Plot: The film is based on a simple, even simplistic metaphor, stated at the outset, that the state is a prison. But the most powerful prison in the film is that inside the heart of its characters, in custom, morality, in sex-roles, all caught in clash between tradition and progress.
A handful of Kurdish prisoners are given a week's family leave, and all but one cross the country to visit homes and families in Kurdistan. The film interweaves their stories, each exemplary of social crisis. One man discovers that his wife has committed adultery, and that he must, according to tradition, avenge the family's honor by killing her. His moral struggle only heightens the inevitable tragedy. Another returns to his wife, whose in-laws hold him responsible for the death of their son in the robbery in which he was caught. His attempt to reunite ends in a brutal public humiliation. Another returns to a small village on the Syrian border, in the midst of a battle between Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish army, in which his brother is killed. He by custom must marry his brother's widow, not the village maiden he is captivated by. Another spends time with his fiancee in a city, where it's clear that rural expectations for women's roles clash with urban habits. Finally, one member of the group, who carries (significantly) a caged bird, is caught without proper papers at a checkpoint and interned for the duration of the stay.
Style: Yol uses many traditional gambits of entertainment cinema in the Western and Turkish tradition to draw the viewer into the story. It has, for instance, a powerful narrative line, observes the conventions of psychological realism in shooting and editing, and provides spectacular scenery and action sequences. It distinguishes itself from a typical potboiler because it deploys these engaging mechanisms to raise questions about political issues (Kurdish nationalism, for instance), cultural issues (the treatment of women), economic issues (the rural-urban migration), always locating these issues in a specific and personal context. On the film's release, Guney issued a long statement in the distributor's press materials, including two illuminating passages. The first describes his political perspective:
The second describes his approach to film as an artform: "I'm a politicized person but I have a different approach to art. I don't consider cinema as a tool meant to express a theoretical truth. Me, I talk about people's suffering at the heart of life. I'm against a cinema based on slogans, a cinema reduced to the role of a propaganda machine. I'm against a didactic concept of cinema. However, I strongly believe that my art has a political content. That it has a powerful impact on the masses. I owe it to myself to use an artistic language. For political reasons I write articles and hold conferences. But a movie theater isn't a conference hall. One must distinguish between those two different languages."
Background on director/film: Yilmaz Guney, Turkey's leading movie star and foremost director until his death in 1985, was born in 1937, the son of Kurdish peasants. He grew up fascinated with the movies he saw in travelling cinemas, especially with epics such as Gone with the Wind. He landed a job with a film distributor, and studied law and economics in Istanbul.
He began writing screenplays, succeeding with a big hit, Handsome Omar, which set the tone for his later career. It features an underdog peasant hero, who singlehandedly fights off his many enemies.
Guney, who consistently maintained a fierce political perspective, was jailed for writing what the regime called "Communist literature" in 1961. This was the first of Guney's prison terms, during some of which he was immensely productive.
By 1963 he had established himself as Turkey's leading actor, and made more than a hundred movies, most of them on the heroic-underdog model he had established. He was famous as "The Ugly King," playing characters who first are humiliated and then wreak vengeance. He became so popular that posters of the film star rivalled those of Turkey's national founding hero Kemal Ataturk.
Aspiring to make make movies that "move the masses," he parlayed his success into directing and produced several thrillers with a social edge after his 1970 Hope. The film was a clash of neorealist and melodrama styles in story of a horse-cab driver, and was, effectively, a critique of the melodramatic hero he had so often played. Banned in Turkey, it was sneaked out to Cannes, where it was a critical success.
In 1974 he was imprisoned again, sentenced to 18 years hard labor. He began to make films by "remote control", smuggling out scripts and shooting directions to allies such as his longtime friend Serif Goren. In 1980 a new government banned all his films, and he started to make films for foreign audiences.
Yol was also produced by "remote control," and was directed to a foreign audience. The negatives were smuggled to Europe, and Guney edited the film there after escaping from prison on a personal leave much like that his characters get in Yol. The film premiered at Cannes, where it won the top prize, the Palm D'Or, as well as two others (it went on to win others and become a commercial success in the small world of international film distribution in the U.S.). He came to Cannes, but did not wait to accept it, because he only had temporary papers. Escaping again to another European locale, he began to work on a film about life in a Turkish prison, but he died of a heart attack without finishing it.
Film production context: Turkey is a nation typified by uneven development and deep ethnic and political rifts. Rapidly industrialized after World War II, thanks in great part to heavy contributions from the Allied nations and particularly the U.S., Turkey nonetheless remains a nation of great inequalities. Among them are those caused by the disenfranchisement of the Kurds, who until recently were referred to officially as "mountain Turks," and whose language was not allowed in public discourse, including in film, where use of it (as in Yol) was punishable with five years imprisonment. Religious fundamentalism has grown with political and economic polarization. Rapid industrialization has also posed many cultural challenges for people who have moved from an urban to rural economy in one generation.
The Turkish film industry is commercial, and has been extremely prolific, producing up to 200 films a year for local audiences, typically melodramatic, sentimental and action films. The films get a wide distribution, even in rural areas, with travelling cinemas. The industry also imports many international films, especially action films. Turkish production is often shamelessly imitative of international hits. There is government censorship from the script onward.
Importance: The film after winning its three Cannes awards went on to successful international release. Yol is fascinating because shows so clearly its roots in international entertainment film, and simultaneously exposes the social and psychological tensions behind the headlines.
Pat Aufderheide, "Yol," Magill's Survey of Cinema: Foreign Language Films, 1985
J. Hoberman, "Listen, turkey," Village Voice, Nov. 23, 1982
Tony Rayns, "From isolation," Sight and Sound, May 1983
Jeri Laber, "Turkey's Nonpeople," New York Review of Books, Feb. 4, 1988, pp. 14-17
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Last updated on September 17, 1996
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