With a biography like that, do the movies even need to be good? I can’t comment on their quality: I haven’t seen any of Güney’s many, many films (not out of disinterest so much as intimidation—I mean, where do you start?) and nearly everything I’ve read about him devotes more space to his life story than to his work. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the series as a history lesson about a country of which I know embarrassingly little and a political movement of which I know even less. The eight films in this series were made between 1968 and 1982, a period marked by the Turkish military’s repeated “interventions” into state government. Güney used his celebrity to criticize military might—as well as the injustices regularly suffered by Turkey’s underclass and Kurdish population. His decision even to identify his characters as Kurds (as he did throughout Yol, evidently) was a radical one. Kurds had been forbidden by law from acknowledging their ethnic identity from the beginning of the modern Turkish state—the ban wasn’t lifted until the mid-80s, after Güney’s death.
Though Güney made films in opposition to political trends, Savaş Arslan notes in the useful study Cinema in Turkey how much his filmmaking style owed to mainstream Turkish movies (it seems significant that Güney first rose to prominence for starring in crime movies and a Turkish remake of Zorro). His films as director often tell stories of revenge and the criminal underworld—familiar subjects for the nation’s moviegoers—and they betray the fast and loose production style of so-called Yeşilçam (i.e., “Turkish Hollywood”) cinema. According to Arslan, Güney’s innovation was to combine these elements with those he picked up from Italian neorealist movies like The Bicycle Thief and Germany Year Zero, casting mainly nonprofessionals to play impoverished characters and shooting his films on location. This approach came to maturation with a modern tragedy called Hope (which plays in the Doc series on February 25), in which Güney abandoned his usual tough-guy persona to play a poor carriage driver obsessed by dreams of getting rich. Of the 13 movies that Güney either directed or appeared in in 1970, Arslan reports this was the only one to receive widespread critical acclaim in Turkey.
That’s right: Güney directed or acted in 13 movies in 1970. And the following year, he would be involved with another ten (seven of which he directed). A filmmaker working this rapidly must have been possessed by something fierce—and I’m excited to find out just what that was.