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Screen time

November 18, 2010

With more women making movies in Turkey, they're ruffling feathers - by breaking taboos and broaching tough social issues such as incest and family responsibility.

Film role
Turkey's women directors are broaching uncomfortable topicsImage: Fotolia/Alexander Vasilyev

The Turkish film industry has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade. Once at a point of virtual extinction, it's now gaining on France in terms of the number of films currently being produced. And at this year's Berlin International Film Festival in February, the Golden Bear went to Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu for his film "Honey."

Within this revival of Turkish film, there is now a growing number of women directors - and it's not only their gender that is making them stand out in the industry. It's also the fearlessness of the subjects they are taking on in their films.

Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu poses with his Golden Bear award for Best Film for his movie "Bal - Honey"
Kaplanoglu's win in Berlin thrust the Turkish film industry into the limelightImage: AP

Questioning family ties

Stunningly shot in the foreboding mountains of Turkey's Black Sea, "Zephyr" tells the story of a single mother who leaves her young daughter with the girl's grandparents in order to pursue a career overseas. It deals with dark, often unspoken issues like abandonment and mortality within the family, as well as questions surrounding love and motherhood.

"Zephyr" is the first feature film of director Belma Bas, who says that taboos are a burden to men and women alike.

"We really have to break those taboos, to take a step forward to solve really primal problems, which are at the core of very disturbing issues of this country," Bas told Deutsche Welle. "We have to start from somewhere. Those mother-child and parent-child relationships are at the core of these things.

The film director added that she's not satisfied with getting a "macro-vision of society," but that the only way to solve problems is to go deeper and take a closer look.

Criticism from women

The lead female character in "Zephyr" is often portrayed in a less-than-positive light, which Bas says allowed her to avoid a feminist discourse. The grandmother character is a voice of conservatism condemning her daughter, who in turn is defended by her father. It is the nuanced nature of the film that has proved controversial

Film poster for "Zephyr," directed by Belma Bas
Bas wants her audience to rethink family relationships

At last month's film festival in Antalya, the country's most prestigious film event, "Zephyr" drew condemnation from some female critics for its unsympathetic portrayal of lead female characters.

"Zephyr" was one of two films by women directors to compete in the main competition, a first for the festival and an indication of the growing number of female directors in Turkish film.

Revitalizing a tradition

According to film and media professor Tul Akbal Sualp, women filmmakers are both following a long tradition in Turkish culture, and bringing a new cutting edge to Turkish cinema.

"It is a conservative society, but starting from the late 19th century, if you look at the literature and especially the poetry, we have women characters - strong characters - as often as male ones," said Sualp.

These 19th-century works were far more political than those of current generation, Sualp said, adding that only recently have the female newcomers to the film scene started approaching social and political problems more so than their predecessors.

Winning acceptance

"Merry-go-around," the second film by director Ilksen Basarir, deals with a dark taboo: incest. A first for Turkey, the film also participated recently in the Antalya film festival.

It was the sensitive subject matter, not her gender, that made it difficult to get financing, said Basarir, although it has not always been like that.

"In Turkey in the last five years, the women directors have become stronger," she said. "We want to tell our stories to the people and maybe they will start to accept us in this film industry."

Early on, she wanted to become a camera assistant, but was told that was out of the question because she would have to carry heavy objects. "But now things are changing: There are [female] lighting assistants, camera assistants, directors - so it's changed," said Basarir.

Currently, more than 100 films are in production in Turkey. While the majority of mainstream film directors are still men - as in the rest of the world - that may soon change as well, says Bas.

"Recently, there is no majority of males anymore in documentary- and short-filmmaking in Turkey," she said. "[Women] are coming forward to make feature length films as well. I just long for the day when there will be no naming of female or male filmmakers."

Author: Dorian Jones, Istanbul (kjb)

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn