by Eda Savaseri
Growing up in the early 1980s in Turkey was an idyllic childhood. All the screen action today’s kids are getting didn’t exist back then. No phones, no computers, no Netflix and although we had a TV we had only one channel TRT* on it. What did we watch on that one single channel? Lots of things, lots of Turkish movies. In fact, I didn’t get to watch foreign movies until I was 8. I might have watched some cartoons but not movies.
Turkish movies paint the background of my childhood but it’s quite blurry as we didn’t spend so much time watching TV. Those were the times we played real games, not video games. Nevertheless, I’ve seen enough movies and heard enough stories about the Turkish movie industry called Yeşilçam and when I heard that a new TV series is being made about its golden era, I got very emotional and excited. You might wonder what does Yeşilçam really mean? Let me give you my point of view without boring you with anything else about my childhood.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Yeşilçam (Green Pine) is the name of a street in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, where film production companies had offices and where movie extras and set workers used to hang out.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that people started using the name Yeşilçam to refer to the movie business and beginning from late 1990’s, when private TV channels were established, people started using the name Yeşilçam only to refer to the film making era between 1960s-1980s.
Yeşilçam as a name is perfectly fit for an era where film making was as challenging as it gets. Just like pine trees who stand tall during tough winters, Yeşilçam succeeded in lasting 4 decades when Turkey was struggling politically, socially and economically. It left behind a legacy that Turkish people learned to appreciate the same way we appreciate our elders who taught us how to be better people.
AN INDUSTRY SHAPED BY POLITICS
The history of cinema in Turkey is strictly intertwined with political history. Although the first Turkish film was produced back in 1914, it was not until the 1950s that cinema became a thing. By the 1960s, one could say there was a movie industry but it looked nothing like today.
Most screenings took place in open-air cinemas where people sat on wooden chairs, smoked, brought food with them. It wasn’t unusual to go and see a movie multiple times until it was replaced with another one. The movies between 1960s and 1970s (Yesilçam’s golden years) were all black and white. These were also Yesilcam’s busiest years. Some movie theaters could host 2000-4000 people per viewing and they showed 2 films per day. Colored films were not introduced until 1971.
Political events had great impact on Yeşilçam. Turkey had 2 military coups in the span of 20 years. The first one took place in 1960 and the second one in 1980. The first one resulted in a more populist approach in Yeşilçam’s storytelling. Movies made in this period were mainly themed around core values like friendship, sacrifice, love, honesty or explored moral/philosophical questions such as, “what brings more happiness – money or love” or “can we avoid our fate”.
Modern cinema critics sometimes look down on these movies which leaned heavily on good – bad conrast. In these movies, traditionally, people got their just rewards and bad people got their punishment in the end or at least they showed remorse. I have to disagree with these critics that always put these movies down, because though they’re very cliched, they served well to bring up a generation of people who have good morals.
Unfortunately, during the mid 70s, a darkness fell upon Turkey and this had a negative effect on cinema too. There was a lot of turmoil because of opposition between left and right wing. Yeşilçam has a 5 year long shameful era between 1975-1980, where mostly erotic movies were made. Making erotic films was the producers’ marketing plan to lure people to go and see movies. Then the second coup happened in 1980 and ended with a lot of restrictions and censorship for arts and cinema. Yesilcam was forced to take a 1.5 years break before it could resume.
After the 1980 coup, with increased migration abroad, a new genre called “Arabesk” was born. The name arabesk comes from the music genre that leans heavily on Arabic melodies and sad lyrics. “Arabesk” movies were mostly about how morally corrupt the society had become because of adopting the western values instead of our own. They were more realistic movies compared to the fairy tale like movies of previous years and mostly had sad endings. What a contrast to the happily ever after in the 1960s movies.
FROM RICHES TO RAGS
Although the teaser for Cagatay Ulusoy’s new series on Blu TV called Yeşilçam features a glamourous red carpet scene, the documentaries I watched is testimony that Yeşilçam life was far from being glamourous, at least after the 60s. The movie budgets were very small and they had incredible time restrictions. Sometimes they had to shoot a movie in one week. In the 1960’s in one year, Yeşilçam produced more than 200 films.
Melodramas and comedy films are an important part of Yeşilçam filmography (1960-1975). In order to produce more movies writers were forced to repeat the same storylines over and over again. Does that sound familiar to the Turkish TV series of nowadays?
Yeşilçam melodramas were written with certain formulas. Rich-poor, good-bad contrast, the love interest being or becoming sick, blind or disabled, sacrificing oneself for loved ones, misfortune (being poor or being an orphan or ending up in cruelty), vengeance for cruelty suffered in the past, were recurring plots.
Another interesting fact is that some of these movies were shot in weeks, if not days, with the amount of film stock restricted by the government. The filmmakers had little to no equipment. The actors had to arrange their costumes with their own money. Nevertheless, they shared life long friendships, they were there for each other. They never lamented or said bad words against each other. Each movie was clearly a labor of their love for cinema.
WHY YESILCAM MOVIES NOT WIDELY AVAILABLE ANYMORE?
I vividly remember the launch of the first private TV channel Star TV in 1989. It is safe to say that private television channels slowly brought the end of Yeşilçam. Turkish movies were airing continuosly on these channels and I was able to watch many of them while I was growing up. The problem was that these films were airing without paying any copyright to their owners or any royalty fee to their actors but the TV channels were making tons of money with ad revenue.
Yeşilçam actors mostly were victims of lack of proper contracts. It was the 2000’s when actors of Yeşilçam movies started to seek their legal rights. In 2001, the first court case was won by Kemal Sunal’s (a very famous comedic actor who passed away in the year 2000) family for 2 of his films.
After this success, the copyright issue started to become more legalized and slowly the channels had to stop airing the movies continously and start paying copyright and royalty fees. While it is good for the people who deserved to be paid copyrights, it slowly marked the demise of broadcasting of the movies.
I am sad for kids born in the 2000’s. My generation was lucky to see many of these movies as we grew up but now they’re only available on some digital and paid platforms. Given the choice, what do you think the youngsters choose between an old Turkish movie or a Netflix series?
WHAT IS YESILCAM’S LEGACY?
If I were to quantify the legacy of Yeşilçam, it is mostly the values that have been ingrained in the minds of the generations who watched them.
Common themes like friendship, true love, sacrifice, honesty don’t come up as often in current films. Comedy is not what it used to be – intelligent and kind. Although they were repetitive, these movies had great writing because due to small budgets they leaned heavily on dialogue. This resulted in great storytelling. It was not realistic but it still was satisfying and romantic.
Yeşilçam movies like Neşeli Günler (Happy Days), Hababam Sınıfı (The Class of Hababam), Sultan, Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalım (The Girl with the Red Scarf), Tosun Paşa, Canım Kardeşim (Dear Brother) can be watched multiple times as they serve great messages and acting at the same time. Especially comedy movies with actors like Kemal Sunal, Adile Naşit, Şener Şen and Münir Özkul never disappoint. Some of these movies have an all-star cast that to Turkish viewers were like the cast of The Avengers, such as in this photo from the movie Tosun Paşa (1976).
HOW IS TURKISH CINEMA FARING AFTER YESILCAM?
After the 1990’s, a lot has changed for Turkish cinema. Firstly, fund raising for movies has evolved with investors, ministry funds and sponsors so it isn’t leaning heavily on producers anymore. I think this is a good thing that allows some of our films to be featured in foreign festivals and competitions. After the 2000’s there are 2 tendencies as far as Turkish film making goes. There are box office films and independent films. Films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (who won the Palm D’Or in 2014 in Cannes) shows that Turkish cinema is becoming more of an auteur cinema.
It’s interesting to observe that it’s not the box office movies that are keeping the Yeşilçam legacy alive but it’s the TV series that are being made continuously and that are also being sold to many countries around the world. The Yeşilçam movie formulas are revived in these TV shows and, although compared to the past they work in much better environments, each show have the challenge of needing to to produce a 150 minute episode every week. This means they work 12+ hour days and have to almost make a movie per week. This seems reminiscent of the tight working conditions of the early years of Yeşilçam.
As a person who watches and enjoys many Turkish TV shows, I’m saddened to see that the greed of the Yeşilçam producers is also living inside the producers of TV shows. Many actors and crew members complain about these situations but the industry lacks regulations and a union.
WILL YESILCAM BE COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN?
What will happen in a decade when more millennium kids will start making movies? As far as movies go, I think we will have more independent movies as they require lower budgets and are easier to fund. However, with the digital platforms increasing, box office movies don’t stand a chance. As for Turkish television series, for now they will continue to air, one after the other. As long as they keep airing, the Yeşilçam spirit will live inside those who work on dizi sets, working long hours, doing what they love.
Eventually, maybe someday, Yeşilçam will be completely forgotten when there will be no one left to tell its story. However, today is not that day. I’m excited about the upcoming Yeşilçam series and I’m sure the director Çağan Irmak will do it justice as he’s a great filmmaker and also a fan of 60-70’s Yeşilçam. In his movie Unutursam Fısılda (Whisper If I Forget), he pays homage to Yeşilçam movies. The protagonist Hatice, who later gets the stage name Ayperi, is a singer in the 1970s.
We are made of many things; memories, education, experiences. We are also made of movies. Even movies we are exposed to not necessarily chosen by us, leave an effect on us. I remember Yeşilçam with nostalgia, giving me joy and sadness at the same time. Joy, because I will never laugh as much as I did when I watch Mavi Boncuk as they were faking to be beggars in Eminönü and failing miserably. I will never cry as much as I cried when I watched Canım Kardeşim, where a poor man finds out that his little brother is dying and tries to make everything he wishes come true in his last days. Cinema teaches us empathy, as we cry and laugh with fictional characters. As long as those characters live within us, Yeşilçam and cinema will live on.
* TRT- Turkish Radio and Television Corporation has been founded in 1964 and was the only national public broadcaster until 1992.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Eda Savaseri
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Cagatay Ulusoy, who is one of the actors supported by North America TEN, has a new movie coming to Netflix on March 12, 2021. His series Yesilcam will come to BluTV in April. For more details, go here: www.cagatayulusoynorthamerica.com