Nostalgia for old Istanbul: BluTV’s 'Yeşilçam'

Exploiting nostalgia is easy. Giving a turbulent historical period its due while still entertaining viewers--this is harder. At this point, “Yeşilçam” could go either direction. Either way, it’s good to see platforms like BluTV trying something new in their treatment of the old.

The new BluTV series “Yeşilçam” plays on 1960s Turkey nostalgia. Directed by Çağan Irmak, the series focuses on Turkey’s mid-twentieth century film industry. Yeşilçam (Green Pine) is the name of a street in Beyoğlu that was once the epicenter of this industry known endearingly as “little Hollywood.”

The story follows Semih Ateş (played by local heartthrob Çağatay Ulusoy). This once-successful Yeşilçam producer is down on his luck and looking for the right screenplay, and the perfect leading lady, to bring his production company back to its former heights. In the meantime, the stiff competition and backstabbing atmosphere of Yeşilçam threaten to ruin him all over again. As of April 22, only two episodes of “Yeşilçam” have been released on the streaming platform BluTV, but the show is set to become a breakaway hit.

It was a stroke of genius to create a period piece about Yeşilçam set in the 1960s. Just saying the name “Yeşilçam” is enough to invoke a more naive mid-century Turkey, the glamour of old Istanbul, melodramatic films that everyone knows by heart, the faces of beloved film stars such as Türkan Şoray and Tarık Akan, and the shaky organ and swelling strings of classic soundtracks like “Artık Sevmeyeceğim.” Today, the more desperate Turkey’s political and economic situation becomes, the more appealing it becomes to take an episode-length retreat into a previous age: a time when, as the cliché goes, people put on their finest clothes to go strolling down İstiklal Caddesi and Istanbulites still spoke their polite and refined form of Turkish. The film sets lovingly recreate Beyoğlu’s old boulevards, its famous bars and nightclubs. The costumes and dialogue revive the speech and fashion of the district’s inhabitants.

In fact, what is surprising is not that BluTV has decided to blow a hefty budget on a Yeşilçam-themed series but that few have thought to do this before! In fact, the immediate inspiration for this show is not anything released previously in Turkey but rather Hollywood films whose theme is nostalgia for Hollywood: from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “La La Land” to “Hail, Caesar” and “The Artist.” This theme sells well and is easily adaptable to Turkey’s “Little Hollywood.” “Yeşilçam” is also a meta series, reflecting on the importance of television and film. At various points in the show, characters mouth platitudes like “Life would be miserable without the movies.” You can almost visualize the show’s creators patting themselves on the back for making life a little more bearable.

“Yeşilçam” should also be seen within the oeuvre of Çağan Irmak, a director who has been no stranger to period dramas. His famous 2004-2005 television series “Çemberimde Gül Oya” focused on the left-wing movements, social atmosphere, and everyday family drama of the 1970s in Turkey. “Dedemin İnsanları” and “Babam ve Oğlum” focused on post-coup period of the 1980s. But this new series is different in that the director’s nostalgic (and, it must be said, critical) gaze is directed on the film industry itself. Yeşilçam is a source of warm and fuzzy feelings, but Turkey’s mid-century film world was also one of deep exploitation (at its peak, about 300 films were produced per year). The competition was cut-throat, with competitors using every trick to take each other down, and the labor conditions atrocious. Actress and would-be-actresses were routinely harassed or manipulated. The films themselves were repetitive, melodramatic, and full of every sexist, classist, homophobic stereotype.

It is this awareness of the dark side of 1960s Turkey that keeps “Yeşilçam” from falling completely into “the cult of the glossy image,” a phrase used by theorist Fredric Jameson to describe the beautiful emptiness of much nostalgia film. The capable hands of both the screenwriters (Levent Cantek and Volkan Sümbül) and the director (Irmak) are responsible for preserving just enough of a healthy kernel of political commentary to make the sticky sweetness of the visuals go down without the viewer getting a stomach ache.

In his attempt to save his production company, our hero Semih Ateş seeks salvation in a promising screenplay called “Two Sisters.” If only he can find the funding and the right leading ladies, the film will be a smash hit. The main problem is that the screenwriter is a communist (Turgut, played by Muhammet Kulu). Semih knows that if anyone gets a whiff of the writer’s identity, his film will get banned by the censors. Meanwhile, Semih’s competitors on Yeşilçam Street are maneuvering to steal the script and the promising young starlet he has found: the doe-eyed Tülin (Afra Saraçoglu). Also, Semih’s personal life is far from perfect. He is betrayed by his business partners and also cannot forget his ex-wife, queen of Yeşilçam Mine Cansu (Selin Şekerci), who he wants to cast as one of the two sisters in his new film.

Meanwhile darker political clouds lurk on the horizon. As the Cyprus dispute heats up again in the early 1960s, the Rum (Greek) community in Istanbul is once again facing mob violence and deportation, the worst since the anti-Greek riots of 1955. The plight of the once vibrant Rum community of Istanbul is a constant theme for director Irmak, starting with the Madam character of the series “Çemberimde Gül Oya.” A later film of his discussed the tragic effects of the Greek-Turkish population exchange in 1923. We can see the new series’ interest in communist characters and Rum characters on a continuum: Irmak’s work often pays attention to the social “Others” ignored or repressed in different periods of Turkish history.

Yet in the first two episodes of “Yeşilçam,” these more political issues are mostly shown in brief asides rather than as a central part of the story. Instead, the series tries to give a more historical flavor by including actual figures from the Turkish film industry (actor Ayhan Işık, director Atıf Yılmaz) as characters on the show. This is a difficult choice to pull off successfully, but viewers will have to see where it goes. In the meantime, it is hard not to forget Marxist critic György Lukács’s dictum that historical fiction should never place real historical figures or crucial events at the center of their narrative. If you want to put Napoleon in your story, for example, let him be somewhere off in the background or just quickly pass through the scene. Otherwise, you’re simply faking a famous person’s biography, not bringing to life the truth of a historical period.

Exploiting nostalgia is easy. Giving a turbulent historical period its due while still entertaining viewers--this is harder. At this point, “Yeşilçam” could go either direction. Either way, it’s good to see platforms like BluTV trying something new in their treatment of the old.

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