Reality (TV) in Wolve’s Clothing? Valley of the Wolves

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.

KVF film poster

Film poster for Valley of the Wolves Palestine, 2011.

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.

August 2013

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The PM and the Sultan: Sacred history and expression collide in Turkey

Original text of translated chapter: “Il premier e il sultano: il conflitto turco tra storia sacra e libertà de espressione.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 33-36.

MY poster

Publicity poster for Magnificent Century, 2012.

Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan, holding power for 46 years and overseeing massive expansions of the Empire’s territory during the 16th Century. His TV counterpart, Turkish actor Halit Ergenç, has actually conquered more of the globe, but his reign over ratings bas been threatened by the man some are calling Turkey’s next sultan, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

On 25 November 2012, while speaking at the opening ceremony for an airport in the city of Kuthaya, Erdoğan veered from his remarks on the progress Turkey has seen under the past decade of his Justice and Development Party’s (AK-Party) rule to lambast one of the country’s most popular TV shows, the sometimes sultry Ottoman costume drama Magnificent Century. Noting that opposition leaders had criticized his government’s foreign policy, Erdoğan responded by saying, “We know our responsibilities. We’ll go everywhere that our [Ottoman] ancestors went, but I think some may be imagining the ancestors in Magnificent Century. People watch that show and believe it’s a documentary. We don’t recognize that Suleiman. The real Suleiman spent 30 years of his life on horesback, not in the palace like you see on the TV show. I condemn the directors and the owner of the channel and, since they’ve been warned, I expect a judicial decision on the matter.”

Though the PM didn’t detail his concerns with the show, he tapped into a discourse about respect to sacred figures that has plagued Century since its premiere. Critics feel that the show delves too deeply into speculation on the Sultan’s private life, particularly with regard to his interest in women and the significance of harem intrigues. They are also worried that the Turkish public takes the show as fact, and is therefore getting a skewed sense of this heroic figure.

Erdoğan is arguably the most popular and powerful Turkish leader since the founder of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, so when he speaks, things happen. Within a few days, a tour guide from the city of Konya had filed a law suit against the show, claiming that it misrepresents history and distorts Turkish values. The following week, an AK-Party MP, Oktay Saral, introduced legislation to amend the constitution of the country’s censorship board, RTUK. Taking cue from a statute that already protects the memory of Atatürk, this new law was to ensure that, “historical events and characters that contribute to national values shall not be diminished, disrespected, or shown in manners other than they were.” Days later, Saral appeared on TV promising that Century would be taken off the air in 2013 and, the following day, Turkish Airlines canceled its plans to offer the popular program as in-flight entertainment.

Erdoğan’s opponents were far from silent on the matter. Many claimed that this was simply another example of the PM trying to distract the public from more pressing issues. Just as six months prior he had come out against abortion to silence critics of a military operation that killed 34 Kurdish civilians, critics said, he was now trying to divert attention from increasing Turkish/Kurdish tensions and serious problems on the border with Syria.

Some historians pointed out the PM’s historical nescience, saying that archive documents indicate Suleiman spent about eight years on (horseback) campaign rather than 30, and suggested that his speech was simply an attempt to rewrite Ottoman history for political ends.

A number of critics noted that iconoclasm was nothing new for Erdoğan. On a visit to the eastern city of Kars in 2011 the PM had attacked a sculpture dedicated to Turkish/Armenian friendship, calling it an “abomination” both because it was ugly and because it was near a religious site. The sculpture was quickly torn down.

Perhaps the most damning critique, however, linked the PM’s attack on Century with a December 2012 report on press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which noted that Turkey had more journalists in prison (49) than any other country in the world. Adding to these the hundreds of students, politicians, and activists rounded up on questionable charges of terrorism, critics claimed that Erdoğan’s volley was just the latest in a series of AK-Party attacks on freedom of expression in recent years.

At present, the fate of TV’s Suleiman looks brighter than that of the journalists. The show, which reaches an estimated audience of 150 million viewers in 44 countries throughout the world, made some quick changes to its format. Female characters began to dress more modestly in the weeks after the PM’s remarks, and Suleiman’s wife, Hürrem, took to praying. Whether in response to these actions or not, the so-called “Suleiman” law seems to have stagnated in parliament, at least for the moment. The show is slated to end in June of 2014, and it is unlikely that any law will come into effect soon enough to harm it, though such a law could be a concern for the latest big-budget Ottoman drama, Fetih, which premiered in September of 2013 and tells the story of Istanbul’s conqueror, Mehmed II.

Suleiman, Mehmed II’s great grandson, was called “magnificent” throughout the world for the strength and expanse of his empire. In Turkey, however, he is known as the “law maker” because he codified a set of rules regarded as strict on the one hand, but also as reasonable and just. Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongest leader in years, may be pondering his own epithet as he contemplates his abortive assault against the Sultan of the airwaves.

August 2013

Silver and light: Turkish drama shines brighter abroad

Original text of translated chapter: “Luce e argento: lo sceneggiato turco splende all’estro.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 37-40.

Gumus

Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ and Songül Öden from Gümüş (Silver), 2005.

Recipe to change a region: one spoiled young man, one naive but witty girl from the country, one grandfather who runs both his household and his business with the same firm hand, and a family of misfits whom we could all relate to if not for their vast fortune. Place in a beautiful historical mansion on the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus and let simmer over every possible intrigue and twist in the TV drama playbook.

Gümüş (Silver) was a mildly successful program when it hit screens in Turkey in January 2005. Though it never topped the ratings, hovering around 20% of the market share at best, it did manage to stay on the air for a full run of two and a half years (100 episodes) in the fiercely competitive Turkish market, introducing heartthrob Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ to the world in the process. The show’s big break came when it was purchased by Saudi broadcaster MBC, dubbed into colloquial Syrian Arabic, and began airing across the Middle East in April of 2008. Within a month, Noor (Light), as the show was renamed, had become the talk of the Arab world, and when audiences tuned in for the final episode on August 30th of that year, they massed 85 million.

Gümüş is the story of Mehmet (Tatlıtuğ) and Gümüş (Songül Öden) or, for the Arabic-speaking world, Mohannad and Noor, a couple pushed into an arranged marriage by Mehmet’s business-tycoon grandfather, Mehmet Fikri. They warm to each other, fall in love, and suffer a series of mishaps that threaten to tear them apart from time to time, not least due to the conniving of jealous family members. Along the way Gümüş evolves from innocent, small-town seamstress to savvy, fashion business manager and Mehmet sloughs off some of his spoiled rich-kid habits while learning to love his wife and family. Key side plots include the story of Mehmet’s sister, Pınar, who has an illegitimate child by his best friend, Onur, and the couple’s eventual marriage; a love triangle involving Mehmet’s otherwise quite composed cousin, Bahar; the continuing foibles of her inept and power-hungry brother, Berk; a struggle between Mehmet’s mother, Şeref, and Mehmet Fikri’s new wife, Dilruba; the abortion of a child by Gümüş’ childhood friend, Rukiye, along with her subsequent breakdown and eventual recovery; and the revelation that Mehmet’s first love, Nihan, not only survived a car crash presumed to have killed her but also gave birth to Mehmet’s son some months later.

Alongside this usual soap-opera fare, the show tackles some less conventional issues of social significance in Turkey. When Mehmet is knifed by thugs at the behest of a relative, he looses both kidneys, introducing the topic of organ donation to the plot. Two parents who might save the life of Mehmet and others by donating their brain-dead son’s organs ultimately decide against it, but not before compelling reasons for donation are spelled out clearly for viewers. Since donation is relatively rare in Turkey (only 3.7% of the population was registered to donate in 2011) this twist was a big step for the show to take. Ultimately, Gümüş learns that she is an acceptable donor and manages to save Mehmet’s life with one of her kidneys. Of even greater impact is Gümüş’ own brush with breast cancer. Though it turns out that the lump she finds is non-malignant, she alters an entire line of clothing in her design business to participate in a breast cancer awareness campaign. This becomes a central focus of the program in latter episodes, and it actually ties in with a campaign that was taking place in Turkey at the time of the original airing.

While these consciousness-raising aspects of Gümüş may have set the show apart from other programs in Turkey, they were not the most salient points for viewers in the Arab world. The Noor phenomenon has been the subject of numerous academic studies focusing on both audiences and media discourse, with many finding that the program’s recipe for success was the unique combination of the foreign and familiar that media analysts Marwan Kraidy and Omar Al-Ghazzi have dubbed “neo-Ottoman Cool.” In the case of Noor, it seems to have been the combination of an Islamic backdrop, a powerful patriarch, and the typical plot twists such as interpersonal intrigues and the return of dead characters that made the show familiar to Arab-world viewers. If the Muslim identity of the characters and the role of the grandfather made Noor more “local” than US dramas and Latin American telenovelas, though, it was nonetheless the focus on female emancipation and the openly affectionate, mutually supportive relationship between lead characters that made the show stand out among programming from the region. Indeed, investigators at KA Research found that 52% of female viewers in Saudi Arabia changed their views on female employment as a result of the show, while 63% felt that Noor’s popularity reflected a general dissatisfaction with the freedoms and rights granted to women in the Arab world.

While these elements may have been key to the show’s success, they were not the only factors that set Noor apart from typical regional fare. The breaking of sexual taboos such as premarital sex, children outside of marriage, and infidelity were all dealt with to varying degrees (sometimes repeatedly) in Noor, and were the source of much controversy. Although Arab-world viewers generally reported that they didn’t appreciate these aspects of the program, their reaction was of minor significance compared to that of various religious authorities, a number of whom issued fatwas either against Noor or against the networks broadcasting it. Though some of these were low-key suggestions that the show be censored or that people should not pray in shirts depicting characters from the show, one fatwa actually forbade show and, eventually, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, head of the Saudi sharia court, proclaimed that the owners of the channels broadcasting “indecent and vulgar” programs could be put to death through a court proceeding.

Religious figures were concerned that Noor would change the values and norms of the region. While it would be hard to judge whether this happened on a moral level, the norms of Turkish programming certainly did take hold in the wake of the show. In the months and years after Noor, broadcasters bought up Turkish dramas left and right and, more recently, local producers have started toying with variations on the Turkish formula to cater to viewer expectations, courting their own controversies along the way. The rising costs of Turkish drama and political tensions in the region may eventually burst the bubble for exports from the country but, even if this happens, the recipe introduced by Noor is likely to be shared across the region for some time to come.

August 2013

Election war Z?

19 March 2014

UPDATE: The ad has apparently been banned by Turkey’s High Election Board because it was found to use religion and nationalism in violation of article 298 of the elections law.

This morning I came across a video that my friend Ozan had shared on Facebook. It is a commercial put out by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK-Party) for municipal elections that take place at the end of this month.

You-Tube: AK-Party election campaign ad, March 2014

The threat in the message could be any of the various enemies that Prime Minister Erdoğan has been talking about over the past year: the finance lobby, the porn lobby, atheists, the robot lobby, or the preacher lobby. The most likely candidate is the latter — a reference to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind behind a series of investigations that have led to major corruption charges against the AK-Party since December of last year. The involvement of Gülen’s network in these investigations seems highly likely. Likewise, the charges, which include illicit gold trading, rigging of state tenders for construction contracts, direct interference with the sales and operation of Turkish media, and hands-on meddling with judicial investigations, appear to be based on very strong evidence.

What interests me, though, is the imagery of the body pile. As Ozan noted in his Facebook post, it bears a striking resemblance to that from last-year’s blockbuster film World War Z

You-Tube: World War Z trailer, 2013

It is hard to conceive of a situation in which the creators of the AK-Party ad could have been unaware of the parallel between their short film and the scene from World War Z. After all, the scene is the climax of a trailer that has been watched almost 30 million times on YouTube, and the film itself was one of the top 5 foreign films in Turkey last year.

If this is the case, then I have to wonder about the implicit message of the spot. Aside from the clear portrayal of people coming together to protect the honor of the nation, a painfully blatant interpretation is that the AK-Party views its supporters as an army of tireless zombies. Indeed, the rhetoric of armies and crowds has been on the rise since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, when Erdoğan threatened to unleash “his 50%” to the streets. (He said he had been holding them back, suggesting a violent force waiting to burst forth.) Similarly divisive and threatening rhetoric has been used by other top AK-Party politicians.

One fascinating aspect of this situation is that some AK-Party supporters appear willing to perform the role of Erdoğan’s tireless and faithful army. Polls that came out shortly after the corruption investigations began indicated that, while 77% of voters believed the corruption charges against the AK-Party, 48% still planned to vote for them. This represented only a minor drop from pre-corruption levels and, though it is probable that the latter number has shrunk somewhat by now, it is still likely to be very large. Turkish columnist Mustafa Mutlu recently related his experience with an anonymous phone call from an AK-Party supporter that gave a personal side to such statistics. The caller turned every objection to Erdoğan around, suggesting, for example, that if the PM actually had the hundreds of millions in foreign currency he is alleged to have taken in various bribes, this was only because he intended to use it for the good cause of Islam. While the caller in question seemed most interested in baiting Mutlu, other supporters stake more serious claims. As Alexander Christie-Miller has recounted, some will follow Erdoğan “until the end, until death”, giving a rather grizzly testament to the zombie-like imagery from the election ad.

These polls and anecdotes are strands I grasp at while trying to make some sense of the perplexing political scene here. My intention in writing is not to demean the people who plan to vote for the AK-Party. They may well have good reasons to do so, as the most powerful opposition parties don’t seem to have much to offer in the way of alternatives. What’s striking to me is a general trend revealed by this ad: the lack of respect for Turkish voters. This echoes to a large degree the disdain for Turkish viewers of TV and film that I study, and though I think there is something to be said for the role of willful, cynical ignorance in Turkish politics (and TV watching), what I’m more interested in is the discourse and imagery that helps fuel impressions of ignorance. This ad, with its clear reference to zombies, suggests a profound lack of respect for voters from the AK-Party itself, and that is, indeed, troubling.

Being a traveler’s account of the spin that brought the world together rather more quickly than might have been hoped for in the case of at least one species on its surface; his wanderings in time and place; his explorations of media, images, and the border ‘twixt fact and fabrication; his musings on prescriptions and prescriptions and the spectrum they unite; and his lettered thought on matters aesthetic, political, and personal, illustrated in the flash of a keystroke and recounted as overheard in a vinyl-seat-filled cafe on the edge of a continent, weeks, hours, or years before it was widely recognized that such still life made for end times.