Yeşim Ustaoğlu: eyeil follower of psychology in Turkish cinema

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Psychology is a major theme long neglected by Turkish cinema. It is a fact that psychological films were not very common until recent years in world cinema either. But Turkish films, at least until the mid-1990s, really lacked the inner story of the individual. The average Turkish film can be described as a social drama rather than an individual drama.

Turkish director YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu (left) is kissed by Spanish actress and jury president Angela Molina (right) after receiving the special jury prize for her film “GüneÅŸe Yolculuk” at the 49th Berlin Film Festival in Berlin February 21, 1999 (REUTERS hoto)

Perhaps the very first Turkish psychological film was “EndiÅŸe” (“Anxiety”, 1974) by director Åžerif Gören. Other early examples were “Otobüs” (“The Bus”, 1975) by Tunç Okan and “Reis Bey” (“The Judge”, 1988) by Mesut Uçakan. Nevertheless, we do not meet much psychology in Turkish films until the first films of “Yeni Sinemacılar”, literary of the “new filmmakers”. The group, led by director Serdar Akar, aimed to reflect real life through cinema in its simplest form (and included many prominent figures from the film industry, such as YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu, DerviÅŸ Zaim and Zeki Demirkubuz). UstaoÄŸlu is special among her peers, bringing depth by examining the psychology of the individuals she portrays in a political context. She also uses other themes and genres such as crime and mystery to intensify the psychological effect of her films.

Early life

Yeşim Ustaoğlu was born on November 18, 1960 in the Sarıkamış district of the eastern province of Kars, where her father worked as an ophthalmologist at the public hospital. His family is from the northern province of Trabzon, where they returned after spending a few years in Sarıkamış. Ustaoğlu went to school in her hometown from the first year to graduation from the Department of Architecture of Karadeniz Technical University (KTÜ).


Turkish director Yeşim Ustaoğlu listens to a journalist's questions during a press conference after the screening of her film 'Güneşe Yolculuk' at the 49th Berlin Film Festival in Berlin on February 15, 1999. (Photo REUTERS)
Turkish director YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu listens to a journalist’s questions during a press conference after the screening of her film “GüneÅŸe Yolculuk” at the 49th Berlin Film Festival in Berlin on February 15, 1999. (Photo REUTERS)

She grew up in a leftist political environment, which encouraged her to take an interest in political issues in Turkey and the world from an early age. She was one of KTÃœ’s student activists on the left in the late 1970s, when Turkey suffered heavy political violence from terrorists, activists and state security forces. UstaoÄŸlu was even attacked once and injured her eye. At the public hospital, his father himself operated on his eye. “If my father hadn’t given me another life,” she once said in an interview, “I wouldn’t have been able to make these films.

UstaoÄŸlu participated in a project with her classmates for an international architectural design competition, and she was sent to study in Salzburg, Austria, after their project won. She was only 19 at the time and was studying among graduate students in their mid-twenties who called her “the little girl on the bike” because she rode to school.

After graduating from KTÃœ, UstaoÄŸlu moved to Istanbul to work as an architect and complete her graduate studies in the restoration department, which she says shows her attitude as an architect. “My loyalty was to the architecture,” she once said, “not to the money.” Still, she made some money, which she will use to make her first four short films.

Architect by profession, director by passion


Turkish director YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu waves Golden Shell Award for best film
Turkish director YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu holds up the Golden Shell Award for Best Film “Pandora’s Box” at the San Sebastian International Film Festival on September 27, 2008. (Photo REUTERS)

YeÅŸim UstaoÄŸlu could not cope with the boom in the construction sector in Turkey in the 1980s, as she was an idealist and preferred to save the cultural fabric of the old quarters of Istanbul at a time of wild change. . Most of the architects were trying to meet the demands of the clients, which changed the exterior appearance of Istanbul and later all of Turkey. Therefore, his attention began to shift to the cinema rather than to his actual activity.

UstaoÄŸlu made four short films before his first film “Iz” (“The Trace”, 1994), a psychological mystery. But the arthouse film did not capture the public’s attention. However, “Iz” won the highest cinematic awards at several international festivals, including Istanbul and Nuremberg. Some critics viewed UstaoÄŸlu as “the Turkish David Lynch,” which doesn’t fit when his later films are also considered. “Iz” is UstaoÄŸlu’s first film, but not his best.

UstaoÄŸlu’s second film, “GüneÅŸe Yolculuk” (“Journey to the Sun”, 1999), was the story of a naïve young man who gradually comes to recognize the political conflicts in his country. Mehmet, an allegorical name for Turkish identity, is a simple young worker with generic hopes like marrying his girlfriend, also a young worker. Mehmet befriends Berzan, an allegorical name for Kurdish ethnic identity, after a street brawl amid a cheering crowd resulting from a national football match. When Mehmet faces police brutality during a political investigation he is mistakenly involved in, he begins to change and become politically aware.


A photo of 'Güneşe Yolculuk.'
A photo of “GüneÅŸe Yolculuk”.

UstaoÄŸlu and his film have won several awards for his political honesty and courage.

Filming identity issues

Ustaoğlu also dealt with identity issues in his later films. In “Bulutları Beklerken” (“Waiting for the Clouds”, 2003), Ustaoğlu tells the story of Ayşe, who was born Eleni and grew up as a Muslim Turk although she belonged to a Greek Christian family after the events. premises during the First World War. Ayşe is now an old woman and seeks to find the remains of her family although she is not supported by her older sister, who has long accepted her new identity (Turkish Muslim) and refuses to make the connection with the past of his family. Finally, Ayşe manages to navigate through the mysteries of the past and visit her older brother in Greece.


A still shot of “Tereddüt.
A photo of “Tereddüt”.

After dealing with issues of national and ethnic identity in two separate films, UstaoÄŸlu began to focus on more universal topics such as aging, women’s issues, generational conflicts and youth issues in his later films like “Pandora’nın Kutusu” (“Pandora’s Box”, 2008), “Tereddüt” (“Clair Obscur”, 2016) and “Araf” (“Somewhere in between”, 2011).

To date, UstaoÄŸlu has won numerous awards at various festivals in cities such as Antalya, Istanbul, Ankara, Boston, Salt Lake (Sundance), Berlin, Nurnberg, Sao Paolo, Valladolid, Yerevan and Tehran.

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