Ottoman rogue is latest Turkish movie hero
Exploiting the popularity of Turkish television stars, local films are now mounting a major challenge to the Hollywood productions that used to dominate cinema screens here. The mass-market local productions are also much more of a hit with audiences at home than the Turkish art house movies that have won critical acclaim abroad.
Mustafa Şevki Doğan, director of "The Last Ottoman," is under no illusions about the recipe for success with his central character, based on a popular comic strip hero.
"Yandım Ali is a great hero and heroism is something which always appeals to us ... Maybe we follow this path because we know the make-up of our people and know there is a majority that likes nationalist films," he told Reuters.
In his film, Yandım Ali evolves from a loveable rogue to a hero of the country's liberation from foreign forces, inspired by the example of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But Doğan said it was important to guard against extreme nationalism in the cinema. Ultranationalists have been blamed in Turkey for a number of crimes, most recently the murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink in İstanbul.
"I am against all excessive nationalism," Doğan said.
Doğan also had a hand in the creation of a television series that last year spawned Turkey's most successful film, the controversial "Valley of the Wolves-Iraq," whose hero Polat Alemdar single-handedly battles US forces in Iraq. The Wolves film, with a record budget of $10 million, drew on anti-American sentiment in Turkey after a real-life incident in Iraq when US forces arrested and hooded Turkish special forces, causing widespread anger and a diplomatic incident.
"The subject was a matter of pride for Turkish people and was seen as a way of getting revenge ... It became clear that audiences could be attracted with such films. It has become something of a fashion," said film critic Uğur Vardan.
"Valley of the Wolves" is one of two Turkish films to draw a 4 million-strong audience. It eclipsed the science-fiction comedy G.O.R.A., in which comedian Cem Yılmaz's character fights to escape the clutches of the aliens who abducted him.
Alongside "The Last Ottoman," the other box-office success this year has been "The Masked Five in Iraq," in which a clumsy Turkish gang outwits US forces in Iraq to divert oil resources from there to Turkey. Such mass-appeal films have in Turkey eclipsed the critical acclaim that some Turkish art house movies have earned abroad.
One of the first major successes was Yılmaz Güney's "Yol" (Road) which won the Golden Palm at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival with its harsh portrayal of life after the 1980 coup. More recently, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film "Uzak" (Far) won the Cannes Grand Jury and best actor awards in 2003 but drew a local audience of just 30,000, said film producer Mehmet Soyarslan.
"This is not enough to keep the Turkish cinema industry on its feet. Unfortunately films like this do not attract audiences in Turkey," he told Reuters at the offices of his company Ozen Film, one of Turkey's leading film companies.
Decline and revival
He said critical success has had to take a back seat while the local film industry is developed to compete with bigger-budget foreign productions.
Turkish cinema fell into decline in the mid-1970s with the spread of television. As a result, the number of cinema screens fell from several thousand to around just 250. By the time it began to recover in the late 1980s there were few producers and directors to make films, and few people willing to invest.
Only in 1996 did cinema take a leap forward with the success of the film "Eskiya," which drew an audience of more than 2.5 million people with its portrayal of the life of a bandit following his release from jail after a 35-year sentence.
"The Turkish cinema's audience had been a sleeping giant and at that time it woke up. What was needed then was the food to feed it," Soyarslan said.
The number of locally made films has now doubled to around 30 annually. Audiences of these films account for some 50 percent of box office receipts. The last decade has also seen the domestic film industry progressing technically and the next step is to achieve greater international success for local films.
"Now we must try and open up internationally. ... I believe that Turkish cinema can now be compared with world cinema in terms of its technical standards and tempo," Soyarslan said.