Original text of translated chapter: “Realismo (tv) travestito da fiction? La valle dei lupi.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 41-46.
For the past three to four years, TV industry conversations in the Middle-East North Africa region have been dominated by one theme: Turkish content. Such talk has often focused on programs targeting female audiences, with Noor/Gümüş being the breakaway phenomenon of 2008 and Magnificent Century/Muhteşem Yüzyıl taking the prize for most-discussed program in recent years. The discriminating ear will note, however, that another program is almost always mentioned alongside the big romances. It’s a franchise that’s been airing for over ten years in Turkey and it’s been making its way to the Balkans, the Arab world, and beyond in various forms for almost as long. Far from a romance, the program blends the genres of spy thriller, mafia drama, and even reality-TV, targeting a primarily male audience. As controversial as it has been successful, the program has been subject to numerous penalties by the Turkish censorship board, RTÜK, seen banning efforts in Germany, and contributed to international crises between Turkey and both the US and Israel. That program is Valley of the Wolves/Kurtlar Vadisi.
Valley began airing in January of 2003 on Turkish private channel Show TV. It tells the story of Turkish special services agent Ali Candan, who gives up his family and identity, undergoing plastic surgery and taking on the name Polat Alemdar in order to infiltrate and destroy the Turkish mafia. Alemdar is played by Necati Şaşmaz, who was working as an insurance salesman when producer/director Osman Sinav approached him about the role. Though many of the other lead actors were also novices, Valley was a runaway success, shooting quickly to the top of the ratings, and leading to the much-touted phenomenon of vacant streets across Turkey on Thursday nights, as audiences clustered around TV screens. By the end of the second season, Sinav left the project, making way for younger Şaşmaz brother Raci in the role of producer, and a series of directors that would eventually include youngest brother Zübeyr as well. As the Şaşmaz brothers, relative outsiders to the entertainment industry, infiltrated and gained power in the burgeoning sector of Turkish television, Valley’s lead character, Alemdar, ran a parallel story, entering the mafia as an unknown and moving quickly to the position of kingpin by the December 2005 season finale. The final two episodes of the show featured Hollywood actors Andy Garcia and Sharon Stone, and revealed that Turkish organized crime was only fragment of a much bigger game involving shady international players.
The second installation in the franchise was the Serdar Akar-directed film Valley of the Wolves Iraq, a 2006 feature that opens with a real-life 2003 incident in which US troops in northern Iraq detained Turkish special forces agents. The thread of the plot from here is a largely fictional story in which Alemdar and his men travel to Iraq to extract revenge on the Christian zealot in charge of US forces. Boasting a budget of 10 million USD and taking in box office receipts of about 24 million, Iraq was the most successful Turkish film to date when it came out, playing well not only to the general populace, but also to the political elite, with parliamentary leader Bülent Arınç praising the film’s realism and, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s wife, Emine, speaking of her “pride” after a gala screening. It was also released in Germany, where Turkish fans of the TV show came out in large numbers to watch, and in the Arab world, where the critique of US actions in Iraq had great appeal.
That critique is one of the most fascinating aspects of Valley because the plot weaves among depictions of US military cruelty that come directly from Turkish press stories. US soldiers firing on a peaceful wedding party early in the film echoed a similar incident from May of 2004 in Iraq, and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib features prominently, including a reenactment of the famous pile of naked men and the photographing of that scene. There is even a section about the harvesting of organs for sale to Israel and the US, a story that, though never substantiated, did nonetheless appear in the Turkish press and receive much attention. This blending of “news” and fiction, along with the rampant anti-American message of the film, had US analysts and politicians alike deeply concerned about the show.
Indeed, the blending of fact and fiction has always been a hallmark of Valley. Many of the characters in the TV series bear names, occupations, and characteristics that are clearly references to characters from the worlds of Turkish politics, business, and crime, and events from the news often make their way into the plot of the show within a month. This relationship with reality isn’t simply one of representation either. The show seems to foster its own reality in many ways, at least among fans, whose more creative activities have included taking out funeral announcements in prominent newspapers and holding moments of silence before major football matches in honor of characters who have died on the show. On a more serious note, the defense mounted by a young man who murdered a Catholic priest in 2007 included being “under the influence” of Valley, which had a subplot at the time about the shady work of Christian missionaries in Turkey.
The Valley franchise continued after Iraq, first with the short-lived TV show Valley of the Wolves Terror, which was taken off the air after the first episode because its direct tackling of the Kurdish conflict was deemed too controversial at the time. This was followed-up a month later with Valley of the Wolves Ambush, which details Alemdar’s struggles against the world of international big business, the Gladio-like Turkish deep state, and the work of meddling countries such as Israel and the US, which continuously plot to destroy the Turkish nation. Ambush, nearing its 200th episode, remains on the air today, and it has spawned three film projects. The 2008 comedy Muro: Damn the Humanist Inside follows a Kurdish revolutionary who is released from prison, while the 2009 drama Valley of the Wolves Gladio traces an insider’s account of the Turkish deep state.
Of greatest impact on the international front was the most recent filmic offshoot, 2011’s Valley of the Wolves Palestine, which begins with the 2010 Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla and, like Iraq, traces Alemdar’s path of revenge, as he and his small team take on and destroy a major portion of the Israeli Defense Forces. Palestine continued an established Valley tradition of lambasting Israel, a trend that received prominent attention after the broadcast of a 2010 episode featuring Alemdar’s raid of the Israeli consulate to free a kidnapped baby. During the raid, he scolds consular officials for their part in Israeli war crimes and the suffering of Palestinian children before killing them summarily. The episode caused a diplomatic incident which very nearly led to the recall of the Turkey’s ambassador to Israel. Palestine, coming after the ambassador had already been recalled as a result of the flotilla raid, had no such effect on relations, but it was the target of attempted bans in Germany, in respect to its perceived anti-Semitism. It was the third biggest Turkish film of 2011, with box office takings of about 13 million USD.
Though no stranger to controversy at home, where episodes of the initial Valley series were subject to repeated censures by RTÜK for its extravagant violence, the franchise seems in recent years to have found a cozy niche in the domestic political spectrum. Critics note that the plot of Ambush took on a decidedly pro-government tone after it moved in 2010 to ATV, a channel that, though private, is perceived to have strong ties with the Justice and Development Party (AK-Party), which has been governing Turkey since 2002. The show now features regular characters representing Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, portraying the latter in a particularly heroic light. Recent episodes have focused heavily on Syria and, though the season finale gave no direct discussion about the ongoing protests in Turkey, Valley was not entirely silent on the matter, as lead actor Şaşmaz was granted a special audience with Erdoğan at the height of the protests, purportedly to voice the concerns of the public. Both this meeting and Şaşmaz’s follow-up press conference were widely criticized by protestors, but the very fact that it happened is a testament to the enduring legacy of Valley.
Just what form that legacy will ultimately take is a source of much debate in Turkey. In July the “Wise Persons Commission,” a group of academics, journalists, and artists tasked with easing the way for Turkish/Kurdish peace, featured among its recommendations the removal of nationalistic, conflict-oriented TV programs from the airwaves. Valley was far and away the most prominent show on their list. Those who call the show divisive have plenty of evidence, from the half-baked plot of Terror to the valorization of a character named Kara, widely seen as a stand-in for one-time gendarme agent Mahmut Yıldırım, who is currently standing trial for the assassination of a Kurdish writer and is suspected of many other anti-Kurdish activities. On the other hand, one of the show’s most popular characters, Muro, was a PKK member who fought sincerely, if ineptly, for the cause of his people. The 2013 season finale was similarly equivocal in its Turkish nationalism. It featured a plot turn revealing that the (so-far) deepest level of the Turkish deep state is actually part of a pan-Islamic brotherhood that includes the Kurds, hinting that the show may be shifting its politics in line with those of the government’s so-called “Kurdish Opening.”
This recent revelation is not the only confluence between Valley and the AK-Party as of late. In what is for many critics a troubling reversal, various members of the party have begun explaining the Gezi Park protests with reference to conspiracy theories that resemble the plot of Valley. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s claims that an “interest rate lobby” is trying to bring Turkey down have been presaged by similar claims on the show, and Deputy PM Beşir Atalay’s remarks that “there are circles jealous of Turkey’s growth uniting on the side of the Jewish diaspora” is the everyday material of a Valley script sheet. The most recent theory comes from Erdoğan’s new chief advisor, AK-Party critic-turned-champion Yiğit Bulut, who claims that nefarious forces are trying to kill the PM with telekinesis. Though the latter has not yet appeared in a Valley plot, tracing the rationale behind it requires a set of mental contortions that perhaps only serious viewers of the show will be primed to perform. Such priming has long been the fodder of Valley’s critics, who have repeatedly worried that “naive” audiences would be lost in the show’s blend of fact and fiction. Very few, however, had anticipated that the same thing would happen to politicians. Whether these new theories represent the genuine beliefs of the ruling party or whether they are being used to pander to a specific populace, they speak to a broadening of conspiracy discourse in the public sphere, suggesting that Valley and its modes of storytelling are part of a much greater phenomenon.