Crossing the Borders of Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s Turkey

Part of our ongoing Videotheque Vault series, Isabella Miller brings us two of Turkish filmmaker Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s critiques of nationalism, Journey to the Sun (1999) & Waiting for the Clouds (2003).

Film, more than any other art form, holds powerful possibilities for ideological production—filmmakers are able to simultaneously manipulate sound, images, words, and even the experience of space and time. Filmmakers also have a good chunk of their viewers’ real time, granted the audience doesn’t decide to get up and walk out of the film partway through. It’s fair to say that governments and other groups who have a stake in mass communication—which is to say, in indoctrination—have not hesitated to employ artists to do their bidding or been blind to the power of the film form in particular.

These issues are particularly pressing when exploring the implications of a ‘national’ cinema. In that context, it is important to ask how the films produced within a nation work against, are complicit in, or somehow are influenced by nationalist ideologies espoused by the state. Increasingly, in nations that grant their citizens some freedom of expression, filmmakers have been working to complicate or subvert these nationalist myths. In the case of Turkey, the home country of filmmaker Yeşim Ustaoğlu, there is a prominent tradition of films that are overtly critical of the Turkish Republic.

Turkey was founded in the years following WWII by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a man who aspired to assimilate Turkey to the national and societal patterning of European nations. The European model proved to be problematic, however, because Europe did not consist of such disparate religious and ethnic groups as Turkey.  In order to forge a sense of national unity out of such diversity, the Turkish government and republic elite class began espousing a narrative of Turkey as a nation that emerged from the flames of a disorderly, uncivil, politically inept, and culturally backwards Ottoman Empire. The films of Turkey, especially those that were produced in the last half-century, have worked to unravel this creation myth by exploring themes relating to personal identity—especially the identities of oppressed minorities and the implications of their oppression for the people of Turkey as a whole.

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The films of Yeşim Ustaoğlu are no exception. Her second feature, Journey to the Sun (1999), and her third, Waiting for the Clouds (2003), both introduce with warmth and humanity, rather than a propagandistic reduction to stereotypes, ethnically divergent main characters. Beyond an embrace of ethnic diversity, Ustaoglu is interested in how these characters struggle to navigate the fraught terrain of a Turkish nationalism that in large part supports itself on the systemic ethnic oppression ingrained in Turkey’s national culture and politics since the nation’s birth. In Waiting for the Clouds and Journey to the Sun, the hyper-nationalism produced by the attempt to make Turkey a kind of falsely unified modern nation ends up producing ambivalent of identities that reach even into the psyches of those who identify as “normal” Turks.  This ambivalence is articulated through somewhat initially politically naive characters in each film, which are, coincidentally, both named Mehmet.

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Two of the most disastrous results of the attempt at inventing a nation defined in its difference from the cultural heritages of much of its population were the repression of the Kurdish minority and the mass murder of Pontus Greeks, both of which were covered up by Turkish nationalists with an empty rhetoric of populism. These two issues most prominently manifest in Ustaoglu’s films. Journey to the Sun deals with the ever-present ethnic stereotyping and oppression of Kurds (one of the first films to do so, after, most notably, Yılmaz Güney’s Yol, which won the Palme d’Or in 1982), whereas Waiting for the Clouds deals with lasting effects of the traumatic Greek migration and massacre on the psyche of a Greek woman, Ayshe, who endured it.

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Journey to the Sun follows Mehmet through his life in Istanbul, his unexpected friendship with a Kurdish man, his relationship with a young laundress named Arzu, and his journey across Turkey. At the beginning of Journey to the Sun, Mehmet, a dark-skinned Anatolian Turk, is mistaken for a Kurd and attacked by a group of Turkish nationalists who are riled up after watching a heated soccer game in a bar. The rest of the film follows Mehmet as he deals with the political realities of ethnic oppression he had previously been able to evade. He later gets mistaken for a Kurd again, this time by police officers who were trying to charge him for a crime he did not commit. In one scene, we witness Mehmet’s attempt to pass for what he actually is, not a Kurd, but a Turk, as he sprays his hair with a can of white spray paint he found in a dump. I won’t mention what prompts Mehmet’s ‘journey to the sun,’ for it might spoil one of the most wrenching scenes in the film, but I will say that Mehmet’s ethnic masquerade is obscured even further as he struggles with his own identity, his relationship with a Kurd, and the wider climate of prejudice in Istanbul.

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In Waiting for the Clouds, another young character named Mehmet is not subject firsthand to the discrimination and violence fueled by Turkish nationalism, but he is resistant to it. Over the course of the film, Mehmet both tricks a Turkish police officer in order to help his friend escape from jail and runs away from the rest of his classmates as they sing the Turkish anthem at school. The recitation of nationalist maxims in school seen in Waiting for the Clouds, and the Turkish men’s violent excitement produced by the soccer match in Journey to the Sun, are both ways of creating a sense of belonging to the national community. The experiences of watching a soccer match and of singing the national anthem in school are critical exercises in nationalism that help produce what Benedict Anderson called the imagined community of Turkey. But they are also two of the most prominent sites of harm experienced by the movies’ main characters.

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Waiting for the Clouds has not quite received the level of acclaim that Journey to the Sun has, but nevertheless treads on oft-avoided waters with a great deal of wit and beauty. Produced about a decade after Journey to the Sun, Waiting for the Clouds bears the fruits of Ustaoğlu’s years of working with film, with its painstaking cinematography and direction. In both films, though, there is something resonant in the acting, a sort of honest and slow compassion. Ustaoglu uses primarily non-actors, hired on site, that infuse the film with a sense of sincerity that could not be recreated.  Maybe that saves it from sticky-sweet or overly-assured acting that capital-A Actors might otherwise have tainted the films with, maybe not. But it is definitely a testament to Ustaoğlu’s desire to make art about the people, not just for them.


Author: Isabella Miller is a second-year at Oberlin College where she studies Cinema and Comparative Literature. This summer she is the Facets Label Sales, Marketing & Publicity intern at Facets.

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