Due to popular demand, BluTV deviated from their plan of releasing one episode a week and delighted the fans with two episodes released on Thursday, April 29, 2021. This is Semih Ates' story and through the prism of his varied experience of growing up in Yesilcam to present day, there is a lot to be seen about Semih, the film industry and society in general. All of this is artfully continued through episodes 3 and 4, respectively titled "Dancing Boy" (Dans Eden Cocuk) and "A September Day" (Bir Eylul Gunun).
In episodes 3 & 4, the underlying theme that stands out as we get more insight into the characters are the survival instincts that drive human behavior and choices. The survival instincts of women in a male dominated world, the survival instincts of an orphan as he navigates the trials and tribulations of life on the streets, the survival instincts of businessmen and power mongers, of social factions threatened by the unknown, and more. Individual and collective choices shape the course of lives and society, and Yesilcam is doing a stellar job of casting a lens on different slices of lives affected by the broader social and political movements of the time. In particular, we get multiple perspectives of how lives were affected by the Istanbul pogrom of 1955, a well-orchestrated government supported riots that caused irreversible damage to the local Greek community.
As the plot thickens with the revelation of Semih’s history of a father who died early and his mother Belkis, who unbeknownst to him was a prostitute in Istanbul who went on to become the powerful madam of a brothel, we begin to piece together the Semih of today. A man who has paid dues and carries debt he does not feel he can repay.
Semih does not wish to entertain his mother’s pleas for a reconciliation as she knocks on death’s doors and, contrary to peer knowledge, Semih did not receive funding for his first film from his mother. Instead, we are given insinuations of unethical means of accumulating the money.
We are also introduced to his kind and loving Uncle Costa, who used to be a projector operator at a local theater, and who allows Semih’s love for films to flourish further as symbolically as a single ray of light in an otherwise dark existence.
We see Semih and Tulin getting to know each other better (absolutely joyful dance session with the dance instructor played by Ayta Sozeri), and a glimmer of Semih’s appreciation of Tulin’s idealistic yet pragmatic stances in life, her desire to tell a story on the strength of the story and not be focused on the success it will bring her personally, and her willingness to believe the best of Semih and his magical principles. On the flip side, we also see the compromises one is willing to make for survival and sometimes for misguided ideals.
None of the characters are pure in their good and evil, and in just four episodes, Yesilcam has managed to grip the imagination with the realities of the era, the influences on stories told (on and off stage) and how that also shapes the mentality of the mob. A lot of the social unrest of the time is shown without handing out a judgement on the merit of the beliefs that guide sympathetic or antagonistic behavior towards each other as the fabric of society changes.
Without giving too much away, here are some themes that get amplified as the narrative gets more complex and involved.
Crocodile Infested Waters
Even though we are given characters such as Semih, Tulin, Hakan, Nebahat who have a relatively clean moral compass and wish to conquer Yesilcam with their talents, hard work and creativity, we are also shown what dangerous waters they are trying to navigate. Yesilcam equates money with power, and power with self-determination.
The three powerful figures introduced thus far are Reha Esmer, Izzet Orkan and Belkis Mavi. Reha, played absolutely brilliantly by Yetkin Dikinciler, has a myopic view of the world where he wants to protect his vested interests and fan the fire of his petty war with Semih, who obviously threatens him on many levels. He wants to make movies that sell and make him money, but he is also somewhat blinded by his need to ‘own’ Mine. He is suave, connected and considers himself to be quite the rainmaker in Yesilcam.
Izzet (a nuanced interpretation by Ozgur Cevik) is a political animal and wants to make a nationalist statement through the movies. He has money and is fresh off the boat from Hollywood where he learnt about the political and social controls utilized by the film industry. He wants to do the same in Yesilcam, and in the process shut out minority workers from the industry. He slides into BDSM in his private quarters, his nastiness exacerbated by his sociopathic tendencies.
And Belkis (veteran actress Gungor Bayrak), Semih’s biological mother, is the queen of secrets. Her Pandora’s box is earned through sexual favors granted to men in power and she is unapologetic for the choices she has made. Belkis has paid with her life and her family to be in her current position, and it is an interesting detail that one of her former lovers is now her caregiver. Belkis is no wall flower and she has learnt how to be the one on top in the gender game.
Old & New
It is obvious that Semih and Mine share an intertwined history, where she knows who his mother is but doesn’t know the extent of their fractured relationship. To the extent possible, she tries to protect Semih against the known vultures such as Reha and Vebhi, even though she is the one who divorced him. Similarly, Semih also feels something special for Mine as he gets excited about meeting her and puts in the effort to dress up for what he thinks is a surprise rendezvous with her. Their bond is mired in hidden truths from each other, and perhaps both refrain from confronting the reality of what their relationship will be if the secrets were revealed. The reality is that Mine, like Semih’s mother, made the difficult choice to turn away from her love so she could climb to the top in a nasty world. We are yet to see if some of these choices will be forgivable.
On the flip side, Tulin is like a breath of fresh air in an industry where it is easy to get jaded. She is pure of heart, selfless, kind, and holds Semih accountable for compromising on his principles when threatened by powerful voices in the industry. One can begin to discern that Semih not only sees Tulin as a powerhouse of talent, but also as someone who is loyal to a fault, an aspect of womanhood he has been deprived of by both his mother and Mine. Perhaps she also inspires him to aspire to a version of himself he can fully accept and be proud of, but these are aspects of their unfolding relationship yet to come.
The Magician & Love for Cinema
Mandrake the Magician is considered to be the very first comic superhero, developed in 1934. Conceived, written and illustrated by noted comic creator Lee Falk, Mandrake was the king of illusion, using his hypnotic powers (among others) to overcome his adversaries. According to Semih’s Uncle Costa, he stole people’s hearts and bewitched them. Introduction of Mandrake is also mentioned by writer Levent Cantek on his twitter feed during the airing of Yesilcam on Thursday, and this particular addition is noteworthy. Mr. Cantek is a Turkish comic book writer, as well as an accomplished author and scriptwriter. Cleverly weaving in Mandrake into the script, along with integrating the character’s traits into Semih, is a touch of genius.
We see Semih in a top hat, Mumtaz Bey alludes to Semih’s abilities to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the game of producing winning cinema, and we see Semih hide a sharp, discerning mind and heart behind his affable, almost comical disposition. Very few people see the real Semih behind the illusions. Mandrake’s poster features prominently in Semih’s office and remains as a reminder of the past that built him. He cannot forget the debts he needs to pay.
Unlike many shows that whitewashes history to make subtle nationalistic assertions, Yesilcam does not take a favored lens to portray the reality of the time. The historical context is presented factually, taking from widely reported accounts of the times. The Greeks were persecuted, political ideals were divisive, economic struggles were real and led to a growing labor awareness, and intense social change was a constant. With that as a backdrop, looking at grounded people like Nebahat, Tulin and Semih gives insight into how the average citizens, their lives and perceptions were affected. There is a lot more to come on this front.
Through such in depth look at the characters in artistic ways and elaborate plot schemes, multilayered personalities emerge, demanding all the actors to draw from their breadth of acting tools. And everyone delivers. Credit must go to director Cagan Irmak for drawing out the best from his cast and crew.
Cagatay is stunning as Semih Ates. A childlike exuberance for things he loves, layered on top of a discerning mind makes for a man one should not take at face value. Having been forced to grow up alone, he possesses survival skills that rival Mine and Belkis’ but he also has a magnanimous heart that offers refuge to those who trust him.
His repressed feelings of abandonment has trigger points, and his escape into cinema as a means to connect with the human soul is well done. If he doesn’t tell stories that touches the heart, he dies. We all pick a legacy we wish to leave in our wake and for Semih, it is the cinema he is able to create. Semih’s joy, compassion, desolation, guilt, loneliness, rage, resolve, determination, opportunism, introspection are all captured well by Cagatay, through subtle expressions and through full body acting where it is needed. We would say this is Cagatay’s most layered role yet, and we now understand why he told GQ that Semih has left a mark on him.
The following is a mere sampling of the diversity of emotions Cagatay projects as Semih
There is abundant intelligence in the script, to be interpreted at will. The pleasure seeking viewers will appreciate the attention to details for the sets, music and costumes, unparalleled cinematography, and the visually realistic shots of the social milieu of the time. No deeper knowledge of the political context is necessary to appreciate the production value.
There is also plenty for the discerning viewer, especially if you have interest in historical context. We fall in the latter category as both Cagatay Ulusoy North America and our flagship organization North America TEN are chartered to bring perspectives on the Turkish actors, entertainment, culture and art to English speakers across the globe, and we like to understand the circumstances that influence character and culture. We will be bringing more to our readers on this in the near future.
For now, sharing here an excerpt of a print interview with Afra Saracoglu, who plays the lead role of Tulin Saygi. It gives further insight how much preparation has gone into the characters. We cannot wait until the installment(s) next week! Only on BluTV on Thursdays at 7 pm local Turkish time.
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