Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2007

Two Turkish films

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Just by coincidence, the two movies in this year’s New York Turkish Film Festival that I was able to fit into my busy schedule had to do with the plight of young people.

The first is a comedy titled “Sınav” (Exam) that revolves around the efforts of a group of five underachieving high school seniors and friends to steal the onerous college entrance exams that are the Turkish version of the American SAT’s. While there are plenty of laughs in this movie, there is also a serious questioning of the need for a test that condemns those who fail it to a life of economic uncertainty. This Youtube music video clip drawn from scenes in “Sınav” likens high school students facing the exam to race horses competing with each other. As they say, “They shoot race horses, don’t they.”

The other is titled “Beş Vakit” (“Times and Winds” in the subtitled version, however, a more accurate translation would be “Five Times,” a reference to the five calls to Islamic prayer during a 24 hour period.) For the main characters–two boys and one girl just entering puberty–life in a remote mountainous village on the Black Sea presents many difficulties, not the least of which is how to deal with sexual awakenings in a world that discourages freedom of any sort. For those would romanticize Islamic culture–or any ultra-orthodoxy–this film is a bracing reminder that an Imam can be as heartless and as hypocritical as any other sky pilot and as such is a good companion piece to Ousmane Sembene’s classic “Ceddo,” with its slave-trading Muslim clerics.

A Turkish student’s nightmare

The first few minutes of “Sınav” consist of nightmares that the five students have as the pressure to pass the exams mount in the final months of their senior year. One is shown in a police station being slapped around by cops who ask questions like “In what year did the battle of Lopanto take place?” or “How can you use the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle?” When he fails to come up with the answer, they pummel him.

At a student assembly, they meet one their high school’s most famous graduates, a hugely successful businessman named Levent Lemi (Okan Bayülgen), who got the nickname “No Arms” when he was a student. He came up with the brilliant idea to fake arm injuries so that he could wear a cast with crib notes interspersed throughout the signatures during the exam that escaped notice from the Principal. Even after it became common knowledge that Lemi cheated, that did not prevent the Principal from welcoming him as a homecoming hero. With the generous contributions he has made to the school, it would be foolish to ostracize him, especially when the Principal himself is using the school’s backrooms for his own shady business deals.

Criminal protagonists of Sınav

The climax of the film involves the five students using cell phones to coordinate a burglary in the school that amounts to a send-up of films like “Oceans Eleven.” Their mastermind is Uluç (Volkan Demirok), a short, chubby and baby-faced actor with a real flair for comedy. When his four confederates discover that the music teacher is in the faculty room where the tests are stashed, Uluç calls on his cell phone and convinces her that he is a recording executive who wants her to come down immediately to his studios to sign a contract. Their dialog is far wittier than anything I have heard in a Hollywood movie since “Some Like it Hot”.

As should be obvious from this report in the June 28, 2006 Financial Times, “Sınav” is dealing with serious issues while being entertaining:

For the past couple of weeks, hundreds of thousands of Turkish children have been sitting school-leaving examinations, distracted by the usual baking summer heat, football on the television and the difficulty of recalling what they have learned, mostly by rote, in the classroom.

It is, as in other countries, a rite of passage. But in Turkey it has a special significance, given the importance that the state places on education – for historical and ideological reasons as much as for the creation of a developed nation.

Some of this year’s children will be either bright enough or rich enough to secure a place at one of the country’s 76 state or private universities or at its leading science and technical schools.

Others will make up for the shortcomings of their state education by attending a dershane, a cramming school that prepares students for university entrance examinations.

For the majority, however, there is no guarantee of a university education or a job. With up to 20m children in the system at any one time, state education in Turkey is overcrowded, under-funded, and uninspiring.

This is a serious shortcoming in the development of Turkey, and also a contradiction. The state is present in every community in this big, mountainous and difficult-to-navigate country in two ways – a police station and a school.

Yet, until two years ago, the budget for Turkey’s armed forces (run by the ministry of national defence) was higher than its education budget (run by the ministry of national education).

Even if the vast majority of Turkish children get an education, it is often rudimentary, especially in remote areas in the east and south-east. School buildings are often drab, lacking technological facilities and sports fields. Teachers are in short supply.

It was only in 1997 that a compulsory eight-year basic education was introduced. Even now, the average Turkish child spends only four-and-a-half years in school, according to Enver Yucel, an entrepreneur in the booming private education sector. The average German child spends 13 years in school, he notes.

“We did something wrong in Turkey,” Mr Yucel says. “We spent our budget in the wrong way. Turkey cannot say its priority is education with comparisons like these. Our politicians have never given it enough attention, just short-term solutions.

One can only add that given Turkey’s headlong rush to spend an inordinate amount of money on the military, adopt neoliberal institutions, and substitute Islamic charity for traditionally state-sponsored institutions such as the public schools, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

There is a powerful disjunction in “Beş Vakit” between the beautiful nature that surrounds the three young friends and the hidebound patriarchal family structures that confine them. Like youngsters everywhere, including me when I was their age, nature affords an escape from an oppressive situation at home. They seem happiest when they are sitting on a mountain top looking off into the Black Sea. When they return home in the evening for supper and for homework, it is like a descent into hell. You can get a pretty good feel for the content of “Beş Vakit” from this youtube trailer, even though there are no subtitles.


A scene from Beş Vakit: three friends on a mountaintop

The unhappiest of the three is Ömer, the son of the local Imam who constantly reminds him that he is inferior to his younger brother. Ömer is driven to plot ways that he can kill his father without detection. After the Imam develops a bad cold, he secretly empties his cold capsules of their medicine. After his father manages to recover, Ömer hunts for scorpions that will sting him to death. Meanwhile, the Imam belittles and taunts the son every opportunity he gets. The film makes it clear that within poor farming villages there is very little premium placed on affection.

Ömer’s best friend is Yakup, who has developed a crush on their teacher. He looks forward to any opportunity he can get to deliver something to the teacher at her home, where she is often seen in a robe or other revealing clothing. If Islam teaches that a woman’s body must not be seen by anybody but her husband, this is a precept that Yakup does not place much value in. Meanwhile, his father is also fixated on the teacher. One day as Yakup is making a delivery to the teacher, he spots his father peeping through her bedroom window. Although the film eschews any kind of didactic commentary on the relationships between young and old, one cannot escape feeling that “traditional values” in this remote village are taken as seriously as they are by bible thumpers in the US.

The third friend is Yildiz, a girl who is forced to look after her baby brother as if she were a nanny. At the age of thirteen or so, she already has the burdens of a housewife. Like Yakup, she is also feeling a sexual longing for the first time in her life, but when she hears her parents having sex in the next room, she feels put off. She must have wondered, as Peggy Lee did in that classic song: “Is that all there is?”

All three children are not above laughing in glee at the sight of barnyard animals copulating, although Ömer chases Yildiz away when he spots her taking in some goats going at it. When it comes to sexual mores, he is apparently his father’s son.

“Beş Vakit” is very much the art film, with stunning cinematography by the Frenchman Florent Herry and a score by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian minimalist. It is reminiscent of recent Iranian films, with all their pluses and minuses. When you choose to make a film about characters whose psychological states and beliefs are so remote from what you are used to, there is a certain tendency to feel somewhat estranged from their situation. When the director, in this case Reha Erdem, deliberately adopts an almost Brechtian distance, the effect is multiplied.

In either case, “Sınav” and “Beş Vakit” are films to reckon with and a reminder that the most advanced films in the world are being made in “semiperipheral” countries like Turkey, Argentina, South Korea and Brazil. If you ever get the opportunity to see such films, grab it. You will be the better for it, I assure you.


  1. Good review. It’s too bad it’ll never be in The Militant. I’d rather read about this than meatpackers every single week 52 weeks a year for 20-30 years…

    Comment by Binh — October 22, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  2. Binh – forget The Militant. Read Radar or Jezebel – after, of course, you check in with Lou’s stuff.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — October 23, 2007 @ 1:14 am

  3. I agree, interesting reviews;

    Doug, is this what you are talking about:



    These are highly glamorous and I hate glamour…I think I’ll stick with Lou’s blog unless you have some more interesting links..

    Comment by e — October 23, 2007 @ 6:29 am

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: