I have always been the first to criticize latent racism and distorting prejudices in media and films. It is a disaster to see how images and cliche stories constantly feed the presumptions of our society and create some sort of basic agreement with certain policies and societal habits. Where Hollywood of the eighties consistently chose to portray Communists and Russians as the boogeymen, after 9/11 it is impressive to see how the standard stereotype of the 'bad guy' has become the Muslim and Arab.
More than enough has been written about it by others so I do not feel the need to repeat it all here or to offer lists of examples but let it be clear that in many a talk with friends and acquaintances I have raised this issue.
And then I watched the Turkish movie "Fetih 1453", a movie about the Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, who invaded Istanbul and made it the capital of the Ottoman empire...
For a couple of reasons I've got quite some 'Turkishness' within me by now, so I felt I could - or rather I should - criticize this aggressive display of cultural indoctrination just as much as I normally do when the West stigmatizes the East with its imagery.
One scene after another I was shocked by the sheer lack of nuance. Of course I'm well aware that you should never expect much nuance in an epic which is mainly focussed on big battle scenes, but the problem lies beyond a need for 'objectivity'. For the problem lies in the way in which it depicted the whole Christian West to be decadent, silly and aggressive while the Ottomans were humane, intelligent and on a truly divine mission.
Sultan Mehmet El Fetih is depicted as a grand man with a strong purpose but also as a gentle and almost transcendtal ruler that, seemingly out of nowhere - except wisdom and generosity - chose to let all others live by their faith. I wouldn't have cared too much about this oversimplification if not more than half of the movie is depicted as a clash of 'religious worlds'. Even more so, at the very moment he starts doubting about his campaign, a Sufi Sheikh comes to him and in a rather magical-realistical way makes him understand how his mission indeed has a divine purpose and that, as such, he should continue it.
So the end result becomes: "driven by divine inspiration, El Fetih conquered Istanbul and brought it civilisation and wisdom." Indeed... nothing much different than "driven by humanistic values, they overthrew the tirant and brought democracy and human rights"
So a couple of things truly made me wonder the rest of the evening:
- I know Turkish society is going through a phase of some modern romantics (in the sense of the literary and sociological period), but is this how overblown it has become? A cocktail of 'back to the glory of the past', the 'glory of our religion' and the need for 'strong leaders'? What will such imagery lead to when this is already exactly what the present ruling politicians are playing on?
- How on earth can a country, that makes incredibly good - and reasonably affordable - movies normally, invest in such a cinematographic disaster that is simply made to raise support for a certain type of worldview?
- What did the director think this type of worldview would produce? Did he want to show the beauty of his cultural heritage in the hope that he could conquer the hearts of those who are ignorant of it? Or did he want to conquer the minds of others within his society to raise an aggressive feeling to confront that so-called 'clash of cultures'? It seems the latter for the former miserably failed.
- Are we now in a phase where the idea of 'clash of cultures' is not opposed by denying it - which is what many artists in the east have consistently been doing the last few years - but by adopting it and blowing up their own societal ego with an overload of testosterone?
- Should I just let this go or should I spell it out and make it clear how not-amused I am?
At least the final question I answered pretty quickly that evening. Hence this blog post. Anyone with a soft spot in his/her heart for Turkey is of course very kindly asked to leave his or her comment.