Livaneli and the dark side of Turkish cinema

“Manşetlerde siyaset var, ekranlardaki ana haberlerde de öyle. O onu dedi, bu bunu yaptı. Her gün usandırıcı biçimde sadece siyaset konuşuluyor. Haberler yetmiyor, bir de tartışma programları devreye giriyor. Bu durum normal mi? Yatıp kalkıp siyaset mi konuşmalıyız? En önemli sorunumuz bu mu? Bence değil.” (Zülfü Livaneli)

In a recent article entitled “Hayat mı daha önemli siyaset mi?” (“Is life more important or is politics?”) Livaneli notes how Turkish media concentrate so much attention on politics, politicians, political events, the rise and fall of parties and leaders. Meanwhile, they largely ignore issues that are of immediate and long-lasting concern to the well-being of the people, issues of infrastructure, health, diet, traffic problems, violence against women.

Livaneli is, as usual, right on target. But why should this be so? In a society that has been recognized as the one nation in the world with the largest number of distinct publications for following the news, why is it that such a narrow focus should emerge in these media? Why is it that Turkish society is perpetually obsessed with football champions and political machinations? The life of a political scandal is long indeed in Turkey, validating as it does the assumption of many Turks that something important is going on “there”. Yet what is happening “here”?

That is the gloomier side of Turkish culture. Last night my wife threw Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Bal (“Honey”) into the DVD player and asked if I wanted to watch it. I demurred. “It’ll probably be depressing,” I suggested, and I was not in the mood for such a film at that moment. I knew nothing about the film beforehand; I had simply made a guess based on past experience. … And I was right.

Turkish cinema has excelled at three types of films over the last half century: melodramatic arabesque, slapstick comedy, and most recently brooding tragedies. And yet, the dark side of Turkish cinema is undoubtedly … well, beautiful. Bal is a beautiful film. I watch a fair amount of foreign films, and my own Turcophile tendencies aside, I would still argue that there is something astonishingly real about the dark side of Turkish cinema, more real and more captivating than in comparable films of any other nation. It is a compelling journey into the futility of life and the inescapability of fate.

But where does this come from? Why do so many well-crafted Turkish films seem to focus on the otherwise faceless masses trudging through life only to be spat upon by neighbors and figuratively dismembered by a pitiless bureaucracy? Because that is the “here,” and in the “here” Turks tend to perceive an impending gloom, a sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. Or has just happened. Or is still going on. This life, in other words, is at the mercy of often merciless others.

And if that is what life is like, then why attend to it? Why gaze helplessly at what cannot be changed in my life, which is an implicit recognition of my helplessness? Why not instead focus on the “there”, the other world of the rich and powerful, of politicians and players? If Turkish media spends, as Livaneli suggests, an inordinate amount of time talking politics, it may very well be because there are so many people in Turkey who prefer not to look at themselves and their more immediate concerns. Because that way leads inexorably to depression. And surrender.

George Ellington on Galata Tower in İstanbul (1992)