By Cem Özdemir
If German cinema operators were worried about falling audience numbers, they now have reason to celebrate –- a Turkish film that has broken all attendance records in Turkey is doing extremely well among Germany's large Turkish community. With a budget of $10 million, “Valley of the Wolves” is the most expensive Turkish film to date. But, as can be seen by the reactions of German critics and the questions of my agitated Belgian and Dutch colleagues in the European parliament, “Valley of the Wolves” is not just an action flick.
The film is based on an actual incident in northern Iraq on July 4, 2003: US soldiers arrested 11 Turkish officers and pulled bags over their heads before taking them away. The images were an insult to Turkish nationalists and anyone concerned with the country’s honor. Many Turks also suspected the US was taking revenge for the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow the US to move troops through Turkey into Iraq during the 2003 Iraq war.
The main theme of the movie is revenge (and maybe even the reason for the movie itself). The film follows a Turkish intelligence agent as he seeks to avenge the officers and restore their honor. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film didn’t portray the opponents of Turks and Muslims so brutally –- the bad guys in this black and white world are the Americans, the Kurds, the Christians and the Jews.
Giving a specific ethno-religious or national background to the antagonists in a movie is nothing new and allows filmmakers to pander to clichés and racist sentiment –- regardless of whether it’s Russians, Asians, Arabs, Mexicans, Jews or even Turks or Germans. I readily admit this –- but it doesn’t make it easier for me to tolerate “Valley of the Wolves”.
No age limit?
This film portrays the Kurds of northern Iraq as puppets of the Americans and as a motley crew of dirty, cowardly soldiers with the exception of one soldier who (what else?) sides with the Turks. The Americans’ atrocities include attacking a wedding and killing the groom as well as a child –- in front of its mother of course –- before relishing in the torture of any survivors. The doctor who peddles organs is a Jew who selects his victims as if in a concentration camp before readying their organs for export to the US and Israel. Another traditionally dressed Jew with ringlets of hair (in northern Iraq!) leaves the area at the first sign of danger.
The list could go on. It’s hard to believe that the film is shown with no age limit in Turkey (but has an 18-and-over rating in Germany). The film makes Christians and Jews appear as repugnant, conspiratorial holy warriors hoping to use blood-drenched swords to expand or reclaim the empire of their god. Islam, naturally, is depicted as the opposite –- a religion of peace and mercy. The ostracism of suicide bombers could be seen as positive were it not such a blatant and simplistic portrayal of good and evil.
It’s too easy for director Serdar Akar to defend himself by referring to American war films that portray Asians as racist. He shows he has an agenda by using Soner Yalcin, who espouses a crude thesis on the infiltration of Jews in Turkey, as an adviser and to gain publicity.
The criticism I levelled at Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten –- that it consciously published the Muhammad caricatures to provoke and divide –- is the same criticism I have for the people who made “Valley of the Wolves”. Even though the film uses images and events that happened under the watch of the Americans, such as the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, it is not about justified criticism of the US or even education.
It would be easy to ignore the film as a run-of-the-mill, clichéd action movie and just move on. But anyone who produces this kind of film is trying to do more than just entertain –- they’re trying to echo and bolster racist ideals while clouding dialogue. The film makes life more difficult for anyone who sees the word “dialogue” as more than just a word. But making things more difficult for everyone else seems to be the trend these days, whether consciously or unconsciously. Anyone who likes this film should keep their opinions of the Muhammad caricatures to themselves.
The Turkish government should have distanced itself
Turkish youth would be better served to watch “Desperate Hours”, a film about the life of Selahattin Ülkümen. As a Turkish diplomat in Rhodos, he saved the lives of many Jews during the Nazi era, as did the then-ambassador in Marseille, Necdet Kent. To many, they are known as the Turkish Schindlers. Turkey was the first country with a Muslim majority that was recognized by Israel and the Ottomans gladly accepted Jewish refugees from Spain during the Inquisition. The Turkish government should have distanced itself from this film to demonstrate its opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.
Many of the reviews I’m aware of have ignored the anti-Semitic undertones and sketchy plot to focus on a lively audience that cheers, screams and applauds –- and would probably like to sprint home during the showing to grab a gun and come to the aid of the main character. But it hasn’t gone that far –- yet. During a recent showing in the southern German town of Kehl, not everyone stayed until the credits. A Turkish guest even asked out loud whether the film wasn’t “laying it on a bit thick.” Nobody yelled “Allah is great” and no one joined in with the Turkish national anthem. There wasn’t even any applause at the end.
Still, the film has apparently created such a mass hysteria in the Turkish community that everyone feels they have to see it to keep up. A ban would be useless since there are so many alternatives to gain access to the film these days. Plus a ban would just add to the underdog mystique and confirm the double standards of the West for those who believe in them.
But the film could have a good side. In a show of unprecedented unity, Turkish immigrant organizations have condemned both the Muhammad caricatures and the violent protests. They should now seize the opportunity presented by “Valley of the Wolves” –- perhaps joining together with student organizations – to enter into a dialogue with schoolchildren and Jewish and American organizations about racism, anti-Semitism and excessive nationalism.
German-Turkish politician Cem Özdemir is a Green Party member of the European Parliament.
Translated from German by Andrew Bulkeley.
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