The Turkish cinematic culture experienced a drastic decline in the 1990s, seemingly vanishing into obscurity. However, a resurgence occurred with the release of The Bandit in 1996, paving the way for a gradual comeback during the 2000s. Despite the efforts of a handful of talented directors, the recognition of Turkish cinema pales in comparison to its European counterparts, which are taught in Turkish schools. This begs the question: why has Turkish cinema been marginalized as a subject of study? The answer is complex and multifaceted, consisting of 16 interconnected factors that have played a significant role in stunting the growth and potential of Turkish cinema. None of these reasons can be attributed to a single individual’s preferences, as they are all interconnected issues that have hindered the development of Turkish cinema.
1) The Ottoman Empire Doesn’t Treat Cinema Enough Warmly
In 1895, the Lumiere brothers introduced cinema to the world, yet the Ottoman Empire was grappling with political turmoil and foreign influences. Although cinema arrived in Turkey in 1914, it had already been a popular medium in other countries for over a decade. The first film screening in Turkey is a topic of debate, with some suggesting that it was held at the palace and viewed by the Sultan, while others believe that the first screening took place at the Sponeck pub in Beyoğlu. Recent discoveries reveal that the first screening might have occurred in Izmir rather than Istanbul, although the event details are unclear.
During the early days of cinema, Europe and America were enjoying a time of innovation and discovery. New inventions and tools were emerging, laying the foundation for many of the technologies we use today. In contrast, the Ottomans were facing significant challenges and on the brink of collapse. Sultan Abdülhamit, in particular, was distrustful of cameras and imposed strict regulations at customs to control their import and use. He avoided being photographed as much as possible, and few images of him have survived to this day. The Ottoman Empire’s unstable leadership, decline, and lack of cultural diversity ultimately hindered the growth and development of cinema in Turkey, delaying its emergence until 1914.
2) Failed Archiving
The first Turkish movie has been a topic of debate for many years. Some argue that the destruction of the Russian Monument in Ayastefanos was the first film, which was shot in 1914 by Fuat Uzkınay, but unfortunately, this film has not survived to the present day. In fact, it is not even certain whether it exists. Burçak Evren, a prominent scholar in the field, notes in one of his books that during transportation to Ankara in 1941, the film was mixed with others in the archive and wrapped together, making it difficult to locate (Evren, 2003, pp. 12-13). It is possible that he may provide a different response if asked about it today.
However, the most disheartening aspect is that only 38 out of the 95 films produced between 1914 and 1948, at least as far as I have been able to identify, have survived to this day. Two-thirds of these films are still officially missing, revealing a significant archival problem. Despite Burçak Evren’s assertion that we have enough movies to study history, it is clear that the Turkish film industry has faced difficulties in preserving its cinematic heritage.
The earliest footage captured in Ottoman lands was by European operators employed by the Lumiere brothers, who filmed various scenes in the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. It is said that the first ever moving camera picture was also taken in the Golden Horn. But these people were foreigners. The person who actually pressed the button had to be Turkish to be considered the “first.” Therefore, it wasn’t until Fuat Uzkınay’s 1914 film, which unfortunately did not survive, that a Turkish filmmaker was credited as the first.
However, some historians argue that the Ottoman subjects, the Manaki brothers, who shot documentaries at various locations, should be considered the true pioneers. Despite this, their work is often not recognized as such. Interestingly, while the first Turkish film is still missing, all of the Manaki brothers’ films are preserved in a museum in Macedonia. This discrepancy highlights a deep-seated archival problem related to national identity.
During the Ottoman era, Turkish directors were scarce, and people of other nationalities and races were also not readily accepted. The Ottomans even segregated performers according to their origins, and actresses would sometimes hide their Turkish identity and perform under foreign names. This trend was also reflected in the cinema, and exploring this topic would require a much broader discussion.
4) Muhsin Ertuğrul and the Theater Players Period
There was a notable dearth of filmmakers in the country during this period. Some aspiring directors were unable to pursue cinema due to various obstacles, including practical, cultural, and legal constraints. Even those who possessed the necessary skills and resources were frequently thwarted. In this environment, Muhsin Ertuğrul, a theater actor, emerged as the sole filmmaker in Turkey.
Ertuğrul established Kemal Film in partnership with the Seden brothers, and for the next 17 years, he made films exclusively under this banner. However, this monopoly has led to some speculation and controversy. Some scholars claim that Ertuğrul prevented other filmmakers from entering the field between 1922 and 1939, but this allegation has been disputed by many historians. It seems unlikely that only one individual could maintain such complete control over the industry for nearly two decades, particularly in an era when Turkish cinema operated primarily on the basis of a master-apprentice relationship.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why Ertuğrul did not nurture young talent or serve as a mentor to future generations of filmmakers. Given his prominence and experience, one might have expected him to play a more significant role in the development of Turkish cinema. While it would be unfair to accuse him of intentionally suppressing other filmmakers, it is clear that his impact on the industry was limited, and this is just one of the challenges facing his legacy.
5) Yapi Kredi Debacle
As Muhsin Ertuğrul continued to produce films, Yapı Kredi Bank stepped in as a sponsor, recognizing the potential of this emerging art form. While Europe and America were advancing their cinema industries, Turkey had yet to produce a color film. Yapı Kredi Bank’s sponsorship of Muhsin Ertuğrul signaled a new era for Turkish cinema, as the groundwork was laid for the production of the country’s first official color film, Halici Kiz (1953).
However, the film turned out to be a colossal failure, resulting in significant losses for the bank. As a result, Yapı Kredi Bank withdrew its support from the film industry, a move that had long-lasting effects. Had Muhsin Ertuğrul’s film been successful, the partnership with Yapı Kredi could have paved the way for new and exciting projects, potentially changing the perception of significant funding sources towards cinema at an earlier stage. Alas, it was not to be, and Turkish cinema would continue to face challenges in securing investment and building a sustainable industry.
6) WWII and Egypt
Cinema failed to achieve full productivity in Turkey despite its rapid growth into a massive industry in Europe and America. Due to various challenges, cinema in Turkey was primarily limited to illegal progression. Furthermore, the outbreak of World War II exacerbated the situation. The conflict brought about significant issues with America’s exportation of films to Europe, with Turkey being among the most affected nations. As a result, American movies were delivered via ships that stopped in Egypt before continuing on to Turkey. The Egyptians took advantage of this situation and placed their films on these ships, leading to a cultural impact on Turkey.
The influx of Egyptian films during the war had a profound effect on Turkish culture, giving rise to the arabesque style, melodramas, tragedy, and constant sadness. Surprisingly, these films were well-received by Turkish audiences, and Egyptian films soon became very popular, overtaking Turkish films in cinemas. The Turkish government was forced to pass a law to protect Turkish films from being overshadowed by foreign movies. While the origins of the endless Arab love that is prevalent in Turkey today can be traced back to this time, this topic is better suited for another lengthy article.
7) Faruk Kenc and Dubbing
Faruk Kenç is among the few individuals who revolutionized Turkey’s cinema industry. This young director, who studied in Germany and later returned to Turkey to pursue his passion, introduced an innovative idea that would soon transform the filmmaking process. Kenç suggested filming silently and adding dubbed audio later in the studio, a technique that proved to be remarkably successful. Other filmmakers soon adopted this method, primarily because of its affordability and ease. By filming silently, they saved costs on additional sound recording equipment and engaged actors who possessed charismatic features but lacked beautiful voices.
This was another going backward process in Turkey. After the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 in Hollywood, sound films became the preferred medium, leaving many silent-era actors and actresses unemployed. Many talented performers vanished from the film industry solely because their voices or diction did not meet the new standards. The 2011 film, The Artist, depicts the plight of such actors, whose careers were disrupted by the shift to sound.
While America and Europe embraced sound recording innovations to solve audio issues, Turkey chose to forego sound altogether and tackle everything in the studio through dubbing. This reverse methodology, championed by Kenç, enabled Turkish filmmakers to present their audiences with films featuring their favorite actors, albeit with dubbed audio. However, this approach created a significant divide between Turkey and the West, with the latter continuing to embrace sound as a crucial component of cinema.
8) Regulations of July 19, 1939
The government’s “Regulations on the Control of Films and Film Screenplays,” which was once known by that name, is now openly referred to as censorship. This Regulation gave the police the power to intervene at any point during film production. After introducing this Regulation, producers and screenwriters had to exercise extreme caution and could no longer freely express their ideas in their scripts. They were compelled to conform to the prescribed rules. However, as with any law, there were those who chose to disregard it. Some attempted to circumvent the Regulation’s provisions using various methods. The Hollywood film industry faced a similar censorship law, and, like Turkish filmmakers, they sought to make films that were within the bounds of the law. However, Hollywood was already an enormous industry, whereas Turkey was still attempting to develop.
Ömer Kavur described the situation as follows:
“In those years, even the slightest suspicion of police interference could lead to censorship. There was a little cop in your head waving his baton, shouting, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that!’. This naturally led to self-censorship” (Cinema Lessons from the Masters of Turkish Cinema, 2006, p.110).
9) Perspective of the Cinema Magazines
The lack of artistic approach in Turkish cinema between 1940-70 can be attributed to the prevalent tabloid-like cinema magazines during this period. Instead of treating films as works of art, these publications focused on sensationalized aspects, mimicking paparazzi-style journalism. Despite film reviews being written in the Ottoman period, the names of these writers have barely survived to this day. The erroneous perception of cinema created by these magazines only further weakened the already fragile state of Turkish cinematography. However, in 1960s France, a cinema magazine named Cahiers du Cinema emerged, whose writers approached cinema as a fine art rather than a source of tabloid fodder. These writers would go on to make films that would drastically transform the history of cinema.
10) The Leap of Religion to Cinema
The religious influence on Turkish cinema in the 1950s can be attributed to the prevailing outlook of the government at the time. Religious elements, such as prayer, call to worship, and other aspects of religious practice, became a staple in Yeşilçam films. The artistic vision of Turkish cinema was lost, giving way to a reactionary cinematic mindset, which resurfaced in the 1980s.
11) Inadequate Distribution
Another hindrance to the growth of cinema in Turkey was the inadequate distribution system during the 1960s. Although regional distribution units existed, films were often delivered late or not at all, as no established distribution system covered the entire country. Instead, each film company provided films to cinemas in its respective region, creating a fragmented distribution system that limited the reach of films.
12) The Constitution and Coups
Turkish cinema has struggled with constant setbacks due to frequent changes in the country’s administration and constitution. Despite the resilience of the film industry through coups and constitutional amendments, these disruptions have consistently interrupted the trajectory of Turkish cinema. This is because the art of cinema is shaped by the dynamics of the country, and the absence of a stable system in Turkey has made filmmakers anxious, leading them to wait for every change.
13) Arrival of TV and the Sex Movies
In the 1970s, television was introduced to Turkey, and its arrival caused a significant drop in moviegoers. This phenomenon was not unique to Turkey but was a global trend as television provided a platform for people to follow live events instead of fictional ones. However, Turkey was unable to find a solution to this problem, leading to a standstill in the cinema industry. To address this issue, producers turned to sex movies that lacked artistic value and were often semi-pornographic or even pornographic. These films successfully attracted male audiences but contributed to the decline of Turkish cinema. Remarkably, despite the conservative administration of the period and the ongoing censorship law, sex movies dominated the screens until a change in management caused them to disappear. With the shift to democratic management after the election, these films also vanished as if they had never happened.
14) Genre Movies
The genre films, which were produced to attract the public and sustain the film industry in Turkey, played a significant role in both its development and failure. Producers introduced characters such as Battal Gazi, Tarkan, and Teoman, who were portrayed as heroes with solid Islamic beliefs fighting against infidel Christians. Despite their low production quality, these films proved to be quite popular during the period. However, their basis on problematic religious ideologies was regrettable. Unfortunately, while Turkey was inundated with these genre films, it never fully embraced other genres, such as horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Instead, films featuring characters like Malkoçoğulları, who could take down ten men with a single punch, remained the audience’s favorites.
15) Hollywood Takeover
Following the September 12 Coup, the Regulation discussed in Title 8 was abolished, leading to the disappearance of sex movies from Turkish screens. However, this led to a significant decline in the production of Turkish films, despite the presence of established directors such as Metin Erksan, Lütfi Ömer Akad, and Atıf Yılmaz. Consequently, the film industry faced its biggest challenge yet- the arrival of Hollywood movies. When Turkish filmmakers struggled to produce desired films and the aforementioned masterpieces were deemed too artistic for general audiences, producers resorted to screening American films in Turkey. Turkish audiences quickly embraced these films and soon flooded the country’s theaters, pushing Turkish cinema to the bottom.
16) Arabesque Films and VHS
As Hollywood movies dominated the screens, Turkish films were left to scramble for the remaining crumbs. However, resourceful producers turned to Arabesque, a genre of Turkish popular music that had become ingrained in the culture. Arabesque singers of the era were suddenly propelled to stardom in Arabesque films. Although these films failed to attract the intended audience to cinemas, the industry found an alternative solution. Arabesque film fever spread through the country via video cassettes, with people opting to watch these movies in the comfort of their own homes. Unfortunately, the quality of these films remained poor, both in terms of content and production values.
Despite the challenges, some filmmakers sought to use cinema to reflect the country’s social realities. These social realist films were even recognized with prizes at European film festivals. However, they failed to garner much attention due to the overwhelming dominance of films that relied solely on drama and religion. Although I personally find B-movies that focus on horror and superheroes to be successful, these films were often motivated by a desire for profit rather than artistic expression. Regrettably, the Turkish film industry has continued to prioritize box office success over quality filmmaking. This trend remains evident to this day, with these commercial films often becoming the most-watched movies in the country.