12 Essential Films For An Introduction To Turkish Cinema

7. Ah güzel Istanbul aka O Beautiful Istanbul (1966)

O Beautiful Istanbul (1966)

An icon of Turkish cinema Director Atif Yilmaz was renowned for the performances he drew from his actors and for his vast body of popular works. ‘O Beautiful Istanbul’ is a standout amongst them and for more reasons than one. 

A dark romantic comedy contrasted with the beautiful backdrop of bustling and vibrant Istanbul the director frames the city as a character in the film and in doing so weaves a warm, charismatic tale that is as approachable today as it was then.


8. Üç Maymun aka Three Monkeys (2008)

Three Monkeys (2008)

Turkey’s official submission for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However it was at Cannes 2008 that the film found international praise from critics when the Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was awarded the Best Director prize for his elegiac neo-noir detective story. 

The story is light on dialogue but then again it’s not required, the cinematography is superb and expresses the anguish effectively. Coupled with a deliberate slow pace the audience is drawn in and it all amounts to a successful psychological thriller.


9. Eskiya aka The Bandit (1996)

The Bandit (1996)

Turkey’s hopes for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 69th Academy Awards were not realised and a nomination went begging. But then again, this film, one can sense is happy to have been a contender.

The titular character returns home from prison after 35years to find that his village has flooded. He then sets off to the city to seek revenge from the snitch that put him away. On this journey the bandit acts as wise council for a young man who wants to be a gangster, who in return assists the bandit to stay afloat in an occidental city, which is just as much a prison as it is flooded with western peculiarities.

These themes are complemented by the films cinematography, direction and narrative which dance gleefully with Hollywood action flick tropes and are coupled with eastern legends and myths that are ever so prevalent in eastern story telling. The occidental bandit could have been a contender to stem the flow of the western flood and the young man may stay afloat if he embraces the myths. However the films mediation is not on this conflict, but on the obvious . . . we are all contenders.


10. Selvi Boylum, Al Yazmalım aka The Girl With The Red Scarf (1978)

The Girl With The Red Scarf (1978)

Once again director Atif Yilmaz draws a phenomenal performance from his actors. A wonderful romantic drama is woven when coupled with a standout soundtrack composed by Cahit Berkay, which is as iconic as the film itself.

However this simple story of love is not just an example of Turkish cinemas ability to tell a romantic tale. It is as much an example of the directors’ meticulous attention to detail and effective staging of mise-en-scène. Atif Yilmaz displays a faultless performance as director and finds a balance between poetry and motion, whereby the internal conflicts are voiced and the external conflicts are buried, which ultimately leads to a decision. One that the audience will share, in a finale that is up there with the greatest.


11. Sürü aka The Herd (1979)

The Herd (1979)

The second film of Yilmaz Guney to feature on this list. ‘The Herd’ is perhaps not as well known as ‘The Road’ the Palme d’Or winner of 1982. However, winning awards is not the measuring stick for this list. The herd is a story of a journey. A dramatic tale emerging from a social stance and ending on an existential note.

The narrative is carried forward on a train journey. This train allows the viewer access into the interior of Turkey (much like the river in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness does in Africa) as it travels from barren villages of the east and into the developed west. On the other hand, unlike Conrad’s novel, the herd is not divided from the events and the people it encounters. With the west representing hope and the journey riddled with corruption and injustice. The film hints that the herd perhaps needs to take the journey in order to connect the good and the bad so as one can see themselves in relation to it.

Yilmaz Guney’s films normally make strong and powerful statements about Turkish society and authority in general. However, ‘The Herd’ is perhaps the most responsible and therefore the most approachable of his statements.


12. Uzak aka Distant (2002)

Distant (2002)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant is an outstanding piece of cinema from the director, who like Yilmaz Guney often meditates on the gulf between the city and the country. In this film the hospitality that one expects is experienced by city folk upon visiting family back at home in the village is not returned when Yusuf played exceptionally by Mehmet Emin Toprak (who sadly passed away in 2002) comes to the big city to stay with his cousin Mahmut, hopeful of breaking the drought of employment and opportunity.

The performances of the two lead actors are undeniably worthy of recognition. The character Yusuf is lonely and isolated and at times displays the same brooding existential vibe as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle yet doesn’t need to explode with violence to communicate with the audience. The character Mahmut also lonely and isolated reminds one of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, career success and its material cousins cannot deliver the experience he longs for yet psychologically cannot obtain. The distance in geography, between individuals and even from art are all explored with intensity and patience, a must see and a worthy introduction to Turkish cinema.

Other worthwhile films: Journey to the Sun (1999), Motherland Hotel (1987), Feyzo, The Polite One (1978), Bitter Life (1962), Once Upon a time in Anatolia (2011), Facing Windows (2003), The Road (1982), Winter Sleep (2014), Head On (2004).

Author Bio: Agreysiren is a 35 year old from Melbourne, Australia. He currently holds a degree in International Economics and is a lifelong student of cinema. For suggestions on what to watch and latest updates and news visit https://www.facebook.com/agreysirenpics & www.agreysirenpics.wordpress.com.