A master of startling imagery, vigorous storytelling and political commitment, Yilmaz Güney (1931-84) is a legendary figure in Turkish cinema and undoubtedly the best-known and most controversial filmmaker the country has produced to date.
Born to a Kurdish mother and a Zaza Kurd father in rural southern Turkey, Güney’s career in cinema began in 1953 when he took a job with a film distributor touring prints nationwide. While pursuing degrees in law and economics- in Ankara and ultimately Istanbul- Güney made a name for himself as a talented, and at times controversial, writer of fiction whose political outspokenness landed him briefly in prison, for the first of many times.
By the end of the 1950s, Güney was working steadily as a screenwriter, assistant director and actor to filmmaker Atif Yilmaz, known for his popular comedies and realist cinema. A handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, Güney became a huge star in their vein, playing tough guys and outlaws and earning himself the nickname “the Ugly King.” (Güney’s rugged face and gruff, physical acting style both lacked the polish of the typical Turkish leading man of the day.) A cinephile with wide-ranging tastes, Güney was a huge fan of such Hollywood actors as Cagney, Bogart and Lancaster and often drew inspiration from the restless physicality and brooding masculinity they all shared.
During the 1960s Güney established his own production company just as a lasting socio-cultural and political unrest began to take hold of Turkey. Güney’s first few films as a director were fascinating genre exercises with subtle political undertones. With Bride of the Earth (1968), he began to explore revenge melodramas and crime films to examine the often feudal conditions that yet existed in Turkey’s rural regions. Hope (1970) proved a turning point with its decidedly non-glamorized urban setting that drew comparisons to Italian neo-realism. Its original mixture of realist detail, expressionism and even darkly absurdist humor brought international recognition, while its depiction of the hopelessness of the urban poor incurred the wrath of Turkish censors. After his arrest and week-long imprisonment in the unrest that followed the coup by Turkey’s military in March 1971, Güney left Istanbul to avoid further trouble with the authorities and retreated to the mountains of Anatolia, where he made Elegy.
After a period of intense productivity that produced a series of impassioned films, Güney was again imprisoned in 1972, accused of ties to revolutionary groups. Released as part of a 1974 general amnesty, Güney was able to make two more films before being arrested and convicted for the murder of a right-wing judge, apparently during a restaurant brawl. The details of the crime remain obscure and controversial and Güney always maintained his innocence despite incriminating evidence.
Inside prison, Güney devoted himself furiously to screenwriting, completing three scripts and copious notes which he sent to his collaborators and which resulted in The Herd (1978) and his most famous film Yol (1982). Pointing out that filmmaking is always a collaborative process, Güney declared himself deeply satisfied with these films. Indeed, Güney considered these late films to be more intregal to his oeuvre than his first genre films.
Taking advantage of his relatively lax encarceration, Güney escaped in 1981 by simply walking out of prison. Given that his stayin prison had only seemed to ratify his already near-legendary status, Güney’s claim that the government wanted him to escape, so they could exile him, seems plausible. Thus he was able to be present (although as a fugitive) at Cannes in 1982, where Yol won the Palme d’Or, a success that enabled him to direct 1983’s The Wall in France before dying suddenly of cancer that same year.
Güney is often compared to his near-contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the biographical parallels are striking. Celebrities before they began directing films - Guney as a movie star, Pasolini as an autho r- both drew controversial for their outspoken leftist politics. And, tragically both died suddenly in their mid-50s, at the height of their fame. The general ideological stance shared by the two artists was no doubt profoundly influenced by their outsider status - Güney as a Kurd, Pasolini as a homosexual. More significantly, both filmmakers merged their political ideas with strikingly original approaches to the image and a penchant for poetry and allegory. Deeply influenced by Italian neo-realism, which they used as a basis for their visual style, both artists veered similarly into mythopoetic reverie fired by profound anger at the plight of the oppressed. Like Pasolini, too, Güney was fascinated by the distinct tension and contradiction between Turkey’s rural peasantry and rapidly modernizing society.
Special thanks: Cemal Kafadar, the Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, Harvard University;
Erkut Gomulu—Director, Boston Turkish Film Festival; Hüseyin Karabey, the Güney Foundation.
Directed by Yilmaz Güney
Turkey 1970, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Turkish with English subtitles
Güney stars as Cabbar, an impoverished cart driver in Adana who dreams ceaselessly and fruitlessly of a better life for his family. Rejecting the invitation of to join some of his fellow workers as they begin to plan for political action, Cabbar seeks improbable escape from his declining fortunes, first in the lottery and then in rumors of buried treasure. The downward trajectory of Güney’s hopeless dreamer is matched by the film’s shift from neo-realist drama to absurdist existential parable and its balance of bitter political despair and black humor. Güney’s first international success (despite its censorship in Turkey), Hope also reaveals Güney’s increasing willingness to experiment, making a striking use of silence and disjunction between image and sound.
Directed by Yilmaz Güney. With Yilmaz Güney, Nebahat Çehre, Hayati Hamzaoglu
Turkey 1968, 35mm, b/w, 78 min. Turkish with English subtitles
The first film that Güney acknowledged as a fully realized effort Bride of the Earth stars the director himself as a man separated from his bride-to-be by the superstitions and feudal conditions of rural life. The film’s attention to poverty as a barrier to happiness and personal aspiration looks forward to Güney’s more overtly political work while demonstrating his eye for striking images, particularly in his dramatic use of landscape, as well as more baroque, almost Bosch-like touches- a woman trapped in a wicker cage, a man in quicksand up to his neck.
Directed by Serif Gören. With Tarik Akan, Serif Sezer, Halil Ergün
Turkey 1982, 35mm, color, 111 min. Turkish with English subtitles
Despite the fact that it was actually shot by his associate Serif Gören, Yol remains Güney’s best-known and celebrated film. One of his darkest films, Yol offers an important summation of Güney’s cinema with its tale of a group of released prisoners. Ironically, their release is only temporary and may not even be a blessing, for each return home only to find themselves as imprisoned as when they were in jail. Yol makes clear that life in Turkey under military rule was itself a kind of Kafka-esque prison, with prisoners their own jailers, keeping each other in check through despotic families and constricting social mores - trapped between fascism and what Güney called “the moral debris left behind by feudalism and patriarchy.”
Directed by Yilmaz Güney. With Yilmaz Güney, Hayati Hamazaoglu, Bilal Inci
Turkey 1971, 35mm, color, 80 min. Turkish with English subtitles
Güney stars as one of four smugglers living and working in a rocky, desolate mountainous region. The macho braggadocio and violence of the men (reminiscent of The Wild Bunch) is contrasted with the quiet determination of a woman doctor who ministers to the impoverished villagers as best she can. Although the film is apparently a step back from the political neo-realism of Hope towards the rough lyricism of Bride of the Earth and The Hungry Wolves, Elegy ‘s narrative develops a dialectic between the anti-social behavior of the smugglers and the communitarian aspirations of the doctor. Güney skillfully draws on the allegorical potential of the landscape: the characters live under constant threat of avalanche. The film’s evocative cinematography makes use of the muted palette of the rocky landscape in a manner reminiscent of late Hollywood Western, from Ford to Peckinpah.
Directed by Zeki Ökten. With Tarik Akan, Melike Demirag, Tuncel Kurtiz
Turkey 1978, 35mm, color, 129 min. Turkish with English subtitles
The Herd has a simple premise that it utilizes to devastating effect: the economic survival of a Kurdish family depends on its ability to drive its herd of sheep from the mountains to Ankara. The film follows the driving of the herd; the constant threats to the livestock and the family serve both as a kind of ethnographic documentary and as existential (and political) parable. Explaining to an interviewer about his use of metaphor and allegory to express himself politically in his films, Güney declared that the subject of The Herd was the history of the Kurds. At the same time, he noted, the film was made in Turkish; any public use of the Kurdish language was illegal at the time.
Directed by Yilmaz Güney. With Yilmaz Güney, Sevgi Can, Hayati Hamazaoglu
Turkey 1969, 35mm, b/w, 70 min. Turkish with English subtitles
Both hunter and hunted, a bandit (Güney) lives in a desolate snowscape, beautifully captured in stark black-and-white cinematography. Seemingly invincible, the bandit becomes increasingly desperate to protect his family from his enemies. The film’s emotive musical score recalls Ennio Morricone as surely as the film’s tale of revenge recalls Sergio Leone. Indeed, the stoic, tight-lipped determination of Güney’s bandit seems modeled after Clint Eastwood. Güney stages his lone figures in a landscape made almost abstract by the blinding white of the snow, giving the film a bleak poetry. The solitude of the hero of The Hungry Wolves will increasingly be seen in Güney’s future films as not so much heroic as doomed.
Directed by Yilmaz Güney. With Kerim Afsar, Yilmaz Güney, Melike Demirag
Turkey 1974, 35mm, color, 100 min. Turkish with English subtitles
The Friend is the one of Güney’s films that most resembles a European art film. For one thing, Güney focuses on alienation among the Turkish middle classes, although he does it by contrasting their empty lives with the struggles of the peasantry. At a seaside resort, a wealthy aristocrat originally from an impoverished small town finds himself reunited with a childhood friend, played by Güney. The director, who constructs an Antonionian malaise out of the glassy surfaces of the resort’s commercial district and the arid domestic interiors of the family’s summer home. The film is often compared to Teorema, with The Friend detailing the disturbance inside the family created by the friend’s visit. The film also marks the last time Güney would appear onscreen as an actor.
Directed by Yilmaz Güney, Atif Yilmaz. With Yilmaz Güney, Yildirim Önal, Güven Sengil
Turkey 1974, 35mm, color, 72 min. Turkish with English subtitles
Like so many of Güney’s subsequent films, The Poor is about prisoners. The film opens on a winter night as three convicts are released. A complex structure of flashbacks describes how they came to be imprisoned, while at the same time following the men through the night as they find themselves faced with reentering a society in which they are outcasts. All have had lives marked with betrayal, degradation and violence stemming from their poverty. Filming was interrupted in mid-production when Güney was himself briefly imprisoned for having sheltered some anarchist students. Rather than delay the film’s completion, Güney asked his mentor Atif Yilmaz to finish it, despite the major revisions required since Güney himself had been playing one of the three leads. The result is a fascinating mix of hard-bitten realism and florid melodrama.