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Turkish cinema shrugs off clichés to look at Kurdish conflict

ISTANBUL - Agence France-Presse | 12/21/2009 12:00:00 AM | Nicolas Cheviron

Three Turkish films, 'Nefes: Vatan Sağolsun,' 'İki Dil Bir Bavul' and 'Güneşi Gördüm,' have hit the screen amid a government drive to expand Kurdish freedoms in a bid to erode separatist sentiment, mend fences with the country's Kurdish population and end the bloodshed

Turkish cinema has made its first attempts at a cool-headed look at the bloody Kurdish insurgency in the country’s southeast with a film outshining even Hollywood blockbusters and drawing praise from both the army and pacifists.

With no less than 2.4 million viewers in two months, “Nefes: Vatan Sağolsun” (Breath: Long Live the Motherland) ranks third at the 2009 Turkish box office, far ahead of major new releases such as “2012” or the sixth “Harry Potter” film.

The new-found urge to zoom in on the human aspects of the 25-year conflict, beyond clichés of patriotism and military heroism, appears against a backdrop of nationalist frenzy and violence in the streets.

But it also comes as part of a passionate debate in Turkey about what went wrong and how the bloodshed should be stopped.

“Nefes” is “the first truly anti-war movie in Turkish cinema,” according to film critic Attila Dorsay.

“People went to see what their children, cousins and parents went through in the army. The film touched them directly,” he said.

Directed by novice Levent Semerci, the movie depicts the anguished life at a garrison in remote mountains in the 1990s, at the peak of the conflict between the army and the members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The conflict has claimed some 45,000 lives since 1984, led to gross human rights violations and dealt a huge blow to the region’s already meager economy.

In a rare achievement in a country where public opinion is usually sharply polarized, “Nefes” has won applause from both the army and pacifists.

Praising the film’s spotlight on the hardship of military duty, army chief İlker Başbuğ said it was “one of the best films ever made in the struggle against terrorism,” while the anti-military daily Taraf hailed it as a masterpiece that “places the beauty of life against war.”

The movie’s power lies in its realism; its creators abandon the image of the invincible soldier to show the fears haunting fragile youths in the line of fire, their yearning for happiness and their deaths without glory.

In one memorable episode, a soldier daydreaming about his girlfriend whispers: “My motherland is you.”

Another production that has drawn much praise, “İki Dil Bir Bavul” (On the Way to School), attracted 78,000 viewers in eight weeks, an impressive showing for a documentary.

For one year, the two directors followed the life of Emre, a young Turkish teacher on his first appointment in a Kurdish village. None of the students speak Turkish and his efforts to teach them the language bear little fruit.

“After two months, Emre started to turn inwards, isolated from the village and the whole world... We realized he was becoming more and more nationalist,” co-director Özgür Doğan said.

“There was a problem in that class and both children and teacher were victims. We think the Kurdish problem starts there in the classroom,” he said.

A third film recounting the dramatic story of a Kurdish family torn apart by the conflict was recently selected as Turkey’s submission for the Academy Awards’ best foreign film.

“Güneşi Gördüm” (I Saw the Sun), an emotional appeal against discrimination and prejudice by popular Kurdish singer and director Mahsun Kırmızıgül, ranks second at the box office with nearly 2.5 million viewers since March.

All three films have hit the screen amid a government drive to expand Kurdish freedoms in a bid to erode separatist sentiment, mend fences with the country’s Kurdish population and end the bloodshed.

But street violence flared again over the past month, taking three lives, as jailed leader of the outlawed PKK, Abdullah Öcalan claimed his prison conditions have deteriorated and the pro-Kurdish party was banned in court.

Just before the ban, PKK militants elevated the tensions by killing seven soldiers in an ambush.

Still, director Doğan believes that a honest look at the conflict will not be in vain.

“It would be presumptuous to think movies can change things,” he said. “But when people start to understand each other, they overcome their prejudices and political convictions. And then they become capable of empathy.”

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