Move over Hollywood, the Turks are coming

“A.R.O.G.”

December 28, 2008, Sunday/ 11:49:00
The world’s highest grossing film of 2008 is Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight.” In Turkey, albeit with ample returns, the latest installment of Batman only finds its place in the ninth spot at the box office. So what about the top eight spots? Should we be surprised that the first seven are taken up by local productions?
Take for example comedian Cem Yılmaz’s “A.R.O.G.,” the Neolithic sequel to his sci-fi comedy “G.O.R.A.” In only the first two weeks of December, it managed to pull in 2.9 million bums to seats, scoring as the highest grossing film of the year. Or what about “Muro,” another comedy, this time spun-off from the notorious macho-rama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (Valley of the Wolves), which follows the adventures of a ruffian named Muro ready to bring on the “revolution”? “Muro” takes the second spot at the box office with 1.7 million ticket sales. Third comes “Issız Adam” (Isolated Man) -- that over-abused tearjerker of the year following the urban romance between a tough cookie and an emotional constipate. I still maintain that the leading male deserves a good spanking instead of empathy, but I do know a lady who went to see the film three times. Well, thanks to her and her kindred viewers, the returns brought tears of joy to its producers via 1.4 million ticket sales.

Although that hideous “maganda” (term for chav in Turkish) comedy “Recep İvedik” -- taking its force from lead stand-up Şahan Gökbakar -- was produced last year, it brought in a hefty amount of money in 2008 as well. Oh, and did I mention that it is the highest grossing Turkish film of all time thanks to its 4.3 million viewers?

The numbers are telling us something surely, perhaps that a) Turkish audiences prefer local comedy over Hollywood productions b) Turkish audiences prefer local comedy performed by stand-ups or TV characters that just love to strike under the belt and c) once audiences have had enough giggles, they’ll want to weep their hearts out and watch an overly pompous chef (that of “Issız Adam”) not being able to form any decent human relationship. Boo-hoo!

OK, I don’t want to be so sarcastic, so let’s take a look at another local box office wonder: Can Dündar’s biographical documentary “Mustafa,” based on Turkey’s founding leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The film brought on so much controversy and debate because of its alternative view of its protagonist that Dündar must have aged at least 10 years because of all the insults he had to put up with from an army of journalists, columnists, historians, politicians, etc. If you ask me, I thought the film ultimately borders on mediocrity and doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about Atatürk -- he was a great leader, he was a visionary, he founded a nation from almost zilch, and, yes, he did have a fondness for the ladies and enjoyed his beverages. No one told anyone to take his or her children to see the film if that’s going to be a problem. But the catch is, just like the old saying goes, there’s no bad publicity except your own obituary, and as such, Dündar must at least be relieved to see that his film has attracted 1.1 million viewers.

According to the Turkish movie industry Web site sinematurk.com, only 28 Turkish films have been distributed in 2008 as opposed to 37 in the previous year. But don’t let this small piece of data fool you -- the Turkish film industry has broken a record this year with 50 films actively produced, with the rest of the crop to be shown in 2009.

But beside these figures, there is something even more significantly worth pondering about: the rise of Turkish cinematic gusto and worthy talent. Let’s start with Hüseyin Karabey’s feature debut “Gitmek” (My Marlon and Brando), about a Turkish girl falling in love with a Kurd during the Gulf War, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January and went on to win the best directing award at the New York Tribeca Film Festival. Then came another debut, “Tatil Kitabı” (Summer Book), a reflective study of provincial life by Seyfi Teoman that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and later won the best film at the İstanbul International Film Festival. Never mind their local audience figures -- respectively 8,300 and 7,400 -- are the lowest of the year; these boys have the talent. And just last week, Özcan Alper’s debut “Sonbahar” (Autumn), about a political prisoner going to his Black Sea hometown to rediscover his lost youth, hit theaters, after not only competing in the Locarno Film Festival but also grabbing the best film award in Adana in June. Selim Evci’s “İki Çizgi” (Two Lines), a psychological rollercoaster about urban male-female relationship dynamics, was produced this year but will be coming out in 2009.

The above-mentioned are only the debuts -- let’s talk about the outputs of the middle generation. Need I repeat that Nuri Bilge Ceylan returned home with the award for best director with “Üç Maymun” (Three Monkeys) in Cannes this year? Or how about Yeşim Ustaoğlu, whose latest feature “Pandora’nın Kutusu” (Pandora’s Box) about an estranged and dysfunctional family (also to be shown in the coming year), along with its octogenarian heroine, grabbing two awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September? Semih Kaplanoğlu also brought out the second part of his Yusuf trilogy, “Süt” (Milk) (another on the lineup for next year), which was in competition at Venice, where the praises from Italy were more than generous. Reha Erdem’s boisterous “Hayat Var” (Follow My Ruin) will also be making headway this year, though it was underrated at the Antalya festival in October.

The big question persists: art or business? Apparently we don’t have to make a definitive decision, as both sides of the stick are incredibly strong this year -- not only are producers making the big bucks but a significant portion of filmmakers are getting prestigious prizes and getting recognition. Already a handful of top festivals have started to organize contemporary Turkish cinema programs during their shindigs. Moreover, if you didn’t think money and art could ever go hand in hand, let’s take a look at a very odd example: Female director Belma Baş, who went to Cannes with her brilliantly subtle short “Boreas,” is getting ready for her first feature, “Zephyr,” which is going to Rotterdam’s film market attached to a very interesting co-production partner -- Cem Yılmaz’s film company.

Lastly, but definitely not least, the creative documentary field has also had its own share of success in 2008. For the first time in the history of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, a Turkish documentary was showcased in the main competition. Orhan Eskiköy and Özgur Doğan’s “İki Dil Bir Bavul” (On the Way to School) is touching with its irony, destitution and humanity as it follows a Turkish school teacher in a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey. The looming crisis will surely take its toll on the film industry, but it’s still relieving to know that several productions are already on their way and that half the cinemas are booked by Turkish films. Finally, whether artistic or commercial, the important point is to keep the wheels turning.

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