This is a fairly bold and exaggerated statement, yet might there be truth involved? It was in 1961 when Gen. Cemal Gürsel’s government, which had overthrown Adnan Menderes with a coup in 1960, decided to build a fully Turkish automobile from scratch -- in just 129 days. It seemed like pure fantasy in a social and economic environment where “industrialization” was an imported concept. But for Gürsel, creating the Devrim was a chance to prove that his military government was indeed innovative, modern and “revolutionary,” which is the meaning of the word “devrim.” The project’s 23 officially appointed engineers actually built a fully running prototype, a prototype which was never green-lighted for mass production due to the preference of “the powers that be” for bringing in foreign investment and know-how for manufacturing rather than pursuing the notion of building one’s own. Shame.
Nationally well-known (if not acclaimed) documentary director Tolga Örnek’s debut fiction feature “Devrim Arabaları” (Devrim Automobiles) depicts this awe inspiring yet unfortunate story by focusing mainly on the willpower and team spirit of the engineers instead of delving into the political undercurrents of the time. Then again if Örnek and his co-writer Murat Dişli had pursued a head-on confrontational approach instead carefully beating around the bush, the project could have been canned by the “authorities,” sharing a fate with its subject. While it was produced with the best of intentions, the film is not as bold as it could have been, and the devastation caused by shutting down such a promising project is not expressed as strongly as it should be.
You might ask why this devastation should be emphasized. It is because for two hours we watch a brilliant ensemble cast working night and day to build a car from scratch and then gracefully accept the fact that their baby will never see the light of day. We don’t see any sort of substantial explosion or implosion except for a scene where 40 years later one of the engineers visits the car at a museum to shed only crocodile tears, which fail to achieve the intended dramatic effect, serving as mere melodrama.
But let’s get back to the film’s strong suit: team spirit, carefully executed in the first two-thirds of the script by the team of passionate actors. Led by Taner Birsel as Devrim’s head engineer Gündüz (the names have been altered), director Örnek has managed to bring together a team of Turkey’s finest male talent, including Selçuk Yöntem, Ali Düşenkalkar, Halit Ergenç, Serhat Tutumluer, Onur Ünsal, Altan Gördüm and, let’s not forget, Uğur Polat (though he plays the quasi-evil big-gun bureaucrat). All men of their own making, they come together in Eskişehir’s train factories for the big mission, striving to do something good for the nation. They have only four months to build the car as it has to be ready, by Gürsel’s discretion, on Oct. 29, Republic Day. The engineers have no idea how they will do it, but their determination is strong, and there is no other option. The public is angry that their tax money is being wasted, politicians are hungry for their failure and the clock is ticking. But through trial-and-error, hard work and belief, the men finish a working prototype. Watching these scenes is a joy because Örnek has managed to capture a gritty and realistic atmosphere in the workshop scenes while following the interaction of the engineers. There have huge egos, but all is forsaken for the common purpose, this sacrifice is also true of the actors’ performances. It is obvious that the lead actors immensely enjoyed making this film together and transformed their personal ambitions into the collective effort of raising awareness of Turkish audiences regarding unwritten history.
Sadly, written history only notes that the Devrim car failed to run on Oct. 29 due to a minor mistake: the engineers forgot to fill her up, hence Gürsel’s famous words: “We built a car like Westerners, but forgot to fill the tank just like Easterners.”
Of course this was just an excuse amid the various strings being pulled in the background; right from the start it was decided that Devrim cars would not be manufactured. So what was the nation left with? For the first time in a long time, the inferiority complex prevalent in Turkey was overcome by a “We did it!” attitude. If only it were about faith and hard work.
This summer I had the chance to speak with one of the few engineers of the Devrim project who are still alive, Şecaattin Sevgen. “You know, if Atatürk had been alive, he would have had the vision to mass produce Devrim,” said Sevgen.
Atatürk might not be alive, but journalist Can Dündar’s latest biographical film, “Mustafa,” also comes out in theaters today, Republic Day. Depicting Atatürk’s life from beginning to end, Dündar investigates, making use of an extensive pool of archives and carefully crafted reconstructed scenes, not just the political but the personal trials and tribulations of the founder of modern Turkey, supported by an insightfully articulate narrative and the moving music of Goran Bregovic.
Much like “Devrim,” “Mustafa” focuses on the dogged determination of its central character, a determination that is almost beyond human. Dündar is a highly respected journalist and one of the most well-respected specialists on republican history, but aside from a few anecdotes, his film does not present anything we don’t already know about Atatürk. The reconstructions use different actors in the different periods of Mustafa Kemal’s life, but we never clearly see any of the actors’ faces, which are hidden in soft shadows in the film’s cinematography, perpetuating the notion of Atatürk as a “superhuman figure” who is beyond flesh and bone. But what am I saying? God knows, what would have happened if Dündar had tried to take bolder steps and shared everything he discovered during his investigations with us? Probably a film that would have been canned just like the only genuinely Turkish car ever made.