The last episode of the first season for Yesilcam ends on a spectacularly high note, bringing resolution to the conflict between the good and evil we have witnessed thus far. The underdog Semih Ates courageously takes on a well-oiled establishment that includes morally corrupt politicians, morally rigid idealists whose allegiances change due to wounded integrity, morally flexible individuals whose allegiances change due to vested interests, and an amoral system that favors those who can sustainably wield power.
Idealism and the love for cinema is hardly rewarded in Yesilcam, unless a lone hero can stick to his convictions and fight for what is right versus what is expedient.
The episode, titled “The Hell Within Us”, is a testament to the broader environment in Yesilcam as well as the demons we fight within us to strive for the light in our lives. Within this final portion of this journey, we witness Semih’s triumph through him being nothing more than himself. He wins on the truth and finds strong forces in his corner who want nothing more than to believe in his truth. This age old literary trajectory of coaxing the good to win over evil could well become trite, but Yesilcam takes us on a ride to the top, replete with a culmination of well placed clues that allow us perfect closure on Semih’s journey as he lives it within the backdrop of 1964 in Turkey.
Alliances: Camps Formed & Reformed
Winston Churchill said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Whether in our everyday life or within global politics, aligning our interests with power bases, collaborating with unlikely allies, choosing to fight as a lone wolf versus adopting a pack mentality, are all part of survival tactics in a competitive space. Yesilcam provides a slice into the social milieu of the times where we see such politicking among ‘friends’ ‘enemies’ and ‘frenemies’, as interests and desires shift within a rapidly changing world.
Izzet, instinctively seeing Semih as a threat, tries to isolate him from his one ally who has important stories to tell. Once again appearing as the smooth-talking benevolent benefactor, Izzet discloses to Turgut that it was Semih who had reported Turgut while Izzet arranges for his release from prison. Idealists such as Turgut often have a rigid self-righteousness that obliterates tolerance, and he takes an instant hatred towards Semih instead of trying to understand Semih’s dilemma in the part he inadvertently played.
Semih had naively believed Rifki’s promises that neither Turgut nor Nebahat will be touched by Rifki’s sponsors if Semih identified Turgut’s handler within the communist network. Rifki had no qualms about reneging on the promise once the handler became exposed as a Russian spy, uncovering a problem deeper than what the powerful Justice Party was willing to deal with. Turgut, unappreciative of Semih’s moral debt towards Rifki, Nebahat, or to himself, comes out of prison with the desire to undermine Semih however he can.
In the meanwhile, Semih suspects Rifki to be responsible for Faik’s death and starts to uncover evidence that can be his trump card if and when the time comes. His desire to protect Nebahat so she can safely stay in Istanbul comes to naught as she chooses to move to Greece with her family in face of such blatant discrimination.
Having connected the dots and tied the murders of Aysel and Faik to Izzet, Nebahat’s impassioned parting speech inspires Semih to write a new expose story titled “Cehannem Icimizde”, where he describes Izzet’s crimes through a fictitious character. He envisions Tulin and Yilmaz Guney as the stars of the movie. Tulin, because he sees this as the only way he can get her to understand the truth about Izzet, and Yilmaz because of his socialist convictions and patriotism while having a popular following as an actor. His intense connection with the audience is, perhaps, best captured in what he says to a cheering crowd towards the end:
“I have all sorts of wounds
Come here, don’t make me cry in front of strangers,
Don’t loosen the lovelocks to the wind
We are in love with our country, friends?
Who is the enemy?
This world is full of lies and deceptions
A world that is run by tyrants
We’ll make you pay for it!
We’ll make you pay!”
By 1964, Yilmaz had already served two years in prison for his supposed communist agenda. If Yilmaz played the role of the villain, the narrative will seem more convincing to the populace. As Semih mentions to Turgut, when Marlon Brando played in The Ugly American, people liked it. In reality, even though the movie did not perform well in commercial terms, it did open a dialogue about the complexities of the politics surrounding the Cold War. Similarly, perhaps Semih feels that whether the movie is a commercial success or not, it may open an important dialogue among its viewers. And, anecdotally, we witness a shift in Semih’s ideologies about filmmaking in Yesilcam; from telling a story that merely entertains and earns money to telling a story that moves people on multiple dimensions.
Belkis emerges as another unexpected ally for Semih, after she neutralizes the threat Reha poses through his back door shenanigans to censor Semih’s movies. In a form of blackmail through using his daughter’s drug abuse and promiscuous behavior, Reha learns of Semih’s parentage and bows down to the power of his mother Belkis, who still maintains strong ties within the system. Semih’s movie on the worker’s rights gets unblocked and Belkis gets back the script for Iki Kizkardes, the first script Turgut had written for him where Semih envisioned its success through Tulin and Mine playing the two sisters.
While her actions inspire Reha to extend support to Izzet’s persecution of Semih, it also brings some protection for Mine and paves the way for Semih in positive ways.
Through these interconnected relationships and vested interests, power dynamics shift and Semih begins to consolidate his staid camp of supporters. Even Vehbi proves his mettle when push comes to shove and demonstrates that for all his blustering sense of self-importance, he knows how to be on the right side. What is interesting is that one learns how much these can happen because the ‘system’ wants it to happen.
Turgut’s new handler within the communist movement tries to calm Turgut’s angered response to what he believes to be Semih’s betrayal. Turgut is asked to ‘follow orders’ and continue to work with Semih. Unable to just accept these orders, Turgut paints Semih to be a greedy manipulator in the eyes of Yilmaz Guney, who had earlier accepted Semih’s offer to be in his movie designed to expose Izzet. This creates friction for Semih when Yilmaz pulls away from the project, but eventually Yilmaz changes his mind because the party convinces him otherwise.
Without Semih’s expressed intention to be a beacon for the communist movement, but because of his courageous stance to bring meaningful cinema into Yesilcam, the movement understands his power as someone who can help stall the narrative being expounded by the Justice Party (which had the backing of the electorate that supported the now disgraced Democrat Party).
During the course of the episode, as Semih’s script begins to gain notoriety and Izzet’s crimes get discovered by the Justice Party as well, Rifki also tows the party line. Izzet’s fall from grace is rapid and instead of seeing him as the untouchable heir apparent for the party leadership, Rifki also ‘follows orders’ and supports Semih in his illusion filled final confrontation with Izzet. At the end, both Rikfi and Semih acknowledge each other for what they are – survivors.
Semih is nothing but a tool for these two camps, and towards the end of the episode one wonders if he fully understands the gravity of the predicaments he is entering into as a civilian government led by the Justice Party looks to make a comeback in the 1965 elections amidst all these political games.
The Purity of Love
Since Semih’s earlier decisions to trade Tulin’s contract as an offensive measure against Reha, Tulin had been drawing away from Semih and closer to Izzet, allowing herself to succumb to Izzet’s lavish wooing. She is disheartened by her broken ideals about Semih, and cannot bring herself to believe that Semih continues to have her best interests at heart.
He is finally able to convince her otherwise the night she goes to Izzet’s home, with the intention to perhaps give herself to him. Semih had been snooping and he is able to show her photographic evidence of Izzet’s heinous actions he had been trying to warn her about. Tulin understands and is able to extricate herself from Izzet and finally embrace Semih fully.
As Izzet ups the ante in his offensive against Semih, Tulin demonstrates her unquestioned loyalty, unwilling to let go of Semih's hand even when her person is in danger. Very subtly done, but Semih’s expression of gratitude and repressed love is just as beautiful as Tulin’s expression of complete joy and purpose. On the run from Izzet’s vast power within law and order, Tulin takes Semih to take refuge in Beliks’ house, unaware of his biological connection to Belkis.
By this time, Semih is aware of the role Belkis has played in sidelining Reha, and he respects Tulin’s bond with Belkis. After years of resisting any connection with Belkis or her offers of support, Semih enters her home with Tulin. Interacting with Belkis on the behest of his woman was something Semih was unwilling to do for Mine, but he does so for Tulin.
The trialogue among the characters is so artistically managed, the depth of the scene as Tulin, Belkis and Semih chat while seated around the table can only be understood through the performance of the masterful actors. Tulin’s innocence, Belkis’ joy at just being able to talk with her son, Semih’s surprise that his mother has followed his career far more closely than he ever imagined, his acceptance of Tulin’s depth of feelings for him but wondering how much of it is deserved, and his iconic statement that, ‘People who feel like they are in (moral) debt are usually the good ones’; together these capture an exchange of philosophies among characters that share a different kind of soul connection.
Triumph of Good Over Evil
For 10 episodes, several disparate but connected threads were magnificently brought together by the storytellers that builds a rich narrative about a hero’s journey set amidst the realities of the era in Yesilcam. Through Semih’s lens , we experience all the ways he lost his dignity and power, and all the ways he won them back. He did this by finding himself and his truth, and growing as a person to care more for the others around him than his own agenda.
With remorse from his past with Uncle Kosta, he is driven to protect his niece Nebahat. With remorse from failed relationships, he is driven to provide Tulin the respect she truly deserves. With remorse from his misguided efforts to help Nebahat and Turgut, he is driven to a political awakening that gives him the courage to confront a corrupt system. To grow with his decisions throughout the tale has been an outstanding experience as an international fan.
Good storytelling presents conflicts in a way that allows some tension within the audience and leaves us in some ambiguity about who will ultimately win and how. Even though we had faith that Semih will eventually win, we experienced so many of his low points throughout the series that towards the end we remained unsure if his bluff regarding Yilmaz and Izzet would come to fruition. When it finally does, the triumph is spectacularly captured, as Semih, Yilmaz and Tulin hold hands, presenting a unified front that captures the depth of the win.
A win not only of a good cinema, but of the truth and conviction. It is a fitting tribute to Semih’s guiding light – Uncle Kosta – whom he nods to as he reaches this particular peak in his career.
There are three major revelations in the last episode that I had suspected through cinematic clues provided in earlier episodes. One is the revelation of Mine as Izzet’s lover, Rifki as a conspirator in Faik’s killing, and the depth of Tulin’s love for Semih. I enjoyed the cinematic clues presented innocuously to the viewers throughout the episodes because it shows intelligent filmmakers speaking through cinema to an intelligent audience.
I wanted to showcase some of these clues laid bare for the attentive viewer, which makes me go back to certain episodes multiple times to understand what more I missed in my earlier viewing.
Mine’s Calling Card
In Episode 8, as we see Mine navigate the fallout of the public discovery of her illicit affair with Reha, she meets with Izzet. Her provocative attire coupled with her damsel in distress demeanor is her calling card to Izzet. She is telling him through her actions that she is willing to do what it takes to have him in her corner. As such, when later in the episode we have Faik, the peeping Tom, video tape Izzet with his lover for the night, I had assumed it is Mine.
Not only from her come hither attitude from their earlier meeting, but also Izzet’s demeanor as an amorous lover is different than the dominant role he plays with his hired women. We are given a red herring in the next episode when we see Ceylan the prostitute with visible signs of abuse we know Izzet to inflict, and are led to believe that Faik recorded Ceylan with Izzet. However, through his hidden stash of photos that Semih discovers, we learn that it was actually Mine.
It’s All In The Shoes
After Semih and Hakan stumble upon Faik hanging with a noose around his neck, Semih sees someone hiding behind the curtain who is presumed to be connected to the death. We are led to believe that it is Izzet but the clue lies in the shoes Semih sees. They were tassel loafers belonging to a small man, and only one character had been shown wearing that particular style and that is Rifki. His shoes were prominently shown in Episode 7, when he goes to meet Izzet at the restaurant, and his wardrobe and style does not change throughout the series.
Even though the insinuation is that it is Izzet, the particular attention to wardrobe choices show that all of Izzet, Semih, Reha and otherwise sharp-dressed men typically wear longwings. Semih is shown to be a master at noticing these details and the clue, as well his character making the connections, is an important cinematic detail.
Tulin and Semih do not share any overt romantic interludes throughout the episodes, unlike the passion shared by Semih and Mine. What is shown is subtle but meaningful. Their exuberant but shared idealism about cinema and a fascination with Mandrake the magician, Semih’s growing admiration for Tulin, Tulin’s silent love for Semih discussed through innuendos with Belkis, and the depth of her love captured in her resentful indignation when she feels Semih has fallen off the pedestal she had put him on, are artistic details that effortlessly blend into the story.
She is jealous when she finds him with Mine, and she is utterly taken when she finally understands that Semih did, after all, choose her over his career and Mine. He went to great lengths to try and protect her from Izzet and she realizes he would not have done that if he wasn’t the special man of her dreams who felt something special for her. As such, the power of this scene, where there is a silent but open acknowledgement by both about their feelings for each other, is so powerful.
Maybe some will not like the lack of emotional bonding typical in dizis with a romantic plot arc, but I thought the subtle approach left much to my imagination about the depth of the characters’ feelings. When Tulin comes to Semih on her own, without any further overtures from him, it was yet another artistic choice to show how much she loved him already. A daughter of a promiscuous, flighty mother, Tulin is cautious about whom she allows to be in her inner sphere, and for her to choose Semih in this manner, to stand by him when the rough gets going, to not let go when so many others abandoned him, shows the intensity of her love, both to Semih and to the viewers.
My reviews got longer and longer with each successive episode. The narrative got richer with time, and as an international viewer who did not enter this journey with any preconceptions about Yesilcam, I could truly appreciate the production for its depth and range of storytelling choices. Through a desire to educate myself, I learnt how much preparation the actors and the filmmakers had to go through, to ensure historical accuracy in diction, wardrobe, set design, events, and more.
I have said this in earlier reviews but it is worth mentioning it again. Yesilcam is an important production that showcases Turkey’s rich filmic, social, cultural and political history, and also showcases the unique filmmaking expertise Turkey continues to hone as the industry goes through rapid changes. Cagan Irmak, in particular, is a perfect fit to lead this production as its director, with his rich experience as a thought-provoking director, screenwriter who has researched the Yesilcam era extensively for his own work.
Season 2 will come back with a five year time jump and the whole series will be set in 1969, which is another important political time and election year. The year is a pre-cursor to the next military coup of 1971, with growing strife between the left-wing and right-wing extremists pushing the country towards chaos. By this time Yilmaz Guney shifts from being a popular actor to owning his own production company, and by the early 1970s he’s begun to make movies with a political message for the masses. Economic pressures reshape the kinds of stories told by Yesilcam and perhaps we get to see how Semih Ates’ journey shifts during these changing times.
I loved that the series combines a romanticism for filmmaking with the harsh realities of the not too distant history in Turkey. It, perhaps, also inspires us to look closer at how the Turkish entertainment industry is reimagining itself through the wildly successful dizis, and a revival of its feature film industry. Digital platforms are also changing how filmmakers can access a ready audience. One thing is certain: the rise of Turkish cinema is far from reaching a peak.
My heartfelt gratitude to the exceptional screenwriters, director, actors, producers and crew, whose humility and brilliance have added this iconic series to a growing portfolio of shows worthy of wider international recognition. A special nod of recognition to the ever versatile Cagatay Ulusoy, who has an internationally successful Netflix movie Paper Lives, a celebrated short film Birdie which he scripted, produced, directed and is now making the rounds at various film festivals in USA, and this amazing turn as Semih Ates on a local digital platform, all within the first half of the year. It has been a pleasure to follow his career as he remains an elusive celebrity but a prolific trailblazer for young filmmakers anywhere.
We excitedly await Season 2, which is rumored to drop on the platform in August. The teaser captures a different energy and more risqué intrigue coming on various fronts, along with added members to the cast.
Even though fluid relationship statuses were common among celebrities of the Yesilcam era, I will hope that as a work of fiction Yesilcam will take some artistic liberties and continue to show Semih as the heroic filmmaker with a moral compass who faces his mistakes and inspires those around him to do better.
We echo Nebahat’s sentiments she shares as her parting words for Semih, “…there is no point to say I wish it didn’t happen. It’s something I learned from you. Even if the fire reignites after it dies down, then we need to appreciate the excitement that keeps the fire alive. We can start all over again. … You always had an answer. You made movies again. You started a new story again. You’ll write again. You’ll make the movie. I believe in you, Mr. Semih.”
I will conclude today with a short documentary I found on Film Freeway titlted Yesilcam Sokagi: Yolun Basi, by director Tolgahan Savgu. It shares some great insights about the Yesilcam era by Engin Çağlar who was a star of Yesilcam and chairman of the Filmsan Foundation
Enjoy and be well, until I am back again with episode reviews for Season 2.
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