Turkish Cinema

The history of Turkish cinema, a significant aspect of Turkish culture, is as old as the history of cinema itself.While scholars still disagree on the first Turkish film, the rapid spread of cinema during the Ottoman Empire was pretty evident. Many have it that Ayos Stefanos’daki Rus Abidesinin Yıkılışı (The Demolition of the Russian Monument at St. Stephan) by Fuat Uzkinay, shot on November 14, 1914, a 150-meter-long documentary – was one of the earliest known Turkish films. Consequently, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the first Turkish film production.

However, the first cinema screening attempts in the Ottoman Empire were made long before by the Romanian Jewish origin with Polish roots Sigmund Weinberg in 1895, known as the “Palace Filmmaker.”

Muslim Ertugrul was the only Turkish director from 1922 to 1938, who worked with Kemal and Ipek – popular film companies of that time. He was also a director of the Istanbul Municipal Theater.

The Golden Age of Turkish Cinema: The Yesilcam Era

Turkish cinema, which began to grow with the implementation of democratic values in 1950, reached production zenith in the 1960s, making 300 movies annually and becoming the fifth largest film producer in the world. The filmmaking at that time even outpaced Hollywood.

This period of the golden age of cinema in Turkey called Yesilcam continued until 1975. However, the Yesilcam era faced a decline in the 1980s, impacted by the rise of erotic films and the widespread development of television. It nearly disappeared in the 1990s against the backdrop of the advent of video recorders and the popularity of foreign movies.

But things changed in the 2000s, marking the transition to a new period and artistic thrust in Turkish cinema. Artists like Nuri Bilge Ceylan made Turkish cinema recognized in European countries. Apart from movies that featured high artistic skills, which received awards, the filmmaking of local romantic comedies increased.

Two Turkish films received international awards in the first decade of the new century. The first one is Distant (Uzak, 2002) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Grand Prix and Best Actor Prize at Cannes in 2002. “My Father and My Son” (Babam ve Oglum, 2005) was screened at several international festivals and took an award for its soundtrack at the World Soundtrack Awards. Actor Firet Kuskan was given the Best Actor reward at the 25th Istanbul Film Festival.

The very first movie to receive international recognition was Susu Yaz (Dry Summer, 1963) directed by Metin Erksan, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

This is just a brief description of the fascinating history of cinema in Turkey and its objects along with hundreds of films. Those who wish to know more about the story of Yesilcam can visit the Istanbul Cinema Museum.

Transformation of Mansion into Museum

The Istanbul Cinema Museum, located on the city’s vibrant Istiklal Avenue, was built as a mansion. Following “The Great Fire of Pera” in 1870, which destroyed almost everything, a large part of the district was rebuilt with stones. During that year, one of the Armenian bankers, Agop Koceyan, built a mansion on the street. The eye-catching paintings on the ceiling were crafted by French painter Hippolyte-Dominique Berteaux who later donated the mansion to the Taksim Vosgeperan Armenian Church. But time passed, and it started to serve as an art and entertainment center.

Since 1948, the building has been used as a venue for prestigious cinemas in Istanbul and has been turned into the acclaimed Atlas Cinema. The same building hosts the Istanbul Cinema Museum.  

Inside the Museum

The museum is located inside the historical building, which is easy to reach right off the famous Istiklal Avenue. It features around 600 items, including films, equipment, posters, photographs, sound recordings, books, and records. The museum is open on three floors and offers fun activities, such as shooting a tiny movie and phone calls with stars from the Turkish cinema. The Memory Pool of Turkish Cinema is another interactive way to see items used in 8,406 films.

The second floor showcases early film technology – first cameras and other film production tools like a projector, a film printer, and even old benches. The very first Yesilcam shootings were made with these tools.

The exhibition is also a great example of objects and illustrations used in old movies. One can see original illustrations in the movie “How was the Amentu Shop Steered?” and the figures used in the first puppet film.

The museum also features a camera belonging to Turkan Soray, one of Turkey's most renowned actresses and film directors, often referred to as the 'Sultan' of Turkish cinema. It also features a dress of a prominent actress, Hulya Kocyigit, a numerous international awards winner. She has acted in 180 films.

International Recognition

In the last fifteen years, Turkish filmmakers have made a tremendous lip, bringing home many awards, especially at film festivals held in Europe. The museum will display these to share with visitors. Among them are the Palme d’Or awarded to Nuri Bilge Ceylan at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and the Golden Bear from the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, honoring Semih Kaplanoglu.

Although new, the Istanbul Cinema Museum is an important part of the history of Turkish cinema, serving as an education and interaction area for visitors.

Turkish Cinema Revival

It should be noted that in the period from 2000 onward, Turkey saw a Cinematic Renaissance. Public funding was a major impetus for production growth, driven primarily by an increasing number of local blockbusters. In 2013, Turkey became the second-largest market in Europe. The overall number of screens increased from 996 at the end of 2003 to 2,243 in 2013. Reflecting on the Turkish cinema success, the Guardian wrote that it was the most profitable film production in the whole Muslim world, with an estimated $193m total domestic box office in 2010 against an estimated $20m for Egypt.

What is the state of Turkish cinema today more than a decade later? According to Hurriyet Daily News, the Turkish film industry in 2022 was ranked second after the US in exporting series in at least 150 countries worldwide. Sekib Avdagic, the head of Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, stated that Turkish TV series were in demand in Latin American countries and were moving fast in Western Europe, Germany, Europe, and Spain.

Quora reveals that Turkey series or as locals call them dizi have become increasingly popular in the Middle East. For example, Iranians watch Kara Sevda a lot. Azeri people also enjoy Turkish TV shows. The Turkish TV drama series has its audience in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Resurrection: Ertugrul (Dirilis: Ertugrul), a five-season Turkish historical fiction shot by Mehmet Bozdag and starring Engin Altan Duzyatan, passed 1.5bn views on YouTube and was one of the top drama series on Netflix in 2021. It was broadcast in 72 countries.