Children in Turkish cinema: From exploitation to realism
EMRAH GÜLER ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily NewsBefore the movie season comes to a halt in summer, studios are rushing to release as many films as possible, with just a couple of months left to keep the audience indoors. Every week, you will see as many as three Turkish films released. And every week, there is at least one where little voices are heard and little eyes peer from the screen.
Turkish cinema seems to have found the way to cast and coach child actors. And to good effect. There are some terrific little actors who, at times, single-handedly drive a film. Take, last week’s “El Yazısı” (One Day or Another), written and directed by Ali Vatansever. Among the three-story arc, one of them follows 8-year-old Ragıp’s quest to find the missing love letter he had written to the town’s pharmacist. In his innocent detective work, he is not alone. The little girl Sevgi, who seems to have a crush on Ragıp, helps him out.
In a darker story, we will get to watch a little girl in one of the leading roles in Ali Levent Üngör’s “Mevsim Çiçek Açtı” (Spring Blossoms) this week. The film tells the story of little Mevism and her mother, living in Germany, as they are protected by the state against the abusive patriarch of the home. Later this month, we will watch yet another child actor in Caner Erzincan’s “Mar,” which tells the story of an old man, a teenager and a little boy’s quest to find love.
While there is obviously a boom of children in Turkish cinema, they are no newcomers to big screen. In fact, at one point in the history of Turkish cinema, half of the leading actors were 6- and 7-year olds, ready to allow filmmakers to exploit their innocence.
One child actor for a decade
The renowned cinema historian Agah Özgüç traces the debut of the first child star to 1934 in director Muhsin Ertuğrul’s “Bataklı Damın Kızı Aysel” (Aysel, The Girl of the Swampy Roof). Cinema in the 1950s saw the first boom in child characters, used as the true source of melodrama and emotional exploitation. The children were always abandoned by their parents, left on the streets to fend on their own or born out of wedlock, destined to ultimate shunning; in the end, their short lives were full of pure tragedy.
The titles from that period might give you an idea as to their nature: “Bırakılan Çocuk” (The Abandoned Child), “Evlat Acısı” (Grieving the Child), “Yetim Yavrular” (Orphan Babies), “Evlat Hasreti” (Missing the Child) and “Bir Yavrunun Gözyaşları” (Tears of a Baby). Realizing the box office guarantee of hardcore melodrama involving children, the filmmakers made sure there was some sort of tragedy involving children – even if in some cases that meant not even having children in the movies. The golden age of child stars in Turkish cinema – or more appropriately, the golden age of a specific child star – came in the 1960s. Starring Zeynep Değirmencioğlu, Turkey’s answer to Shirley Temple, from the age of 6, a series of films about the exploits of a little girl, Ayşecik (Little Ayşe), became a pop culture phenomenon instantly, keeping Turkish cinema running for about a decade. She might have lived in the big city or in a village, been an orphan or a happy child, but she was always the same character, Ayşecik. Ayşecik mostly came from a poor family living in a big city, and she was always way mature beyond her years. She was the mediator, problem solver, crisis manager, sometimes even the breadwinner.
She made sure that her parents overcame their problems and patched things up, went to work if her family was in dire straits and looked after her brother as only a mother could. When you listened to Ayşecik, you saw a wise woman beyond her years and age. She talked about life and its bearings in long, winding sentences. Ayşecik knew everything about life and always behaved in the right way.
Offspring of filmmakers
The success of the Ayşecik movies proved to be a cash cow for the studios, and the formula was reproduced until it was worn out completely. As Değirmencioğlu approached her teen years, a little boy version replaced her. Her real life cousin Ömer Dönmez began the series of these exploitation movies in the form of Ömercik (Little Ömer). Ömercik and a series of other child actors reprised the role of little philosophers and do-gooders, adults trapped in little children’s bodies. The 1970s was the period when producers, directors and actors put their children’s young acting prospects into leading roles.
“Yumurcak” (The Little Menace), “Afacan” (Little Rascal), “Sezercik” (Little Sezer) and “Gülşah” were all offspring of popular directors, producers and actors of the time. s Turkish cinema opened its heart to another form of exploitation in the form of porn for the big screen, children thankfully left Turkish cinema. In the last three decades, Turkish films featured child actors as professionals in realistic roles. Some of the examples are “Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar” (Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite), a child’s account of life in prison; the late master Atıf Yılmaz’s “Eylül Fırtınası” (September Storm), a look at life at its slowest in a village through the lives of children. k HDN