Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Return of the Ugly King: Yilmaz Guney

A friend alerts me to the fact that there is a Yilmaz Guney film series making its way through North America (with its very own blog!). Eight films, all-new 35mm prints, English subtitles, the works. They’ve apparently already screened at the Harvard Film Archive. Next up is the Cleveland Cinematheque. And then a journey through Canada. Looks like they’ll finish up at Lincoln Center in May of next year. (You can actually download the full schedule of venues and films here.)

This is very good news. I’ve written a few things about Guney over the years – the most in-depth one probably being this "Great Directors" profile of him for Senses of Cinema. He’s hard to describe briefly – he was an actor, a director, a writer, a producer, and he spent the most productive and provocative decade of his career in prison, often delegating the production of his films to trusted surrogates and proteges. In my profile I described him thus: “A wildly popular action movie star whose bloody genre knockoffs gave way in the 1970s to an intensely humanist and politically committed cinema, he not only became Turkish cinema’s leading figure (not to mention its only representative on the international stage), but also its renegade outlaw prince.”

His best-known film in the West is still Yol, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982. It tied with Costa-Gavras's Missing, which meant that a Turk and a Greek shared the top prize that year -- even if, for some, Guney's Turkishness" was a matter of some dispute, about which more later.


Yol bears some discussion here: Its production and post-production history is almost as dramatic as the events depicted in the film itself. It's already spawned one feature film about its making; rumor is Fatih Akin might be working on another. (Go here to read a piece in which Akin waxes quite eloquently about the film.) Here’s what I had to say about it in my profile:
Yol was a massive undertaking, a sprawling portrait of Turkey hovering on the edge of chaos. The film tells the story of five prisoners, several of them Kurds, given brief leaves to visit their families, and who, for various reasons, do not return; the Turkish social landscape is presented as being little different from the world behind bars. The film encompasses the disintegration of family relations, the civil war against Kurdish guerillas, and the oppression of women.
As with [his earlier film] The Enemy, Güney’s ambitious conception found its ideal realization in the hands of another director: Yol was originally slated to be directed by Erden Kiral, but Güney quickly replaced Kiral with Serif Gören, who had effectively completed Anxiety some years earlier. (In 2005, Kiral would release Yolda, a fictional dramatisation of this period.) Gören’s facility with actors and his feel for the rhythms of daily life served Yol rather well. For all its digressions, Yol is sharply focused, stylistically unified. It’s also incredibly sad and haunting: it was Güney’s most pessimistic film to date.
Amazingly, Güney initially convinced the authorities that the film would be a positive depiction of the Turkish justice system’s “temporary leave” policy, whereby prisoners were allowed on some holidays to briefly leave prison to be with their families. As a result, his crew was able to get police and military cooperation, and the soldiers shown in some parts of the film are real military men. (Gören’s ease with documentary shooting should also be credited here.)
After production was completed, Güney fled prison in 1981, and completed Yol abroad. Then, he appeared at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, with Interpol hot on his tail, won the Palme d’Or, and just as quickly disappeared. His mythology, needless to say, hit the stratosphere. Many of his films had already been banned in Turkey, but he finally became official persona non grata in his home country, at the same time he was being hailed as the Zorro of international filmmaking.

(It should be noted that, many years later, the folks at Cannes realized that they may have slightly erred in awarding producer Guney himself the award without any mention of Serif Goren, the film’s actual director and a fine filmmaker in his own right, and belatedly gave Goren his very own Palme.)

Guney’s films are amazing, even when (and sometimes because) they fall apart. They often begin in a way that mixes stark realism with seemingly simple storylines, so that you might mistakenly think you're in for a Zavattini-esque fable. But then they spin out of control, often by design. At their best, the films, like Pasolini's, show how all social structures -- be they political or traditional -- lead to madness and violence. Even political awakening doesn't seem to help: There are never easy answers in Guney's films, even though there’s usually a character espousing some sort of Utopian ideal. Here he shows a subtle and unique self-awareness: Guney was a Marxist, but in his work he seems to acknowledge the inherent limitations of any kind of order that seeks to solve humanity's problems. As you might imagine, in the oppressive atmosphere of 1970s and early 80s Turkey, many of Guney’s films got banned -- often after they became hits, which is a good way to create a folk hero.

Guney at Cannes in 1982

I imagine the political nature of Guney's work is in part responsible for the belatedness of this film series. Although Guney’s persona non grata status in Turkey was reversed many years ago (not in time to do him any good – he died in 1984, in exile in France), there appears to have been a bit of a turf war over his work. I was told by someone years ago that one of the main problems over getting a retro organized was infighting between various Turkish and Kurdish stakeholders: Guney's parents were Kurdish, and many Kurds rightly view his work as being pivotal in the development of a distinct Kurdish cinema. I never felt that this necessarily negated the work’s Turkish-ness as well, but one can see how a politically charged atmosphere might not be ideal for hashing out such differences. Then consider the fact that any retro would likely have needed the support of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism (as this one has), and, well, you can see how there might be some hiccups. 

Anyway, glad they got their differences ironed out. Now let’s see if anyone shows up for the movies.

1 comment:

  1. so glad to see your blog and someone who is an expert on guney's work; I am a huge fan and never for a moment doubted his Kurdishness. Last article I read (you wrote) you sound as if you are saying he was Turkish? no way.