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Turkish cinema hopes to cash in on political turmoil

ISTANBUL-Hürriyet Daily News | 7/16/2010 12:00:00 AM | EMRAH GÜLER

Turkish cinema has found the holy grail of box office success: exploiting nationalist sensitivities. Three movies awaiting their release this fall hope to touch some nerves with paranoia about global Islam, Turkey’s paternal role in the Islam world and the conquest of Istanbul

While last year’s Palme d’Or winner, the Turkish gem “Bal” (Honey) by director Semih Kaplanoğlu can barely draw 30 thousand people to movie theaters, an Atatürk biopic is guaranteed to sell millions of tickets. It is a period in Turkish cinema to use current politics and social turmoil as the easiest way to generate box office success.

With this in mind, three anticipated releases for the coming fall are likely to touch the sensitive nerves of people of Turkey, stir some controversy, and put some cash in the pockets of producers.

The paranoia about global Islam, Turkey’s paternal role in the Islamic world and the conquest of Istanbul will play directly into the polarization between pious and secularist Turks, as well as into the complex about Europe’s reluctance to allow Turkey into the EU club. Here’s a look at the three anticipated movies.

[HH] Minarets from Bitlis to New York

The-king-of-arabesk-singer-cum-revered-director Mahsun Kırmızıgül continues to surprise Turkish moviegoers. Singing to the lower classes, the uneducated and the poor for more than two decades, Kırmızıgül surprised everyone with his unexpected directorial debut, “Beyaz Melek” (White Angel), three years ago. The film was an unabashed example of good storytelling and an impressive directing of actors even though it had its shortcomings.

With last year’s box office success “Güneşi Gördüm” (I Saw the Sun), Kırmızıgül showed everyone that he had further mastered his craft. The film took a look at the Kurdish problem in Turkey; while it did try to give too many messages and include too many sub-plots, the film definitely was one of the best films of the year.

The recent teasers of Kırmızıgül’s next movie managed to shock and raise anticipation. The teasers showed Kırmızıgül and another big name pop singer, Mustafa Sandal, running around the streets of New York City with footage of a speech by U.S. President Obama, planes crashing into the World Trade Center and a group of Muslims praying in Central Park.

The film’s title, “New York’ta 5 Minare” (5 Minarets in New York), is a play on a popular folk song, “5 Minarets in Bitlis” – Bitlis being a small city in eastern Turkey.

The film features Kırmızıgül and Sandal as two police officers from Turkey, while revered actor Haluk Bilginer plays a powerful Muslim preacher. The film will no doubt raise much discussion with Bilginer’s character reminding many of famous Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States.

[HH] Atatürk opens the way for conquest of Istanbul

When Can Dündar’s biopic of Atatürk, “Mustafa,” was released two years ago, it divided the nation into two, with one group praising the movie for its unprecedented portrayal of Atatürk as a human being, while the other criticized Dündar’s attempts at bringing the leader down from his pedestal.

The controversy, of course, worked for the film. More than half a million people watched “Mustafa” in its first week, a fact which helped other Atatürk projects get the go ahead. Last year, two films on Atatürk were released, “Veda” (Farewell) and “Dersimiz Atatürk” (Today’s Lesson, Atatürk), each movie being watched by around 1 million people.

Historical movies, let alone documentaries, have always been the most risky category for producers in Turkey as the necessarily big budgets never compensated for the less-than-stellar returns at the box office.

Perceptions, however, have changed with the three Atatürk movies, opening the way for other historical film projects to secure large budgets. The latest is a $100 million project on the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans; the project had been around for a long time, but nobody really wanted to back such a large endeavor. With the wind shifting, however, “Fetih 1453” (The Conquest 1453) is waiting its release date this fall.

The film has been a hot topic for the last six months with its history, costumes, architecture, its ambitious war scenes with state-of-art CGI technology and its mysterious casting for Sultan Mehmed II, who was just 21 when he conquered Istanbul.

While the cinematography, special effects, costume design and art direction might be over the top, the direction of Faruk Aksoy, the producer and director of cheap laughs and populist cinema, exemplified by the “Recep İvedik” series, is of greater concern.

But if the box office gross as opposed to a tongue-lashing from critics is a testament to a film’s success, the “Recep İvedik” movies might just be the best movies in Turkish cinema. In that case, an ultra-nationalistic box office success seems to be eagerly awaiting its release date.

[HH] More exploitation of nationalism from the Wolves

It was inevitable that Turkey’s answer to Jack Bauer, Polar Alemdar, would be traveling to Palestine in the heat of the recent turmoil on the Mediterranean.

“Kurtlar Vadisi” (Valley of the Wolves) is a cult TV and movie phenomenon in Turkey and has cashed in on Turkey’s political agenda for years. The original TV series established a leading man, Alemdar, in the image of a mafia-macho Turkish guy, admired by unemployed and frustrated young men all over Turkey. Short and ordinary looking, Polat had a self-defined sense of justice that included hanging traitors in the city center of Istanbul.

“Kurtlar Vadisi” became an instant hit with its references to Turkish politics, its unabashed abuse of social sensitivities on patriotism, and with unprecedented scenes of violence that included assassination and torture on television. Then came the movie “Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak” (Valley of the Wolves – Iraq) in 2006, the most expensive Turkish movie at the time. That edition of the franchise told the story of hero Alemdar's fight against the “evil” U.S. troops in Iraq.

Last year, Turkey’s recent agenda on conspiracies of the deep state fuelled by the Ergenekon investigation opened the way for another installment in a series of movies, “Kurtlar Vadisi – Gladio.”

The news of a new film in the series came just days after Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla. The name of the movie was enough for millions to buy tickets, “Kurtlar Vadisi – Filistin” (Valley of the Wolves – Palestine). Although there is no trailer for the movie at the moment, expect Alemdar to infiltrate Mossad and humiliate a number of Israelis along the way.

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