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).
Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …
Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”
Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.
Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.
Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.
Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.
It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.
Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.”
I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.
What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.
Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.
With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…
Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.
The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)
The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.
Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.
Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.
To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.
Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.
Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.
Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?
I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.
Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.
Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.
I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.
At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.
The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.