When I read the first summary of the Yesilcam series and how it portrays the journey of a young producer who rises after losing everything, I had assumed we started the series with Semih at his lowest. He was having to restart everything with the Great Ates Film company, and I thought we would witness his cleverness as he navigates a treacherous world during a socially, culturally and politically fluid time.
Episode 8 brings it home that while we have discovered Semih’s character through an interesting journey thus far, he is now at his lowest point – confronted with compromised morals and its aftermath. Appropriately titled “Cages”, this episode hints at the cages the Yesilcam personalities are forced to live in, and how some may have the courage to break out of them while others may not even be aware of their bonds.
Burdens Of The Past
We start the episode with Semih’s dream sequence, where he enters a room dressed as Mandrake the Magician. Across from a table are figures who represent significant events in his life – 1) his young self from when his father dies, 2) his slightly older self from when he discovers who his mother is and Uncle Kosta, who is sitting in the role of a conjurer with a set of cups in front of him.
This ancient game of cup and ball, which has numerous variations, incorporates fundamental elements of magic where the balls can (dis)appear, change, transform, while the conjurer can use various tricks of the trade to misdirect the audience. In this game Semih is invited to play, instead of a ball Uncle Kosta uses a glass Nazar Boncugu, or the eye-shaped amulet that is revered widely in the Turkish culture as warding off the evil eye.
Uncle Kosta asks Semih to pick a cup out of the eight but it has to be empty inside. As his younger selves look upon him indulgently, Semih makes one good guess after another until he is down to the last two cups. At this point, Uncle Kosta changes the game and asks him to find the one that does have the bead. Semih guesses incorrectly between the two options, perhaps assuming that it couldn’t possibly be under the one Uncle Kosta had placed the bead originally, and Uncle Kosta says “you lost, Semih Ates”.
Freud suggests that dreams are repressed conflicts and wishes. We have already seen how Semih lives his life on a path of atonement for his actions during the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955 and the inadvertent role he may have played in Uncle Kosta’s death. Uncle Kosta’s good opinion is important to him, as is making peace with the past he lived. While Semih takes professional risks, he always wonders if Uncle Kosta would approve. In his latest escapade with Reha, and knowing that his financial options have dwindled, his dreams may be telling him that he has picked poorly. No amount of a magician’s hand waving will help.
Within this self-doubt, Semih forges ahead and tries to salvage his company by manipulating Vebih into being the mouthpiece to tell Reha/Izzet that Semih requires payment to transfer Tulin’s contract, with his intention to repay Izzet’s debt with the money. What he doesn’t anticipate is Izzet’s counter-offer to cancel Semih’s debt in exchange of Tulin’s release.
Between options A & B, which should Semih pick?
After letting off his steam with Reha in a public altercation, Semih declares that he will not be handing Tulin’s contract over to anyone. Even though in the heat of the moment he might have said it to be vindictive and self-serving, he also sees an innocence in her he doesn’t expect from Mine. It is interesting to see him accept Mine’s affair with “we are divorced; she can see who she wants.” It doesn’t seem as a struggle with his ego that Reha slept with ‘his’ woman; he is far more indignant about Reha’s manipulations to erase Semih from Yesilcam, and Tulin seems his ticket to stay alive.
Tulin is livid with Semih’s unilateral decisions and, still stung by Semih’s bias towards Mine, she unleashes her anger on Semih for making her feel like an asset to be traded without consideration for her feelings. She articulates perfectly what her self-worth is. She says, “I am better than you deserve” and even though Semih allows her to express her feelings, he does not change tact about not releasing her contract, especially when he understands that Izzet has his ungainly sights on her.
Through her candid outburst, Semih has begun to see Tulin as something more than an investment. She is a beacon of innocence that he must protect, just as he feels the need to protect Nebahat from hate crimes against the ‘Rums’ or Turkish citizens of Greek descent.
Survival in Yesilcam seems like a game of whack-a-mole. You plug one problem and another surfaces. With the persecution of the Greeks still ongoing, Semih understands that his ghost from the past – Rifki – remains as a possible ally and a threat to the protection of Semih’s people. Rifki is influential and has been unveiled as an (ex) police officer who was affiliated with the Democrat Party (DP - Adnan Menderes’ party, which was dismantled after the 1960 coup) and now the Justice Party, which essentially gathered the electorate of the DP. We have already been shown that Izzet is being groomed as a successor for the Justice party, which becomes more real with the death of Ragip Gumuspala, who had been heading the Justice Party since he retired from the army.
Without being fully aware of this political connection with Izzet, Semih asks Rifki to protect his secretary Nebahat and her family, and have their names removed from the list of Greeks to be expelled from Turkey. Rifki agrees to do so if Semih can discover Turgut’s communist contact and Semih acquiesces after extracting the promise that Turgut will not be touched. Through Semih, Rifki uncovers the communist spy, who happens to be a respected officer of the police force.
Despite his best intentions to protect his loved ones, Nebahat chooses to leave for Greece with her family. As it turns out, after the continued persecution through a 1942 wealth tax and the 1955 Pogrom, 1964 – 1965 saw a series of discriminatory measures by the Turkish government aimed at the forced expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul, a Greek population which was initially spared during the Greek-Turkish population exchange in 1923. As a result, only about 30,000 Greeks remained in 1965, down from 80,000 from before the systematic expulsion. Today, this population has dwindled to 2,500.
In addition, we end the episode with Turgut being arrested and dragged away, with Rifki flippantly mocking the promise he did not keep to protect Turgut.
Post WWII, the DP had made conscious choices to align with American preferences, especially after being threatened by the Soviet naval force in the straits of Turkey in the 40s. In the height of the cold-war era, communism was seen almost as a state enemy, and any signs were treated as such. With his strong ties to communist principles, and now the exposed ties to a spy, Turgut was a threat to be removed, and the value of Rifki’s promise to Semih becomes insignificant relative to perceived national interests. This illustrates to Semih once again that the naïve faith in the fairness of a deal, a gentleman’s word, does not mean much in the shifting landscape of Yesilcam.
Maya Angelou wrote in her poem “Caged Bird”:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
When we really think of all the characters in Yesilcam, it is possible to see that almost all are caged in somehow. In a comic turn in the skit where Hakan, in hopes of getting some quick cash for the business (an increasing practice in Yesilcam for cash strapped filmmakers), is trying to film an erotic film with Bekir and a prostitute called Ceylan, we see the pimp Mukerrem break a canary cage over Bekir’s head.
This violent act releases Bekir’s excitement enough to get him to perform sexually for the movie. It is almost a symbol of how the cage often needs to be wrecked as a catalyst for change – be it someone else breaking it or one breaking from within. To this end, the title for this week’s episode seems very appropriate to describe the predicaments of the various players.
We have Mine, who is well aware of the gilded cage she is expected to live in as a self-deterministic woman. With her affair with Reha exposed, thanks to Semih’s public outburst, she understands her precarious position. Resentful as she may be about the choices she has had to do make to survive and thrive in Yesilcam, she is no wall flower who will wither and die when threatened. She uses her haughtiness and fragility at will to manipulate the men around her. She beats down Reha with her wrath and tries to garner sympathy from Izzet through her crocodile tears. Regardless, she is aware that despite her valiance, it will not be easy for her to keep standing in face of the ways doors are closing on her.
We have Tulin, who feels caged in by contracts and expectations, sometimes of her own making, and wishes to spread her wings. We find her to be a self-aware, curious woman who is seen reading “Grev” by Orhan Kemal, which is a collection of short stories published in 1954 around the lives of workers. His work was greatly influenced by a fellow prisoner from an earlier life, the famed poet and intellectual Nazim Hikmet, who eventually went on to become a ranking officer in the clandestine Communist Party of Turkey.
Grev means “strike” and the titular story (written in 1947) is famous for portraying the tensions between employers, employees and the role of the government, especially because unionization was legalized in 1947 but strikes were still banned. The dialogue also manages to poke at European countries such as France and Italy, where trade unions are notorious for bringing the country to a halt.
Coming off her work in Semih’s censored movie that depicts workers who go on strike, Tulin’s reading choice shows a young woman willing to think beyond her immediate dream of being an actress in Yesilcam. When Izzet appears to be a polished supporter for her individualism, and out of her anger at Semih for treating her like an asset to be traded, she begins to place her trust in Izzet in her attempts to break out of her perceived cage.
We have Semih, who is caged in by his past and under the weight of the burden, he struggles to understand how he can fly freely while staying true to his ideals. All his attempts have been thwarted by morally corrupt individuals and perhaps he needs to better learn how to use their weaknesses against them.
We have Izzet, who is caged in by his political aspirations and whose escape is in his sadomasochistic erotic practices. We have Reha who is caged into his marriage and slithers around to find a way to assert himself.
Whether by choice or divine design, each character has their cages shift shape and location, until they will learn to break free from the shackles, or not.
Each time I watch the show, I discover something I should have better understood. There are no redundant scenes or dialogue, and every detail builds on top of the other. Hakan and Mine have some great exchanges where idealism clashes with pragmatism. As Mine defends her choices to survive in Yesilcam and points out the double standards in gender stereotypes, Hakan emphatically says, “Nothing would happen to a person who never lies.”
In its most basic form, this is a fundamental truth in life. Make your choices such that you do not need to twist the narrative, allowing you the dignity to stand by your choices without shame. However, in a misogynistic world such as Yesilcam, maybe the choices for trailblazing women were not quite as cut and dried.
Under the surface of the characters’ interactions, the inserted details inspire an international viewer like me to dig and try to understand the political, social and cultural motivations of the times. And, therefore, it takes me longer every week to pen my thoughts as Turkish history is a rich layering of the human condition which has morphed through the centuries, a melting pot of ideals between the East and West, while the geopolitically important nation continually evolves within a competitive world. The 60’s lens through Yesilcam provides a time capsule and we can already see how much has changed since then, through literature and entertainment set in modern times.
The intelligence in the script allows one to live and breathe each of the characters, in their purity and their ugliness, in their highs and in their lows, and the story truly leaves a mark through the immaculate performances by each of the major characters. Selin Sekerci has been a revelation as the multi-faceted Mine, especially after her frivolously comic turn in Kacak Gelinler and her forgettable role in Siyah Beyaz Ask (the two shows I have watched). Cagatay as Semih is beyond excellent in bringing the multiple shades of Semih to the fore, but it has been a real delight to discover talents such as Ozgur Cevik, who is incredible as Izzet.
From his practiced hand movements, curated smooth talking persona and mannerisms, he is the quintessential politician who can only preach about morality for popular adulation, but fails miserably as a human being. He is the ultimate antagonist to Semih, who shoots from the hip and is what he is.
Between these options A & B, which one should and will win?
At the time of this writing, Episode 9 has already aired and the review for that will come soon. With one more episode in the first season, we look forward to a good stopping point in the journey for Semih as he begins to fully comprehend the mine field he is tasked with navigating.
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