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A Look at the Contemporary Turkish Cinema

Turkish people, once described by master director Lütfi Ömer Akad as experts “only on Turkish cinema and in finding ways to profit themselves,” in general look down on Turkish cinema. Turkish cinema is historically known as Yeşilçam (signified by the GreenPine Street in Istanbul where Turkish cinema industry is located). On many occasions people have referred to unbelievably ridiculous situations as “just like a Turkish film…” However, films about sad bald singers and blind violinists --who go blind after banging their head-- were long left behind by the 1990’s. Furthermore, films representing contemporary Turkish cinema have become better than ninety percent of Hollywood films shown each year in Turkey, but it will take time for the average mainstream viewer to notice the trend.

As expected, many good films such as Gizli Yüz, Anayurt Oteli (Ömer Kavur), Yol (şerif Gören), Sis (Zülfü Livaneli), Piano Piano Bacaksız, Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar (Tunç Başaran), Mavi Sürgün (Erden Kıral), Muhsin Bey, Gölge Oyunu (Yavuz Turgul), Hakkari’de Bir Mevsim (Ertem Eğilmez), Züğürt Ağa (Nesli Çölgeçen), Müthiş Bir Tren, Sevmek Zamanı (Metin Erksan), Özlem Düne... Bugüne... Yarına... (Tülay Eratalay) received their deserved recognition years later. Though some had good attendance at the time, many went unnoticed.

For a long time, Turkish cinema meant “Yeşilçam cinema”. Alternative movements to Yeşilçam cinema such as New Filmmakers, Young Filmmakers or Independent Filmmakers have not had the significant impact that Soviet Formists, Italian New Realists, French Neo-Realists, French New Wave, American Independent Filmmakers, German Expressionists, Dogmatists have shown(1). What has lately been termed Independent Filmmakers will not likely take root as a significant notion because it doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to the following questions:

1) Is there an industry (infrastructure) to be independent of?
2) If such an industry exists, in what ways are they independent of it?
3) How is the director’s independence emphasized (expressed)?
4) What are the measures that make a director or film independent?

Turkey is able to produce only a few films each year. I estimate it is likely that the number will increase in coming years. Whether we call it Yeşilçam cinema or Turkish cinema, this article is dealing with cinema that has no agreed upon basic measures or characteristics.

When we look at Turkish cinema under the scope of Yeşilçam films, we find that, though inadequate, there are certain basic characteristics that set it apart. These characteristics are the commonly agreed “rich girl – poor boy” theme, and the (in my opinion overused) pitiful themes. However, these ideas are insufficient in describing Turkish cinema in relation to the world of film in general. There are many examples of films that can be termed poetic, musical, historical, real historical, sociological, adventure, and even avant-garde (though these terms may be inadequate in defining the type of films it is meant to be).

Yeşilçam ’s motif of rich girl – poor boy (sometimes the reverse) can be characterized from the girl’s perspective as such (Scognamillo, 2004: 32):

1) The girl is poor and works. She is sick or handicapped.
2) The girl is rich and rebellious. Her father is strict and authoritative.
3) Middle class girl has a good voice. Her fate is to be discovered.
4) The girl is the most beautiful in her neighborhood and she lives through terrible events. She is betrayed by the boy and shoots him.
5) The girl lives with her mother, she uses borrowed money to make herself look richer than she is and aspires for a wealthier lifestyle. Her fate is to meet someone in similar circumstances. They will either be happy together as they are, or win the lottery. Perhaps a distant relative will leave them a fortune.

As for the boy’s perspective:

1) The boy is a factory worker who wants to marry his sweetheart. He meets a rich girl, when he realizes she is promiscuous and worthless as a person, he goes back to his sweetheart.
2) The boy’s sweetheart aspires to riches. The girl gets involved with a good looking but degenerate guy. As she is about to be sold to a brothel, the boy saves her; they marry.
3) Bad boy falls in love with a beautiful girl. He is in conflict with a crime boss; a) if the girl has been raped, she is shot or commits suicide; otherwise they get married; b) the crime boss kills the girl and her lover.
4) Poor boy with a naïve sweetheart from the neighborhood falls for a vamp woman. He regrets the dirty deeds he has done and is set to return to his sweetheart, but the police are after him. He is shot and dies in his sweetheart’s arms.


If we are to examine contemporary Turkish cinema, it is better to start at the end and go to the beginning. Let the debate on whether Fatih Akın’s Duvara Karşı (Against the Wall, Gegen die Wand) is a German film or a Turkish film continue. The fact is that it won awards in Berlin where master filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Theo Angelopoulos compete, and this should not be belittled. Duvara Karşı is a pure (unadulterated) Turkish film, or more accurately, a Yeşilçam film. Coincidences and unexpected developments, a basic theme of Yeşilçam movies, await us in Duvara Karşı. In fact those coincidences are the spinal cord of this movie.

Aside from this most recent example, some of the most significant directors and films of contemporary Turkish cinema can be listed as such: Müthiş Bir Tren (An Amazing Train), Sevmek Zamanı (Time for Love) (Metin Erksan), Anayurt Oteli (Hotel Anayurt), Gizli Yüz (Hidden Face), Karşılaşma (The Encounter) (Ömer Kavur), Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalım (The Girl with the Red Scarf) (Atıf Yılmaz), Özlem Düne... Bugüne... Yarına... (Yearning for Yesterday… Today… Tomorrow…) (Tülay Eratalay), Yol (Road) (şerif Gören), Gölge Oyunu (Shadow Game) (Yavuz Turgul), Mavi Sürgün (Blue Exile) (Erden Kıral), Piano Piano Bacaksız, Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar (Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite) (Tunç Başaran), Züğürt Ağa (Nesli Çölgeçen), Hakkari’de Bir Mevsim (A Season in Hakkari), Arabesk (Arabesque) (Ertem Eğilmez), all the films of Zeki Demirkubuz and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Due to the nature of cinema, it is impossible to classify and generalize an entire national cinema as a certain type of cinema. In my opinion, the same is true for all art, especially literature and visual arts. Instead of talking about Turkish cinema then, we may be better off examining the works of specific directors for a more meaningful evaluation. However, it is difficult to find generalizing values even in the works of the accepted master directors of Turkish cinema such as Metin Erksan and Ömer Kavur. It has even been claimed that Gizli Yüz (Hidden Face) is a postmodern film (Atam, 2004: 127-131). In my opinion it is not useful to look for general values across different films. Film-creations must be perceived as a whole. Just as one cannot add in a scene or delete one from a film (as it would be a different film then), every film (with the exception of series/sequel films) is independent. Each film is a whole unto itself, but simultaneously relates to other films in the ways it uses references and the way references function. However, the relationship and similarities that we try so hard to identify are not too relevant, and therefore I argue that the effort to relate films to each other is a futile one.

What about the films of Zeki Demirkubuz and Nuri Bilge Ceylan that have become prominent in recent years? Their views, efforts, expectations from cinema, what they give back to cinema, and expression of their own character within their films are on one side of the spectrum; and those who approach filmmaking like a form of manufacturing of goods are on the other side. Considering directors who strive to create works of art like Bergman, Kurosawa, Welles, Spielberg, Resnais, Godard, Bunuel, Manchevski, Fellini, Angelopoulos, Tarkovski; it becomes obvious that a shallow person would be incapable of creating such quality films. Following in the footsteps of Metin Erksan, Ömer Kavur, Tunç Başaran, Erden Kıral, Tülay Eratalay, Yavuz Turgul, Şerif Gören, Ertem Eğilmez, Yusuf Kurçenli, Nesli Çölgeçen who are considered founders of contemporary Turkish cinema; Zeki Demirkubuz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Serdar Akar and Ahmet Uluçay have become the standard bearers of it today. It is only befitting that young directors I mentioned above are not directors choosing to simply film a radio play, rather they are people who have issues with life and they are trying to recreate their dreams through cinematography. Therefore they are the ones who can take over the torch from directors like Erksan and Kavur.

Güven (2004: 22) also agrees with this account. “The development of two separate lines of Turkish cinema has recently become even more differentiated. On the one hand we have a Turkish cinema where some people benefit from star power through commercial films, enjoy an increasing audience interest in such productions, and gain greater returns in their investment. On the other hand we have a cinema through which directors narrate more personal, yet relatable human stories. Those are the directors who can reproduce three, at most five copies of their films, and are trying to find a niche for themselves. One of the most productive representatives of this line of Turkish cinema is Zeki Demirkubuz,” whose sixth film, Bekleme Odası (the Waiting Room), is now in theaters. Turkish cinema was based on star power until a generation of filmmakers, who refused to go where the wind blew and insisted on their personal approach to art of filmmaking, arrived on the scene. For the audience, star power is still important and many people make their choices based on who is starring in a particular movie.

Writing a short article on contemporary Turkish cinema is like trying to summarize a thick dissertation. There are many important aspects to its development, such as the transition from Yeşilçam to contemporary cinema, changes in dialogue structures in scripts, lighting and ambience that creates meaning and feeling(2), a break from star movies in favor of an era of directors’ cinema, directors who play with language and editing in clever and not so literal ways etc. This article simply made an attempt to look at Turkish cinema in its basic structure and historical context.


ABİSEL, Nilgün. (1989). Sessiz Sinema (Silent Movies). Ankara, A.Ü. BYYO Yayınları.

ASİLTÜRK, Cengis Temuçin. (1996). Sinemada Diyalektik Kurgu (Dialectical Editing in Cinema). Yayınlanmamış Yüksek Lisans tezi (Masters thesis). Ankara. A.Ü. Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü.

ASİLTÜRK, Cengis Temuçin (2003). Sinema Dili şiir Dili: Sinemada şiirsel Anlatım Olanakları (Poetic Language in Cinema: Opportunities for Poetic Narration in Cinema). Yayınlanmamış Doktora Tezi (Ph.D. dissertation). Ankara. A.Ü. Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü.

ATAM, Zahit. (2003-2004). “Ömer Kavur ile Görüşme – (Temel meselem ölümle hesaplaşmaktı) (Interview with Ömer Kavur).” Yeni Sinema.İstanbul, Sonbahar/Kış ‘03/’04.

CARROL, John.M. (1980). Toward a Structural Psychology of Cinema. Mouton Publishers. The Hague, The Netherlands.

DORSAY, Atilla. (1999). 100 Yılın 100 Filmi. İstanbul. Remzi Kitabevi.

GÜVEN, Yusuf. (2004). “Zeki Demirkubuz Sineması– Yeraltından Notlar (Cinema of Zeki Demirkubuz- Notes from Underground).” Film. Nisan – Haziran (April-June Issue). İstanbul. Pp. 22-28.

SCOGNAMILLO, Giovanni. (2004). “Yeşilçam Mitolojisi (Mythology of Yeşilçam).” Film. Nisan – Haziran (April-June Issue), İstanbul. Pp. 33 – 36.



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(1) Since the aim of this article is not to inform about various film movements, you can find detailed information about these movements at ABISEL, 1989 – ASILTURK, 1996 – DORSAY, 1999 – CARROL, 1980.
(2) In my opinion Turkish cinema is where it is today thanks to meticulous lighting directors like Recep Biçer.


Cengis T. Asiltürk
(Translated by Bahar Engür)