It has often been said that films help reflect the mood within a country during a particular period. Hollywood has regularly mirrored attitudes within the US, with the film noir period arising out of post-Second World War paranoia and titles such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon echoing the racial, class and cultural divisions that were present in the US during the Vietnam War. Even the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, has been accused of being an anti-leftist response to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.
But perhaps few film industries are so reflective of current moods than Turkey’s, a country that has seen itself emerge as a major political force on the world stage while at the same time experiencing the sort of GDP figures that have had most major economies frothing with envy.
Turkey’s growing sense of patriotism had been catered for over the past decade with Valley of the Wolves, a TV and film franchise in which the no-nonsense secret agent Polat Alemdar regularly triumphs – usually quite violently – over his country’s foes. In 2010’s Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, this Turkish 007-a-like responds to the deadly attack on the Gaza flotilla earlier that year by infiltrating Israel and taking on the IDF almost single-handed (the Israeli commander who ordered the assault has an eye taken out with a rather impressive slow-motion, single gun shot).
Valley of the Wolves regularly tops Turkish box offices, but this year saw all records smashed by Fetih 1453 (Conquest 1453), out in the UAE today, a film that turns the clocks back to the capture of Constantinople in the 15th century. Described as a “turbans and testosterone epic”, Fetih 1453 is an action-packed and CGI-heavy retelling of Sultan Mehmed II’s conquering of the Byzantine capital that paved the way for Muslim Ottoman dominance over the region. And with costs estimated at US$17 million (Dh62.4m), it’s the most expensive film in Turkish history.
“My biggest goal was to show the glorious success of my country,” says the director and producer Faruk Aksoy, who adds that he put his own savings towards the funding. “The conquest of Istanbul had very important results, not only for the history of Turkey but for the world, and changed the history of politics, military strategy, religion and civilisations.”
Aksoy’s financial gamble, which he admits might have “seemed a little crazy”, paid off, with Fetih 1453 becoming the most-watched film in Turkey after only 18 days. And its fans have stretched into government, with some Turkish ministers reportedly suggesting it should be shown in schools. Aksoy himself has said the film was made partly as an answer to the “extremely Orientalist” depiction of Turkey in -Hollywood. But, despite its success, the film hasn’t come without a sizeable number of detractors, many of whom have claimed it stirs up extreme nationalism, particularly against Turkey’s Christian -neighbours.
“Watching this film as a Turk, it’s very hard not to get carried away by the film’s self-serving politics of power and righteousness,” claimed the film critic Emine Yildirim. “But let’s be honest, just as many were perturbed by the portrayal of the Persians in 300 as barbaric monsters, many will perturbed by the portrayal of the Papacy and the Greek Orthodox peoples of the Byzantine Empire.”
Fetih 1453 isn’t short of historical inaccuracies, from its depiction of the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI as a man with an endless procession of scantily clad women at his feet despite the fact he was largely considered celibate, to its complete omission of any Christian involvement on the Ottoman side. Historians have suggested that there would have actually been thousands of Christian troops fighting for the Sultan, including 1,500 Serbian cavalry.
“Of course, Fetih 1453 was not made as a documentary,” argues Aksoy. “Some speculative changes, which were necessary for the movie’s expression, were made.”
However speculative, the changes were enough to see Greece’s Proto Thema tabloid describe it as “conquest propaganda by the Turks”, a Christian group call for a boycott, and the film’s website come under cyber attack shortly before its release in Turkey in February this year.
Not that this seems to have persuaded Aksoy, whose previous bread and butter was comedy, to change tack. The director was rumoured to be planning his next film about Gallipoli, where the Turks – under the command of Ataturk – famously prevented British and French troops from landing in the Dardanelles and marching on Istanbul during the First World War.
Aksoy now claims that he has since changed his mind because of a spate of Gallipoli films that have been announced in Fetih 1453’s wake. “But I can say that my next project will be a big-budget epic.”
And if that wasn’t enough to keep patriotic juices flowing, there’s always the next Valley of the Wolves instalment, in which Polat Alemdar will take his unorthodox diplomatic skills to Azerbaijan to deal with the events of 1992’s Khojaly massacre. While a release date is yet to be announced, it’s probably fair to say that the Armenian and Russian sides are going to come off quite badly.