Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some lessons I learned from Yilmaz Güney

Posted By on 02.28.12 at 01:30 PM

The Friend (1975)
  • The Friend (1975)
I wrote several posts about the Yilmaz Güney series that just wrapped up at Doc Films, in part because it was such an eye-opening experience for me. Save for a handful of festival titles and the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Climates, etc.), I’d spent zero time with Turkish cinema before this. The series provided a great overview, as Güney made movies both within the Turkish studio system and as an independent. His amazing life story spans the entire class system of postwar Turkey, as he went from an impoverished Kurdish background to mainstream celebrity to political martyrdom (and ultimately exile) between the years of 1937 and 1982. In the best films of the series—Hope, The Friend, Yol—Güney conveyed this complex experience artfully and stirringly.

I’d never considered the extent to which Turkey’s geography determined its troubled political history. The nation sits uneasily between Greece, the Balkans, and the Middle East—making it easy prey for various empires across the centuries. The Republic of Turkey, founded in the years after World War I, held a contentious mix of Turks and ethnic minorities, urban centers like Istanbul and undeveloped villages. The 20th century witnessed numerous attempts at unifying the nation, most of them disastrous, from the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Armenians in the early part of the century to the military interventions of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In Güney’s films, Turkey’s conflicts seem inherent in its terrain: the desolate steppes of Bride of the Earth and the forbidding mountain ranges of Yol take on poetic resonance.

Güney’s films as a writer-director relate a messy internal conflict as well. As a radical Marxist who sympathized with the nation’s oppressed, Güney often depicted the struggles of Kurds, peasants, and the urban poor. He didn’t trade in false uplift, either: none of the six films I saw in Doc’s series had a happy ending, and it's conceivable that Güney overindulged in pathos to achieve his dramatic effects. At the same time, his films are deeply ambivalent in their characterization of the underclass. The poor masses of his films can be terrifying in their ignorance: child abuse is a common sight, and both Bride of the Earth and Yol culminate with groups of people hunting down and killing social outcasts. Even Elegy (1972), Güney’s cri de coeur for the persecuted Kurds, features scenes of Kurdish villagers resisting the aid of a visiting doctor because she comes from the city (and many of them can’t accept her advice simply because she’s a woman).

From Hope (1970)
  • From Hope (1970)
The great Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said of his satirical films, “I fire in all directions.” I imagine Güney would have said the same thing. Yet Fassbinder was not as directly involved in radical politics as Güney was (as I’ve noted before, he was jailed twice in the 70s, for harboring guerrillas and for murdering a far-right judge), and his films—for all their value as commentary—lack the immediate power of Güney’s. The conflicted nature of these films result in a violent tension, even when they don’t actually contain violence. Hope (1970), Güney’s breakthrough work as a director, concerns a poor carriage driver who ends up squandering his money in pursuit of a buried treasure that clearly doesn’t exist. The character’s blind faith might be funny if Güney didn’t constantly remind us that his family is on the verge of starving to death. The movie ends with a cold overhead shot of the man digging a hole where he’s convinced the riches await.

No film in the series conveyed Güney’s political ambivalence better than The Friend (1975). In his last film performance, Güney plays Azem, a civil engineer and underground radical who makes an unannounced visit to an old friend. Both came from poverty, but Cemil has traded his political consciousness for a life of luxury. Azem, feeling responsible, tries to reawaken him. The trip proves a failure, as Azem becomes increasingly depressed by his friend’s decadent lifestyle (Güney, as a director, conveys modern alienation as well as Antonioni here). He manages to inspire some college students in Istanbul to political action, though he finds himself unable to join them. Well aware of how the disenfranchised live, he knows that Marxist rhetoric will mean nothing to them. Güney is astounding as Azem, the violence of his action movie roles turned inward, his confidence curdled to resignation: the performance suggests that, had his career developed differently, Güney may have aged gracefully as an actor, much like Clint Eastwood in his post-80s screen work.

The Friend is more than a great movie: it’s a key to understanding the frustrations of third world radicals. No other film has conveyed this experience so clearly for me, and it made me want to investigate further the national culture that produced such an extraordinary artist.

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