In honor of the world premiere of director Cem Kaya's Remake, Remix, Rip-Off, a film that is over six years in the making and focuses on the remakes and copy culture present in Turkish pop cinema, we sat him down with his life partner Gözen Atila for a brief chat.
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Documentarian Cem Kaya, who had previously snatched the Best Documentary Award in Antalya with his film Arabeks, focuses on the remakes of Yeşilçam cinema in his new film Remake, Remix, Rip-Off. Emphasizing the relationship between copy culture and creativity, Remake, Remix, Rip-Off premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August. In Turkey, the film, which will be screened at the Gezici Film Festival and Adana's The Golden Boll, will be released under the title Motör, the French idiom corresponding to “start the camera's engine,” which was used in Yeşilçam for many years. BantMag had Cem Kaya and Gözen Atila, his life partner who has a tight grasp on the production process, talk about the highly anticipated Motör and the issues it touches upon.
As a blue collar kid, born and bred in Germany, let's start with your relationship with Turkish cinema...
Our generation grew up watching Turkish films in Germany. In the 70's, theaters would be rented out and Turkish films would be screened on the weekends. In the 80's, video clubs popped in areas with expats in West Berlin - these would generally be in some corner of the Turkish markets. Our sole cultural connection to Turkey was through music cassettes and these films that we watched constantly. There was also a once-a-week program geared towards expats on the TV channel ZDF, called “Nachbarn in Europa” (Neighbors in Europe). However, the show was not just aimed solely at Turks; but content was prepared for the Portuguese, Greeks, and Italians, as well. In the 90's, as satellite technology developed, Turkish television channels started to be watched and the videotheques slowly started to disappear. The last of the videotheques, Maksim Video in Berlin Hermannplatz, closed six months ago. The robbery scene in Şerif Gören's film Polizei was filmed there. So while films were being ingrained in our heads in Germany in the 80's, the same generation in Turkey was only able to see these films once private television channels were started in the 90's.
But on private television we were only able to watch the melodramas, arabesque films, and comedies of the 70's and 80's. In that regard you're lucky, the market in Germany seems to have been more diverse...
Thanks to the video companies, we were able to watch all kinds of film. Since the tapes were rented for at first 10 and then later 5 Marks each, the video stores had swept the Yeşilçam market. This also included pornography and banned films. For example, many of Yılmaz Güney's films that were collected by the military junta in Turkey were found uncensored in Germany's videotheques. On the other hand, though, the video establishments would also censor as they saw fit, so some films we just watched incomplete. Also, we would never be able to get any information regarding the films, the films' covers wouldn't even have the names of their directors. Sometimes you could find some information in trailers. I even found out that Yeşilçam was a street İstiklal Avenue very late.
When did you start doing comprehensive research?
In 2003, I started my graduate thesis titled Remake, Remix, Rip-Off and completed it in 2005. Throughout this process, I read everything I could find on Turkish cinema. In 1997, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçı had written a thesis on Turkish melodramas at the Film institute Netherlands; in 2000 Ahmet Gürata had prepared a very bright dissertation on Turkish remakes at the University of London. During that time Savaş Arslan was in Boston, preparing to write his book on the history of Turkish cinema, and his articles were available. Nezih Erdoğan published writings on Turkish cinema and it's relation with the West in various texts. There are many names in this field: Aslı Daldal, Serpil Kırel, Dilek Kaya, Melis Behlil. Since most of the academic research is in English, I was able to understand it easily; back then my Turkish was very broken.
At that time, the late Metin Demirhan and dear Giovanni Scognamillo's newly released books Fantastik Türk Sineması (Fantastic Turkish Cinema) and Erotik Türk Sineması (Erotic Turkish Cinema) really influenced me. Kaya Özkaracalar's magazine Geceyarısı Sineması (Midnight Cinema) and Pete Tombs' Channel 4 series Mondo Macabro, as well. I can even say that my introduction to 2/5 BZ Serhat Köksal and his works changed the direction of my research. Initially, I was approaching the topic from an exoticizing, Western point of view. Thanks to Serhat, I gained a completely different perspective. It's also with Serhat's recommendation that I watched Yılmaz Duru's films and became a fan. I'm yet to understand why he's overlooked in Turkish cinema and research. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to interview him, as by the time I thought of it, he'd long since passed.
I decided to make this film post-thesis, but three years went by looking for a producer. We embarked on the project with my current producer, Jochen Laube, towards the end of 2007. So, starting from the films I watched in my childhood to my graduate thesis, from there Remake Remix Rip-Off became a documentary whose production took six years.
If you'd like, let's get to what the film's about...
The film's mainly about remakes in Yeşilçam cinema. The period's producers and directors were both directly and indirectly influenced by foreign films, just as it is today. The effects of this interaction is at the heart of the film. It takes a look at the innovations that emerge when an idea taken from others is transformed within an original structure. We're already talking about copy culture, so we're emphasizing that copying and interaction are very important as cultural activity and that imitation is present at the heart of creativity. Interviewed guests include adventurous directors like Çetin İnanç and Yılmaz Atadeniz, as well as directors like Metin Erksan, Halit Refiğ, and Duygu Sağıroğlu, and addressed topics also include the television industry, the demolition of Emek Cinema, censorship today and in that era, and the inadequacy of film archives.
The film's international title is Remake, Remix, Rip-Off, but it will be released under the title Motör in Turkey. This phrase is taken from French and means start the camera's engine, the equivalent of today's “rolling” or the Americans' “action.” It was used in Yeşilçam for a long time and since we're talking about interaction, we thought it appropriate. It's the word Şener Şen used on set in the film Aşk Filmlerinin Unutulmaz Yönetmeni.
Given that you're studying almost 50 years-worth of film tradition, can you tell us about your approach to evaluating and sifting through such extensive material and the difficulties of obtaining an archive?
When I started my research in the 2000's, acquiring the films was a big problem, they weren't prevalent on the internet, as they are now. The videotheques in Germany had closed down. I found some films in the Turkish sections of German libraries. However, in Turkey, only a very small portion of the Yeşilçam oeuvre was being sold as DVD's and VCD's, which is why I had to refer to personal archives. I had the opportunity to watch films at the Mithat Alam Film Center. Metin Demirhan also copied VHS tapes for me from his own archive. But a wide archival study was only made possible through Alican Sekmeç; he has one of the biggest digital archives in Turkey. Thankfully, he really supported the film
For the elimination process, we initially set up a viewing and evaluation team with university students. They would select scenes based on provided proposals. We watched over a thousand films, in addition to the ones we already knew of, also including close to a hundred pornos. Eventually, there were pieces from almost three hundred films used in the documentary. Some clips are only a second or two in length. I wanted the films to communicate themselves, in the logic of a compilation or found footage film, and looked for Yeşilçam references. For example, in the Love Story adaptation Aşk Hikâyesi, Deniz Gökçer says to Salih Güney, “If I wanted to recite what your eyes want to tell me, censors would cut it, for one thing.” Here, the trouble-maker of Turkish cinema is dismissing censorship. Scenes like this were very important to me. Eventually, we weren't able to use many of the scenes, but that's another story...
But copies in personal archives are, of course, too insufficient in quality to use in a film...
Turkish cinema already lacks a preserved archive. Thousands of films were burned, destroyed, forgotten in Germany. And this is what the film's about. How will a mentality that tears down Emek Cinema, protect its films? The cleanest footage we could get from the remaining production companies were digi-beta tapes prepared for television. Since we filmed in HD, we then had to re-size this footage and occasionally mend it digitally. Small blessings. The production companies were quite helpful in terms of providing clean footage and the permission to use them.
Also, using this much film footage brings to light one of the main issues in the film, which is copyright and royalties. Let's talk a bit about both.
When we embarked on this documentary, we talked to production companies before the production process and were able to acquire the necessary permissions – or else it would have been a huge gamble. We weren't able to use some scenes because the owners of the films couldn't be found. Other than that, the music and footage from the Yeşilçam era was not subject to legal action, as, at the time, if the overseas copyright holder of a piece didn't officially register it in Turkey, the films and music would be considered public domain. It was the same in the U.S. at that time, as well, or else Turkish films, which were subject to tight controls and censorship, would not have been able to attain their operating licenses. So director Çetin İnanç using footage from Star Wars was not considered a crime under Turkish law.
According to director and studio owner Kunt Tulgar, his producer father, Sabahattin Tulgar, was taken to court in Turkey by Americans because of the Tarzan in İstanbul film. So Mr. Tulgar found Tarzan of Manisa and purchased the rights to use the name in Turkey, and by claiming that our Tarzan was older than theirs, proceeded to win the case.
As for today's copyright law, we're talking about a massive economic market and global censorship mechanism. There are many sanctions for copyright and patent laws in many fields outside of cinema. In science, medicine, the food sector, internet environment, and art, these laws create constant obstacles. It puts sharing, imitation, or performing new research over existing knowledge in the realm of criminal activity. There is this sanctified concept of intellectual property and a “pirate” monster that has been created in opposition to it. Of course, intellectual property is important for an artist or researcher to survive, however, today's aggressive copyright laws are part of a system that enriches the intermediary companies that market the work, punishing everyone else, and leaving them in need of the monopoly of big companies, rather than protecting the work's owner.
To touch upon the cinema and television sector, there are still no fair laws that have been put into place. For example, a screenwriter like Safa Önal, who has written the screenplays to hundreds of films that have been shown on television countless times, still cannot receive royalties.
Actually, copy and adaptation culture are not rare concepts or specific to Turkish cinema.
Adaptation culture is present in every country's cinema because, since the beginning, people have learned about film by watching other films. The American film and television industry is part of this, as well. There are even production companies in the US, like The Asylum, that solely focus on imitation films.
For example, we laugh at Turkish Rambo, but following First Blood there were plenty of similar films made in world cinemas and American cinema, as well. Since Bruce Lee died young, Hong Kong cinema continued producing films with Bruce Lee-like actors. Just the other day I found a knock-off Bruce Lee DVD, where they cut out a photograph of Bruce Lee's face and pasted it onto the actor in the film. So when the actor moves, there's this static Bruce Lee mask covering his face.
If you look at genre films, you already start see films that are influenced by one another. After The Exorcist, there were similar adaptations made in Spain, Brazil, India, Italy, and Turkey. Even today, films like Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, and King Kong or series' that are originally Israeli, Danish, or Swedish, such as Homeland, The Bridge, The Killing, are being re-made by the American film and television industry.
For example, A Fistful of Dollars is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimba. Akira Kurosawa took Sergio Leone to court and won. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was inspired by the 1987 Hong Kong film City on Fire. The famous axe scene in Kubrick's The Shining was inspired by the 1921 Swedish film Körkarlen, which was, in turn, inspired by the axe man scene from D.W. Griffith's 1919 American production, Broken Blossoms. Star Wars is already, in and of itself, a blend of different films, a fairy tale inspired by the martial arts of the far east, and its screenplay is heavily influenced by Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. These are things that are already known.
Basically, Turkish cinema is no different than any other country's cinema because this is already a natural process. What stands out about the Yeşilçam period is that re-makes were made abundantly and freely, without having to pay royalties. Outside of the failure of copyright law, the reason for this can be found in three places: Yeşilçam's lack of screenwriters, Turkey's tax system, and censorship.
Shall we open these topics up a little bit?
There was a saying in Yeşilçam, “don't think up a script, they'll steal it.” New films were shown by the week and then sent to operational regions. So the actual profit would be made during the season where the film made its second-run as part of a double-feature because theaters would show one new and one old film. There were approximately over two hundred films produced each year and even though there were many others, most of the demand was met by three screenwriters (a.k.a. the three musketeers): Safa Önal, Bülent Oran, and Erdoğan Tünaş. Since they were working day and night, naturally, stories would get repeated, derivatives would be produced. Also, since operational regions would request films similar to the successful ones, the writers prepared scripts in-line with the demand. Still, there were also stories they wrote for themselves, which is when you got films like Vesikalı Yarim, written by Safa Önal.
As for the system of taxation, in Turkey's film sector of that period, you could only claim 60% of the film's cost as expenses. So when the film was finished, you were automatically at a 40% profit. Thus, towards the end of the year, producers would shoot these films, called amortization films, to claim expenses and, naturally, they used old scripts to do so. These films are the reason for the amount of repetition in Turkish cinema.
Censorship, however, is a screenwriter's or director's nightmare. In order to avoid censorship, they would re-use stories that had already been censored, rather than bravely try and create new stories, which lead to a type of self-censoring.
In many remakes we witness the simplification of the original's depth, down to the level of rich girl meets poor boy. Why does popular Turkish cinema oversimplify its subject matter?
One of the reasons for this is, again, censorship. The subtlety of the original film is erased during adaptation because censors have no tolerance for political criticism, social issues, or obscenity.
In Turkey, a military officer's wife can not cheat on him, leftist propaganda can not be shown, nations friendly towards Turkey can not be insulted, slang can not be used, immodest scenes can not be shown. There's not much left to tell. As a commercial industry, Yeşilçam appeals to large demographics. That's why stories are simplified, just like in the television shows we see now. However, when adapting foreign stories, you also need to pay attention to cultural codes. For example, a man and a woman who aren't married can not be left alone in a room together, they would have to be related through family.
The culture of adaptation began in the literature of the Tanzimat (reformation) period. Ahmet Mithat's novel Çengi is a story inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote. The author indicates this at the beginning of the novel and introduces his reader to Don Quixote, considered to be the inception of the modern novel. In his own interpretation, however, he takes the novel, which is a Western form, and combines it with Turkish oral culture, adapting it to life in Istanbul in 1887. Similar methods are utilized in the dubbing of foreign films, as well. The period's famous voice actor Ferdi Tayfur would create his own dialogue while translating Laurel and Hardy films, acting as if the films took place in Turkey, and voicing each of the characters like a Hacivat and Karagöz master. All of a sudden, Laurel and Hardy start speaking Turkish with American accents, like American tourists in Turkey, or Groucho Marx becomes an Armenian named Arsan Palabıyıkyan. Sometimes, in the name of naturalizing foreign films, even belly dancing clips are added in-between scenes. So the same logic applies when remaking foreign films because even if it is an adaptation, the Turkish audience wants to see something of themselves in it.
What are some of your favorite adaptations?
For example, Hulki Saner adapted Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot twice: One was the black-and-white 1964 production Fıstık Gibi Maşallah, the other, the 1970 color film Fıstık Gibi. The film was so successful that when color film was introduced, Hulki Saner, commercially motivated, decided to shoot it in color. If the American film takes place on a train, ours takes place on a boat; that is the whole difference. Other than that, the casting, narrative, and choice of music and rhythm are all very successful. Sadri Alışık, İzzet Günay, Türkan Şoray, and Vahi Öz make for such a sweet cast that I still watch it with pleasure. Some Like It Hot is very good too, but it's actually a remake of the 1951 German production, Die Fanfaren der Liebe, which, itself, is actually a remake of the 1935 French film Fanfare d'amour (Fanfare of Love).
However, Hulki Saner didn't have the opportunity of seeing Fanfare d'amour or meeting with its screenwriter and paying royalties to purchase the script like Billy Wilder. That's why I find it only natural that he watched Some Like It Hot and got inspired.
Âşık Oldum, Ertem Eğilmez's 1985 film starring Şener Şen is an adaptation of the 1984 American production The Woman in Red that I like very much. The story's adapted to Turkey very successfully. Think of the idiosyncratic acting of Ayşen Gruda and Şener Şen. The “original” American film is also an adaptation of the 1977 French film Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive) starring Jean Rochefort. All three versions of the film are very successful.
On the other hand, the filmThe Strawdogs was adapted twice in Turkey, as Kartal Yuvası (1974, Natuk Baytan) and Kadınca (1984, Temel Gürsu), and I can't enjoy either of them the way I do Sam Peckinpah's film. In Kartal Yuvası, the story turned into a nationalist and religious Cyprus story and Kadınca was a Ferdi Özbeğen and Banu Alkan musical. There's also a film, remotely inspired by The Strawdogs, titled Köpekler, which is a violent film where women who have fallen into the mire of Yeşilçam are raped.
Copy culture aside, when it comes to Yeşilçam remakes, words like knock-off, pilfered, or stolen are constantly being utilized.
I'm not saying that all imitation films are good, but all “original” films aren't good either. This is more about the director, the screenwriter, or the producer and you need to look at the motivation behind the work.
When Metin Erksan shot Şeytan, his The Exorcist adaptation, The Exorcist had been banned in Turkey, but was talked about a lot in the press. If we are to put its commercial aims aside, Metin Erksan's film seems like a translation to me, it perforates the censorship applied to an American film in Turkey.
Some screenplays that criticize the feudal system in Anatolia are shifted to Mexico and become cowboy movies, from fear of censorship. When the landowner's called Rodrigo, the censorship board doesn't say anything, but the story remains the same.
By taking advantage of the hole in copyright laws, you can blend everything together. Serhat Köksal calls it “rag bag art,” today's notion of patchwork. You take the music from one place, the effects images from another, and the scripts are a hodgepodge. This way, a completely different adaptation culture is born. For example, in T. Fikret Uçak's film 3 Dev Adam, Captain America and the Mexican wrestler El Santo are fighting against an evil Spiderman or in the film Demiryumruk: Devler Geliyor, our hero walks around with a The Phantom mask on his face, a Superman emblem on his chest, and a Batman logo on his belt. The character he's fighting is the familiar Fu Manchu and in this version, he's a wheelchair-bound transvestite.
Like Gökay Gelgeç said, this type of film “breaks some of the rigid stereotypes” in popular cinema, which is a good thing, I think. Making films like these is impossible today because of copyright laws. Shows like Desperate Housewives are adapted as part of a franchise system, whereas directors like Çetin İnanç were very free in terms of mixing and editing. These films, shot with no money, create something out of nothing and I'm including the desperate use of Star Wars footage in this, as well. Stealing footage from the imperialists and, in his own context, showing it to an audience that doesn't have the opportunity of seeing the original film could be read as an anarchist act. We're talking about the days of martial law, during which Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören shot their film Yol despite thousands of difficulties. Yeşilçam was in crisis, televisions had entered the household, theaters were showing either arabesque melodramas, sex films, or showy American films, and theaters showing Turkish films were shutting down. Making an investment and shooting a science-fiction movie at such a time is brave. Or I can also put it like this: Did George Lucas go bankrupt when Çetin İnanç used footage from Star Wars?
What is the reason for the over the top cinematic language of Yeşilçam?
Yeşilçam was in a competition it couldn't win with Western cinema. So while it's imitating Western film, it also needs to present something of itself to its audience. For example, in the films Cüneyt Arkın made with Çetin İnanç in the 80's, which he sometimes wrote the scripts for, he presents an almost more exaggerated style of acting with a different motivation. As the budget decreases, Cüneyt Arkın gets more extreme. Like Nezih Erdoğan says in his article "Violent images: Hybridity and Excess in The Man Who Saved the World," “If Luke Skywalker hits one time, Cüneyt Arkın hits a hundred times,” because he's trying to make up for the deficiencies. Since he can't present his audience with a Hollywood calibre film, the only difference he can make is the emotional intensity ridiculed for its exaggeration. But being able to possess this motivation under those circumstances, risking death in dangerous scenes in order to finish the film, this push, this effort, it all reflects on the era's audience. They find something of themselves in those films.
In the 60's and 70's, films weren't viewed in small quiet theaters like today, but in crowded and loud environments with the whole family. For example, think about how loud all the crackling sunflower seeds would be at a three thousand seat open-air theater in Yılmaz Güney's hometown of Adana. When Güney's fighting in the film, chairs are thrown, guns are drawn, the bad guys are booed, if Yılmaz Güney's hurt, people give a standing ovation when he's saved. This is the kind of viewing culture we're talking about. The audience doesn't say “Oh, they've used the James Bond music here, what a disgrace” like they do today, they don't even care.
The world premiere of Remake, Remix, Rip-Off was on the 13th of August, 2014 at the Locarno Film Festival. Can you tell us a about the reactions it received?
At Locarno, the film was shown in the “Histoire(s) du Cinema” category, which consists of films on cinema and restored classics. Since the foreign audience would be coming across this topic for the first time, I was very curious to see what their reactions would be and, also, since the film is fast-paced, following the subtitles requires concentration. I think they had quite a bit of fun and when it was over we received a long applause. When we talked to the audience afterwards, they told us that the the serious and comedic elements were well-balanced and that it flowed, despite its 110-minute running time. So we were happy. For now, in Turkey, the film can be seen through festivals. Right now it's confirmed to be screened as part of the Gezici Film Festival and Adana's The Golden Boll, and we're waiting to hear back from other festivals.
So what are you going to do with the remaining material? You have a lot of accumulated and unused content.
We talked to close to a hundred film-makers, academicians, and film critics and each conversation usually lasted about an hour and half. The material we used in the film is a very small portion of what we have. Even just the discussion we had with Metin Erkan and Halit Refiğ in 2008 was about two and a half hours long and, unfortunately, we were only able to use three minutes of it. So this coming year, we're thinking of starting on a documentary-like book consisting of these interviews.