Cinema Regarding Nations: Re-imagining Armenian, Kurdish, and Palestinian national identity
KurdishCinema - January 27, 2009
By Tim Kennedy * Part 2
Chapter 5 in the thesis
Güney and Kurdish identity
Güney was phenomenally successful in his early career, appearing as a virile “action hero” in a
large-number of low-budget Yeşilçam films in the 1950s and 1960s.1 Regarded as ‘the most
popular actor in Turkish film history’ (Ilal, 1987:124), he was able to use his popularity to embark
on a second career as film-maker, beginning with his collaboration with Akad in 1964.2 Only
after 1982, when he escaped from prison in Turkey and renounced his Turkish citizenship, was
it possible for him openly to acknowledge his Kurdish origins and reveal his support for the
Kurdish movement for autonomy (Kutschera, 1983). However, we can see how Güney
progressively articulates aspects of Kurdish identity in three films from his most important
period, Umut (1970), Sürü (1978), and Yol (1982).
Umut was an innovative film in that, for
the first time in Turkey, it dealt directly
with the massive social and economic
divide between rural immigrants and
city dwellers. It tells the story of Cabbar
(played by Güney), an impoverished
migrant with a large family to support,
eking out an existence as a
carriage-driver in the southern city of
Adana. Realist and neo-realist
influences, such as the use of
non-actors, actual locations, and
simple, naturalistic lighting set-ups,
are evident throughout.
It opens in the early morning on a scene of empty city streets being washed by a municipal
street-cleaner – an indirect statement of the way the film’s protagonists, the underclass, have
been “cleansed” from society. Cabbar is revealed, asleep on his decrepit horse-drawn cab
waiting by the railway station for a fare. Though a willing worker, he is cast as an anachronism,
illiterate and ignorant, with no place in the modern city. His only ‘hope’ is the lottery whose odds
are indicative of the un-bridgeable divide between rich and poor.
Bad luck in the form of a careless car driver who kills one of his horses, and the complicit
authorities who refuse to help him gain reparation, further conspire to squeeze him to the
margins of the economic system. Cabbar’s attempts to escape his predicament prove futile.
He tries to borrow money but is turned away; he sells his possessions in order to buy another
horse only to find creditors have sold his cart; and he takes part in a near farcical robbery that
fails, leaving him battered and bruised. Eventually, he loses all hold on reality and embarks on
a fool’s chase after mythical buried treasure.
Though there are many signals that Cabbar and his friends are Kurds, Umut is not obviously a
film about Kurdish issues. Indeed, a Marxist reading situates Cabbar simply as ‘a fictional
representative of the marginal masses’ (Giles and Sahin, 1982:5), victim of technological
revolution and the new capitalist class it spawned; powerless to change his situation. He has
no access to capital, he cannot extend his debt, and he has no human resources to fall back
on. In such a reading, Güney would also seem to fault Cabbar for lacking “political
consciousness”, for example, by rejecting participation in a street demonstration by his fellow
cab drivers, relying instead on his false hopes. Cabbar’s quest ends in failure, of course. The
distant camera emphasising his isolation as he blindly turns in a circle alongside the
unproductive pit he has dug: blind because he can see no means of escape, circling because
he is doomed to an endless cycle of poverty.
On a closer reading arabesk influences are readily apparent in the film’s realism, its setting in a
gecekondu, and its concern with marginalised people. Umut articulates the relationship
between order and power in Turkish society and, more dangerously, shows how the state fails
the powerless, specifically the Kurdish community.
The disordered and chaotic space Cabbar and his family inhabit is repeatedly contrasted with
urban order. As we have seen, the opening sequence sets clean, wide, straight boulevards
against the cramped, unkempt figure of Cabbar. A montage of shots of the family hovel, with its
broken corrugated-iron fence, dilapidated gates, roaming animals, water-well, and tin bath, are
juxtaposed with long, slow panning shots of the sleek, horizontal facades of modern multi-story
apartment blocks. And Cabbar, driving his ancient cab, is caught amidst the bustle of traffic in
the modern city.
In addition, echoing the
ambiguities of arabesk,
Cabbar oscillates between
aggression and resignation.
In a startlingly realist manner,
he viciously beats his wife and
child when they disobey him.
And, in a self-referential
sequence which begins as
Cabbar strolls past posters of
Güney in the macho persona
of his Yeşilçam films, he
brutally punches and kicks a
pickpocket; the violence
intensified by a closely
circling camera. Yet,
otherwise, he seems to
accept his fate without
complaint. This fatalism is
exemplified by a scene, silent
except for the noise of the wind, in which a cart carries the horse across an empty field, while he
follows on foot. The driver tips the body out and drives away. A powerful image of solitude and
hopelessness, Cabbar squats at a distance, epitomising what Stokes argues is the dominant
image of the arabesk, namely ‘a peculiarly emasculated manhood’ (1992a:13).
Güney’s performance as Cabbar is in marked contrast to his earlier films. No longer the action
hero who can correct wrongs single-handedly, he appears to acknowledge what Armes calls the
‘limits of individual action’ (1981:9-11). In addressing the imbalance of power between the state
and its marginalised people, he seems to argue that significant social change will only come
about through collective action.
Umut reveals the increasing economic divide in Turkey in the 1960s; typical of the uneven
development that Tom Nairn, for example, argues is a root cause of the growth of national
consciousness. And the film constructs a political space in which Güney begins to expose the
presence of an underprivileged Other in the midst of Turkish urban society. This Other could not
be enunciated as a separate national group at that time, but Güney begins to suggest a critical
approach to the representation of cultural difference. His next film, Sürü, takes these ideas
further by examining conditions in one rural community and the deep social and political
divisions within and between rural and urban Kurdish communities.
After the heady political
freedoms of the period in
which Güney could produce
Umut, a reaction set in that
was both anti-communist and
anti-Kurdish. Though the
Kurds supposedly did not
exist, many Turks openly
denounced them, one journal
going so far as to ‘threaten’
them with the same fate as the
2004:409). This unrest
deepened in the late 1960s,
during which time there were
calls by some politicians of
Kurdish descent for
recognition of their rights as a
distinct ethnic group in Turkey.
By 1971 the political situation
had deteriorated to such an extent that another military coup was engineered and martial law
declared soon after (ibid.). Among the thousands arrested, Güney was sentenced to two years
in prison for sheltering militant students wanted by the government. Umut and seven of his
earlier films were banned and the prints confiscated (Rayns, 1983:93).
The military embarked on a crack-down, especially in rural Kurdish areas, that continued until
the restoration of civil authority in 1973 when a mildly leftist government was returned to power.
Under an amnesty, Güney was freed in 1974 but shortly thereafter he was accused of murder
and this time given an extended jail sentence.4 Perhaps surprisingly, he was able to continue
his work in prison where he wrote the script for Sürü (1978), subsequently directed by Zeki
Sürü is a complex film that examines the destruction of traditional peasant and nomadic ways of
life in Turkey by the land reforms of the 1950s and 1960s; the immense fissure between the
rural East and urban West; and, as in Umut, the economic divide in the cities. But, above all, the
film is a powerful account of the processes of historical change among rural Kurds who have
always been associated in the minds of many Turks with ignorance, violence, superstition, and
backwardness. At the time Güney was working on Sürü, they were additionally blamed for
holding back Turkey from becoming a fully-fledged Western nation, by their failure to modernise.
Of course, Kurds who had modernised – that is, who had successfully integrated – were unable
or unwilling to call themselves Kurds for fear of reprisal. In this film, Güney addresses the
contradiction that Kurds can only become modern by denying their Kurdishness and becoming
assimilated Turks. Indirectly, he asks whether there can be such a thing as a modern Kurd –
whether space even exists in Turkey for a Kurdish identity.
The flock of the title and its shepherds – members of a fictional Veysikan tribe – are metonyms
for the Kurdish nation.5 Their long journey from the pasture lands of Kurdistan to market in the
western city of Ankara symbolises the hurdles they face in meeting the challenges of modernity.
This journey, with its connotations of rupture and transformation, allows Güney to engage with
the discourse on the survival of identity, and is the first instance of a trope common to many
films exploring the Kurdish question that we will encounter later.
The film opens with a leisurely series of long shots in deep focus that follows the progress of
three horsemen as they skilfully pick their way across wide mountain pastures accompanied by
the soundscape of a wordless Kurdish lament. We quickly learn that the horsemen belong to
the rival Halillans. They have come to speak to their sister Berivan who married Şivan, the
eldest son of Hamo, patriarch of the Veysikans, in a gesture of reconciliation between the tribes.
What follows is the depiction of an almost prelapsarian tented community in which women
churn milk in cured sheep-skins, spin wool by hand, bake flat bread on oven stones, and collect
firewood and fodder in enormous bundles on their backs, while their children run free, almost
Vast, open landscapes, haunting music, brightly-coloured traditional costumes, and, most of all,
the horses, unmistakably establish the setting as rural Kurdistan. These elements of identity
are, according to O’Shea, ‘considered to be somehow inherently Kurdish’ (2004:159). Yet,
though the images are often beautiful, they are rarely romanticised. Almost every scene is
designed to make a political point about the harsh life of these people: the vendettas and
hostility between tribes, rigid patriarchal social structure, violence, superstition, and ignorance.
And, in a number of ways, Güney foreshadows its imminent destruction.
First, we observe that the patriarchal structure is broken. Berivan is ill after losing several
babies in childbirth. Hamo is furiously angry with her, not only because she is from the hated
Halillans, but also because she apparently cannot bear children and so threatens the continuity
of “his” tribe. He sees his authority ebbing away and beats the unresisting Şivan for failing to
drive away the Halillans; screaming:
Berivan is the reason for your weakness. You were like a falcon. Now you’re no different than an
Constituents of the arabesk – Hamo’s insane violence, his humiliation of Şivan, and his fear of
women’s role in destroying masculinity – also serve to confirm stereotypes regarding these
Next, in repeated scenes, tractors ploughing in the valley encroach on the image denoting the
obliteration of pasturelands and the intrusion of modern farming methods. This conceit is
repeated with more emphasis later, when Hamo leads his flock on the start of their journey to
town. Close-up shots, juxtaposed with ever closer images of steel plough blades, breaking
open virgin soil, suggest a lack of comprehension over the imminent changes to the tribal way of
life, but also an innate fear.
Then Güney introduces his most important element; the transforming effect on his four main
characters of the journey to the modern city, which occupies the long middle section of Sürü. It
starts badly as the corrupt and malicious rail authorities demand bribes and provide
contaminated carriages for transportation of the sheep. The train drivers deliberately jolt the
sheep off their legs because the bribes they were given were too small. Some sheep are
injured, others die from poison, and some are killed and stolen by a marauding gang of thieves.
If the Kurds are represented by the flock, these incidents can be interpreted as indirect
statements about their treatment, as a people, by the state.
The train traces a route from near Muş, through Diyarbakir, across the Euphrates (the
unacknowledged “border” between Kurdistan and Turkey), through Sivas and into Ankara (see
map on page ). Along the way, Güney inserts documentary footage to illustrate the emptiness,
poverty and destitution of the villages and small towns of eastern Anatolia. Large numbers of
unemployed people line the tracks and stare as the train passes. The length of the journey
(over one third of the film) conveys the immensity of the gulf between the shepherds and the
modern state to which they belong. But the train, and its movement across the landscape of
central Turkey, has another significance. Though apparently implying freedom of movement, the
possibility of development and change, it is constructed also to suggest confinement and
imprisonment. The carriages are claustrophobic spaces – emphasised by closed shots,
shadowed faces, and dim natural lighting – into which Şivan and Berivan are squeezed.
From their points-of view we observe a world outside in which people have their belongings
searched and are harassed by police, and an interior where a prisoner is held for singing a
political song. Güney here seems to foretell the near impossibility for his characters to make a
transformation under the reality of restrictions imposed on them. This notion of Turkey as a
prison is a theme to which he returns more profoundly in Yol and his last film Duvar (1983).
The approach to Ankara is marked by an accelerated tempo of cutting, alerting us to the different
rhythms of urban life. As the train enters the city, banal images of a modern state predominate:
a monument to Atatürk, official buildings, and the ever-present flags of state. The juxtaposition
of these with shots of the shepherds herding their flock to market is designed to accentuate the
unequal power relationship between the state and these rural peasants.
This final section of Sürü has echoes of Umut in that it introduces a Marxist critique of the
position of “honest working people” and their exploitation by capitalists. Şivan takes Berivan to
stay with his cousin, a recent migrant to the city, while he tries to find medical help. Here Güney
indicates the political space opening up in Turkey by relating it to the physical space occupied by
these migrant workers. The cousin proudly enunciates all the conveniences of modern life
where he is staying – bathrooms, where you can have ‘as many baths as you like’, the kitchen
with ‘a button to get rid of smells’, and multiple bedrooms. But it is quickly revealed that he and
his family are living in the unfinished shell of a building, being built for Turks. They have
insinuated themselves into these spaces, albeit temporarily.
However, unlike Umut, Güney does not discuss the ideology of collective action. Rather, he
engages with the dialectical argument concerning the Kurds’ place in modern Turkey by
examining the prospective transformation of his four main characters as a result of their journey
Silo, Hamo’s youngest son, who has never left the
pastures before, is the first character we meet in
the opening sequence. Obliged by tradition to
take responsibility for his dead brother’s older
wife, he is determined to escape the stifling
restrictions of family and clan by going with the
herd to Ankara. On the journey he embraces
newly discovered freedoms. Though he seems
vulnerable by virtue of his naivety, he begins to
reject ties to his people and their values as he is
enticed by the benefits of urban life. It therefore
comes as no surprise when in the final scene he
breaks loose from Hamo, melting into the
background of the busy city. The journey for Silo
ends in complete assimilation; he becomes invisible by giving up his own identity. The
implication of Silo’s characterisation through the film – his secrecy and avarice – is that this is a
selfish act, a betrayal of his community.
Şivan, on the other hand, is presented as an honourable modernising figure, experienced in the
outside world. He has already reasoned that the tribal system and the nomad’s way of life is
destined to pass. He has tried to reconcile the Halillans and the Veysikans by marrying Berivan,
even in the face of his father’s violent disapproval. And he refuses to continue the vendetta,
standing mute, head bowed, unresisting, as Hamo beats and taunts him for not revenging the
death of a brother. Şivan also rejects superstition. Though we first encounter him as he waits
while a mystic tries to “cure” Berivan of her childlessness, he later insists on taking her to
doctors, first in the local town and then in the city. Nor is he ignorant – he is excited by the city,
proudly declaring ‘this is our capital, Ankara is the heart of Turkey’. Thus, for Şivan, the journey
represents the possibility of transformation, from a patriarchal to a modern, democratic society.
But, unlike Silo, he will not give up his identity: he is bound by obedience to his father, loyalty to
his tribe, and love for Berivan.
Here, Güney’s ambivalence towards the position of women is exposed. Şivan insists on taking
the silent Berivan to the city to try to find a cure for her illness, expressing a deep tenderness
towards her, despite earlier violence. Yet Berivan is his burden, literally, as he carries her on his
back through the Ankara streets, and metaphorically as the cause of his ultimate destruction. It
is Hamo’s callousness after the death of Berivan that causes Şivan finally to revolt – a revolt that
leads to the death of a bystander and Şivan’s imprisonment. Güney seems to position Şivan as
a potential mediator between the Kurds and the state, someone who could bridge the gap, but
who fails because he is encumbered by the “millstone” of tradition.
Hamo is a reactionary who resists change and insists on the old ways. He cannot accept peace
with the Halillans, preferring to revenge death with death. He exercises power through violence;
beating his son mercilessly and subduing other members of the family by threats. He clings to
superstition, believing in the curse brought upon the clan by Şivan’s marriage to Berivan.
The intrusion of the outside into Hamo’s world takes the form of a telegram that Şivan delivers to
his father. Güney constructs an image of Hamo on an open hillside, framed by a backdrop of
Kurdish mountains, listening to the instructions from Ankara for them to take the sheep to
market. This is the beginning of the destruction of the tribe, something he can scarcely
On the train, Hamo becomes more and more
incensed as he sees his only hope of survival,
the flock, gradually wither away. He loses his
son, Şivan, taken away by the police, and then
Silo, who disappears. In the final scene,
Hamo runs insanely through the streets of the
city, calling for Silo. In his peasant costume,
with his shepherd’s staff, and his ferocious
demeanour, he is clearly an anachronism.
Hamo has failed to be transformed by the
journey, he is incapable of change. He is a
representative of the patriarchal tribal chiefs,
whose vendettas and backwardness have
plagued the Kurdish nation. In Güney’s
analysis, Hamo’s form of tribalism cannot
survive and neither can it be integrated into
Lastly, there is Berivan, overloaded with
symbolism. She is cast not only as “mother
of the nation” but also – in her repeated
action of nurturing a small olive tree – as the
figure through whom the tribes might be
reconciled. However, she fails on both
counts: unable to deliver a child, or through
her marriage to unify the nation.
She is also emblematic of women’s lack of freedom in the patriarchy, expressed by the pair of
caged birds, for which she cares. The caged “feminine” birds are contrasted with a brief insert
of a falcon, echoing Hamo’s earlier reference to Şivan’s manliness and freedom. As they leave
the camp, Berivan passes the cage on to Silo’s wife, and we might expect that the expedition to
the city would bring emancipation and liberty. But, she becomes progressively more sick and
passive; her sickness linked to that of the sheep – and hence the nation – through cross-cutting
on the train journey. Then, in her refusal to be examined by doctors or to explain the cause of
her silence and her pain she becomes a metonym for the hidden, unexamined and
unacknowledged Other in Turkish society. Eventually dying in the city, she is further degraded
by Hamo who refuses to pay for her funeral or transport back to her relatives.
While Umut focused on the growing economic divide in Turkey, Sürü goes further, illustrating
how a particular way of life in some Kurdish areas is being destroyed. Güney does not
romanticise that way of life, but seems to confirm the arguments of, for example, Paul Brass and
John Breuilly, that such politically induced cultural changes can be a major factor in the
development of political consciousness. But, the journey of the flock which represents the
potential for the ideological transformation of the people, from backwardness to modernity, ends
in failure. The paradox of Kurdish identity – the impossibility of transformation without losing
identity – remains unresolved.
In the late 1970s, urban and rural violence increased, especially in the Kurdish regions of
Turkey. Clashes across many divides – political, ethnic, religious and class – created an
unstable political situation which resulted in another military coup in September 1980, and a
renewed and brutal crack down on dissidents (McDowall, 2004:414-7). Güney’s implied
political message in Sürü, that the state excludes these rural people, that it fails to provide them
with adequate tools to develop, and that it actively hinders their development, was instrumental
in this film also being banned shortly afterwards.
Oppression and resistance
Even under the authoritarian regime that came after the coup, Güney was allowed to continue to
work on screenplays in prison. He gained permission to make Yol, apparently on the pretext of
rectifying the negative impression of Turkish prisons given in Midnight Express (Parker, 1978).
Filming took place between January and March 1981, this time in collaboration with Şerif Gören
(Suner, 1998:282). When it was completed, Güney escaped to Switzerland where he finalised
editing in 1982 (Rayns, 1983:92).
Despite his professed intention of making a film praising the liberal regime of Turkey’s prison
system, Güney uses that system as a metaphor for what he perceived as the state of Turkey
following the coup. As he explained in a subsequent interview, ‘jail is the subject most
appropriate to the present state of Turkey’ (Kutschera, 1983). In Yol, Güney constructs a
disturbing, claustrophobic place, expanding on the imagery of the train journey in Sürü. It is a
place of confinement and surveillance that seems to leave no space for any form of political
expression; a place of pervasive military presence, searches and roadblocks, harassment,
curfews, and seemingly arbitrary killings (Suner, 1998:292).
Yol is a reaction to the oppressive military regime that followed the coup, but it is also a radical
critique of social conditions in the still patriarchal rural areas of Turkey. It provides parallels
between state persecution and local forms of oppression, and Güney develops his examination
of the struggle for modernity in a society bound by traditions and prejudice. Again, there is
confinement and surveillance by the state, but now patriarchal control and the honour system
also ensures everyone is continually watched and their behaviour judged by relatives,
neighbours, and even strangers. In this way he exposes the ‘interiorised’ prison (Akman, 1989:
50) that affects his male and female characters, though in strikingly different ways. The men
seemingly have “agency”, yet they are impotent, they do not revolt against repression, and their
actions appear to have no positive effect. The women, on the other hand, do rebel and break the
rules, for which they are severely punished.
Sürü ends in Ankara with banal symbols of state power but with an image of citizens living
apparently freely in the modern city. The central journey suggests the possibility of
transformation to some kind of self-determination within the state. But Güney reveals this to be
an illusion, showing that for the Kurds their apparent movement is actually stasis – the train
taking them to freedom is also a prison. Yol employs the same trope of transformation through
a journey – the pathway of the title implying a road to liberty – as it follows five male convicts,
given a week’s leave from their prison in western Turkey. As a means of indicating the extent of
state and patriarchal repression throughout the south-east of the country, Güney clearly lays out
the geography, emphatically announcing the names of each town and village along the way (see
map on page ).
The men are changed by their travels, and, though the problems they face are personal,
nonetheless the film has a broader political intent. From the moment they leave prison each
journey is a series of encounters with different forms of constraint and the sense of continuing
imprisonment. This is manifested by what Naficy calls ‘a cinematic regime of control’ (2001:
182) – the closed chronotopes of confined locations such as railway carriages, minibuses,
small waiting rooms, interiors or cells – and accentuated (as in Sürü) by the general use of dark
colours, ambient lighting, night scenes, and claustrophobic shots. And, here, the men even
carry the marks of their prison with them in their cramped movements and subdued speech.
Yusuf makes only a brief appearance since he quickly loses his travel papers and is put in a
holding cell by the police for the rest of his leave. His boundless optimism in prison had been
signified by a bright, yellow warbler kept in a cage. As he is led away, he asks his friends to take
the bird to his wife, and the last image is of him looking out from behind a barred window at
birds in the sky. It seems he will never be free again.
Mevlut goes to visit his prospective wife in Urfa but is frustrated by her family’s conservatism and
their constant surveillance of the couple’s every action. They are watched closely by her father;
shadowed by veiled chaperones wherever they go; and scrutinized by her brothers.
Güney links surveillance, unequal gender relations, and the overwhelming power of the state in
a carefully framed scene where Mevlut lays down the law to his fiancée. As he insists ‘You’ll
obey my every command’, he is watched by her sisters and dominated by an equestrian
monument. However, Güney partially subverts the rules of the patriarchy. Mevlut’s fiancée looks
up at him in mock submission, answering: ‘You’re so good with words. Where do you pick all
that up, in jail?’.
Later, Mevlut tries to assert his independence by visiting a brothel. But the sequence is shot so
that it has the essence of another prison – customers enter through barred gates, and perform
their transactions in small cell-like bedrooms. Though he claimed he would never go back to
prison, Mevlut’s journey provides no release either from his confinement.
Mehmet is troubled by the knowledge that his cowardice resulted in the death of his wife’s
brother: something he has not been able to admit before, even to himself. Arriving in Diyarbakir,
he finally confronts his wife, Eminê, and her family. He confesses his guilt, looking for
atonement, but they spit at him and threaten to kill him. The father says he can take his children
but if Eminê leaves with him, the family will disown her. Eminê defies her family and agrees to
run away with him. The reconciled couple leave by train with their children, but there is no
escaping the controls of society. They are condemned by other passengers and the guards for
lewd behaviour as they try to make love on the train. They are held in confinement in the guards’
van where one of her brothers who has followed them, kills them both to discharge his family’s
debt of honour. Eminê’s rebellion has been punished catastrophically, and Mehmet’s attempt to
expiate his “crime” has brought only death.
Arriving in Konya, Seyit learns that his wife, Ziné, has disgraced the family, and he is torn
between his obligation to revenge their honour and his love for her. He sets off on a long
journey through Diyarbakir to the remote village of Sançak in south-eastern Anatolia where Ziné
is being held captive. The journey becomes increasingly difficult, involving a bus tracking along
icy roads, a horseback ride across a snow-covered mountain pass, and finally a laboured trek
on foot through deep snow. Each stage slower than the last, each footstep harder, expressing
the enormous physical, social, and cultural isolation of this remote Kurdish community.
Finding Ziné, shackled and filthy in a dark cellar, he is uncertain what to do. In the end, his
compromise, allowing her to die of exposure on the mountains, is ambiguous, showing at once
his inability to revolt against traditions and yet his humanity. He carries her to her death (like
Şivan carries Berivan) as a literal burden, and by failing to save her, as a metaphorical burden
on his conscience. Ziné’s rebellion against tradition and patriarchy ends in her imprisonment
and death. Seyit also cannot escape the constraints of society, and the last image in the film is
of his huddled anguished form on the train returning to prison.
The fifth man, Ömer, is distinguished at the outset by his visions of freedom. On his prison
bunk, before the start of the journey, he has a dream of his brother, Abuzer, galloping on a white
horse across open fields. This image of liberty is taken up later in a long lyrical sequence as
Ömer travels from Gaziantep towards his village on the Syrian border. A group of children sing
an arabesk song on the bus, and the song accompanies their journey across sunny fields of
bright yellow flowers.
An enormous title announces this is Kurdistan. Long shots of wide open countryside with
mountains in the distance, reveal Ömer striding, loose-limbed through the fields. He has lost
his prison walk.
As Ankara was overdetermined as a place of freedom and modernity in Sürü, so the openness
and independence of Kurdistan is overdetermined here. Ömer kneels to kiss the earth, a dog
bounds up to greet him joyously, birds fly free in the air, and happy flute music accompanies the
sound of sheep. He exchanges long glances with a beautiful, young woman. But, a close-up of
his smiling face is suddenly clouded by the sounds of gunfire. Rapidly, images of freedom are
replaced by images of repression.
Villagers crouch behind walls, imprisoned in their own homes. Terrified, they peer through tiny
windows, gaps in walls, or through cracks in doorways. Soldiers arrive and eventually take away
two men. From then on the picture becomes bleaker. The villagers wait in darkness through
the night, listening to the sounds of distant firing. Inevitably, Abuzer is killed and Ömer,
according to tradition, will have to take on his wife and children. In a final bid for freedom, Ömer
decides to join the resistance movement in the mountains. The last image is of him riding a
horse, its mane flowing in the wind, across the fields into the mountains of his homeland. Like
Seyit’s decision, this is ambiguous. Is he escaping political repression or the grip of tradition
that means he cannot marry the woman he loves?
Repression versus freedom is the dialectic expressed in Yol. In the narrative, the protagonists
are in a double bind – prevented from changing by a repressive state and the “dead hand” of
tradition. Cinematic expressions of confinement and torment are contrasted with those of
freedom and joy: the caged song-bird and the birds flying freely in the sky; cramped dark spaces
and big sunny landscapes full of flowers; heavy lumbering movements and playful frolicking with
a dog; an emaciated horse and a galloping stallion; the piercing shriek of a train whistle and the
free rhythms of the arabesk. Thus, Yol is a political film that represents Turkey as a prison.
Though not all the protagonists are Kurdish, it specifically denotes the oppression in the
predominantly Kurdish areas of southern and south-eastern Anatolia. As Ömer’s father
remarks: ‘fear reigns in each and every home. What’s worse, if you’re Kurdish, then you’re really
Like Umut, Güney also probes the limits of individual action in Yol. His characters seem to
resolve something through their journeys, to affect the outcome of events and come to
understand their world – or in Marxist terms to achieve “political awareness”. Yet, with the
exception of Ömer, they accomplish only re-imprisonment, frustration, or death. On the other
hand, there is no suggestion that revolutionary action is required to overthrow oppression. Even
Ömer’s decision to ride into the mountains to join Kurdish rebel fighters seems more of an
expression of individual freedom than a call for collective action.
If Yol chronicles the repressive hand of the state on its Kurdish minority, its sub-text, as in all
Güney’s work, is the struggle between the opposing forces of modernity and tradition. Though
he focuses on the fate of the male protagonists, one of his recurrent themes, echoing that of the
arabesk, is women’s lack of freedom to be themselves. His depiction of women throughout this
work is uncompromising; they are abused and abandoned, sold, killed, or left to die. And they
have no right to be heard – Cabbar silences his wife, Berivan is literally dumb, and Ziné is only
allowed voice to admit her “guilt” and plead for mercy. Yet, these three films show an interesting
progression in his position on the unequal gender relations in this patriarchal society.
Güney begins, peripherally, in Umut to expose the double victimisation of women – Cabbar’s
wife suffers not only from grinding poverty and violence but also from his delusions. In Sürü,
Berivan is a victim of Hamo’s hatred and, though she “fails” to perform her allotted tasks of
producing children and reconciling the tribes, Güney positions her as a sympathetic central
character. Yet his ambivalence is still evident in the way she becomes Şivan’s “burden” and the
cause of his imprisonment. Yol is a further critique of the destructive forces of tradition. Here,
the women do have some agency: Eminê escapes her family and runs away with her husband
and their children; Mevlut’s fiancé rebels against her father and subverts Mevlut’s dogmatism;
and Ziné defies the honour codes of the patriarchal family. Though they are all punished –
Eminê is murdered, Mevlut betrays his fiancé in a brothel, Ziné dies on a frozen mountain pass,
and Ömer abandons his brother’s wife – Güney seems intent to expose as untenable the total
subordination of women in this society.
Güney’s work is often categorised as belonging to Third Cinema because, indirectly at least, it
advocates class struggle and opposition to state oppression and social authoritarianism.
Suner argues that the preamble to the US video release of Yol tries to position Güney as an
authentic ‘third-world’ subject who is therefore entitled and able to present a ‘third-world reality’
(1998:285-6). Such a reductive categorisation would place Güney’s texts as ethnographic
studies, tending to support Jameson’s argument that third-world texts necessarily project a form
of national allegory (Jameson, 1992:186-8). However, Güney did not consider himself a
nationalist (Akman, 1989:34-5). He stated he was in favour of a pluralist state though he
believed that all minorities should have a chance to decide their own fate (Othman, 1984:46).
Though his films certainly make use of allegory to explore Kurdish identity, they do not exhibit an
outright nationalist message.
Admittedly, his concerns are with nomadic and peasant groups and the rural experience which
is a prominent part of the Kurdish national myth. Umut contains a brief sequence of an
idealised peasant life that preceded the daily grind of the gecekondu. Sürü underlines the
heritage of its protagonists through the use of Kurdish names,6 brightly coloured Kurdish
costumes, vast landscapes, and vibrant (though harsh) images of the encampment. And, in Yol,
the idyllic beauty of summer pastures, the use of Kurdish music and language, and even the
spectacular identification of Ömer’s homeland as Kurdistan, are powerful indices of Kurdish
authenticity. But Güney is more interested in examining the complex relations between different
parts of Kurdish society and between Kurds and Turks, rather than simply using such
foundational myths to create an essentialist view of Kurdish identity.
Similarly, in other hands, the landscape, especially the mountains of Kurdistan evident in Sürü
and Yol, could become a nationalist symbol and a site for nostalgia and yearning. But Güney
creates a more ambiguous vision, establishing it as a contested space. As in many Palestinian
films, the landscape is invaded by soldiers, presented in the same menacing, impersonalised
way. For the encroaching farmers of Sürü, Kurdistan is “empty”, ready for expansion and
territorial claim. And the film ends with the shepherds and their flock disappearing into the busy
and uncaring streets of Ankara. Ömer, in Yol, kisses the earth, glad to return to his homeland,
but is displaced by “invading” soldiers of the Turkish state. These features serve to emphasise
the “invisibility” of the Kurds and position the settlers and intruders as outsiders who have no
right to be in this land.
Yet Güney does not allow these elements to conceal the inherent social problems of this rural
society, their difficulty in embracing modernity, and the increasing artificiality of the rural
experience. If Güney was not a Kurdish nationalist, nonetheless he was something of an
outsider in Turkish society, however popular he was as an actor. He was a communist in a
fervently anti-communist period, he spent much of his life excluded from society (in prison), and
above all he was an ethnic Kurd. Though the Kurdish dimension of his identity did not emerge
very strongly until after he visited his mother’s home region of Muş (apparently the inspiration for
Sürü) in the mid 1970s, it became a fundamental element of his resistance to the military
regime in Turkey.
Thus Naficy regards Güney as another example of an exilic film-maker, one who works in an
accented style. While this view provides valuable insights, and is more interesting than a
Jamesonian categorisation of his films simply as national allegories, I prefer to consider the
broader aspects of Güney’s work, placing it in a political context. Güney’s perspective from the
margins, as Cabbar in Umut, exposes the presence of a previously ignored and ethnically
different economic underclass in Turkey’s cities. Sürü dissects different responses to the
destruction of a traditional way of life in rural areas. The long and painful journey of the flock
reifies the immense social and cultural divide between the Kurdish community and the rest of
Turkish society and the difficulty of making the transition to modernity. Yol focuses on the deadly
dual embrace of tradition and the state: the suffocating effects of patriarchal structures and the
destructive honour code; and the repression that stifles development.
For some Turkish nationalists any manifestation of Kurdish identity was (and remains) a major
threat to the indivisibility of the Republic of Turkey (Özoğlu, 2004:3). Thus, the state continued its
attempt to narrate and legislate Kurdish identity out of existence in the 1960s and 1970s
(Gunter, 1990:43-7). However, opposition to this repression, coupled with political uncertainty,
created a discursive space in which arabesk, the films of such film-makers as Erksan and Akad,
and above all Güney, surfaced. The films and music of the former, playing to large audiences in
Turkey, had a significant effect in exposing heterogeneous cultural influences which the state
had endeavoured to suppress. The association of the music with gecekondu communities,
largely composed of migrant rural workers from southern and south-eastern Anatolia, was
instrumental in drawing attention to the existence of the exuberant voices of other ethnic groups
in an officially monocultural and homogenous Turkish society. Furthermore, the idea that some
elements of this music represent Kurdish culture, and was something that could only be
expressed in secret, gradually took shape. We will see in the next section how the oppositional
nature of arabesk music becomes a frequent trope in films from the 1980s.
Güney’s work, not seen in Turkey at this time,7 was even more explicit in expressing economic,
cultural, and political differences in Turkey. But, unlike the elite nationalism embodied in the
poetry and films of Mem û Zîn and Siyabend û Xecê, Güney was interested in the lower strata –
the underprivileged. He explored the possibility of social change, both within Kurdish society
which he criticised for its divisions and stultifying traditions, and within Turkish society which he
condemned for its repression and its inability to accept pluralism. However, where Sürü
suggested the possibility of a political space opening up for the Kurds, by the time Güney made
Yol, these spaces had contracted into prisons.
Music, film, and literature, combined with migration from the country to the city, thus began to
spread national awareness and pride in Kurdish culture to a wider public, and sowed the seeds
of the national movements of the 1980s and 1990s (van Bruinessen, 1990:36). This process
corresponds to some extent with Hroch’s second stage in the development of nationalism as a
mass movement, but seems to exclude those Kurds living in Kurdistan (by far the majority),8
those who have assimilated or integrated into Turkish society, and those in the diaspora.
Though a sense of political awareness grew among the Kurds within each state, there was no
significant collective action at this time to establish an overall Kurdish identity. O’Shea notes
that there probably was not a majority of Kurds in favour of autonomy or independence, and
goes on to argue that the ‘shared memories and histories’ of Kurds were nationally based, and
that several ‘parallel histories’ emerged within the different states (O'Shea, 2004:152). Kurdish
nationalist movements in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq were largely confined to trying to achieve rights
within their respective states. ‘[T]he formulation of their goals reflected Turkish, Persian, and
Arabic debates … more than anything specifically Kurdish’ (van Bruinessen, 1998:40).
It took a combination of factors to trigger the next significant development of Kurdish national
consciousness. As demonstrated by Umut and Sürü, changes to farming methods caused
large-scale emigration from rural areas. These laid what McDowall calls the ‘socio-economic
groundwork for the explosion of Kurdish nationalism in the 1980s’ affecting Turkey and Iran
(McDowall, 2004:401-3). Equally decisive were increased repression in Turkey, highlighted in
Yol, and the rise of the PKK guerrilla organisation (see the next section); the Islamic revolution in
Iran; the civil war between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq; the Iran-Iraq war; and the Gulf War of 1990-
91. Massive population flows between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as migration to
western European countries, all contributed to an internationalisation of the Kurdish problem.
In this section, I have concentrated on the development of Kurdish national consciousness in
Turkey since, over the periods under consideration, I have found no evidence of relevant activity
by film-makers in the other states. Even within Turkey, the impact of cinema was limited – as we
have seen, many of the most important films were not distributed there, the Kurdish language
was forbidden, and no mention could be made of Kurdistan. However, a growing awareness of
the presence of large, ethnically distinct, minorities in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran paved the way for
later films. Since the beginning of the 1980s there has been a substantial increase in interest in
the Kurdish question among film-makers, worldwide, as we shall see in the next section.
15- This lacuna also extends to writing about Turkish cinema in other languages, see for
example the papers in Basutçu (1996) and Scognamillo (1987).
16- The extensive literature on Güney includes biographies in Wakeman (1988:405-9), and
Leaman (2001), and gave numerous interviews towards the end of his life, of which the
following are the most pertinent: Basutçu (1980), Kazan (1980), Ciment (1982), and Kutschera
17- Güney set up his own production company in 1968 that allowed him to make films that the
commercial film industry would not support.
18- Though commonly regarded as Güney’s films, there is some dispute about the provenance
of Sürü and Yol. Tony Rayns, for example, suggests Güney specified the composition of
individual shots and much of the editing in addition to writing the scripts (1983:91), whereas Ali
Özgentürk gives far more credit to the directors, Zeki Ökten for Sürü and to Şerif Gören for Yol
19- Different versions of the case against Güney are given by different authors: see, for example,
(Armes, 1987), (Dorsay, 1986), (Ilal, 1987) and (Suner, 1998:286:86). Güney’s version is in
20- Güney claimed that the film ‘is the history of the Kurdish people’ and the story of his mother’
s tribe from Muş, in south-eastern Anatolia (Kutschera, 1983).
21- Şivan meaning shepherd and Berivan milkmaid.
22- Güney’s films won critical acclaim in the US and Europe, Yol winning the Palme d’Or at
Cannes in 1982. But, they were banned in Turkey and none were available domestically until
the late 1990s. Yol was finally released in Turkey in 1999, but even then it was censored to
remove references to Kurdistan and the Kurds.
23- van Bruinessen estimates that three-quarters to two-thirds of all Kurds still live in Kurdistan,
though many have left (van Bruinessen, 1990:34)
* This is the second part of Chapter 5 in Tim Kennedy's thesis. Kennedy, Tim. 2007. “Cinema
Regarding Nations: Re-imagining Armenian, Kurdish, and Palestinian national identity in film”.
PhD Thesis, Department of Film, Theatre, and Television at the University of Reading, U.K.
read part 1
Kurdish director, stuck
between Iraq and Iran
/ by PETER SCARLET *
Interviews with Yuksel
“Turtles Can Fly” And
The Image Of
And Heroes (Saviors) /
by Saniye KARAKAS*
"Kurdish Cinema is
unknown to the world",
Inteview with Huseyin
Karabey, director of
"My Marlon and
Half Moon Takes
golden rules of story
telling by Jalal Jonroy
An interview with
Hisham Zaman on
5th Kurdish Film
Festival in London
Self-distribution key to
getting 'David & Layla'
Q & A with Bahman
Ghboadi for Passion of
romance goes after
more than laughs
discusses his new film:
"I have problems with
My big, fat, Jewish-
David & Layla: A love
Reading a screenplay
Bahman Ghobadi: The
poetics of politics
portrayal of Kurds
Waiting for the rain, a
Kurdish love story
Silence tells much
more than words
The first film about
Kurds: Zere 80 years
Half Moon, a review in
of Kurds in ‘A taste of
cherry’ and ‘The wind
will carry us’
Kurdish Identity and
Culture in the Films of
Yol: A monument to
An interview with the
director Lauand Omar
David & Layla:
Criticism of cultural
biases and celebration
Interview with Yilmaz
David & Layla
Pain of Giving Birth
Crossing the Border
The New Kurdish
Yol - Jalal Jonroy
Breaking the Silence