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Meet Levent Cantek: The Creator of Hit Show Yesilcam

by mh musings

Hit new series, streaming on BluTV on Thursdays at 19:00 local Turkish time

One of the most anticipated and highly rated current Turkish shows on the digital platforms is Yesilcam on BluTV, a meticulous production that highlights a slice of life of the Hollywood in Turkey during its most prolific period in the 1960s. With lead roles played by Cagatay Ulusoy, Afra Saracoglu and Selin Sekerci, the series has received incredible audience feedback with just four episodes from its first of two seasons, with 10 episodes each.

And today, we present to you an exclusive interview with Levent Cantek, who conceptualized the series and eventually co-wrote the two seasons with Volkan Sumbul (Icerde).

“I make a movie, the sick recovers, the season changes.” – Semih Ates

For those who are yet to watch, seen through the lens of a passionate film producer Semih Ates (played by Cagatay Ulusoy), Yesilcam captures a moving story about a young producer who is down on his luck, but not his fervor, to produce a successful film. Driven by a pure love for cinema, we see his pursuits in life, love and profession, set against a political and socially turbulent time. At the able hands of highly experienced director Cagan Irmak, the series artfully gives local and international viewers a unique perspective about the lost glory of Yesilcam; a movie industry that thrived despite limited resources and infrastructure.

Without further ado, we share Mr. Cantek’s responses, interspersed with information designed for our international audience to learn more about Yesilcam and the Turkish entertainment industry.

Yesilcam: A Historical Perspective

What inspired you to focus on the Yesilcam era as a possible story?

I love to narrate specific periods. My doctoral thesis was about the 40s, I wrote two graphical novels and a TV series about those years. I like to use the temperament, the habits, the political and social conflicts of a particular period as a theme. While mulling over future projects and needs of BluTV as a digital platform, I suggested a more womanly and melodramatic series and said, “I can write a story about a producer living during the formative years of Yesilcam.” It aroused their interest.

Cagatay Ulusoy as Producer Semih Ates

To go back to the matter of inspiration, producers are typically associated with money and are not seen as artistes. I accept that they are businessmen but it always seems interesting to me that they can manage groups in which almost everyone – actors, directors, scriptwriters and agents – has narcissistic and sinister personality traits. Sometimes the producers win big, sometimes they stand on the verge of bankruptcy. They are enthusiastic, or they know what enthusiasm is. They are not artistes but they interact with art. They deal with trading but what they do is not purely trade; they sell dreams, they talk about stories. They live with the interference of the political force, they know bureaucracy, they are pragmatic. To me, such personalities that are caught in the middle are always interesting.

What did you love about Yesilcam movies that made you want to build such a rich narrative?

Yesilcam movies used to be produced with very low budgets; imagine making a movie with 15 thousand dollars and still manage to impress people with it. They filmed a movie in 10 days. I’m awed by their energy and their desire, that they keep going whatever happens, that they continue working with passion and habitual enthusiasm. They have no other choice, they have to make both ends meet but with a romantic approach they think little of money they earn. I feel sympathy for people who live with stories, who tell and talk about stories. It makes me feel a sense of brotherhood.

You mentioned in your article with Oksijen that in the flux of the political turmoil of the 60s and all the migration from the villages to the city, a lot changed for Turkey and the stories told by Yesilcam. What are some examples of how the stories changed with these social changes?

When highways were improved, movies could travel to any city simultaneously. The number of copies increased and more money was earned from the movies as the audience increased. This made it possible to spend more money on movies. All these forces are interrelated. With a new and young audience, new actors/actresses appeared. Young men and women in their 20s started making movies. The quality of scripts improved. Literary adaptations grew as literary figures joined the cinema industry. The intellectual tendencies and dissenting opinions of authors transformed and deepened the stories.

Semih is used as the plot mechanism through whom we get to see the competing pressures in Yesilcam – gender bias, lack of ethics, power of money, politicization of social issues, and more. How much of that has changed in modern day film making in Turkey? 

Yesilcam movies are generally simple, apolitical, and love in these movies is generally asexual; you cannot narrate such a story today. If we compare today with the situation in the past, there were only men as producers in the first place. Today, the channel and platform managers are women. The women voice is stronger. What can I say about money? Well, as someone who tries to live a life away from capitalism, it appears to me that things haven’t changed much.

Yesilcam: A Confluence of Cultures

The series focuses on 1964 in its first season, with flashbacks to the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955. When asked why this particular period is selected, it is interesting to understand that focusing on a period with confluence of popular culture coming out of Hollywood and the local film industry is a conscious choice. There are blended details that may be amusing to the international fan, such as in episode two, Semih asserts to his friend while swinging his body side to side that the Beatles “won’t succeed” because they do not have the showmanship of Elvis Presley!

In terms of acceptance of the production as a period piece true to the times, since it started streaming, an argument emerged in Turkey where many asserted that the dancing girls at a night club is not rooted in reality. Mr. Cantek says, “…if one looks at the magazines and the newspapers of those years, you will see that there were strip tease and revue girls in almost every night club in Istanbul. Before starting to write this series, I watched 80 percent of the movies that was filmed in Turkey in 1964. Everyone can watch these films as well and conclude that what I wrote shows far less than what was.”

Opening theme from BluTV captures the cinematic choices made to depict the 60s

“Yesilcam is actually an imitation of Hollywood. Hollywood is a “medium” that infiltrates every culture around the world, bringing an admiration and a concern with it. People learn how to make movies by looking at Hollywood movies. This is not only true for Turkey, Egypt or India, it’s also valid for Germany, Sweden and even for England.

In Turkey, a political tension happens in 1964 and Rums (Greeks of Turkish nationality) are forced to migrate from Turkey to Greece due to conflicts between the Turkish and Greeks in Cyprus. Nine years prior, there was also attempted lynching and pillage of non-muslim minorities. Since the pogrom was organized with the help of the government, the bureaucrats of that period were judged and punished in 1960. The foreign audience may not know about this historical context.

Semih Ates is a character who confronts his past and regrets his actions. He knows that he is one of the perpetrators from 1955. He feels remorse, he faces it, but it is not always enough. We are narrating a human story and the global audience will watch his story, the joyous mask of Yesilcam, including its dim backrooms and its world of intrigue.

We asked about the similarities of the politicized nature of show business in Yesilcam and Hollywood, where nepotism, sexual favors, money can all shape who wins or loses; how did that shape the story told through a work of fiction?

“There should be similarity; that’s what’s right. Popular culture develops by analogy to a known example. We had a Jelly Bean kind of picture in our minds, where we had to look as shiny and sweet, but we had to make the audience’s teeth ache from the sweetness as well. Yesilcam is very well-known in Turkey and everyone can have an opinion on it. It seemed risky, especially when people regard it as nostalgic. We wanted to take advantage of these and show harsh and uncomfortable aspects of Yesilcam as well.”

The Characters in Yesilcam

“None of the fictional characters are rooted in a particular person but inspiration is unavoidably drawn from what we read, watch or the people we know. A realistic hero is tragic, his conscience disturbs him and he tries to cope with his mistakes.”

Real life Yesilcam actor Ayhan Isik and director Atif Yilmaz appear as characters in the series, but who really inspired the writers of Yesilcam is Yilmaz Guney, who was a film director, screenwriter, novelist, and actor. Many of his projects amplified the needs of the ordinary, working class people, and often ran afoul with the reigning government. In 1974, he was forced to flee Turkey and after some more turbulent years, his citizenship was revoked. Based in Paris, France, he continued to make films until his untimely death from cancer, when he was only 47.

Real life personalities of the Yesilcam era

Mr. Cantek says, “I love people who face their past and their mistakes, their family, their personal history; who tries to be and to stay good. We are all wounded by life. We both become the victim and the perpetrator. One doesn’t have to take refuge in religion or in piety because there was conscience before religion. With compassion, we learn to say “we heal if we feel ashamed.””

“I’d like every character that appears in the script to have a literary and humane depth. I don’t like making people watch only a beautiful girl and a handsome guy or to focus on one single effect that drags the viewers until the finale. I imagined Yesilcam’s opposition to the world, capitalism, men, harshness and contempt while it seems cheerful, bright and joyful as a narrative.”

Cagatay Ulusoy in Yesilcam

The writers with Cagatay Ulusoy, on last day of shoot for season 1

Unlike the dizi world, where stories are spun on a weekly basis after a certain number of initial episodes has received positive audience reception, both the seasons for Yesilcam were completely written before the cast was selected. As part of a collective effort, the writers worked with the production team and the director Cagan Irmak, who translated the writers’ vision to the actors.

Mr. Cantek, who received some video footage from the shoots, liked Cagatay’s portrayal of Semih Ates. Of Cagatay, he says, “I generally observed that he loves his job. He has a dream, he shows that he is an actor who won’t settle for what he already has and will search for better. He is eager, studious and he focuses well. These are important. I knew that Cagatay loved the script and wanted to play, and the producers had asked my opinion. I believe that he is successful and makes the best of the role.”

Digital Platforms and Local Storytelling

When asked about his writing experience for the digital platforms, he says “I feel like I can tell stories with more depth on digital platforms. Right now I’m writing three movies for Netflix; two of the stories are finished, and the third is about to.”

When we asked about efforts made to protect the local form of storytelling, Mr. Cantek iterates that “You have to know about your strengths and weaknesses. You can catch audience attention if there is a good story and good characters. The story shouldn’t be written by taking the global view into consideration but you consider it anyway because our projects are exported.

I pun and use accents in my scripts. For example, Izzet’s (a key character in Yesilcam who is intent on using cinema for his political agenda) political speech may not be fully understood by someone who isn’t Turkish. It may have a harsh impact but his choice of words may not be well understood for a non-local.

In fact, you have to design everything first, before you write it. For example, I added another criterion while writing for Netflix. These are contemporary stories. Someone from Los Angeles can be involved from the very beginning, providing comments and guidance, because the stories can be sold when they are still on the drawing board, and the content may change accordingly. I am learning with the process. They believed that one of my stories will have a high global demand but we will see how it goes.”

Yesilcam in the Future & Global Storytelling

So much of the Beyoglu district which housed Yesilcam/ the movie industry has morphed and changed. Someone told us that the theaters were torn down and a large part of the physical legacy of Yesilcam has been lost. Do you feel Turkish cinema gaining more importance in recent times can resurrect Yesilcam?

“Digital platforms such as Netflix will determine the future of the local cinema. I can’t foresee what will happen exactly but regardless of it all, I don’t think it will resurrect Yesilcam. It was a historical era that has gone. That’s why it’s nostalgic, because it’s not being made anymore.”

As a Turkish writer who takes care in how you design the characters and narratives, what do you think draws a global viewer to Turkish storytelling?

I can tell you that Koreans have bought theaters in Turkey and make investments here. They had meetings with me about adapting some Korean movies. I was surprised to learn that they thought that my writing style is like Korean. I can’t say I don’t watch Korean movies but I’m not a follower, a fan or an expert; I watch maybe 10 movies a year or even less. And yet, there seems a similarity.

You can be interpreted in a way you never anticipated. We can’t really identify what the global audience likes. A handsome actor, a strong female character, an intriguing story, visual aura, a high-tempo music… there are many factors. They wouldn’t have an interest if they didn’t find some familiarity in them. What Latins, Arabs and Slavs fancy about us, it can only be figured out by studying the audience there.”

What would you like to say to the growing base of international fans for Turkish drama?

They shouldn’t worry, Semih Ates can “make a movie and make sick people heal.”


Author’s note:

Levent Cantek

We thank Mr. Cantek for his incredibly insightful responses about his work, process, industry and more. A deeply experienced and accomplished writer who spent the first 12 years of his career in academia, he wrote academic books about popular culture, humor, and comic books. Then his career took him to being an editor in a big publishing house, and he worked as a editorial director for Turkish literature products.

He continued to pursue his passion for graphical novels, and his love for comic books manifests itself in Yesilcam through a reference to Mandrake The Magician, who happens to be the very first comic book superhero introduced in 1934. For the past decade or so, he has been doing more script writing, and for the last three years has exclusively been a scriptwriter. His last project was a 10 episode series, Bozkir, also for BluTV.

The depth of his preparation and well sketched out characters are evident in Yesilcam, and we will look forward to his Netflix projects with much anticipation!

To see trailers for Yesilcam with English subtitles, informational and other fan videos, click on this YouTube playlist for Yesilcam.


Article copyright (c) North America TEN & mh musings/ @entrespire, twitter

All video clips and photos belong to their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended. Please ask for permission before reprints. Please provide proper citations if referencing information in this article.

Cagatay Ulusoy is one of the actors supported by North America TEN. For more details, go here: www.cagatayulusoynorthamerica.com, where you can follow the CUNA blog to read weekly episode reviews of Yesilcam. You can also find our authentic Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/cagataynorthamerica.

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