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Over the last twenty years, a new wave of iconoclastic Turkish film directors has emerged. They have resurrected the nation’s cinema on the international art house scene, winning an array of awards in the process.
Turkish film went through a fruitful era between the 1950s and 1970s. It was known as the Yeşilçam Period and took its name from a street in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, where many actors, directors, and film companies were based. Producing mostly commercial films for domestic consumption, the industry became one of the world’s biggest.
After the Yeşilçam Period, the country’s cinema underwent a significant decline in production and popularity. This was primarily due to political and economic turbulence.
The late 1990s witnessed a renaissance with a steep increase in the quantity and popularity of the films produced. Alongside mainstream movies, Turkish art-house cinema has flourished with the emergence of such auteurs as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Semih Kaplanoğlu, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Reha Erdem, and Derviş Zaimas.
The hallmarks of Turkish new wave films – heavily influenced by the works of European masters like Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky – include lean narratives, slow storytelling, long takes, minimal action and dialogue, and natural lighting and décor. Protagonists are often ordinary people dealing with daily routines. Themes includes nostalgia for the homeland or the past, displacement, and alienatlon.
Ceylon is the most internationally acclaimed director in the history of Turkish cinema. Starting with his first short film Cocoon (1995), his films have been screened at various prestigious international festivals and nominated for numerous coveted international awards. Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) each won the Cannes Grand Prix. Three Monkeys (2008) brought him the Cannes Best Director Award and Climates (2002) the FIPRESCI prize.
Ceylan writes, directs, and produces his own films, usually on extremely low budgets. He has often hired non-professional actors including his own family members.
His highly aestheticized film lexicon, which features static and wide-angled shots, is inspired by his photographic background. Long silences accentuate the minimalist and moody ambiances of his films. Soundtracks are omitted for the sake of realism.
Themes include provincialism, belonging, and homecoming. He often champions the mundane. His characters are unsympathetic ordinary people.
Although Ceylan’s films have limited appeal in Turkey, and are even considered boring and depressing by mainstream moviegoers, he dedicated his Cannes Best Director prize to his “beautiful and lonely” country.
One of the pioneers of the new Turkish cinema, producer-director Demirkubuz is highly appreciated within the national film scene. He gained the notice of film critics and international audiences with Innocence (1997), which was screened at numerous festivals in Turkey and Europe. This was followed by the successful reception of Fate (2001) and Confession (2002), both screened at Cannes.
Demirkubuz’s life was drastically and permanently influenced by the political turmoil in 1980s Turkey, which led to his imprisonment for three years for leftist agitation. This period of his life manifests itself in his works through the themes of physical and spiritual captivity, metaphorical labyrinths, and fatalism, which are visually communicated through tight interiors and tightly structured plots.
His films tackle ethical dilemmas and explore the darker corners of the human soul. He is especially inspired by Dostoyevsky.
Kaplanoglu‘s international fame increased significantly when his film Honey (2010) won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. It is the final film of his reverse-order trilogy narrating three stages of the life of a man. The trilogy addresses spiritual matters, the meaning of life and death, the loss of a loved one, faith and destiny.
Kaplanoğlu usually avoids musical scores. The only sound is ambient noise, a key aspect of his style, which he calls “spiritual realism”. He perceives filmmaking as discovering, even defining, oneself. Therefore he aims to keep everything as realistic as possible. He favors long shots, slow-pacing, and sparse dialogue.
Ustaoglu has earned herself a prominent place in Turkey’s male-dominated cinema. Her international recognition began with Journey to the Sun (1999), her story about a friendship between a Turk and a Kurd. Her fourth film Pandora’s Box (2008) won the Best Film and Best Actress awards at the San Sebastian festival and is so her biggest international achievement so far.
Ustaoglu habitually works with little-known or amateur actors. Her films touch on solitude and isolation, broken family relations, lack of communication, and detachment from one’s home.
Born in Cyprus, Zaim achieved international recognition with his 1997 debut feature Somersault in a Coffin. His Cypriot-Turk identity has led him to tackle political issues in many of his films. In Mud (2003), he addresses the tension between the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus and demonstrates how the destructive effects of the past are inescapable. In Shadows and Faces (2010), he tells the story of a young girl and her father who were separated during the 1963 conflict on the island.
Zaim’s style differs from that of other new wave directors. He opposes the idea that minimalism is a necessary component of non-mainstream cinema. Music and dialogue are essential elements of his films, which often depart from conventional film structure. He is inspired by traditional art forms like Ottoman calligraphy, marbling, puppet theatre, and miniaturist painting.
Reha Erdem has recently become a major player in new Turkish cinema. In 2006, his film Times and Winds opened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s about three teenagers who go through a horrifying experience in a small village. He is also well known for his 2010 release Kosmos.
Erdem often uses sounds that come from outside the film’s world or that characters cannot hear. This adds a transcendental quality to his films.
Erdem’s films vary in subject matter. My Only Sunshine (2010) is seen from the perspective of an abused young woman. Cosmos (2010) tells the story of a healer who is not well received in a small town in the East of Turkey. His characters often suffer emotional turmoil and feel excluded from society, which cause them to rebel.
Other successful Turkish directors include Özcan Alper, Seyfi Teoman, and Hüseyin Karabey.
The internationally acclaimed German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin, who is based in Germany, tackles such issues as immigration, assimilation, identity, and the balance between tradition and modernity.
All these directors’ accomplishments testify to the current strength of the thriving Turkish film scene.