New York Times March 9,1999

Film Confronts a History Few Turks Can Agree On


Celebrating historic triumphs is a favorite pastime for many Turks. Tales of how Turkic peoples emerged from Central Asia, crossed the steppes to Anatolia, established the Ottoman Empire and ruled for centuries over large swaths of Europe and Asia are the subject of countless legends, poems and books. But dealing with the more recent past is difficult here.

Passions run too high to allow critical assessments of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, or of the Kurdish uprisings, military coups and periods of repression that have marked this country's political life since then. The intense emotion surrounding the recent arrest of the Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is now facing a trial for treason that could lead to the death penalty, reflects this difficulty.

But one Turkish filmmaker, Reis Celik, 37, has begun to tackle topics that many Turks prefer not to confront. Celik's 1997 film "Let There Be Light" examined the war between the Turkish army and Kurdish separatists in a daringly balanced way, suggesting there might be right and wrong on both sides. Now he has produced a film about three college dropouts who tried to set off a Marxist revolution in Turkey, but who were captured and hanged in 1972. The film, "Goodbye Tomorrow," is a drama that focuses on the most prominent of the three, Deniz Gezmis. Some Turks remember him as an idealist victimized by the brutality of military justice. Others say he deserved his fate because his crime was no less than seeking to destroy the nation he claimed to love.

Since the film's release, debates over Gezmis, the leftist movement that spread through Turkey after 1968, and the death penalty have come to the surface here. The film portrays the rebels in a highly favorable light and the military establishment as cruel and repressive. Gezmis and his comrades, like their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe, were fired by anger at the American role in Vietnam and at social injustices at home. Some Turks came to view them with a hatred almost as intense as that which they now hold for Ocalan.

"The Cold War was fought very intensely here," said Hasan Cemal, author of a forthcoming book on the period. "Moscow was always trying to destabilize Turkey. The Americans were willing to do anything to keep Turkey on their side. The polarization was tremendous." Thousands of students and others filled Turkish streets for marches and demonstrations in the late 1960s and early '70s. Some like Gezmis, inspired by the example of Che Guevara, decided that Turkey was ripe for revolution. Among their actions was the spectacular kidnapping of four American soldiers, who they later released without receiving the ransom they had demanded. Gezmis and his comrades were caught soon after that episode. They were brought before a tribunal established by the military junta that took power in 1971, and charged with trying to overthrow the constitution.

"It is you people who tried to overthrow it with your junta," the actor who plays Gezmis tells steely-eyed military judges in a scene from the new film. "You should be trying yourselves on these charges." In other scenes, the Gezmis character asserts that his fight was against American imperialism and that his "one real objective was an independent and democratic Turkey." Gezmis is portrayed as a kind of national conscience, a defender of humanistic values in the face of an evil machine. This perspective is repulsive to Turks who consider Gezmis to have been no more than a terrorist. Yet some of them harbor grudging respect for him nonetheless. "In those days, people on both sides were sincere and honest and patriotic," said Yasar Okuyan, a leader of the center-right Motherland Party who was an anti-Marxist student organizer in the 1970s. "At the time, it may have seemed that there were reasons to execute him, but looking back it is impossible to accept those reasons."

The execution of Gezmis and his two comrades did not end political confrontation in Turkey. On the contrary, the confrontation worsened, and by the end of the 1970s gunfire, bombing and killing became daily events. The chaos was ended after another military coup in 1980. "Turkey did not give the '68 generation a chance to express itself peacefully," said Ilkay Demir, a doctor who was sentenced to death for her involvement in leftist subversion in the 1970s and who served eight years in prison before being released in an amnesty. "We were very unrealistic," Dr. Demir said. "We thought we could spark a popular uprising immediately. Looking back, I can see that what we did was really stupid. But still, Deniz and people like him left a very important symbolic legacy. They're symbols of self-expression, of a determination to participate in society and not to accept state authority blindly." Like many of her former comrades, Dr. Demir has no plans to see "Goodbye Tomorrow."

The film, which is to be shown at festivals in Europe and may later appear in the United States, has received mixed reviews. Many veterans of the leftist movement prefer to guard their own memories rather than see them filtered through a camera's lens. Sitting in an Istanbul cafe on a recent afternoon, Celik, the film's director, said that although he is hampered by tight budget constraints -- he made his new film for just $1 million -- he is determined to confront issues from a leftist perspective that was until recently considered intolerable. "It wouldn't have been possible to make this film 10 or even five years ago, but now there is a real demand for democracy here," Celik said. "Turkey is entering the world. I see my role as helping it to confront its past and its problems." Asked if he saw a comparison between the death sentence handed down to Deniz Gezmis and the one that Ocalan may receive, Celik replied: "Gezmis was hanged, but now even the president of Turkey speaks in some of the same terms he did. Who knows whether years from now, people will defend what Ocalan has been saying?" -----