Migration often brings with it the experience of disturbance and pain, and narrative films have usually focused on the exilic aspects of passage and resettlement. Changing places has traditionally been looked upon as something undesirable and traumatic. Take, for example, the films about the westward migrations of Turks. The anxiety linked to village-city migrations is explored in Turkish social realist masterpieces such as Halit Refig’s Gurbet Kuslari/ Birds of Exile (1964), in Zeki Ökten’s Sürü/Herd (1978, a film scripted by Yilmaz Güney), and in Ali Özgentürk’s At/Horse (1982).
The fear of venturing into the unknown territory of the Western metropolis are the subject of Tunç Okan’s Otobüs/The Bus (Sweden/Turkey, 1976), telling the story of a group of migrant workers who end up abandoned and robbed of documents and money in the center of Stockholm. Tevfik Baser’s 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland/ 40 Square Meters of Germany (West Germany/ Turkey, 1986) tells the story of the virtual imprisonment of a Gastarbeiter’s bride. The shocking scorn faced by poor migrants trying to penetrate into ‘Fortress Europe’ is tackled in Xavier Koller’s Journey of Hope (Switzerland/Turkey/UK, 1990).
All these films can be seen, in one way or another, as antecedents of the new Turkish German migrant cinema, which has its best-known representative in Fatih Akin with his Head On/ Gegen die Wand (2004) and Edge of Heaven/ Auf der anderen Seite (2007). Yet it was only the new aptitude of its diaspora-raised directors, who gracefully rose above the acrimony and, rather than scrutinizing segregation and xenophobia that forcefully reinforced the points of all earlier films on migration and displacement, moved away toward new thematic territories. What the new wave of Turkish German cinema did was to acknowledge the dynamics of new migratory realities and to depict, without complaining, a fully tolerable and adequate human condition where ethnic otherness has become a lasting feature of life and where one-dimensional identities, previously stubbornly maintained, are suspended in favor of enduring changeability.
Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar vadisi – Irak) is a Turkish action film made in 2006, set in the conflict zone in Iraq near the Turkish border. The film opens with a reenactment a real incident from the summer of 2003 (pictured), where a group of Turkish border guards are arrested in their own headquarters and publicly humiliated by American troops, who are officially their ‘allies’. The incident leads to the suicide of one of the border officers who feels he has been dishonored by such treatment on the very territory he is supposed to guard and protect. Opening with a set up that clearly questions the nature of the American ‘allied’ involvement with Turkey, the rest of the film pictures in truly dark shades the travails of various shady American figures and mercenaries operating in Iraq, and the resistance they encounter from brave undercover Turkish patriots. There are many action scenes, weddings that end up in bloodshed, blown-up minarets, spectacular fights, suicide explosions, as well as reconstructions of scenes that remind of the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures, smartly interwoven into the plot.
The film made quite a splash internationally, and even though it has not been shown in America, it has been extensively discussed as a work of anti-Americanism. A discussion on NBC even mentioned that American troops stationed in countries where the film was screening have been explicitly prohibited from seeing it, out of fear that they may become subject of attack by enraged audiences. And even if the film was not distributed in the US, the two American actors who were cast in it, Billy Zane and Gary Busey, were publicly denounced for taking part, and declared anti-patriotic racist mercenaries, like in this image seen at a blog-site called ‘Villagers with Torches‘.
It is not my intention to go into this controversy here, as I have discussed it elsewhere (BBC World Service, December 2006). My interest in Valley of the Wolves is in relation to the emerging transnational class of film professionals, and it is this film that gives me the chance to most powerfully illustrate my point. The stunts, for example, were handled by a group of Czech-born professionals, who mostly work in Hollywood but also have regular international outings. Dusan Hyska, the stunt coordinator for the production, comes with credits from films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and has worked on productions by directors like James Cameron (Titanic) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York). His fellow-stuntsman Jiri Horky was in Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, more recently, in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (2008) while Jan Petrina, Billy Zane’s stunt double, has also been in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). If we move on to the special effects department led by industry veteran Mark Meddings, one discovers a wealth of overlaps with key American films by directors Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Employed on Valley of the Wolves as coordinator of special effects, Meddings comes with credits as senior special effects technician on Saving Private Ryan (1998), and has to his credits films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The project that immediately preceded his involvement with Valley of the Wolves was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film showing the clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations.
Here is a clip of the film. The Hollywood touch shows; the style seen in this sequence is reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Indiana Jones (I believe it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), mixed with sequences from Black Hawk Down.
In the ‘bonus’ section of Valley of the Wolves DVD, Meddings and his colleagues are seen setting up scenes of destruction with dummies, bloody body parts, artificial severed limbs and a variety of other props and prosthetics. Watching the ‘Making of’ documentary I could not help a feeling of a ‘deja vu’, thinking of many other similar ‘Making of’ documentaries found on the DVDs of Hollywood action epics, showing teams of equally committed special effects professionals engaged with setting up the pyrotechnics, the stunts, and the prosthetics for each new film. The plastic severed limbs and the little pumps that splat blood used in the Valley of the Wolves clearly have their prototype in the well-familiar bloody body parts and guts scattered all over Omaha beach in the famous scene that created the memorable heart-wrenching reaction on seeing Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scenes.
The bottom line is that the creative specialist force behind this epic entertainment is the same, and it operates transnationally. The same people whose skills and ingenuity helped create the unforgettable visceral images that enhanced American patriotism in Saving Private Ryan can happen, on occasion, to apply those same skills and wit in the context of productions that may encourage a very different view of the world. It is not realistic that the special effects profession or the stunts people, many of whom may be working in Hollywood but are often not even Americans, could be bound by patriotic loyalties or political allegiances that would bar them from taking on assignments across the world. It is an aspect of globalization that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.
It appears that an increasing number of Turkish films from recent years opt to using the period of the 1980 military coup and subsequent dictatorship as a backdrop for idiosyncratic romantic comedies or as a trigger for family melodramas. The International/Beynelmilel (2006, Muharrem Gulmez and Sirri Sureyya Onder), which played at the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Balkan Survey last year is yet another one of the films that revisit the time of the coup by opting to remember it through a tongue-in-cheek story showing how ordinary people wittily reacted to the newly restrictive regime. In this particular case, the plot evolves around the family of a provincial musician whose band is coerced to play military anthems. Unknowingly to him, his daughter’s leftist friends make the band perform The International at a military parade, thus successfully ridiculing the junta. The joke is of tragic consequences for the protagonist.
The 2005 blockbuster Babam ve Oglum/ My Father and Son, an important contribution to the public discourse on overcoming paternalistic dominance, used the coup as a starting point of a melodramatic story of bonding and coming to terms with the loss of loved ones.
Talking of Yilmaz Erdogan’s romantic comedy Vizontele Tuuba (2004), set in Turkey’s South East during the same period, The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw pinned down the formula of these films as ‘sporadically endearing oddity genially satirising the bureaucratic absurdities of Turkish life’. Indeed, exposing the extreme consequences of the inflexible stubbornness that lies in the roots of these ‘bureaucratic absurdities’ is a specific local way to tackling the overwhelming predicament of paternalistic social order: mocking absurdities aims at exposing not only the ludicrously hypocritical puritanism of the military junta but also the inanity of obstinate and bigoted patriarchal reign in the realm of domestic life.
The atmospheric cinema of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan represents a direct continuation of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami’s legacy. The lonely quests of his protagonists take them on contemplative walks across alienated wintry cities, to river banks awash by icy waters. The monochrome cityscape reveals dramatic skies with fast moving clouds; in the village scenes the grass leans in one direction and whispers, chased by the wind, like in Tarkovsky’s Mirror. As the years go on, Bilge Ceylan’s films are taken over more and more by despair and by the existential melancholy, the hüzün, the feel of which Nobelist Orhan Pamuk created so vividly in his essay novel Istanbul.
Bilge Ceylan’s new film, Three Monkeys (3 maymun), is one of the competition entries at Cannes this year. With the director’s growing reputation (his 2006 Climates (Iklimler) was pronounced by many critics the finest family drama of the year, rivaling in intensity Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage ) he is most certainly into the run for awards. The most interesting news, however, is that according to the director’s web-site Three Monkeys has been pre-sold across a range of European territories, which means we are certain to have the chance to see this film at a theatre and then get it on DVD, disregarding what happens at Cannes. Traditionally, such treatment has been reserved for Hollywood films exclusively, which get to the cinema no matter how good or bad they may be. However, things are changing; it is so good to come across situations where films of directors from smaller cinemas do not depend on performance at festivals in order to get into distribution.
A DVD with Bilge Ceylan’s great Early Works, containing Kasaba (The House) and Mayis sikintisi (The Clouds of May) – both films clearly revealing his artistic roots, both evolving around the conviviality of extended family, both taking place in endearing remote provincial locations – is only available in the UK. His later films, the Istanbul-set existential treatise Distant (Uzak, 2002) and Climates (Iklimler, 2006) are available on DVD more widely.