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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Turkish pro-government film is a blatant smear campaign

The plot features the network of Fetullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, trying to bring down the Turkish state.

For the past few weeks, a new Turkish film, Kod Adı: KOZ (“Code Name: KOZ”) has been heavily advertised in cities around the country.

The sinister, sepia-tinged poster features a tableau of suited men viewed through the crosshairs of a gun; at first glance, it could be mistaken for a Turkish version of the classic Bond or Bourne spy thriller.

On closer inspection, however, several intriguing details spring out. What is Big Ben doing in the bottom corner, apparently in the line of fire of a gun-toting, headscarf-wearing woman? Who is the familiar-looking silhouette lurking in the background? What on earth does the tagline mean? “Söylenenler mi dogru, ögrenecekleriniz mi?” (“Is what they tell you true, or what you discover?”).

The most pressing question, however, is why the film is being shown free in cinemas only a few days after being officially released. With remarkable disregard for box-office takings, someone wants to ensure that as many people as possible see it.

Kod Adı: KOZ gives us the Turkish government’s version of its spectacular falling-out with Fethullah Gülen, an influential Islamic cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. Gülen was once a close ally of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan but, over the past three years, relations have soured and in December 2014 a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of “leading a terrorist plot to seize power”. The story of the rift is complex, but the official government line is that Gülen is bent on destroying the Turkish state with his huge network of followers embedded in the police and judiciary: the so-called “Parallel State”.

This is rich fodder for political drama, further improved by lashings of artistic licence. The key details of the Kod Adı: KOZ poster act as signposts – the silhouette with the unmistakable profile can only be Gülen, Big Ben represents the dark forces of supposed Gülen affiliates – the British and American intelligence services – and the tagline refers to the countless rumours and half-truths peddled by Turkish media on both sides of the fight. At the end of the film, viewers are under no illusion as to which version of the story the producers wish them to believe.

KOZ sails dangerously close to libel but stops short by assigning fictional names to its characters. Instead, actors have been carefully chosen for their physical resemblances to the politicians, prosecutors and clerics they represent – sometimes, the resemblances are so uncanny as to suggest that these “actors” are in fact random men spotted somewhere by a casting agent and hauled off in triumph as the closest available body doubles.

This theory is supported by the fact that many characters have been dubbed (badly) by marginally more talented off-screen actors, an otherwise inexplicable artistic choice. Either way, the resulting effect is surely to stoke credulity in the minds of audience members already receptive to the stories found in state media.

Despite its execrable acting, the film must be commended for its efforts to fit all the darkest political scandals of the past few years into two hours, each event inevitably portrayed as the work of Gülen, whatever its outcome.

One example is the mysterious helicopter crash in 2009 which killed Muhsin Yazıcıoglu, the head of the nationalist-­Islamist Great Union Party. In the film, the crash is engineered by a Gülenist spy in revenge for Yazıcıoglu’s refusal to fall in with Gülen’s nefarious plans; the camera lingers several seconds too long on the bloodstained snow in the wake of the crash for maximum impact.

Another episode dramatises the arrest warrant issued in 2012 for Hakan Fidan, Erdogan’s much-trusted head of the Turkish intelligence service. This Gülenist plot was, apparently, foiled by Erdogan himself, who heroically sent his personal military guard to save Fidan in an armed standoff outside secret intelligence headquarters.

Like a pantomime, the film’s forte is its array of scheming villains. In one scene, the ruthless Gülen blackmails Istanbul stock-exchange officials with personal folders stuffed with incriminating photographs, watching with satisfaction as they stare in horror at the contents before stammering for mercy. His British allies, meanwhile, sit in a darkened room somewhere in the vicinity of Big Ben (as advertised), plotting to assassinate Erdogan.

In an unsettling instance of media imitating “art”, a week after KOZ was released, several of the pro-government papers ran a story claiming that Erodgan’s daughter, Sümeyye (widely tipped to run for parliament in the next few months), is the subject of an assassination plot by Gülen’s agents.

To do the Turkish public credit, the film has been a complete flop, which is presumably why tickets were offered free after its opening weekend. However, the question remains: who is shouldering the losses, and why?

One of the producers is Kazım Albayrak, a partner of the family-owned conglomerate Albayrak Holding, who was reportedly close to Erdogan during his time as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. The Albayraks own Yeni Safak, a staunchly pro-government daily that runs regular front-page stories vilifying Gülen, and whose columnists were quite possibly recruited to help with the writing of the KOZ script judging by stylistic similarities. The dots join up with depressing predictability.

While Turks, in general, are to be commended for largely ignoring this cinematised smear campaign, it is worrying that hundreds of thousands have already seen it. The most troubling moment of the film came as the credits rolled and I overheard some audience members behind me comparing notes. “Wasn’t it great?” one man asked his friend. “Loved it,” replied the other. “It really told the whole story.”

Alev Scott is a writer in Istanbul. She is the author of Turkish Awakening (Faber & Faber) and a contributor to the forthcoming Shifting Sands (Profile Books).

thereview@thenational.ae