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This was written by Emrah Güler and was originally published at the Turkish Daily News.
In light of celebrating Mother’s Day last Sunday and the Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival continuing in Ankara this week, we take a brief look at women in the history of Turkish cinema.
We look at how women were played by men in the beginning of this century, how the sacred mother was one of the stereotypical images of women in Turkish cinema for decades, the stars and the actresses, and how we see women in cinema now.
When we say mothers were played by men, what we mean is that during the brief period of time when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and the Turkish Republic was about to be established, the emerging form of art and entertainment that was cinema met with a major obstacle with regard to female characters. The Ottoman regime didn’t allow Muslim women to be part of this new sacrilegious entertainment form. For a decade leading to 1920s, female characters were portrayed by men for a short period of time, and later by non-Muslim women, mostly Armenian or Russian. The first woman who dared to kiss the opposite sex on screen was a minority, Madam Kalitea.
Afife Jale was the first Turkish/Muslim woman to act on stage in 1920. This paved the way for other Turkish women to pursue acting either on stage or on screen. The prolific period of director Muhsin Ertuğrul between 1923 and 1939 (he single-handedly introduced cinema to Turkish masses by being the only director with 29 movies in that period), he introduced actresses to Turkish cinema. Among these women were Feriha Tevfik, the first Miss Turkey after a beauty contest initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey; Semiha Berksoy, an opera singer who played and sang in the first sound movie; and İsmet Sırrı, who was the first actress in Turkey’s very first box office success, Ankara Postası (The Ankara Post).
Turkey’s very first star was Cahide Sonku (pictured), often compared to Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. Sonku became a legend in the 1930s with her onscreen persona of the beautiful heartbreaker coupled with her off-screen image as the irresistible woman whose shoes were used as wine glasses. She became the ultimate movie icon of her period. She was also the first female screenwriter and director with Vatan ve Namık Kemal (Namık Kemal and the Motherland), and the first actress to play the first female protagonist living in rural Anatolia with Bataklı Damın Kızı Aysel.
The next decades confined women to one-dimensional roles where women were either good or bad. The sacrificing mother, untouched virgin, femme fatale, the seductress were some of the stereotypes Turkish cinema got a load of during that period. When movies wandered into rural Turkey, honor and virtue became the driving forces to put women into their places. If a woman lost her “purity,” she was either killed or found herself in a brothel.
Until the 1970s, actresses were typecast for these one-dimensional roles. Neriman Köksal was the blond femme fatale and the home-breaker, Hülya Koçyiğit was the heroine of the tragic love stories, Muhterem Nur was the weak woman doomed to despair, Belgin Doruk was the bourgeois sweetheart, Fatma Girik was the tough street girl, and Filiz Akın was the naive romantic with her blond European look.
Desired by men, respected by women
Türkan Şoray was one name that stood out among these actresses, cementing her name as the legend of Turkish cinema. With her slightly parted lips, and huge eyes, she soon became “the woman everyone wanted to fall in love with.” She tried different roles, while maintaining her dignity despite risky roles. She even directed four films in the 1970s and 1980s, including the classic Yılanı Öldürseler.
It was Müjde Ar, in the 1980s, who connected the split halves of women, playing multi-dimensional women who were in charge of their sexuality. She didn’t fear nudity, but refrained from being objectified. Men desired her, women respected her. Teyzem (My Aunt), Adı Vasfiye (Her Name is Vasfiye), Aaahh Belinda!.., Kupa Kızı (The Queen of Hearts) and Fahriye Abla were some of the famous films that showed Ar in a selection of diverse roles, focusing on desires and frustrations of women from different backgrounds and social classes.
The last two decades saw a plethora of professional actresses who portrayed distinctive female characters, among whom are Hülya Avşar, Lale Mansur, Hande Ataizi (pictured) and Başak Köklükaya. Having broken free from the jailhouse of stereotypes, Turkish cinema finally gave women their own voices, in a rich spectrum of different and unique tones.