x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Film challenges Ataturk's image

Even 70 years after his death, Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has the power to move his fellow countrymen like no one else.

Nearly 500,00 people have seen 'Mustafa' in the first five days of release.
Nearly 500,00 people have seen 'Mustafa' in the first five days of release.

ISTANBUL // Even 70 years after his death, Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has the power to move his fellow countrymen like no one else. A new documentary, titled Mustafa, has taken Turkey's cinemas by storm since it opened last week, attracting almost half a million viewers in only five days, a huge success in this country of 70 million people. But while drawing big crowds, Mustafa has also stirred a passionate debate about how modern Turkey should see the man, a controversy that mirrors the country's search for an identity between its Islamic character and heritage and its western structure and vision. Mustafa tells the story of Mustafa Kemal, who was born in Thessaloniki, in today's Greece, in 1881 and died in Istanbul in 1938. As a general in the Ottoman army in the First World War, he won praise as a military genius before organising a national Turkish resistance that pushed out foreign occupying forces and founding the republic in 1923. As Turkey's first president and leader of the army, he put the country on a western track, introducing Latin script, abolishing the sultanate and the caliphate and ending the role of religion in government affairs. He also gave women the right to vote and created western-style last names and received the honorary name Ataturk. Can Dundar, a journalist and filmmaker, studied such rare documents as an early diary of Ataturk in the archives of the presidential office and the general staff in Ankara and used original film material as well as actors to make Mustafa. He said his film was a reflection of the many different facets of Ataturk himself. "I am sure there are scenes that get on everybody's nerves, others that make everybody sad, or that everybody has fun with and that everybody likes," Dundar told reporters after the Istanbul premiere of Mustafa last week. "Ataturk was like that, too. At times he was sad, at times he was happy, at times he was angry." With Turkey preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Ataturk's death tomorrow, showing Turkey's founder as a man with both strengths and weaknesses came as something of a shock for some. Ataturk is omnipresent in Turkish daily life, with pictures of him in every shop and government office, monuments and busts on every town and village square and his portrait on all coins and bills. But he has rarely been shown as a fallible human being who makes mistakes and goes through mood swings. By portraying the loneliness of Ataturk's personal life, his heavy drinking - he died of cirrhosis of the liver - and smoking, and his less than democratic tendencies, Dundar breaks several taboos about the revered leader. And it has drawn harsh criticism from Kemalists, members of Turkey's secular elites, which include the army, the judiciary and wide parts of the bureaucracy and who see themselves as heirs to Ataturk's legacy. Although Mustafa earned praise from Gen Yasar Buyukanit, a former chief of general staff, who said the film was a "worthy piece of work", some Kemalists say the film is an affront against the real Ataturk and even an attempt to weaken the state. In a sign how sensitive a topic Mustafa is for Turkish society, Turkcell, the leading mobile phone operator in Turkey, withdrew its sponsorship for the film shortly before it opened. The Association for Ataturk's Ideas, a leading Kemalist organisation, called the film a "big irresponsibility". The association's branch in the city of Isparta in south-western Anatolia went one step further. "This film is not a work that shows the real Ataturk but the Mustafa that the enemies of Ataturk's republic, Kurdish activists and moderate Islamists want to see," it said in a statement. The film was part of an "operation to de-Ataturkise the Turks", it said. Some critics said the film dwelled on Ataturk's personal flaws but hardly mentioned what he did for the country in the First World War when he played a key role in repelling the attack of British and Anzac forces at Anafartalar on the Gallipoli Peninsula or later, when he fought against occupation troops in Anatolia. "Anafartalar one second. Occupation two seconds," wrote Yilmaz Ozdil, a columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper. Deniz Baykal, a Kemalist politician and leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, a party founded by Ataturk, said some people were trying to portray Turkey's founder as a dictator, but the fact that Ataturk parted ways with some of his early companions later on was a normal political development, and not a "trait of personality". Yigit Bulut, a Kemalist columnist for the Vatan newspaper, called on readers to boycott the film and said Mustafa was part of a campaign directed against the Turkish army. Mr Bulut pointed out that the film, which showed Ataturk as an ultimately powerless leader, hit the cinemas at a time when media were reporting that the army had known in advance about a deadly attack by Kurdish rebels in October but was unable to stop it. "What a coincidence, isn't it," he wrote. The intensity and bitterness of some comments show the debate is not just about a film. Kemalists fear the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister - which won last year's general elections with a landslide and secured the presidency for one of its leading members, Abdullah Gul, shortly afterwards - is slowly taking over the republic. For them, Mustafa is part of that development. "For years, helpers of imperialism, opponents of the nation state, supporters of sharia and fake republicans have been trying to insult Ataturk and destroy his revolution," the Association for Ataturk's Ideas said in its statement about the film. "They will not succeed." Ahmet Altan, the editor of Taraf, a reformist daily newspaper, described the Kemalists' attacks on the film as being driven by a desire to deify Ataturk and put him beyond debate. "Why do they do that?" Mr Altan asked in a column for his newspaper. "Because Ataturk is being used like a shield to fend off questions about many things that are misshapen or rotten in this country." tseibert@thenational.ae