‘Winter Sleep’: A wake-up call for Turkey’s Erdogan?

Turkish film bags Palme d’Or award and Ankara’s congratulations. But was it a metaphor for the country’s social malaise?

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan at the 67th Cannes Film Festival [Getty Image]

As soon as the news of Nuri Bilge Ceylan winning the Palme d’Or reached Turkey’s capital, Ankara, President Abdullah Gul sent a telegram to the film director to congratulate him on his success, which brought “pride and happiness to the entire nation”.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also extended his congratulations to Ceylan and said that he was eager to have a conversation with the film director. There may be a thing or two the Turkish PM might want to discuss with Ceylan and it probably has nothing to do with cinema.

Indeed, on accepting the Palme d’Or for his film, Winter Sleep, from the hands of Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, Ceylan dedicated his prize “to Turkey’s youth and to those who lost their lives” during the demonstrations against Erdogan’s government.

Ceylan’s verbal attack against Erdogan’s government was not frontal and the words were carefully chosen, however, the criticism was palpable. During his press conference at Cannes on May 17, Ceylan did not mince his words: “If it was Japan, the PM would resign. But not in Turkey.”

The last time a Turkish film won the Palme d’Or was in 1982 for Yol by Kurdish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney. Yol depicted the lives of prisoners in an oppressive Turkey, a condition Guney, who also wrote the screenplay, knew well, having been sentenced twice to lengthy periods in jail for his political activities. Having directed the film from prison by sending instructions to his assistant Serif Goren, he later escaped, found exile in Paris and was stripped of his Turkish nationality. Yol was banned from cinema screens in Turkey for 15 years.

The situation today might not be as extreme for those who dissent, however freedom of speech is still a sensitive issue for many Turkish artists. This is perhaps why [Nuri Bilge] Ceylan uses family drama as a metaphor for Turkey.

The situation today might not be as extreme for those who dissent, however, freedom of speech is still a sensitive issue for many Turkish artists. This is perhaps why Ceylan uses family drama as a metaphor for Turkey.

Winter Sleep deals with the simmering tensions within a household. A retired actor who has inherited a big estate in the breathtakingly beautiful Cappaddocia and who aspires to write the first-ever book on the history of Turkish theatre, is surrounded by attentive servants, an efficient and discreet general manager, an elderly sister who keeps him company in the evenings and a much younger wife who spends her spare time trying to raise money for local schools.

A metaphor

The patriarch, a charismatic and handsome Turkish Omar Sharif, is totally oblivious to the resentment simmering at home and on his estate. His sister has always resented his morally superior ways; his younger wife feels completely stifled and struggles to find interest in life; his general manager and servants are dissatisfied but fearful; and his disgruntled and much poorer tenants simply hate him. Substitute the patriarch with the figure of Erdogan, and the metaphor is complete.

For Ceylan, it is obvious that the main problem lies in the widening gap between the generations in Turkey, and the deepening misunderstanding between old and young, rich and poor, which has fed – and will foster more – trouble.

The week Winter Sleep was screened in Cannes, more demonstrations were violently repressed in Istanbul with two young protesters killed by the police. The picture of a 30-year-old man dying in the street went viral on social networks, with many Turkish people posting the word “enough” on it.

London-based Turkish writer Elif Shafak wrote last week: “If you take to the streets, you get a slap from the state.” And she meant it, literally. Shafak says that during a visit in Soma, Erdogan is reported to have followed a protester into a supermarket and slapped him.

“In a recent video, Erdogan is heard warning: ‘If you boo this country’s prime minister, you get a slap.'”

Let’s hope that Ceylan, on his return to Istanbul, won’t also get a slap from his mercurial prime minister for having spoken freely and vented his concerns on the world stage – that is, the Cannes Film Festival.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of ‘Touche, A French woman’s take on the English’.