Friday, February 10, 2012

Coming soon: films by Yilmaz Güney

Posted By on 02.10.12 at 02:00 PM

Yilmaz Guney (far right) in The Friend (1975)
  • Yilmaz Guney (far right) in The Friend (1975)
Of all the screenings to be excited about this weekend (such as Block Cinema’s invaluable revival of Love Streams), the one I’m anticipating most is the double feature that kicks off Doc Films’s Yilmaz Güney series on Saturday afternoon. One of the key figures in the history of Turkish cinema, Güney was a successful movie star (he acted in over 100 films), one of the first Turkish directors to be celebrated abroad (his penultimate work, Yol—which plays in Doc’s series on February 23—shared the top prize at Cannes in 1982), and his far-left politics made him a polarizing cultural figure. He was jailed three times—the second for harboring guerilla fighters, the last for murdering a judge—but continued to write movies in prison and direct them by proxy. J. Hoberman once described him as a combination of Clint Eastwood, James Dean, and Che Guevara.

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.

Guney.jpg

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