Young Turks, old ways – Brief Article
Lola and Billy the Kid, the current drama from Turkey’s only openly gay director, has ignited a firestorm of homophobia in his homeland
When Lola and Billy the Kid, a visceral film about Turkish gays struggling with their culture’s repressive values, premiered in its homeland, it stirred up press, debate, and death threats–threats that partly fueled director Kutlug Ataman’s decision to flee his homeland for London.
“Let us not exaggerate and turn this into another racist Midnight Express story,” pleads Ataman, 38, referring to the 1978 film that starred Brad Davis as an American apprehended with drugs and stuck in a hellish Turkish prison. “But unfortunately the Turkish gay experience is very violent, and people will have to stomach that.”
Indeed, the controversy Lola has stirred in Turkey says much about its citizens’ tempestuous take on homosexuality–especially considering the film isn’t even set in their homeland. Delving into Berlin’s predominantly Turkish-inhabited neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Lola concerns 16-year-old Murat (Baki Davrak), who lives with his virulently homophobic brother and passive mother. When Lola (Gandi Mukli), a cross-dressing brother banished from the family years earlier, returns, he sets off a shattering chain of events involving murder, family secrets, and Murat’s own coming-out. All of this is far from the liberated, ambrosial paradise depicted in the partly gay-themed success Steam: The Turkish Bath, released in the United States last year–and much closer to the truth, says Lola coproducer Zeynep Ozbatur. “Steam was made for tourists,” she scoffs.
While Turkey boasts several burgeoning gay groups–including Lambda Istanbul and Kaos Gay Lezbiyen–and underground ‘zines, the country remains a land of threatening shadows for homosexuals. Ultranationalists, Ataman says, have “a history of murdering whoever disagreed with them” yet occupy 40% of Turkey’s parliament. He added that related youth squads, the Ulkucu, threaten gay establishments and events with violence, and a moral code dubbed tore dictates that families kill any member who brings disgrace to their honor, gayness ranking high among those offenses.
Ataman says he made his film to fight such oppression, to expose his culture’s brutality, macho posturing, and a sex trade where gay johns are so self-loathing that male prostitutes typically have to dress as women, as Lola’s macho boyfriend demands he do. “In Turkey the only option is to change people’s perceptions and educate them,” he says. “Changing the laws will not work in the present justice system since even the state breaks the existing laws.”
Although raised by an educated family, Ataman maintains that coming out was difficult, partially because of a lack of role models. Several Turkish celebrities do seem to bend gender conventions, including the late Zeki Muren and transsexual Bulent Ersoy, but neither fills the shoes of, say, Ellen DeGeneres. “I needed just an everyday guy, accepted, an example,” says Ataman. “Without this, growing up becomes hellish.”
Ataman said that following a harrowing 1980 military coup, during which he was detained and tortured by police for 38 days (for filming the activities of a left-wing organization), he hightailed it to California, partaking of his first gay experience between flight connections in Amsterdam. Ataman later attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and began making films, including 1994’s The Serpent’s Tale. But when his second feature, Lola, was selected to play in the Istanbul International Film Festival in February (after sharing a special Teddy Award in Berlin), Ataman returned home and came out to the press.
“A day after I had a one-page interview in the largest Turkish newspaper, I received a call which was repeated twice in the following days,” Ataman recalls. “It was a male voice threatening to rape and kill me for not only being a `faggot’ but advertising it shamelessly. [He said] people like me blemished Turks everywhere.” However, Ataman abstained from alerting authorities or newspapers (some of which received death threats as well) so that he wouldn’t give cinema owners, already worried about firebombs if they showed Lola, “a very material excuse to turn it down.” And, he says emphatically, bringing attention to the threats “would give the message that being gay is dangerous–which is exactly what I did not want to do.” Nevertheless, he left for London and has only returned once, for a clandestine three-day visit.
In the end Lola managed to win the festival’s top prize, the Audience Award, in the international competition and opened in eight Turkish theaters, where gender benders stood in line alongside gays and straights. “It made the gays unify together for the first time in the cinema,” reports Kisi, a 23-year-old student and member of Lambda Istanbul. “It gives me hope for the future.”
In becoming a cause celebre, Lola seems to have inspired other Turks also. Several Turkish pop stars came out of the closet, while a TV station aired pleas for compassion and tolerance toward gays. So far, however, “I’m the only openly gay filmmaker in Turkey,” says Ataman, mentioning, to his chagrin, that he knows of at least one other who remains closeted.
Ataman is still guarded. “Overall, I got very good reactions from the directors I know personally,” he says. “Yet I cannot escape the sense that there’s this little element of resentment, that `this faggot director does a little better’ than them,” he adds. “I think they would be more at ease if I were straight.” They can’t ignore that Lola has forced the country to deal with homosexuality, however. “The film opened up a window,” says Ataman, who plans to return to Turkey someday. “Not enough, of course, but it’s a beginning.”
Ferber is a New York City–based writer who contributes to Time Out New York and other publications.
Find more about Lola and Billy the Kid as well as links to related Internet sites at www.advocate.com
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