Turkish delights of the 1970s: movies of Metin Erksan

First ghost scene from Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet.

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.

Metin Erksan's 'Şeytan'
Metin Erksan’s ‘Şeytan’

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).


See also:

How Iran’s ‘filmfarsi’ remains the biggest secret in cinema history (Guardian)

Serge Gainsbourg’s empathy

Do popular songs aim low? According to the French wikipedia, Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ was a hit in 1959. It is a poem about a ‘ticket puncher’ in Mairie des Lilas (a railway station in Paris) who talks very quickly about punching holes in tickets all day and about someone making a final hole for him, where he won’t have to listen to talk about holes any more.

Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.
Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.

(The original music video—with English subtitles—is also on YouTube, but the audio track is not clear.) “The main road,” which the persona of the poem says he hopes to leave, is actually, in the French lyric, “la grand’route” or ‘the great highway’—surely a reference to the road we all take to the grave.

The song is a poetic and political act of empathy, and of a kind that has become rare in the sanitised marketplace of popular songs. And it is the poetry that saves it from being only political ideology and lifts it into the realm of art.

Gainsbourg died in 1991, having established himself as one of the world’s most influential popular composers and performers.

Bertolt Brecht and the Tea Party

Bertolt Brecht

One of Brecht’s very famous poems is ‘Years ago when I,’ written in the 1930s, and published in English by Methuen in the 1976 collection Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913–1956. It opens with the lines:

Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world’s wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you’ve run
Into bad trouble.

Brecht makes a harsh moral judgement of the men of the exchange: “These people, I saw, lived by the harm / Which they did, not by the good.”

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956
Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956

The place he referred to in this poem was, insofar as I have been able to determine, the Chicago Board of Trade, established in 1848. In 2007 the Board of Trade in Chicago merged with the Mercantile Exchange to form the CME Group.

In 2009, Rick Santelli, an editor of a business news network in the USA, famously delivered an extraordinary ‘rant,’ from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in which he accused the Barack Obama administration of “promoting bad behavior” through its attempts to avoid foreclosures on the mortgages of nine million homeowners with the ‘Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan’. He said that people who had obtained bad mortgages were “losers” and that the foreclosed properties should be available for purchase by people who “carry the water” rather than “drink the water.” He mentioned the possibility of a Chicago Tea Party. Out of this confused nonsense the modern Tea Party movement was born.

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  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
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Done in our name

The federal Liberal-National Party government in Australia changes leaders, convinced that it cannot win a 2016 election with Mr Tony Abbott as prime minister and choosing Mr Malcolm Turnbull to replace him. Not a single word was uttered all day by politicians of the major parties about the plight of refugees detained on Manus Island and Nauru. It was… leadership, leadership, leadership, economy, economy, economy. What our political representatives said, and how what they said was reported in the media, demonstrated yet again that Australia’s treatment of refugees was irrelevant to most Australians. Electorally irrelevant, that is, because the major parties have agreed with each other to agree with Australian electors.

First Dog on the Moon (September 2015).
First Dog on the Moon (September 2015).

And yet, all over the (left-hand side of the) internet are calls for Abbott to be tried at The Hague; and for Cheney, Bush and others to face justice for their torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere. Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them. As the New York Times editorial board has noted, it is an outrage that official investigations of the abuses of prisoners have not led to the trial and conviction of any but the lowliest responsible agents of government policy. We must expect the same in Australia, when the question of whom we will blame for what has happened on Manus Island and Nauru enters the national consciousness as shame.

This is the reason public discussions of national guilt and reparations are important. I have come to accept that for many years I voted for major political parties that had policies I now think are repugnant. It seemed easy to reach the conclusion that, on balance, one imperfect arrangement of policies was better than another. I have been part of the process that led us to where we are.


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  • Take the pledge - … Take the pledge by sharing this graphic in any way you prefer. Download it and use it on Facebook. Send it in replies to emails from politicians. Use it as an avatar. Send the message to politicians that you will not vote for them if they support detaining asylum-seekers. More posts about asylum-seekers and …
  • Done in our name - Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them.
  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
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George Franju’s «Blood of the Beasts»

Click to start or stop video …

Our attitudes to butchers and meat have changed in ways that our parents and our parents’ parents could not have imagined. Firstly, there is the matter of the declining status of butchers. It is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK in 1980 over one hundred thousand people were employed in privately-owned butcher-shops. By 2008 the number had fallen to about thirty-five thousand. In New Zealand, and elsewhere, negative growth in employment of butchers outstrips the negative growth in most other trades during the past couple of decades by at least a factor of ten. It is not just a recent trend. CSIRO research on meat retailing once claimed that numbers of butchers in Australia dropped 40 percent, from ten to six thousand, between the 1950s and 1980s, and said…

There are two main reasons for this decline; firstly, [butchers] will be replaced at the counter front by sales persons, who will be trained in consumer contact skills and not in meat preparation. Secondly, there may be a move to centralized packaging, employing capital intensive gas flushing techniques for primals and sliced and trayed meats. These trays will have extended shelf life without the dull presentation of vacuum packaging and be capable of being stored in the retail shop until used, thus relieving the necessity for shop butchers to break down carcasses.

Secondly, we can add to the simple fact of decline the observation that technology and supermarkets have had their effect on how we think about the places, sensations and people associated with meat. Yes, supermarkets have butchers we can sometimes glimpse working in a space whose design has changed; but gone, very gone, from many people’s lives are the smell of the butcher-shop, the bloodied aprons, the wood shavings on the tiled floor, the tools dangling from the leather belt. Yes, gone—and a good thing, too, I can hear some of you say. Very well. I understand that.

Third, our meat no longer looks like what it is. It comes, instead, skinned, weighed, seasoned and cooked, packaged in plastic trays, labeled, branded, transported, stacked. Often, it does not even have bones. Many people have come to react with revulsion to meat that has any bone in it, as if the bone reminded them they were about to eat an animal. (Jacques Derrida said that the very word ‘animal’ carried within it a presupposition of the cage and food.) A bone in a fish is an existential threat. Look—I’m not going to mention offal (the meat world’s unmentionables), or Masterchef (cooking turned into melodrama). The whole “protein” thing makes me very mad. I’m not going there.

Zuckerberg strangled a chicken.
Zuckerberg choked the chicken.

Mark Zuckerberg said somewhere, because everyone is pretending that his aspirations and thoughts are now public, that he was going to try to eat only meat from animals he had killed himself. Suddenly, I have the thought in my head of one of the world’s richest men chasing and choking a chicken. Or, confronting a cow with its ultimate sunset clause. And, then, a series of other thoughts… Of course this idea that one should only eat what one is prepared to kill comes somewhere from the desire to live a healthier life and to live in a way that reduces the effects of animal cultivation and destruction on the environment, and hence on the planet. I am about to agree this seems like a very good idea. (Peter Singer has remarked that this answer to the problem of unnecessary violence only affects a tiny fraction of the slaughtered animals.)

Then, I wonder about the practicality of this resolution. Chickens, yes, I can imagine most people coping with the consequences of the resolution. There are problems with some of the other animals. Cows are, plainly, rather huge. You would have to share. Actually, you would have to get help to move the poor thing, especially when dead. There is the difficulty of learning the butchering techniques, safety issues, storage issues, and so on. Other animals, smaller ones, present difficulties of scavenging and hunting, not least that you need a lot of time.

Somehow, I don’t believe Mr Zuckerberg’s idea is as easy or as noble as it sounds. I think there are going to be a lot of compromises. Compromises that involve hunting, plucking, gutting, butchering. He only claimed he was going to try to do the killing himself, so perhaps this is all going to be achieved with a Taser and a team of assistants.

I wish him well in his efforts to save the planet and his soul.

Which takes me to my point: the disturbing and great film, «Le Sang des Bȇtes», by George Franju. Made in 1949, and now dubbed in English and available to be viewed on YouTube, it shows butchery of horses, cows, calves and sheep with poetic and dispassionate realism, emphasising the professionalism and expertise of the butchers.

Charles Trenet's La Mer
Charles Trenet’s La Mer

In the final minutes, as the blood of the beasts is being washed away from the streets around the abattoir, we hear one of the workers singing ‘La Mer’, by Charles Trenet, a song that would have been only recently released in France at the time Blood of the Beasts was made. (Was it the first time ‘La Mer’ had appeared on the soundtrack of a movie?)

Blood of the Beasts is as disturbing as it was in 1949. Many people are not used to seeing animals killed, and would be wrong to think that modern movies and games had inured us to the sight of it. 

Working at the cusp of realism and surrealism,  Blood of the Beasts is a kind of homage to butchers and, simultaneously, a commentary on the need to do ugly things to survive and perhaps even to fight just wars.

More information about Blood of the Beasts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_of_the_Beasts