Turkish cinema in the 1970s. “One of the major reasons behind having small town stories in the Aegean as opposed to eastern Turkey is that life in the western towns was closer to life in big cities,” said Dorsay. “Directors could talk about small town life without steering much from the problems of the urban middle class.”One notable example to the period, and one of the first ones, is director Şerif Gören’s “Gelincik” (Poppy) of 1978. The film sees the spoiled rich girl running away from big city life to a coastal town, and falling for the handsome guy who rides his horse on the coast. While the scene would look pretty ridiculous today, the then-heartthrob Cüneyt Arkın on his horse has become one of the iconic images of Turkish cinema. The idyllic nature of the Aegean, whether with a horse or without, continues to inspire filmmakers in Turkey.