Turkish Director Fêted in Cannes, Ignored at Home

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Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan poses after winning the Best Director prize at the Closing Ceremony of the 61st Cannes International Film Festival on May 25, 2008.

Celebrated Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan was awarded Best Director in Cannes on Sunday. Perhaps now Turks will finally go see his movies. Despite being heralded globally for his movie magic, Ceylan's films — slow-paced, poetic tales of individuals struggling against the bleak backdrop of modern Turkey — routinely flop back home. Distant, a previous Cannes competitor, was seen by just 20,000 people in Turkey — only one-fourth as many as saw it in France. His current Cannes winner, Three Monkeys, has yet to sell to Turkish TV, which has deemed it too arty.

It is true that Ceylan's films are never easy going, but in a country of 70 million, 20,000 viewers seems, well, a little pathetic. Are Turks a nation of cultural philistines? Critics bemoaning the dearth of interest in cultural fare (book sales are shrinking along with art-house film audiences) point to a brutal 1980 military coup as the start of this malaise. The generals ushered in an era of economic liberalization and anything-goes cowboy capitalism that rapidly transformed the country into a consumerist McHeaven. Turgut Ozal, who served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 1989 and as President from 1989 to 1993, famously declared that his dream was for Turkey to become "a little America." And he wasn't talking about liberty. Today, Turkey is home to Europe's youngest population, and one of the world's fastest-growing consumer markets with brands like Starbucks, Topshop and Ikea booming. One brand manager told me that in his view, the country's shopping malls (60 new ones opening this year) are "paved with gold."

The buying binge is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon. But in Turkey, unlike similar developing countries like Brazil or India, it is underpinned by a deep distaste for the arts. After the 1980 coup, tens of thousands of leftists were imprisoned and often tortured. Newspapers and magazines were banned, politics was forbidden in schools and universities and free speech stifled by draconian laws, some of which are still on the books. With intellectualism effectively quashed, the end result was a cultural vacuum. Recovering has not been easy.

Then again, to give Turkish audiences their credit, maybe Ceylan's previous films were just really, really slow. "Viewers have become used to the fast-paced style of ads, music videos and news shows that jump from scene to scene; this manifests itself in an impatience towards films which tease their stories out slowly," says Firat Yucel, editor of the film magazine Altyazi.

If that's the case, they can take heart: Cannes award winner Three Monkeys is an engrossing tale of an Istanbul family torn apart by their secrets. In tone, if not style, it is a departure for Ceylan and has even been described as a thriller, albeit a meditative one. "Hopefully the Cannes charm might coax viewers into giving Ceylan a chance," says film critic Emrah Guler. And if that's not enough to get Turkish moviegoers to the theaters, the director stands in good company, with the likes of Woody Allen, of filmmakers embraced by the arty French but neglected at home.