Fictional characters of all sorts, from lovers and aliens to cowboys and superheroes, came to life in the numerous film production studios of Istanbul during the mid-20th century. The headquarters for all of the country’s major film production houses were on Yeşilçam Street, in the heart of the city.
With studios on Yeşilçam Street churning out over 300 productions per year, the name “Yeşilçam” become the local lexicon equivalent to that of “Hollywood” across the Atlantic.
Succeeding the serial novel, Yeşilçam cinema served as the primary source of entertainment and communal activity among middle-class Turks from the 1950s though the 1980s, and, like its predecessor, borrowed heavily from the themes and narratives of popular western culture.
This was no less true of the one-sheet posters used to promote the films. Largely photograph-based from 1955 onwards – following advances in photo offset and color separation – the illustrators and graphic designers of Istanbul’s printing houses produced work that moved beyond the purely hand-drawn posters of Egyptian cinema to rival their American counterparts.
But while the themes and printing technologies looked to the west, the narrative structure of the Yeşilçam poster also echoed the inevitable social conflicts that were arising in a former eastern superpower undergoing rapid westernization.
From October 3-14, an exhibition at Green Library will showcase 11 of the most historically and artistically significant illustrated posters produced in Turkey during that era.
The viewing will serve as a preview of sorts to a larger exhibition being organized by Burcu Karahan-Richardson, a scholar of Turkish Language & Literature at and lecturer in Stanford’s Division Of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. John Eilts, Curator for the Islamic and Middle Eastern Collection and David Giovacchini, Bibliographer for the Arts in the Islamic World in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Collection, both with Stanford University Libraries, collaborated on the exhibit, which will travel to Washington DC for the annual Middle East Studies Association conference from December 1-4, 2011.
Featuring 20 highly sought after hand drawn posters from that period, the exhibit is sponsored by the Mediterranean Studies Forum, the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Stanford Arts Initiative, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources, the Turkish Cultural Foundation, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.
Karahan-Richardson, whose research centers on issues of gender, translation, and westernization in 19th century Ottoman and modern Turkish literatures, came across the Stanford Libraries collection of nearly 500 Middle Eastern films and posters, by chance but immediately noticed similarities between the films and the literature she studies.
“From a scholarly perspective, I found them interesting because I could see similar male and female character stereotypes appearing on these posters as I did in the early 20th century translated and indigenous Ottoman-Turkish novels,” she says. “In those novels, characters were often changed and Turkish-ified, and the directors and producers of Yeşilçam cinema used similar methods.”
The art pieces on show were carefully selected by Karahan-Richardson, Eilts, and Giovacchini over a period of months from over 300 Yeşilçam-era posters stored at Stanford Libraries.
The exhibit at Green highlights the central themes of the time period’s popular culture as well as some key, and often enduring, ideas about Turkish nationality and the role of women in the country’s society.
“The posters are collected to reflect the development of Turkish cinema, but also as works of art unto themselves,” says Eilts.
“One of the staples of Yeşilçam was the melodrama,” says Karahan-Richardson. “Typically, this was a sad love story involving a young, rich man trapped between two different women.”
The female love interests in question, she notes, were often highly polarized to reflect conflicted attitudes in the face of the country’s continued opening up to the west.
“Usually, one represents a more western, liberal way of life, while the other is more traditional and obedient,” says Karahan-Richardson. “Of course, the traditional woman always wins.”
The poster for the 1960 production Kahpe – translated as Whore – is a perfect, if not particularly subtle, example of the trend. The seductress, Belkis, is dressed in a tight red gown with her face obscured by shadow. Her rival, Ayla, is meanwhile placed adjacent to the male protagonist, her face turned to the viewer but her eyes directed at the object of her affections.
The poster for Ankara Ekspresi (Ankara Express), meanwhile, features a villainess clad in black leather and pointing a gun, while in Reyhan, the title character looks up at the protagonist Mehmet, who is simultaneously clutching her shoulders but looking away at some unseen threat. This positioning, says Karahan-Richardson, emphasizes both Reyhan’s clear motives as well as her modesty, in directing the attention to the object of her affections.
Arranged to emphasize either well-known stars or to relate the films’ overall narrative, the one-sheets in many ways reflected the influences and hybrid-nature of the films they served to advertise. From a thematic standpoint, they echo the cinematic traditions of Germany, France, India, Italy, Egypt, and, of course, Hollywood. Between 1967-1974, for instance, Turkish cinema produced over 30 spaghetti westerns. The poster for Süpermenler (Supermen), meanwhile, borrows the typeface of the similarly themed Superman, along with the pose used by its star Christopher Reeve (although there are three of him).
The movie posters also reflected the conflicts that were naturally beginning to arise in a Turkish society that was increasingly opening up to the west. Male characters in both the melodrama as well as in the other popular genre – the warrior movie – often served as personifications of Turkish society as a whole.
“All of these warrior-themed movies represented aspects of Turkish culture and strength as a whole, and to an extent helped reproduce the country’s national identity,” says Karahan-Richardson. Such characters thus tended to be placed in conflict with Turkey’s traditional enemies, from Greeks in Dağlar Bizimdir (Mountains are ours) to the Byzantines or Chinese in Tarkan.
“These portrayals, in film, are the continuation of similar characterization that we find in early novels, which mostly stemmed from the Ottomans’ reaction to the intense westernization process during this period,” says Karahan-Richardson. With largely state-imposed social change and the loss of a powerful, authoritative father figure in the Sultan, says Karahan-Richardson, “there was a drive to create strong male characters in fiction that could restore the shaken authority.”
The composition of such posters varied according to the prominence of the actors and the origin of the story being told. Tarkan, for example, was the first of several adaptations of a Turkish comic book hero modeled on America’s Conan the Barbarian. The one-sheet thus focuses solely on the character and relies heavily on his earlier cartoon renderings in style.
Dağlar Bizimdir, meanwhile, featured no marquee names in its cast. Its one-sheet thus depicts various images and scenes of action meant to carry across the film’s central themes and evoke nationalist sentiment.
Beginning in the 1980s, Yeşilçam cinema began to decline markedly as a result of the increasing dominance of television in Turkey’s popular culture space, as well as the inability of production companies’ to keep up with western cinema’s technological innovation and financial liquidity.
“Cinema was not the primary source of income for many of the filmmakers involved in Yeşilçam,” explains Karahan-Richardson. “The producers of these films made them almost as a hobby, and would in fact invest much of the profit back into their primary industries.”
Since the 1990s, Turkish cinema has reestablished itself along two paths, with popular cinema attracting the masses through the emulation of Hollywood, and artistic cinema garnering international critical acclaim.
While the trappings of Yeşilçam have largely disappeared, its ideas about women and its desire to create strong, mostly masculine personifications of Turkey continue to emerge in film and television, particularly in periods of crisis. Karahan-Richardson cites the controversial “Valley of the Wolves” – which gained attention for its depiction of American soldiers in Iraq and for its portrayal of Israel in Palestine – as one example.
Coinciding with the exhibit will be screenings of a documentary on Turkish popular cinema and of Tarkan vs. The Vikings on October 12, 2011. The screenings are part of Karahan-Richardson’s COMPLIT 144/244A “Interplay between Turkish Cinema and Literature” course. The organizers hope the event draws attention to Stanford Libraries’ enormous collection of Turkish as well as Middle Eastern films and related art and texts.
“I think the Stanford Library has one of the largest collections of Turkish cinema artifacts, including posters and DVDs,” says Karahan-Richardson.
“This exhibit is only a small representation of all of the posters in our collection,” says Eilts. “The Stanford libraries also have a fine collection of Egyptian cinema posters and an exhibit of them was mounted in the Green library a few years ago to great acclaim.”
By Kareem Yasin