Metin Erksan (1929–2012) was no slouch. His movies were entered into major international competitions and sometimes won them. When Turkish cinema was having its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Erksan was there. In the 1970s, though, he started making movies aimed at commercial success—or so the story goes—and on a couple of occasions at least, this seemed to involve taking well-known masterpieces of cinema and giving them a Turkish (and possibly Islamist) makeover for Turkish-speaking audiences.
The Yeşilçam (‘green pine’) period of Turkish cinema had entered its decline as Erksan was hitting his stride in the mid- to late 1960s. Making almost a shot-for-shot remake of ‘The Exorcist’ for Turkish cinema audiences must have seemed like a good idea. Erksan did it on a small budget and without much in the way of special effects. The makeover attempts to reproduce many effects of art direction, set design and music, but not very successfully. He gives it his best shot. In fact, he just steals the music. Erksan’s version, called ‘Şeytan’, was in Turkish cinemas at nearly the same time as Friedkin’s original. What was the point?
‘Şeytan’ (1974) removes all visual and narrative trace of Catholic heresy from William P. Blatty’s story. There are no Catholic priests in ‘Şeytan’, no cassocks, no seminaries and no desecrated statues of the Virgin Mary. When the possessed teenage girl is hovering above her own bed it is not “the power of Christ” that compels her to get back between the sheets, but an all-powerful Allah. So, at one level, Erksan was presenting Turks with a ‘Halal version’ of Blatty’s screenplay.
In the years following ‘Şeytan’, Erksan made five Turkish short stories into television features. Then, in 1977, he made a Turkish version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he based it on the great, Soviet, cinema version of the play made by Grigori Kozintsev in 1964. This Soviet version was itself built upon a translation by Boris Pasternak and featured original music by Dimitri Shostakovich.
This time Erksan went further than making a Turkish Hamlet on the cheap. He added an unexpected extra element to the mix: he made Hamlet a woman. Highly-regarded Turkish actress, Fatma Girik, played the “Avenging Angel” of the title. “Hamlet” was the subtitle used on the posters, though the movie is usually listed as “Kadin Hamlet” or ‘Woman Hamlet’. Again, Erksan stole whatever was useful, chopping up Shostakovich’s score ruthlessly to make it fit his scenes, and echoing elements of the set and art direction. The effects fall short of Erksan’s aspirations: the ghost in ‘Kadin Hamlet’ looks less like King Hamlet than a somnambulant Bela Lugosi.
‘Kadin Hamlet’ was shown at the Filmex movie festival and was accepted into competition at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival (1977). At Filmex it was shown during the festival’s 50-hour movie marathon and greeted with hilarity. There’s no record of whether the jury was laughing in Moscow where, I imagine, there may have been serious discussion about the nature of cinematic homage, the political turmoil in Turkey, and the credit given to Shostakovich but not to Kozintsev.
Should we be laughing? I did. I’m not ashamed. But I wondered, also, whether there was something missing from this reaction, and if a cult of incompetence has grown up around certain movies—and ways of making movies—that makes it easier to laugh at them than to see what they were trying to show us. Erksan’s Hamlet stays in the background of her mother’s wedding, and she is dressed in a modern 1970s white suit. There is disco music in the background as the film’s first exchange takes place. Erksan appears to be making serious claims on behalf of his audience, including that Turkey’s decades-long reforms in favor of modernity, and equality for women, were not going away. Erksan smartly turns the duel between Hamlet and Laertes into a shooting-match with rifles in a forest.
Within a few years, the political situation in Turkey even more chaotic, other film-makers began cobbling together less respectful and less competent rip-offs of Hollywood hits. ‘Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam’ (1982), known as the Turkish Star Wars, is the most notorious example. It’s awful, and awfully funny.
Turkey was not the only country performing this kind of cultural appropriation. There is a Japanese version of Star Wars, called ‘Message from Space’ (1978) and an Italian Star Wars called ‘Star Odyssey’ (1979).