Q&A with Richard Peña on Film Society’s Turkish Cinema Showcase
Published on April 27th, 2012 | by Carlos J. Segura1
“The Space Between: A Panorama of Cinema in Turkey,” which began tonight at Film Society of Lincoln Center with the Sundance entry “Can,” runs until May 10, and features an astounding twenty-nine films. Said to be the largest retrospective ever assembled in America on Turkish film, the series spans the ’50s to the present, featuring contemporary, familiar names for Western audiences such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akin, and Ferzan Ozpetek, plus many unfamiliar yet important names in Turkish filmmaking. Despite the advancements in viewing platforms, many of these films remain entirely unavailable or are difficult to obtain for home viewing. Taking that into consideration this retrospective is a rare opportunity, especially important and notable for attempting to depict Turkish filmmaking that programmer Richard Peña refers to as on the “ambitious” side. To prime audiences for what to expect from the retrospective, Peña provides short insights into the trajectory of Turkish cinema, how the retrospective came to be, and more.
This retrospective, done in conjunction with the Moon and Stars Project of the American Turkish Society, was proposed by whom? Who approached whom?
Film Society over the years has done a number of these international retrospectives on places like Poland, Cuba, Argentina―many countries. I myself enjoy this kind of programming. I think it’s valuable not only for audiences but also for our field. But the idea for doing something on Turkey had been around, quite literally, for twenty-five years! In 2001, when I started talking to the Moon and Stars Project people about it, there were various reasons at that point why it didn’t come together. But then a few years after that I saw people again from that group and they said, “Why don’t we go back to that idea?”
I myself, a year or a year and a half ago, was reading a book by a writer named Savas Arslan called “Cinema in Turkey,” and as I was reading it I tried to find some of the films. My best bet was going to a Queens library and finding the odd DVD from another region that had English subtitles. Otherwise, very little luck finding most of the movies in the book. Could you talk about the lack of availability of Turkish films here with English subtitles?
Again, the reason that we do these things…I really think that here at Film Society our job is to illuminate black holes in film history. Turkey was producing at one point 300 films a year. It was really a major film producer. I think it has produced some really major films and filmmakers over the years, yet it’s a cinema about which we know next to nothing. How can we take this very worthy cinema and make Americans somewhat more aware of its great achievements? That’s what this is about.
The films we don’t have enough of, that I wish we had more of, is more of the popular cinema. For many years in Turkey there was a popular cinema, which included melodramas, comedies, etc. I find them quite interesting in that they were less exportable than these other films here, which I think perhaps you’d call more socially oriented or things like that. In those cases there were rights issues. The films that I ended up selecting were films that I thought gave a very good impression of what you might think of as the most ambitious side of Turkish cinema.
Keeping in mind that you had problems procuring popular Turkish movies, could you talk a little bit about how you programmed this retrospective based on what was available and what you found to be quality filmmaking?
There were a number of films I knew of already. And then I did get to go Turkey for about eight days, and during that time I immersed myself as much as possible in Turkish cinema. I went to a university library with many films on DVD, VHS; I also acquired a lot of DVDs, and I spoke to many very knowledgeable people about Turkish cinema and got great recommendations from them. And I did as much reading and research as I could in English or in other languages that I’m able to read in. And the program came together; it began to get a little bit of a shape. Certainly at the end of the 1960s you can see a kind of Turkish response to neorealism as it happened in so many parts of the world, how that eventually fused with more commercial production, the importance of Yilmaz Güney in the 1970s, who really shaped Turkish cinema, I think. And then of course in the ‘80s during the military regime you had films which had been banned for a while because they covered topics that were sometimes forbidden. And then moving into the ‘90s where you get a cinema one might call more personal, more introspective, interior. And then finally into the newest generation of filmmakers led by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, among others. So that’s a little bit of the outline.
For someone who may want an outlined way of sampling the trajectory of Turkish cinema, what are a handful of films that you would recommend? What’s essential viewing?
Hopefully someone will see more than this, but you could almost do one per decade. I would start off with “Revenge of the Snakes” or “Dry Summer,” to get a sense of that moment when neorealism infiltrated, influenced, Turkish filmmaking. Then in the ‘70s I would go for a Yilmaz Güney film like “Hope” or “Elegy.” Very symbolic of the work of that era. Going into the 1980s I would look at “On Fertile Ground” or “Hazal.” In the ‘90s I would recommend “Secret Face.” Then when we get to the 2000s there are certainly a number of films we can look at from this young generation I mentioned like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” or Reha Erdem’s “Kosmos” or a number of other films.