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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yilmaz Güney: spirit of vengeance

Posted By on 02.22.12 at 08:00 AM

yilmaz-guney3.jpg
Last Saturday I saw the Turkish film Elegy (1972) at Doc Films’s ongoing Yilmaz Güney series (which continues tomorrow night at 7 PM with the director’s most widely celebrated movie, Yol). I liked it for its suspense, but I had trouble understanding the plot. I asked one of the programmers afterward if he could explain why gendarmes were hunting down the main characters, who are never shown doing anything illegal. Was this bad storytelling or had I missed something in the dialogue? A scholar of Turkish history interrupted us (good thing the movie was playing at the University of Chicago!) and settled the matter in seconds. “Those people were Kurds—the Turkish government was trying to deny their existence at the time. The government banned this movie, just like they did most of the films Güney directed.”

A major movie star, novelist, and director, Güney came from a mostly Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey (the name for which he was known was in fact a pseudonym; güney is Turkish for “south”), though he didn’t openly embrace his ethnic background until the early 1970s, when the Kurdish nationalist movement gained momentum with support from the militant Turkish left, with which Güney was also affiliated. One can understand his apprehension to identify publicly as a Kurd. The Turkish government’s ongoing persecution of the ethnic minority resulted in the death and imprisonment of millions throughout the 20th century—a crisis that only intensified during Turkey’s periods of military rule that coincided with the height of Güney’s popularity. As J. Hoberman noted in a 1982 profile of Güney (included in his collection Vulgar Modernism):

The words “Kurd and “Kurdistan” are [currently] banned from Turkish history books and dictionaries; the Kurds are officially termed “Mountain Turks,” who speak Kurdish—itself illegal—because they have forgotten their mother tongue... Identity grows existential when the statement “I am a Kurd” brings a mandatory two-and-a-half stretch in a Turkish can.


Seen in this context, Güney’s Kurdish films are remarkable acts of protest, defying a national code of silence on the plight of many. Hoberman went so far as to call Yol “a movie so explosive that were it shown in his homeland it would signal the prelude to a revolution.” He added that the film “is about the essential, unspeakable Kurdishness of Turkey . . . it asserts that, under military rule, all Turks are now Kurds—the oppressed of the oppressed.” Their cruder qualities only betray a sense of urgency, as if Güney would have undermined the films’ impact had he devoted more time to their construction. The images of Elegy tend to be blunt and immediate: the ones I expect to remember longest are of lone figures running across dusty steppes, only to be shot down in their flight by agents of the law.

Yol (1982)
  • Yol (1982)
Does art become a more effective instrument of protest as it becomes less nuanced? Probably. When a crowd of thousands is chanting the same thing, you’re so impressed by their collective might that you don’t try to make out individual voices. Güney’s straightforward images can be similarly overwhelming, suggesting basic conflicts that may be understood—and thus related to others—by anyone. (That’s not to say that protest cinema must be blunt to be successful; Jafar Panahi’s nuanced films The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003) raised international awareness of injustice in Iran and were good enough to be banned at home.) As one of the most famous Kurds of his era, Güney used his celebrity to speak for millions; and as this current Doc series attests, their anger still resounds powerfully.

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