New Turkish Cinema: Expectations of the Cocoon

by Deniz Bayrakdar


Thanks to the emergence of the “New Turkish Cinema”, the Turkish film industry is booming, with films becoming ever more diverse, complex, and prolific, according to film professionals. Dr Deniz Bayrakdar, the Dean of the Faculty of Communication at Kadir Has University, and a professor in the Radio, Television and Cinema Department, shares her perspective on this new wave Turkish Cinema and its place in European film.

Turkish Cinema celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2014. In the past ten years, the number of Turkish films produced annually has increased by 300%. In 2014 alone, on the day of the 100th Anniversary, over one hundred new Turkish films screened to audiences – an incredible achievement.

Turkish Cinema of the 1960s was notably lively. Under the umbrella of Yeşilçam (the Turkish Film Industry), nearly 300 films were produced within the decade.

During the political changes and onset of television, the ‘70s witnessed a decrease in movie going and in the quality of Turkish films. Until the ‘90s, families preferred to watch television or videocassettes at home, as the atmosphere of cinema theatres and general Turkish film productions still remained relatively drab.

In the mid ‘90s, however, Turkish Cinema suddenly flourished. Budding Turkish directors offered new perspectives on film and drew in the interest of a fresh, young audience.

By 2012, box office revenues exceeded $234 million USD and the net worth of the cinema sector rose to $1 billion USD with almost 600 cinema theatres across the country.

New Turkish Cinema Wave

Nowadays, Turkish movie theaters screen national films at least 40% of the time.

There are two main trends: films by auteur directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Derviş Zaim, Semih Kaplanoğlu; and then films made directors who produce mainstream feature films.

The New Turkish Cinema focuses mainly on cities, the middle class, migration, poverty, lack of communication, the trauma of the military coup in 1980s, generational struggles, silenced women, and the rise of the patriarchy.

As a genre, historical films on the Ottoman Empire have widely attracted audiences. In 2012, the film Conquest 1453 directed by Orhan Aksoy garnered an audience of almost 7 million people within that year.

The fourth film in the famous comedy film series, Recep İvedik, broke Turkey’s box office sales record in 2014 making revenue of almost $120 million USD after an overall attendance of over 7 million viewers.

The historical and comedy genres brought Turkish families back to the movie theaters. Moreover, shopping malls across the country are now spaces for movie theater chains. With fast food availabilities and Turkish mainstream films being screened, these theater chains contribute to the revival of film audiences, similar to the contributions of mid 1960s summer open-air movie theaters.

Television channels regularly show both old and new films, and the success of Turkish TV serials has further contributed to the birth of a fresh group of screenwriters, directors and producers. Film schools themselves have been an important pulse for Turkish Cinema, as has the Internet, which serves as an important “informational” source for the younger generations.

Directors of New Turkish Cinema receive several grants in Europe and other countries, and are fully supported by The Ministry of Culture. These auteur directors meet with the expectations of the “new audience”, as well as the film festival scene in Europe and internationally. Film festivals in Turkey – especially the Istanbul Film Festival – have functioned as a type of school for this audience.

New Turkish Narratives

New Turkish filmmakers hit their narrative strides somewhere between the calm landscapes of the East and the lost cities of the West. Themes are typically that of “melancholy”, “loneliness”, “nostalgia”, “void”, “guilt”, “trauma”, and the schizophrenic divide of the self.

There is typically no way out for the antihero: they are kidnapped by their fates, and return to the Heimat (motherland) to die.

In Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Kış Uykusu, 2014), a former actor lives with his wife and sister in “self-made exile” in Cappadoccia. As intellectuals, they are shunned from Istanbul. They cannot cope with people in this space of Pasolini’s Medea either, a space that reminds us of a planet outside of earth. Unhappy and unproductive, their moods are reflected in the wild, stark scenery.

In Singing Women (Reha Erdem, Şarkılarını Söyleyen Kadınlar, 2013) the characters inhabit an island – evacuated due to earthquake risks – at the edge of civilization. This time, surrounded by the borders of the sea, with no way out, they are very close to death. Riddled by fear of both earthquake and disease, the characters try to hold “together”

From the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, Istanbul was the main spaces of the New Turkish Cinema with its hundred faces. Now the directorial gaze is turned to Anatolia (Asia Minor, Asian Turkey), especially with directors Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Yeşim Ustaoğlu and Semih Kaplanoğlu establishing little towns, vast land, and the clouds of the North as important elements of filmic narratives.

Social frustration experienced in the cities and in Anatolia’s ‘no-spaces’ are communally based on lack of communication, or loss of joie de vivre. These films typically end at sea or with an observation of nature. The characters watch the sea, clouds, or forest with their backs turned to the camera and hence, to us, the audience. We look together from this fourth dimension to the outer world and reach an ambiguous, open-ended narrative.

As things currently stand, I am of the opinion that directors New Turkish Cinema tend to seal themselves within a ‘cocoon’ of sorts, incubating for months on end, enshrouded in creativity, history, and symbolism, reflecting on the world and on their country.

We eagerly anticipate the moment each cocoon will split open and release a kaleidoscope of butterflies into the world – but how, or when, remains a mystery.

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