ISTANBUL - Lounging on a yacht in Istanbul’s Atakoy marina, four young Turkish filmmakers say America must see Turkey through their eyes, not through the hackneyed lens of old movies like Midnight Express, about an American imprisoned in an obscene Turkish jail, or the thirty-second bytes of television news.
Western audiences are still trapped in an “orientalist view of Turkey,” they say, replete with seedy bureaucrats, "dirty carpet vendors," and lonely allies. Americans imagine Turkey to be a land torn apart by a “clash of civilizations between East and West.” That’s what sells abroad, they say, but it doesn’t represent the “true Turkey,” the Turkey they want their films to show.
Hollywood movies, Turkish films directed at Western audiences, and the American students they meet here in Istanbul convince these four just how pervasive the negative images are.
Filmmakers Hakan Vural, Ferhat Sen and Cenk Erturk are all facilitators of Bosphorus University’s exchange program, which welcomes foreign students arriving in Turkey for their first time. One of the students they welcomed was a Washingtonian Turkish-American named Denis Metin, whose father owns this yacht. Denis goes to George Washington University in DC and is studying abroad in Istanbul for the year.
Sitting by Denis, Cenk says, “The exchange students [from the U.S.] always come here and see our [diverse] film crew and ask, ‘How do you work together?’” “‘Look,’” Cenk tells them, “‘Our producer is Kurdish. The director is from Cyprus. The art director is Armenian. And I am Turkish....What else to say? We have always worked together.’”
It doesn't look so rosy from the outside, Denis says. Movies by Turks living abroad often emphasize the divisions within Turkey and “exaggerate the East-West” clashes to fit consumer stereotypes. These filmmakers cite Fatih Akin's award-winning film The Edge of Heaven as an example. It's about a Turkish prostitute’s daughter who goes to Germany to seek political asylum. She's ultimately unsuccessful and ends up in a Turkish jail. (See the video clip.) The film won Best Screenplay at Cannes. “[Western audiences] love to see that sort of thing,” quips Hakan.
But what about "the hospitality of Turkish people, or how diverse Istanbul is…how we live together…the closeness of our families,” asks Cenk. "Why don't those stories make it overseas?"The images of "Istanbul’s narrow dark, narrow alleyways" and "corrupt bureaucrats" and "dirty lawyers...are all 20 years old!” Hakan exclaims.
When pressed, the crew concedes there are problems in Turkey. Their socioeconomic status makes them more likely than others to work past entrenched differences. But they emphasize that since 2000 things have improved much faster than the media images following Turkey.
For example, Ferhat says, recent years have proved more "productive and democratic than the coalitions we've had throughout 90s....For the past five years, GDP increased, inflation decreased, health services increased. I’ve lived with inflation like 80% and 90% -- I didn’t save anything -- but now we have improvements in the economy. It is some good news from the last six years.” He was surprised that these improvements occurred under the AKP, the "Islam-oriented" Justice and Development Party, but will take what he can get.
Cenk says, "Americans and the West talk about Turkey like an Islamic state...something that might fall into an Islamic state." He says the fear is overblown, and adds, "...An Islamic society can be democratic as well."
Denis says, "The way Turkey is seen outside," sometimes being compared to "a fascist state" or "an Islamic state" is just wrong." It’s too cliché, "too simple...too old fashioned” for this group; these are just the things young artists must avoid.
For the truth, they say, look at the films they'll make. And for now: "Look at us.”