The World Famous Films and Soap Operas of Turkey
Turkey is world famous for its tourism trade thanks to the country’s stunning coastlines of sandy beaches and azure blue waters as well as the lush green Black Sea region and the grandeur of the mountainous Lake District. It is also well known for its diverse and rich history, incredible Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and of course the thousands of Roman ruins that scatter the land. But Turkey’s culture has been catching up with the modern age and while technology and social media have become mainstream across urban locations, there is one element of current society that is taking the world by storm, film and television.
Prior to this century, Turkish film makers, documentarists and television programmes have very much remained within the realms of Turkish viewers, but in the past five years or so, the popularity of this mainstream media has swept across the Gulf States, Arab countries, even Pakistan and parts of Europe. The world is now starting to recognise Turkey for its contemporary portrayal of the modern day life of Turks through its television screens. Nobody can discount the incredible success of the 2014 feature film ‘Winter Sleep’ which inspired the world with its incredible cinematography, beautiful story telling and the stunning backdrop of wish list destination, Capadoccia and there have been many other wonderful films produced in Turkey which are now enjoying more popularity as a result. But it is the Turkish soap opera which has begun to capture the hearts and minds of television addicts and critics all over the world.
Turkey has long been a supporter of film, with the establishment of the International Istanbul Film Festival in 1982, which became mainstream in 1989 when it was recognised as “a competitive specialised festival” by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations and it celebrated films that were made all over the world. It was just the start of opening up other countries and cultures to the realms of Turkish film. In the past twenty years, film festivals dedicated to promoting Turkish films have popped up in major cities of the western world such as London, New York and Boston.
Possibly due to the language barrier between Turkey and the western world, there seemed to be a trend that Turkey would create its own versions of leading Hollywood films rather than promoting the original versions. This is a process which has become known as ‘Turksploitation’. Turkish filmmakers would produce remakes or spoofs of Bond films, Star Trek, Rambo and superhero franchises like Captain America, Superman and Spiderman and would get away with it by using gimmicks like changing the colour of costumes to avoid copyright infringement. Perhaps this is why it was so difficult to Turkey to be taken seriously in the world of film by those who had not been exposed to its wonders.
Some of the best loved films in Turkey are home grown comedies, from slapstick to family fun but Turkish critics tend to put the same films in their top five list and strangely, the Palme d’Or winning 2014 film ‘Winter Sleep’ doesn’t make the top five, despite its international and critical acclaim. The film ‘Yol’, written and directed by Yılmaz Güney who was famed not only for his films but for being imprisoned by the Turkish government for harbouring anarchist students. He worked closely with his assistant Şerif Gören who co-wrote all of his films after 1972, with strict instructions from Güney from the prison. He was a political filmmaker, ‘Yol’ being a portrait of Turkey in the aftermath of the 1980 Turkish coup, shown via the stories of five prisoners given a week’s home leave. Due to Güney’s involvement, the film was banned in Turkey until 1999.
Yılmaz Güney made over a hundred films during his career as an actor and twenty five as a director but it wasn’t until the success of his film ‘Yol’ that he made international fame. Following his escape from prison in Turkey in 1981, he fled to Europe and settled in France. After the success of ‘Yol’ in Europe, he directed one more film called ‘Duvar’ (The Wall) in 1983, telling a brutal tale of imprisoned children. The Turkish government revoked his citizenship and a court sentenced him to twenty-two extra years in jail. Güney lived in exile in paris until he died of gastric cancer in 1984.
The 2011 film ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’, co-written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan was a multi award winning production about a group of men who search for a dead body on the Anatolian steppe. The film stars Yılmaz Erdoğan, an actor most famous for his box office record breaking debut comedy film ‘Vizontele’ in 2001. He was also awarded the Best Supporting Actor award at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2014 for his performance in ‘The Water Diviner’ which also starred Russell Crowe. ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ was a multi-award winning production; most notably the film won two Asia Pacific Screen Awards for cinematography and directing, the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival and other awards in Philidephia, Dublin and Dubai.
Other notable Turkish films include ‘Muhsin Bey’ (Mr Muhsin), a 1987 film about a middle aged music producer, approached by a young man who dreams of becoming a folk singer. The film won ‘Golden Oranges’ for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Script at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival’ and the Special Jury Prize at the 6th International Istanbul Film Festival. ‘Uzak’ (Distant), released in 2002, is about Yusef, a young factory worker who loses his job and travels to Istanbul with his relative, Mahmut, a wealthy and intellectual photographer who has lost his artistic way. The film won 31 awards including Best Actor at Cannes, the Special Jury Prize in Chicago and the Best Balkan Movie at the Sophia International Film Festival.
While Turkish films have always been popular at home but with a few exceptions, have struggled to find an international audience, there is one media which is brewing up a storm across Europe and the rest of the world; the Turkish Soap Opera. Serial dramas are no stranger to televisions all over the world, with the fame of ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Coronation Street’ in the UK, ‘Days of Our Lives’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the US and Kuwaiti dramas, ‘The Bamboo Stalk’ and ‘Between Two Hearts’, two of the most popular soap operas in Arab states. But now Turkey has firmly stamped its mark on the soap opera market all over the world with increasing numbers of viewers in the Arab world and across Europe.
Turkish serial dramas are making a splash as they deal with many issues that Arab television makers are afraid of dealing with and are working to dispel the way that the western world think about Turkish life, for example the suppression of women. The Turkish soap operas look at gender equality, treason, love affairs, how women are treated by their husbands, illegitimate children and divorce, issues that have been swept under the carpet in Arab culture for decades.
‘Gümüş’ (Silver) was the first Turkish soap opera aired internationally and immediately coveted much fame. Originally broadcast between 2005 and 2007 by Kanal D, the serial followed the travails of a simple young woman named Gümüş who married into a wealthy family. It was an arranged marriage and the story arc tells of how her new husband, Mehmet, eventually finds love with his wife. The series broke traditions right from the start, showing characters drinking wine with dinner, partying and kissing on screen which was deemed inappropriate by some Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. Pre-marital sex, an illegitimate chile and abortion are just some of the themes explored during its run. Later, the relationship between Mehmet and Gümüş is idealised as a modern partnership between two equals, which appeared effective in changing attitudes in a familiar setting.
The series became a pop-culture phenomenon when it was dubbed in Arabic and aired across the Arab world as ‘Noor’, the Arabic for ‘light’ in 2008 using a colloquial Syrian dialect rather than formal Arabic. Famously, 85 million viewers across the world tuned in to watch the final episode. The series was also covered in the 2014 documentary about Turkish soap operas called ‘Kismet: How Turkish Soap Operas Changed the World’ which examined the effects that the soap operas have had on the lives of female viewers from various regions, including the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The documentary stated that ‘Gümüş’ and the many serial dramas that followed it, “acted not only as a female fantasy represented on screen, but also as a vehicle for societal change”.
The next soap opera to popularise Turkish television was ‘Binbir Gece’ (One Thousand and One Nights), loosely based on the story better known as ‘Arabian Nights’, is about an aspiring architect who is desperate need to more money to pay for leukemia treatment for her son. Her boss, Onur, agrees to give her the money if she agrees to spend a night with him. Originally airing between 2006 and 2009, it has been broadcast in more than 56 countries worldwide, including the United States, Argentina, Russia and Brazil. It became a prime time hit in Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania, Albania and Greece and was a huge hit in Chile where new parents began to name their children after the lead characters.
Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love) has broken ratings records in Turkey and is a top rated series there. The programme is a romantic drama series and an adaptation of Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil’s 1899 novel of the same name. It takes place in modern day Istanbul however, and follows the life of Turkish woman, Bihter and her marriage to an older man, Adnan to spite her mother who wanted to marry him herself. She later attracts the attention of Adnan’s tennant, a friend’s son, Behlül and this sparks a passionate affair. The series was broadcast in 34 countries, many European, but made a real impact in Pakistan, where it was seen by more than 90 million people. It was the first foreign drama to get so much viewership and ratings in Pakistan. While its popularity skyrocketed, the series also caused much controversy with its love scenes which were tame to the western world, but eye-opening to Arabs and really changed the course of relationships all over the world.
In 2012, as it was about to film its fourth season in Turkey, ‘Muhtesem Yuzyil’ (Magnificent Century), a period drama set in the Ottoman world about Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan and his love for a Western woman, earned $130 million in foreign sales, making it the most successful Turkish television export of all time. Watched in 47 countries around the world, the show features storylines of passion and intrigue, beautiful actors and actresses and iconic Turkish locations. The show generated some controversy as some viewers found the story to be disrespectful and a hedonistic portrayal of the historical sultan. There were supposedly 70,000 complaints about the show and even then Prime Minister Erdoğan condemned the show as “an effort to show our history in a negative light to the younger generations”. This did not scupper its success though as the series is reported to have an international audience of 400 million viewers worldwide.
Two more recent and currently airing series, ‘Kiraz Mevsimi’ (Cherry Season) and ‘Adi Mutluluk’ (Happiness) are becoming ever more popular in Europe, both being stories about the younger generation of Istanbul as they follow the lives of twenty-something year olds as they get to grips with life in the big city. Ratings for these shows are soaring across Europe and are breaking records in Italy. There has also been an almighty call for the shows to be subtitled in English. These shows are the perfect portrayal of modern Turkish life and have captured the attention of the European public. The protagonists are young and talented Turkish actors committed to reciting love stories, first work experiences, friendships, dreams and envy in the highly diverse social context of Istanbul.
Turkey is firmly establishing itself among the top nations in the world to produce soap operas for export abroad. With its rich and controversial history and its stunning landscapes, there is a huge amount of scope for further productions and the world seems to be more than ready to delve into Turkish life. It is also a fantastic opportunity for Turkey to show that the life of the young in Turkey is just like anywhere else in the world and that they are a modern and balanced society. The Ministry of Culture directly links the dramas with a rise in the number of tourists to Turkey in the last five years and it is really not surprising given that these wonderful productions are showing off the true beauty of Turkey to the rest of the world!