Saturday, November 19, 2011

Eulogy for Lutfi Akad (1916-2011)

Kizilirmak Karakoyun

The Turkish director Omer Lutfi Akad has passed away. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I could have sworn that I had heard reports of his death a few years ago. But I guess things like that happen when you get to be 95. Nevertheless, he now rests in peace, and a few words should be said here.

Along with Metin Erksan (director of the recently-restored Dry Summer), Akad was probably one of the two senior giants of Turkish cinema during a rather significant time -- the period in the 1950s and 60s when the medium was moving away from the canned-theater efforts of early pioneers like Muhsin Ertugrul and starting to tackle more complicated material, against pretty much every odd in the universe. Neither society nor technology had yet caught up to the imaginations of these artists. The equipment was still ancient (the first Turkish film to edit together two separate audio tracks wouldn’t come until 1978) and so was the political atmosphere: the country was at the time entering its multi-decade cycle of having a military coup every ten years or so. You’d think this wasn’t a great time to be a filmmaker with a social conscience; and yet there Akad was, forging ahead with work that, for all its roughness, still endures.

His best films (and I should admit I’ve only seen a handful, since they tend to be hard to find) combine a certain rough-hewn poetry with a refreshingly direct, no-nonsense style. The two approaches are not that incompatible, it turns out. Lacking fancy equipment, much of a budget, or really anything resembling a reasonable production schedule, Akad and his compatriots were often forced to shoot things on the fly, at eye-level, but in his hands, this became a powerful thing: In two of his masterpieces, 1967’s Ana (The Mother) and 1966’s Hudutlarin Kanunu (The Law of the Border), you can pretty much always see the horizon, which in turn has a curious effect on the elemental, mythic melodramas playing themselves out in the foreground. (The latter film, which appears to be available in all its untranslated glory onYouTube, also starred Yilmaz Guney, himself later to become one of Turkey’s greatest filmmakers.)

Ana (The Mother)
Indeed, so many of Akad’s films are perched on this uncertain edge of myth and realism. There’s a shocking moment at the end of one of his later TV dramas when a character, to spite another, cuts off his own arm and throws it at the man. There’s almost no blood or pain; the guy just cuts his arm off, angrily tosses it, and then storms off into the distance, as the credits roll. In anyone else’s hands this would be ridiculous; but somehow Akad calmly allows the moment to build with an almost supernatural anger -- so you just accept it, like you might accept something out of an ancient fable or the Old Testament.

Speaking of books, Akad was also the author of one of the best filmmaking memoirs I’ve ever read: Isikla Karanlik Arasinda, which translates as “Between Light and Darkness.” Despite not being the quickest reader of Turkish, I remember wolfing down the 612-page book within a matter of days back in 2003 -- a testament to its clean, fascinating, direct prose. It’s a mesmerizing record of his journey in film -- a craft he essentially stumbled into, as there was no such thing as a path to filmmaking in Turkey back then.

Throughout the book Akad’s practicality shines through, but also a certain wonder in the possibilities of the developing medium. He writes with curiosity and delight of the time when, in 1954, his cameraman picked the camera up in his hands and moved during a take, to achieve a particularly difficult composition; it was the first time Akad had seen a camera used hand-held. There are also great vignettes featuring some of the biggest names in Turkish cinema: I love the part where he describes how the great Guney (who considered Akad his mentor) would hang out with his character’s pet black sheep on the set of 1967’s Kizilirmak Karakoyun, while virtually starving himself to make sure he understood the hunger of a poor shepherd. (Yes, Yilmaz Guney was apparently a Method actor.)

For those who understand Turkish, or just want to see some clips of Akad’s work, there’s a documentary about him available here:

I leave you with this, a perhaps uncharacteristic Akad moment – a pretty keen aping of a Hollywoodized romantic ending from his lovely 1959 drama Yalnizlar Rihtimi (Port of Lonely Souls). But in all its stormy swoony grandeur it still displays the director’s patience with the moment, and his simple command of the craft. Plus, it’s a great ending to a great movie.

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