Tarık Akan: So long and thanks for all the films
Emrah GülerYour first films stay with you forever. The first comedic moments, the first scenes of dramatic buildup, and the first kiss on screen stay untouched in our memories, free from cynicism and free from a taste shaped up later with life. For a majority of Turkish people, somewhere in those memories buried deep down is Tarık Akan, the legendary actor who passed away on Sept. 16.
For me, one of those memories, accompanied with the feeling of safety for a child in watching a movie on TV screen, with your parents and with tears of a safer kind, features the inimitable and the endlessly handsome Tarık Akan as well. The first movie I remember watching from beginning to end is Ertem Eğilmez’s classic melodrama of 1973, “Canım Kardeşim” (My Dear Brother).
The film has a distinctive place among Akan’s earlier filmography, shaped with romantic comedies and melodramas, and his later filmography, leaning more on political dramas. The film is the heart-felt and heart-breaking story of a dying child as his brother and brother’s friend go out of their way to make him the happiest in his final days, including stealing the most coveted household item of the time, a TV set.
The compassionate and strong older brother figure Tarık Akan played in “Canım Kardeşim” would continue throughout his career and his life, on and off screen. He would always stand against and fight male authority figures, oppressive fathers, teachers and bosses on screen, the censoring and unjust state off screen.
He might have been married and divorced once, but Tarık Akan was the object of affection of many generations in Turkey. As one Twitter user said, “Cutting out his photographs from magazines was the only thing close to a relationship when growing up.” Or as another user put it, “Turkey lost the first man she had fallen in love with.”
A louder political voice
Akan’s acting career kicked off when he became the runner up for the popular movie actor contest of Ses (Voice) magazine in 1970. The next year, he would star in his first movie to become the heartthrob, the ultimate boy next door throughout the following decade. His tall figure, green eyes, humble but cavalier demeanor would make a whole nation search for his photographs at magazines, and take out the scissors.
The 1970s was the period of Yeşilçam, the romantic comedies and melodramas, and Akan was a dream-come-true as a leading male, the exceptionally handsome yet accessible boy stealing the heart of the girl. He might have been easy on the eyes, but in two years’ time he would also prove his craft, winning a Golden Orange for Best Actor for his role in “Suçlu” (Guilty) in 1973, going on to win five more in the next three decades.
He would keep his decorum and cool in the otherwise light-hearted comedy series “Hababam Sınıfı” (The Class of Chaos) of 1975, the shenanigans of a group of high school students and school staff, adapted from the plays of the literary giant, Rıfat Ilgaz, by another legendary name Ertem Eğilmez. His character of Damat Ferit would be the go-to character to talk to the teachers, to devise elaborate jokes, and to resolve conflict.
While Akan continued acting in the Yeşilçam movies of the period, his political voice became louder and louder on and off screen. The political atmosphere in Turkey was in turmoil, heading towards a military coup in 1980. Towards the end of the 1970s, he would star in a series of political films, with the occasional mustache that was atypical. These movies would eventually become a definitive trademark in his career.
In 1978’s “Maden” (The Mine), Akan plays along side another star of the time, Cüneyt Arkın in the story of coal miners’ journey into a new awareness against the greedy mining companies and non-functioning unions. At around the same time Akan was filming “Maden”, he was organizing a march and a rally against censorship, representatives from unions and cinema joining hands as they traveled from Istanbul to Ankara in 1977.
A nation’s conscience
Akan’s increasing role as a staunch activist eventually led to a jail sentence of two-and-a-half months by the military rule following the 1980 coup, with 12 years of imprisonment demanded originally. He was arrested for attending a gathering celebrating the birthday of the renowned poet and writer Nazım Hikmet, the “romantic communist.”
Tarık Akan would later star in the first feature film to deal with the haunting effects of the coup, Zeki Ökten’s “Ses” (The Voice) of 1986. Akan played a young man who moves to a coastal town to start a new life after spending years in prison. The smooth tone of “Ses” changes when the protagonist recognizes the voice of his torturer.
Among Tarık Akan’s political films that had gained national and international acclaim are Zeki Ökten’s 1979 Golden Leopard winner “Sürü”, Yılmaz Güney’s Palme D’Or winner of 1982 “Yol” (The Road), and Erden Kıral’s “Kanal” (Canal) of 1979. He played in more than 100 films that varied in style, genre, and acting range. Having won various awards here and abroad, Akan won an Honorable Mention at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival in 1985 for his role in, again Zeki Ökten’s, “Pehlivan” (The Wrestler), a look into the life of a Turkish traditional wrestler.
Akan’s final film was 2009’s “Deli Deli Olma” (Piano Girl), by Murat Saraçoğlu, bringing together Tarık Akan and his co-star in “Yol”, Şerif Sezer as two old villagers in a politically-charged historical drama. In his 66 years, Tarık Akan had managed to become not only a household name, but also a deeply-loved figure, among grandmothers and granddaughters, intellectuals and laymen, activists and conservatives alike. He had managed, always in dignity, to shoulder the brief history of a nation. That nation will always remember Tarık Akan.