Yılmaz Güney’s life (1937–1984) had all the elements of an over-the-top, action-adventure movie with a lot of politics thrown in for good measure. Despite spending a total of twelve years in prison, two in military service, two in enforced internal exile and three years of self-imposed exile in France, he had a prolific film career, acting in 111 films – mainly popular genre movies – and writing/directing twenty films in all, including three that he made from jail by proxy. Filmmaking from jail by proxy? Yes, Güney’s contribution to cinema is unique.
When recounting Güney’s life, it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction: megastar, poet, novelist, internationally renowned, award-winning film director, militant propagandist, revolutionary democrat, dangerous communist, chardonnay socialist, political prisoner, murderer, exile, traitor – Güney was, or was accused of, all these. When I met him in Paris, just four weeks before he died to film an interview for the documentary I was making about him, of one thing I was absolutely certain: Güney was committed to using his film art to oppose political oppression and to further democratic freedoms.
Village Voice critic J. Hoberman grasped the uniqueness of this extraordinary filmmaker when he described him as ‘something like Clint Eastwood, James Dean, and Che Guevara combined.’ the Greek-American director Elia Kazan lauded him for having revolutionized Turkish cinema and bringing a realism to the Turkish screen that few could match. The Greek-French Costa-Gavras, whose film Missing shared the Palme d’Or with Güney’s Yolin 1982, was such an admirer that he introduced this once-banned film at its legal Turkish premiere in 1993. For Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, Güney’s films are ‘the essence of life.’ For the younger generation, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin: ‘Güney was a warrior. His movies are full of passion. He had a passion devoid of any compromise: an extraordinary strength. He’s a master of ‘realist’ cinema. Contemporary Turkish cinema is still inspired by his basic dry realism [and] capacity for saying lots of things using just a few scenes.’
Opinion inside Turkey is more divided. Both adored and execrated, views about Güney and his films tend to depend on where the admirer or detractor stands politically. For Onat Kutlar, founder of the Turkish Sinematek and life-long opposer of censorship, Güney was ‘a symbol of the oppressed – a folk hero, a combination of saintliness and courage.’ is clearly was not the opinion of the 1961, 1971 and 1980 military juntas that censored or banned every one of the Güney’s films and imprisoned him on charges including criticising the constitution, spreading communist propaganda, harbouring wanted militants, and killing a judge. For his many millions of Turkish and Kurdish fans, however, Güney was the people’s artist, an adored hero-legend they called simply çirkin kral, or the ‘ugly king.’
Güney was born to a peasant family in the cotton-growing area of Adana Province in southern Turkey to where his mother’s Kurdish family had fled from the Tsarist armies during WW1 and his father, a Zaza Kurd, had found refuge from a family vendetta in central Turkey. In the 1950s, Güney worked for a film distributor to pay for his education and found work with the director Atıf Yılmaz, a significant figure in Turkish cinema, who encouraged his protégé to write and act. After a short stint at Istanbul University studying economics, Güney was imprisoned for spreading communist propaganda in a short story he had previously written while at school. As he explained to me, at the time he literally hadn’t known what or where this thing called ‘communism’ was. But the 1960 military junta, although it would introduce some constitutional democratic rights, was not interested in listening to a young, would-be film-actor firebrand.
Throughout the 1960s, Güney’s career as a film star hit stratospheric heights: in 1965, he starred in 21 of the 215 films shot in Turkey that year. As he explained, many were Hollywood remakes: ‘I played the Marlon Brando role in a re-working of One-eyed Jacks, the Jack Palance role in an imitation of I Died a Thousand Times, and I starred in several James Bond-type films. I was also in 10 Fearless Men… yet another variation on Seven Samurai, inspired by The Magnificent Seven. The others … were not particularly Turkish….but they were the ones that made me a star in my country.’
Like any visitor to Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s, I recall vividly the impossibility of entering a shop, café, taxi, bus, office, classroom or home without seeing pictures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Yılmaz Güney. More often than not, there were more photos of the Çirkin Kral than of the founder of the Republic. Legend – and some legends are too good not to print – has it that at outdoor screenings of films in which an enemy was depicted creeping up behind the Ugly King, audiences would take out their guns and shoot at the enemy, leaving screens all over Turkey shot through with bullet holes.
Güney began directing in the mid-60s, a time of increasing political turbulence culminating in the repressive military coup of 1971 that would reverse previous democratic gains. During this period, he founded his own film company to make films that fused his star appeal with his leftist politics. He was interrupted by two years compulsory military service but in 1970, he wrote, directed and starred in Umut (Hope) a film that for many is a social realist masterpiece and proveda turning point both for Güney and for Turkish cinema. Drawing on personal experience and demonstrating political compassion, Umut makes a powerful and moving statement about the futility of isolated, individual action and the necessity of group solidarity, a conviction that became the uniting thread of his subsequent films.Umut was banned and Güney was sentenced to internal exile. In the next few years, despite spending another two in prison, Güney made several successful films including Ağıt (Elegy, 1971) and Arkadaş (Friend, 1974). In 1974, before he had finished shooting Endişe (Anxiety), he was arrested and convicted for killing a judge and sentenced to more than 18 years in jail. Endişe had to be completed by his assistant director, Şerif Gören.
Did Güney murder the judge? The many legends don’t all agree, convince or align. Some say he did, some say he didn’t, others say his nephew used his uncle’s gun, and yet more leave the verdict open, not least because the prosecution case lacked the forensic evidence to justify the conviction. But, as Güney told me, he was not prepared to discuss the case as this could only implicate friends.
For the next seven years, Güney wrote scripts from prison and supervised their filming: he ‘instructed’ rather than physically directed Sürü (The Herd, 1978) and Düşman (Enemy, 1979), both of which were directed on location by Zeki Ökten. A legend here tells of the rushes for these films smuggled into his prison and projected on his cell walls. A slightly different version claims smuggling was unnecessary because Güney’s jailers were big fans who positively welcomed seeing their hero’s rushes.
Following the 1980 military coup, the third in as many decades and each more repressive than the previous, Güney was in prison facing the prospect of a further 25 years for charges relating to his political views and writings. The repressive political environment meant that many fans were too frightened to have his photo in their homes and workplaces or even mention his name publicly for fear of persecution. Realising that from now on, every film he ever made would be banned, Güney reportedly said: ‘There are only two possibilities: to fight or to give up. I chose to fight.’ His last two films, Yol and Duwar (The Wall, 1985) are testimony to this pledge.
This time, many of the legends are undoubtedly true. From Isparta prison in western Turkey, Güney briefed Şerif Gören (who had himself just completed a prison sentence on a spurious political charge) on how he wanted his film to be shot. After the shoot, the negative was successfully transported to Switzerland. In the final part of a carefully executed plan, Güney exploited the prison parole system to flee to France which granted him political asylum and where he edited Yol. Güney lived his last years in exile in Paris where he died of cancer in 1984. His funeral at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris was attended by thousands of friends, fans, comrades and political supporters. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone living in Turkey at the time would have dared travel to Paris to make their farewell: Turkish secret police and informers were doubtless also among the mourners.
Güney’s films and writings were immediately banned in Turkey until 1993 when the Turkish premiere of Yol took place. But even at this screening, his most celebrated and courageous film was censored: the frames with the word ‘Kürdistan’ had to be removed before the authorities would permit the screening.
Yol is a bleak, angry, sprawling film, following the emotional and physical journeys home of some prisoners who have been granted a week’s leave from the prison island of Imralı in the Sea of Marmara – the very jail where Güney was imprisoned.* As they travel by bus and train against the ticking clock (they have to be back within the week or else suffer a further sentence), the men discover that they are no more free outside prison than they were inside. Güney’s Turkey is one large prison in which the people are oppressed by political tyranny, the ever-present military and by superstition, bigotry, religion and patriarchy. The women, especially, are trapped by traditional values and codes of masculine ‘honour’ that reduce them to possessions as the men pursue futile vendettas and revenge killings. Şerif Gören who filmed according to Güney’s detailed instructions brings his own cinematic skills to the film, capturing a people in brutally beautiful landscapes caught between the destructive forces of modernization and feudalism.
All the prisoners experience sadness, despair and oppression on their journey. The oppression often comes from those who are themselves oppressed by the military regime, feudal traditions, contemporary capitalism, nationalism, and by religious intolerance. Güney’s conviction of the futility of individual action and the need for solidarity and unity in collective action is nowhere more strongly represented than in the story-line of Ömer (Necmettin Çobanoglu), one of three Kurdish characters with whom many think Güney closely identified. To the soundtrack of a haunting Kurdish song, Ömer leaves his family and his village to head across the border to join his fellows who have been incarcerated since 1999, much of the time in isolation. Like Güney, Ömer finds freedom by choosing to fight rather than submit to military or feudal law.
With its inclusion of some Kurdish dialogue, music and song, there was little likelihood Güney would have been be able to oversee the edit in Turkey and, even had he been able to do so, no likelihood at all that the film would ever be shown in Turkey. ‘The Kurdish struggle, as shown in Yol,’ Güney said later, ‘is probably the most visible face of the resistance….If Turkey can achieve a true democracy, then all minorities will have the right to speak up…’
Güney’s decision to escape and edit Yol in voluntary exile so that it could be seen by audiences outside Turkey was rewarded by winning not only the Palme d’Or but also awards from the International Federation of Critics, the Ecumenical Jury, the French Critics’, the London Critics Film Circle, and the US National Board of Review. It was also selected as the Swiss entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards. In Turkey, however, the military regime sentenced Güney in absentia to an additional 20 years in prison, revoked his citizenship, and confiscated and banned all his films including those he had directed and scripted and those in which he had acted.
‘Yol is living proof that it is not a director who makes a film but rather a team. It is a collective work whose spirit reaches from the stormy 1980s right up to the current day with its origin in Yılmaz Güney’s life and the script he created.’– Donat Keusch, Producer of Yol (1982) and Yol –The Full Version (2017)
The restoration for Yol – The Full Version (2017) screening at Cinema Reborn is from the original 35mm negative, small parts of the interpositive and the positive work print; the new sound mix is from the original digitized tapes. is, however, is only a small part of the restoration story which has created almost as much controversy as did Güney himself for much of his filmmaking life. The story is complicated by several versions of the film at various stages of development, production, exhibition and restoration. In the beginning, there was Güney’s original idea and screenplay. Next, there was the footage that Gören filmed on location. In France, Güney produced first a 135-minute cut and then, at the insistence of the Cannes Festival Director, a shorter version that won the Palme d’Or. A slightly censored version was then made for the film’s first legal screening in Turkey in 1993, followed by an illegal version that began to circulate around this time. Finally, in 2017 the original Swiss producer gave us the fully restored version that adheres to the longer cut that Güney had wanted. At this time yet another version – censored to exclude some of the overt references to the Kurds – also had to be created, as explained below. The history of these different versions mirror the problems that many filmmakers have faced when making films in Turkey, a country where censorship and political persecution, particularly of the Kurds, has long existed.
For years, Yol existed only as poor quality 35mm film prints and illegal digital copies, made from the 1982 Cannes version or the censored 1993 print screened in Turkey. According to Donat Keusch of Cactus Film, the Swiss producer and distributor of Yol (1982), upon seeing Güney’s cut, Cannes Festival President Gilles Jacob insisted it had to be shorter or he would not consider it for inclusion in the main competition. A shortened version was completed almost overnight with several voices hurriedly dubbed live by Güney, many female voices supplied by a single actress, and no time to fine edit or complete the sound track. After it was banned in Turkey, the first official screening didn’t take place until 1993 when the Swiss producer and distributor was forced to remove the shot with the word ‘Kürdistan’ emblazoned on it when Ömer reaches his homelands. Apart from this, nothing else was changed; it was still the hurriedly edited version made for Cannes in 1982.
Around this time another version started to circulate illegally in Turkey in which several voices were changed. This is particularly sad because Güney’s voice can be heard in the Cannes version: he dubbed the voices of the tooth puller and the old man at the bus stop who asks for a cigarette as well as the voice coming from the prison loudspeakers in the opening and end sequences. In 2017, thirty-five years after Yol won the Palme d’Or, and in the year that Yılmaz Güney would have turned eighty, Yol – The Full Version, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Not everyone is happy with this restored version. Impassioned protestors accuse the Swiss producer of censorship, pointing out discrepancies between the length of the 1982 and 2017 versions. They point out that the ‘Full Version’ has an additional prisoner travelling back home on his week’s leave and they are concerned that this character is not as sympathetic as the others. Of major concern was the continued absence of the word ‘Kürdistan.’ What the protestors were not party to, and are presumably unaware of, is the longer version of Yol that Güney approved before being compelled to make several hasty edits.
Keusch explains that when he asked Elizabeth Waechli, who had edited with Güney back in 1982, to work on the restoration she produced 469 pages of notes she had made at the time. These notes were the detailed instructions for the cut that Güney had wanted and the 2017 Yol – TheFull Version carefully follows these. In fact, Güney had originally envisaged a much longer film with many more prisoners but the exigencies of filming meant that Gören could film only six.
In the last frantic minutes of editing before submitting the film to Cannes for inclusion in competition, however, the unpleasant character – a member of the Adana gambling mafia who cheats on his wife and visits prostitutes – as well as part of the story of another prisoner, Yusuf (Tuncay Akça), were cut out. Happily all is restored in Yol – The Full Version.
More than this, for years Keusch assumed that the poor picture quality was the work of cinematographer, Erdoğan Engin. But a test-scan of the original negative in 2012 showed that Engin’s camerawork was very good despite the difficult weather conditions and circumstances in which he’d had to film. The poor copies were actually the result of unsatisfactory laboratory work. Digital restoration technology has meant that the picture quality as well as the sound track is now much improved. And at last, the wonderfully evocative music by Zülfü Livaneli can be properly acknowledged: in the 1982 version he was credited under a false name to protect him from possible persecution.
Controversially, for it to be to be shown at the Turkish stand at Cannes in 2017, the shot with the word ‘Kürdistan’ as well as a highly political scene where Ömer speaks about difficulties of being Kurdish had to be removed. However, the complete new Yol – The Full Version exists for the international market with both politically controversial shots/inserts now included and, largely thanks to Donat Keusch, we can now see the film that Güney wanted us to see.
Directors: Şerif Gören, Yılmaz Güney (by proxy); Screenplay: Yılmaz Güney; Producers: Edgar Hubschmid, Eliane Stutterheim, Donat Keusch; Editors: Yılmaz Güney & Elizabeth Waelchli (1982), Peter R. Adam & Tobias Frühmorgen (2017); Sound: Loïs Koenigswerther (1982), Domninik Schleier (2017); Cinematography: Erdoğan Engin // Cast: Tarık Akan, Halil Ergün, Şerif Sezer, Meral Orhonsay, Necmettin Çobanoğlu, Hikmet Çelik, Tuncay Akça, Güven Sengil, Güngör Bayrak, Semra Uçar. Music: Zülfü Livaneli (as Sebastian Argol in 1982); Picture Restoration: Ruedi Schick (SwissEffects) and Daniel Stübner; Production (1980 to 1982): Cactus Film Zürich; Production (2012 to 2017):
Source: DFK FILMS.
See also below note sent to Cinema Reborn by Donat F Keusch of DFK FILMS
Program Notes by Jane Mills
A note from Donat Keusch (above) : ‘Jane Mills’ Yılmaz Güney: His Life, His Films was carefully conceived for UK’s Channel 4 and it is the best portrait of my friend ever made.’