TIFF Cinematheque celebrates Turkish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney

A scene from 'Yol'. Courtesy TIFF.

While the term “national cinema” seems to be a bit of a misnomer (isn’t all cinema, by nature, national?), few directors have been tied to a national cinematic identity as Turkish filmmaker, Yilmaz Guney. Once described by former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman as “something like Clint Eastwood, James Dean, and Che Guevara combined,” the Kurdish filmmaker few in the western world have become acquainted with gets his due with a retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox titled The Way Home: The Films of Turkish Master Yilmaz Guney.

While the series (running Thursday, January 26 through Sunday, February 5) focuses on his directorial and writing efforts, Guney was actually quite the matinee idol before stepping behind the camera. One of the biggest Kurdish stars in history, he has over 100 acting, producing, writing, and directing credits to his name, despite spending a great deal of his life in prison and dying from stomach cancer before he was even fifty years old.

While most of his acting output was in oaters often derided by Turkish film scholars as populist pieces of junk, Guney gained more notoriety and infamy in his home country as a writer and filmmaker. It was dangerous to be a Kurd in Guney’s world, especially an outspoken one. Kurds weren’t able to publish written works, own their own broadcasting systems, or even speak their own language. The idea of a writer, director, and actor attempting to impart his own ethnic background onto national cinema was something that often landed Guney is jail and branded as a seditionist and a Communist.
His first feature, the almost verite styled Hope (Thursday, January 26 at 6:30 p.m.) utilizes real locations and non-actors to tell the story of a driver and family man named Cabbar as he struggles with his own identity in an allegedly prosperous economy that seems to have no place for him. Rightfully positioned as a masterwork of Turkish cinema, this is a rare chance to see it on the big screen, as this and the seven other films selected for the programme are extremely hard to find since the Turkish government long suppressed and destroyed the films involving Guney in a bid to deny his impact on his culture.

With the films Bride of the Earth (Friday, February 3 at 6:30 p.m.), its sequel Elegy (Thursday, February 2 at 6:30 p.m.), and The Hungry Wolves (Saturday, February 4 at 7 p.m.), Hoberman’s Eastwood comparison comes into full light with these counterpart tales of a soulful smuggler told in the same vein of the John Ford and John Huston dramas that Guney modeled his own films on.
His two best known and most critically acclaimed works happened towards the end of his career and were actually directed via proxies because of his own imprisonment during the pre-production of The Poor Ones (Sunday, January 29 at 6:30 p.m.). The Herd (Friday, January 27 at 6:30 p.m.) was overseen by Zeki Okten and functions as a melodrama about an arranged marriage originally designed to bring two warring tribes together that ends up causing a bigger rift.
Guney would make his biggest splash on the international stage with the Serif Goren directed Yol (Saturday, January 28 at 6:30 p.m.), a semi-autobiographical work that shared the 1982 Palme d’Or at Cannes with Costa Gavras’ Missing. This story of five prisoners released from a penitentiary on temporary personal leave is a strikingly political look at how Guney’s own country had become a prison unto itself. The film caused such a stir in Turkey that it had to be smuggled out of the country to be edited in Europe. Guney escaped from prison to attend the Cannes award ceremony, after which he would disappear to create one final film in France before his death in 1984. Yol remained unseen in his native Turkey until February 12, 1999.

While some of the films haven’t particularly aged well in terms of content, they remain important historical documents on a culture rarely glimpsed on screen. The rarity of these films makes it highly unlikely that they might ever be shown again in Canada, let alone Toronto. For World Cinema completists, it’s a can’t miss proposition.
For other films, showtimes, and tickets, please visit tiff.net.
Top image: A scene from Yol. Courtesy TIFF.

Andrew Parker

About Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker writes for numerous blogs and publications, including Notes From the Toronto Underground and his more personal pop-culture blog, I Can't Get Laid in This Town. He is also the curator of the Defending the Indefensible series of films at the Toronto Underground Cinema.