When Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Best Director Award for Three Monkeys at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008, he ended his speech with a simple sentence: “I dedicate this film to my lonely and beautiful country, which I passionately love.” The speech itself had been more elegiac than jubilant, delivered with the director’s dulcet tone, a short melody of gratitude to a festival that had done more than any other for this Young Turk’s career. But it was that final dedication that will echo in the hearts of his fellow countrymen and women for a long time. With one brief line, he captured the very gist of modern Turkey: a solitary land of infectious passions, tragic beauty, and deep melancholy.
Naturally, what’s true of Turkey is even more true of Istanbul. The city’s allure is magical; its sense of isolation at the crossroads of the East and the West palpable; its passions explosive. It’s not at all surprising that this city of contrasts, which seems to defy the fabric of convention itself, has given rise to a particularly unique musical scene.
More on that in just a short while: first, a detour. It’s a shame that the cinema of Turkey is generally synonymous, in the dorm rooms of vexatious frat boys at least, with cheapo knock-offs of Hollywood blockbusters. It’s certainly true that those films are funny (even though the real point of the most infamous one of them all, Dünyay? Kurtaran Adam aka The Turkish Star Wars, has been lost in all the fanboy hype—it’s not just a spoof of Hollywood, it’s a spoof of spoofs and of knock-offs, too); but they represent the nadir of an industry that found itself unable to adapt to the parallel rise in both the popularity of television and the physical costs of film in the 1970s.
The twenty or so years from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s are infinitely more interesting, not just to cineastes, but also to more general lovers of film. Turkish cinema—or its metonym Yeşilçam, after the street in the sleazy Beyoğlu district of Istanbul where many of the local film companies had their studios (as in apartments, not back-lots)—lived through its halcyon years in that period, when Turkish output was about 300 films per year on average, the sixth biggest in the world. Remarkable for a country ravaged by wildly fluctuating economic and political instability.