Turkey’s memorable politicians on big screen

Turkey’s memorable politicians on big screen

Emrah Güler
Turkey’s memorable politicians on big screen

Vizontele stars Yılmaz Erdoğan, Demet Akbağ and Altan Erkekli.

We will be waking up to a new Turkey tomorrow. Many cities and towns will be waking up to new mayors and local governments, and many others are getting ready to live with the previous ones for another five years. Bringing an end to a trying period before the elections, it would be fitting to remember some of the memorable politicians, mayors and governors from Turkish cinema.

For many, the first name that would come to mind is Altan Erkekli’s Mayor Nazmi in 2001’s “Vizontele” (Visiontele, a word play on television). Co-directed by Ömer Faruk Sorak, Yılmaz Erdoğan also writes and takes the lead role in this popular dramedy that continues to be among the top-grossing Turkish films of all time. Set in early 1970s southeastern Turkey, the film follows the city of Hakkari’s folks as they try to get to grips with the alien technology that is television.

Threatened by an opportunist entrepreneur who runs open-air film screenings in the city, the mayor decides to break the monopoly in entertainment by bringing the first television to the city. He decides to install the signal receiver atop a near mountain with the help of Crazy Emin (Erdoğan) and the team from the mayor’s office. While the mayor is portrayed as an honest and in-charge leader, the local government here is far from functioning.

It is the times before the 1980 coup and, like many other places in Turkey, the city is in chaos. Leftists, rightists, fundamentalists, nationalists, and the army are at each other’s and everyone else’s throats. With everyday observations and situation comedy with more than a dozen characters, “Vizontele” points at how it’s not the rules of democracy that is the norm when it comes to local leaders, but a father figure.

Along with his co-star Demet Akbağ, Erdoğan was already a household name with a devoted audience in 1980s thanks to TV sketch shows he wrote and starred in. Akbağ also co-starred with Erdoğan in “Vizontele” and its sequel in 2004, “Vizontele Tuuba.” A decade later, she would come to play the most famous woman politician in Turkish cinema in a film that would also go on to have its sequel, both released in 2013.

A female mayor, that’s new

In the comedy “Hükümet Kadın” (The State Lady), Akbağ plays the mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey whose people have never had a female authority figure in their lives, at home or elsewhere. Directed and written by Sermiyan Midyat, the situation comedy plays for the laughs directed toward the absurdities of having a female mayor for the town’s folks, and how they try to come to accept it.

Akbağ plays the illiterate Xate, the mother of seven sons and one daughter, as she somehow finds herself the mayor of Midyat. She runs the town as she would run her household. Akbağ portrays Xate as a strong woman, who can both be ruthless and maternal, both toward her children and to her people, which inherently becomes the backbone of the comedy. Xate’s children symbolize Turkey’s diverse yet troubled population, with a devout Muslim, a communist and one presumably gay son among them.

On the opposite scale to these two examples of sharp observations of Turkish people’s often troubled relationship with authority and authority figures is a grim political thriller loosely based on the real-life story of a fallen governor. In the aptly titled “Vali” (The Governor) of 2009, director Çağatay Tosun adapts his popular TV series “Köprü” (The Bridge) that ran between 2006 and 2008, and was adapted from novelist Ayşe Kulin’s novel of the same name.

In his debut feature, Tosun takes his governor, Faruk Yazıcı, from his popular TV series to the big screen, chronicling the events leading to the suspicious death of the fictional governor, openly inspired by the late Recep Yazıcıoğlu. Becoming the youngest governor at the age of 26, Yazıcıoğlu had become some sort of a folk hero, integrating citizens into decision-making mechanisms, turning the eastern province of Erzincan into a haven of natural sports, and building a much-needed bridge over Karasu near Erzincan after three decades of tardy bureaucracy.

Yazıcıoğlu was killed in a car crash in 2003, leading to speculation as his name was linked to other suspicious deaths at the time in Denizli, where he was the governor until his demise. The film stars Erdal Beşikçioğlu, before he came to nationwide fame with his popular TV character Behzat Ç., as the governor, and chooses to turn many of the speculation and conspiracy theories into a political thriller, bypassing the portrayal of a politician claimed to be legendary by many. As evidenced in the weeks and months leading to the local elections in Turkey, there are more than a few politicians and stories that would fare well on the big screen.