by Editor, North America TEN
Screenwriter Volkan Sümbül (İçerde, Yeşilçam) said, “There is great labor and investment in Turkish series. The series are technically very good. The scripts generally develop from big and powerful dramatic conflicts. There are also industry peculiarities such as the tempo of the series, the length of some scenes in Turkish series. We call it “duygu almak” (a short process where the actor/actress makes you feel the way you are supposed to feel in a scene by showing the emotion on his/her face effectively). Some moments last longer than usual in our series.” And, somehow, something magical in the formula draws millions of viewers across the globe.
The dizi industry has grown exponentially since the mid-90s and the soft power of this cultural export brought government oversight in way of seats on the export council, financial assistance to series’ focused on family values, regulatory bodies for the broadcasting medium, and more. Türkiye’s once thriving film trade, which experienced its peak in the 1960s, had tapered off with the advent of the VHS. The dizi industry has helped to bring attention back to storytellers who capture the human condition in suggestive, thought-provoking ways. Exports have grown from a mere $10,000 in 2004 to more than $500M by 2020. There are projections that, with 25% share of all imported shows around the world, Turkish production companies will top $1B in exports by 2023. In recent years, streaming services such as HBOMax and Disney+ are also getting in on the game and making Turkish content available in international markets.
Netflix: The First Frontier
For English speaking audiences, Netflix provided one of the first gateways into Turkish drama after the company started a licensing deal for Turkish dizis in 2017. With Türkiye being the second largest exporter of TV entertainment after United States, the bet has paid off handsomely for the American streaming service. It now has its own office in Istanbul, with many local productions planned since its first in 2018, The Protector. There are talks of setting up local studios as well, which will expand production capabilities significantly.
Since its debut release, Netflix Turkish productions seem experimental. Some are in the fantasy genre (The Protector, The Gift) most possibly targeting a younger demographic. Then we have socially thought-provoking ones such as Ethos, 50M2, Fatma, Paper Lives, which delve into slices of contemporary Turkish communities and give deep looks into multi-dimensional characters typically not seen in the public TV dizi fare. There are the plots that better emulate Western social mores but with a Turkish cast, and then there are the historical pieces. It is almost as though Netflix is trying a bit of everything except the tried and tested formula of the traditional Turkish dizis, which inspired the interest in the genre.
Year To Date Netflix Productions
2022 already showcases three releases, with the second part of a historical series, and two full length movies. A marvelous and intelligent series The Club has enthralled the audiences for all the right reasons. With an excellent script, layered character and plot development, the series captures Türkiye’s finest. With a historically accurate account of cultural shifts in the 1950s, the series puts a respectful spotlight on the Sephardic Jewish minority community and the aftermath of a society torn apart by systemic othering practices. While it remains true to the traditional form of Turkish storytelling that hinges upon strong character development and intertwined plots for dramatic effect, the subject matter is atypical for the traditional dizi fare. You can read our detailed reviews on Part 1 and Part 2 of the series, penned by a Turkish local and a descendant of the Sephardic Jewish community respectively.
The two Netflix movies boast blockbuster cast members with Engin Altan Düzyatan and Belçim Bilgin in My Father’s Violin, and dizi favorites Demet Özdemir and Şükrü Özyıldız in Love Tactics. With so much promise in the choice of the cast, the plots and production are a disappointment for the veteran dizi audience. Both movies make for pleasant viewing but they could be a stand-in for any daytime Hallmark movie, merely replaced with a Turkish cast.
My Father’s Violin
The story follows all the tropes of a family drama where fractured relationships heal through the power of music. Mehmet Mahir (Engin Altan Düzyatan) is a maestro violinist, estranged from his elder brother. Both brothers are musicians but while Mehmet is trained in Italy and is a celebrity in the classical music arena, his elder brother Ali Reza is a struggling street musician raising his little girl on his own. With a terminal illness, Ali Reza is unable to mend his relationship with his brother before he passes.
At the insistence of his retired pianist wife Suna (Belçim Bilgin), Mehmet temporarily, and reluctantly, agrees to take responsibility for his spirited eight year old niece, Özlem. He feels Özlem will fare better in a child welfare home while she feels she will fare better with the members of her father’s band, who are part of the village that raised her.
There are no surprises as the story unfolds and everyone finds a path towards what it means to be a family. Performances by the top cast are good but vastly under-utilized, particularly Engin. Given his global star power from his successful run in Diriliş: Ertuğrul, Engin could have easily given life to a more complex character. Belçim is an even keel in her turn as a supportive wife who took a back seat in her own musical career, but it is child actor Gülizar Nisa Uray who steals the show in her debut role. With her fiery red curls and stocky physique, she dominates the screen with her intense energy and maturity.
The soundtrack for the movie, rich and evocative, includes a blend of Turkish tunes and classical orchestral compositions from the likes of Vivaldi and Bach. Given the importance of music in the narrative, there could have been an opportunity to showcase local musical experimentation, but composer Taşkın Sabah plays it safe in this formulaic family drama. If you are in the mood for a feel-good watch while sipping an afternoon tea, this movie fits the bill.
This is a highly anticipated movie starring the queen of Turkish romcoms, Demet Özdemir, who shot to the peak of her international stardom with her role in Erkenci Kuş. Şükrü Özyıldız is a fan favorite as well, best known in the English speaking audience for his rugged good looks and his turn as Emir Kılıç in Şeref Meselesi.
In a very modern take on sexually liberated working professionals in metropolitan Istanbul, the story is a visual treat of trendy high fashion and sprawling living spaces, sprinkled with the wonders of social media. Demet’s Asli is a Milan trained fashion designer (fondly reminds us of Başak Tatlıtuğ!), always dressed head to toe in couture fashion. She writes her blog, Love Tactics, under a pseudonym and freely shares relationship advice that empowers women to call the shots in the mating game.
Kerem is a suave, womanizing ad executive who is a decided bachelor. They both make bets with friends, to have an unsuspecting victim fall in love with them, and coincidentally pick each other at a crowded party. Will theirs be the doomed love story of Asli and Kerem of Turkish folklore or are their modern selves beyond any such superstitions? The rest of the plot is a predictable feel-good romance story with healthy doses of artistic similarities with How To Lose A Guys In 10 Days and HBO’s Sex And The City. Asli unashamedly channels Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, as she sits at her laptop and writes her conversational posts, replete with talking about Mr. K rather than Mr. Big.
Clichéd to the hilt, the biggest draw is the pairing of Demet and Şükrü. Both have matured and morphed in their looks and mannerisms over the years, some for the better and some not so much. In addition to the sculpted physical appearances, the movie offers more in love scenes in an hour and a half than dizi lovers get in 50 plus two and a half hour episodes. So, if the draw is to watch Demet and Şükrü in ways you are unlikely to on public TV, then you have your gift. Otherwise, the plot blends in with thousands of Western romcoms full of common tropes, with little to differentiate a Turkish production other than the scenes on location in Cappadocia (Kapadokya).
Change Is Constant
Netflix Türkiye shows thus far are a mixed slate, and we are yet to experience offerings from Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video. The audience seems to much prefer the series and movies that give insight into the culture through an original, creative script rather than the formulaic stories using the Turkish stars as stand ins. Both My Father’s Violin and Love Tactics are in the latter category, at the hands of relatively young filmmakers and writers, and performed well while reaching a high of 390 and 302 respectively in IMDB Moviemeter in the first week.
Comparatively, Paper Lives starring Çağatay Ulusoy (March 2021), which tells a uniquely local story helmed by celebrated director Can Ulkay and prolific writer Ercan Mehmet Erdem (Behzat C, Saygi), reached a high of 113 in its first week, sustaining a longer run on trending lists. The numbers suggest that in addition to a stellar cast, the signature Turkish storytelling more evident in Paper Lives can have a greater impact in audience engagement and support.
The dilution of the core strengths from the dizi world is not all bad. In a less competitive and less restrictive environment, there is more creative freedom. It is interesting to see the social commentary and modern prejudices that come through in some of the shows on the streaming platforms. For example, political narratives are hardly seen on public TV these days, where the programming is increasingly driven by family dramas, local ratings, possible ad dollars and potential for international sales.
In a very crowded field of new dizis every season, only a handful rise to the top of ratings as well as social media engagement. The seemingly unreliable ratings system seems to be quite consistent with local preferences for stories rooted in local values and what is deemed intriguing. The pointed distance from any interpretation of contemporary politics as part of the plots perhaps provides the escapism local viewers seek after a long day.
This season, Yargi and Mahkum have gained top billing as having thrilling plot lines that are rich in its depth while incorporating social nuances around justice and relationship dynamics. Both have an element of crime mystery, expanding the focus of the story beyond a budding love story between an explosive lead pair. Whereas last season it was shows like Masumlar Apartmanı, Kirmızı Oda and Camdaki Kız – all psychological dramas inspired by renowned author and practicing psychologist Dr. Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu – that attracted audience attention, it is interesting to note a shift in the desired genre this season as the world steps away from the darkness imposed by the pandemic.
With the fast pace of change in the entertainment industry, in how people deliver and consume content, changes in storytelling are becoming ever more fluid. As illustrated through the data points in this missive, soul of the narratives is becoming distinctly different based upon the platforms where they appear. Streaming platforms can incorporate an edginess to their productions, targeting a higher net worth demographic with more eclectic viewing preferences. Public TV has evolved at a slower tempo, with the stories preserving the importance of family, modesty and complex relationships in how they are told. One would think that with greater internet access across the globe, there will be faster uptake of the more innovative streaming content but, if social media engagement is an indicator, public TV shows retain far wider distributorship, demand and engagement.
More than access, I think viewers who fell in love with dizis still love the more conservative approach in how good, cohesive stories are told. After all, only dizis have the patience to pull off “duygu almak” in all its glory.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & mh musings/ @entrespire , twitter
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Well once again you have written such an intelligent essay. I am one that is not at all impressed with the movies on netflix that you mention. My Father’s Violin and Love Tactics were watered down movies with very little depth. If I want to not feel much I can watch many American rom coms. The whole point of the dizi is that it is Turkish, there are no foreign hands and money involved in the creation. I watched the part of the first episode of The Protector and within minutes there was gratuitous sex. I thought ‘wow this is not Turkish’. and turned it off. For me engulfing in the characters and the story is what is satisfying and feeling the culture. I worry that these dual-produced movies and series will have the scent of money and the USA. It is exactly as you say in your essay ; the dizis are ” stories preserving the importance of family, modesty and complex relationships in how they are told.” It is good to know that the dizi is only growing bringing more and more stories for us to savor!
Wow, Patti, those are my sentiments exactly. I have tried to watch the most recent Turkish offerings on Netflix and can barely make it through one or two episodes. I have been really disappointed in the quality of the shows. If it’s going to be a series, they have more time to develop the characters and story like the best of Turkey’s offerings….Kuzey Guney, Ezel, Kurt Seyit ve Sura and many more. They are trying to be more “westernized,” but that’s NOT their strong suit. They should stick to doing what they do best. Tell a great story with great actors. Forget the quick hit sex, making fun of traditional values, and portraying Turkish history and country life as a joke.