Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2006

Two Turkish films

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

This year I took in two films at the New York Turkish film festival, a yearly event of the Moon and Stars Project.

The first is “Organize Isler”, which means “Organized Jobs”. (There is an accent underneath the “s” in Isler that I cannot reproduce on my keyboard and would indicate a pronunciation of “Ishler”.) The title is a reference to the petty crimes carried out by Asim Noyan, the central character played by Yilmaz Erdogan, who also wrote and directed this comedy.

When I was in Istanbul last year, the film was being heavily advertised on television. Since I have a fondness for Turkish comedy, I was anxious to see it. To get a brief introduction to the Turkish sense of humor, I recommend the commercials that Chevy Chase did for Turca Cola, which are far wittier than anything he has done in Hollywood for a very long time.

In the opening scene of “Organize Isler,” Asim is caught in an apartment with the wife of the man he is cuckolding. After the man’s neighbors chase him down the winding alleys of downtown Istanbul (one of the film’s great charms is its on-location shots of various parts of this fabled city), he ducks into the first open door where he is sheltered by Samet, who not five minutes earlier was trying unsuccessfully to hang himself. It turns out that he is a failed comedian who plays Superman at local comedy clubs but cannot get anybody to laugh at his jokes.

Asim takes Samet under his wings and tries to make a car thief out of him, his main line of work. One of Asim’s victims is Yusuf Ocak, a Turkish political science professor who we first meet sitting glumly at a book-signing event in one of Istanbul’s better bookstores. Not a soul is interested in his book, which is pretentiously titled something like “Turkey and the European Union: a Bold Venture into Tomorrow’s Future”.

After Ocak returns home later that day, he opens a letter from a Western publisher with a fat check in payment for a book that no Turk has the slightest interest in. As should be obvious at this point, Yilmaz Erdogan has a flair for social satire.

When the professor and his physicist wife decide to use the money to buy their daughter Umut a car, they fall into the trap that Asim sets for his victims. After stealing a car, he and his gang sell it through a classified ad in the daily paper. When the professor and his wife and daughter are returning home in their new car they have purchased from one of his underlings, they have to surrender it at a police roadblock set up to make a dent in Istanbul’s stolen car bull market.

When the Ocaks spot another “sale by owner” ad, they figure out that it might be Asim’s gang up to its old tricks. They decide to send their daughter to check it out since the gang has not seen her before. As fate would have it, Asim has sent his apprentice Superman Samet out on his first job. After falling in love with Umut at first sight, he insists that she take the stolen car home with her. If she likes it, she can give him the money in a few days. It appears that he has as much future as a car thief as he does as a comedian. The rest of the film involves him getting caught between her family and the gang that has adopted him.

As Asim, Yilmaz Erdogan is in practically every scene. His gang lives for the moment. As soon as they make a score, they go out gambling and whoring. But most of the time is spent sitting around the used auto parts yard that is a front for their illegal activities, where they make the kind of small talk that will be instantly familiar to anybody who has ever seen “The Sopranos” on HBO. Their conversation is sprinkled with malapropisms and unintentional comedy–the best kind of course. Indeed, one might wonder if Yilmaz Erdogan got his ideas from the American show. As someone who has seen Turkish comic gangsters in action before in the hilarious “Sergeant Shakespeare,” I can tell you that the product is most certainly domestic.

After doing a bit of research on Yilmaz Erdogan, I discovered that he is of Kurdish descent. Although there is not the slightest hint of Kurdish nationalism in “Organize Isler,” it turns out that Erdogan has been touched to some degree by the liberation movement:

In 1980, two young men from Hakkari, taking a stroll in Aksaray, met a fellow countryman, Firat Baskale.

Baskale was a revolutionary musician whose voice was similar to that of Sivan Perwer (the most popular of Kurdish musicians). At F. Baskale’s invitation they went to the hotel where he was working

These young men had such a strong longing for Kurdish music that Firat, looked around suspiciously to see if there was anyone around “If anyone hears us, we’ll be denounced and our lives won’t be worth a light” he warned them.

Then he led them to a dark and tiny room in the hotel cellars and picking up his guitar sang in Kurdish.

A few minutes later these two young men, certainly as frightened as if they had been taking part in an illegal demonstration, felt as happy as if they were back in their native mountains.

On of these youths was none other than Yilmaz Erdogan. As for the other, he was Muhsin Kizilkaya, who, some years later mentioned this incident in his biography of Erdogan.

Turning now to “Yolda” (On the Road), we are once again engaged with Kurds and Turkish film but much more explicitly. This spare and somber work, written and directed by Erden Kiral, is a dramatization of a moment in the life of the legendary Turkish director Yilmaz Guney who is best known in the West for the 1982 “Yol” (The Road). This masterpiece unfortunately is not now available on video, but must be seen if it ever appears on television or at a local revival house. It is the story of five men on a week’s leave from a Turkish prison. Although I did not know it when I saw the film, Guney had directed it from prison where he was serving time for killing a judge. In the early 1980s Turkey was in the throes of a virtual civil war between the left, including a significant Kurdish contingent, and the Kemalist dictatorship. “Yolda” makes clear that Guney was a man of the left and a member of the Kurdish minority.

The film is set in 1982 and the opening scene depicts Yilmaz Guney (Halil Ergun) surrounded by the cast and crew of a new film he is directing from behind bars. In other words, it is exactly the circumstances that surrounded the making of “Yol,” whose title “Yolda” obviously pays homage to.

Guney decides that he cannot work with his director Sedat (Serdar Orcin) any longer but cannot find the words to explain why. (The director of “Yolda” was a one-time collaborator with Guney who had an identical experience.) This sets the pattern of the rest of the film, which depicts Guney as somebody who prison and disappointment have rendered silent. While this may be or may not be faithful to the historical figure, it does not exactly add up to compelling drama which requires dialogue to reveal character and sustain momentum. Emotions are expressed in “Yolda” mostly through furtive glances and strangled cries.

This is not to say that the film is utterly without drama. It depicts the transfer by car of Guney to a new prison. Surrounded by a group of cops who are deferential to the celebrity in their midst and followed by a car carrying Sedat and several members of his crew, they go on the road into Turkey’s Eastern hinterlands. Sometimes proceeding for long stretches without dialogue, “Yolda” sustains one’s interest by making the trip itself the subject of the film. In one remarkable scene, as the group is sitting in a roadside restaurant, local Kurdish villagers discover that the legendary director is there. They enter the restaurant in a procession and dance and sing in a circle around his table.

The film ends with Guney fleeing from his captors, as happened in real life.


Yilmaz Guney

Although I frequently grew impatient with “Yolda,” I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see it since it opened my eyes to another aspect of Turkish reality. On the evidence of “Yol,” Guney would appear to be one of the late 20th century’s great directors. As I begin to master Turkish, I hope to see other films that he made, which are probably more readily available in Turkish-language without subtitles. He was a remarkable artist as this excerpt from a 1983 interview would indicate (he died of cancer the following year.)

Q: When did you find out that you were Kurdish?

A: I must say I am an assimilated Kurd. My mother was Kurdish, my father a Zaza Kurd. All through my childhood, Kurdish and Zaza were the languages spoken at home. I spoke Kurdish until I was 15. Then I was cut off from my family.

At that time I heard speeches saying: “There are no Kurds; there is no Kurdish language”. But I heard people speaking and singing in Kurdish, and I could see that the Kurds were living under very difficult conditions. My father was from Siverek; I saw Siverek for the first time when I was 16. It was then that I really realised who I was. There I knew the suffering of an uprooted family; my father said: “you are cut from your roots”. And at the age of 34, I was able to go and see my mother’s country, Mouch, the tribe of Jibran. The Herd is the story of what happened to this tribe.


  1. Louis, I would be interested in your views on the books of Orhan Pamuk. Have you written anything on his work?

    Comment by Rose — November 1, 2006 @ 12:11 am

  2. I wrote about Pamuk here:


    I also am going to write something in a week or so called “Insulting Turkishness” that deals with his Nobel Prize, the French law against holocaust denial involving the Armenians, and studying Turkish at Columbia.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 1, 2006 @ 12:14 am

  3. Thanks.

    I read “Istanbul” and loved it both for its account of the city, its history, architecture, literature etc, and also as a childhood memoir. I found it an exquisite and fascinating read.

    I am struggling with “My Name is Red” too. It is way over my head. But I sort of see what he is trying to do. I will finish it.

    But “Snow” which I’m also (still) reading, is great, set in the present, full of contemporary concerns such as the clash in Turkey between modernity and the past, religion and politics, the role of the left, the state, etc. I do recommend it.

    Comment by Rose — November 1, 2006 @ 12:40 am

  4. Have you seen “Duvar”?

    Comment by H — August 25, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  5. ben yılmaz güneyi çooooook seviyorum ve onunla tanışmayı çok isterdim ama her şeyi isemekle olmuyormuş. bunu anladım ben. sabretmek gerekiyormuş. mücadele etmek gerekiyormuş…. ve bunun mücadelesi içindeyim.
    eldende bir şey gelmez demedim hiç bir zaman;benm yine de bir umudum var eşiyle tanışmak istiyorum ama ben den çok uzakta yaşiyormuş fransa da ben nasıl ulaşam oralara ben ise türkiyede
    ama benim şu iletimi okuyan eyyyyyyyy değerli insan siz bana yardımcı olablirsiniz fotoş güneyle tanışmayı çok istiyorum nolur size yalvarıyorum bana yardım edin ben size msn adersimi wereyim :
    lütfen ama lütfen beni bundan esirgemeyin bekliyorum ve sağlıcakla kalınız diyorum. bana el uzatın nolur ilk adımı ben attım şimdi sıra sizde tek amacım yılmaz güneyimizin eşi fatoş güneyle tanışmak …

    Comment by cansu sever — December 24, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: