When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on Capitol Hill last week to rally support for the 2007 budget, Rep. Dave Weldon asked her about the controversial Turkish film “The Valley of the Wolves.” “[I]t depicts American GIs murdering people at a wedding.
And it`s very anti-Semitic also; it has some gruesome visuals of Jews mistreating Muslims,” he said. “It would seem to me that we may be winning on the fronts of Afghanistan and in all these other places where we`re fighting, in Iraq. But for the hearts and minds of the people we are not doing very well at all. We may actually be heading in the wrong direction.”
In response, Miss Rice talked about Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of public diplomacy, who is working to counter anti-U.S. propaganda in the Muslim world. She included Turkey in her first foreign travel and heard plenty from critics of the war in Iraq. “Valley of the Wolves” screenwriter Bahadir Ozdener insists that he is also trying to make an antiwar statement, not an anti-American or anti-Semitic one, with his movie. “We are speaking out against the war, the occupation and the human rights violations,” he said.
I haven`t seen the film, but it`s difficult to believe that Mr. Ozdener is conveying solely an “antiwar” message. However, it does advise viewers that it is a work of “fiction.” When asked about it, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “[T]here`s no reason to comment on fiction.” He`s right; it is just a movie. But in reality, is a movie ever “just” a movie?
A Seattle Post?Intelligencer article asked in 2004, “In the history of cinema, has any film done more to blacken a nation`s reputation among travelers than `Midnight Express`? A quarter of a century after its release, people still cite it as a reason for steering clear of Turkey.” “Midnight Express” declares in its opening credits that it is based on a true story of a young American, Billy Hayes, who was caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey in 1970. The film details his experiences until he escaped from prison. Two decades after the film was released, Mr. Hayes said in a newspaper interview, “There`s no doubt it changed the whole face of Turkish tourism… It`s not fair. The burden fell on people who weren`t to blame.”
Indeed. When I was in Cleveland recently, a taxi driver heard me talking to my mother in a foreign language, and asked where we were from. When I answered, “Turkey,” he said, “Oh, I have seen Istanbul.” I asked when he was there, and he answered, “No. I did not go. I saw it in `Midnight Express.` ” I listened to his review without comment, changed the subject and resumed my conversation with my mother.
Mr. Hayes has said, “The message of `Midnight Express` isn`t `Don`t go to Turkey.` It`s `Don`t be an idiot like I was, and try to smuggle drugs.` ” But the fact is, “Midnight Express” seriously damaged Turkey`s image in the United States. There is truth in the movie, but even Mr. Hayes admitted there is a lot of exaggeration as well. The similarities of the “Valley of the Wolves” and the “Midnight Express” begin and end with both being movies. In terms of effectiveness, Holywood wins. And “Valley of the Wolves” — regardless of its subject — is the first Turkish movie to challenge Holywood.
Since Turkey denied the United States a northern front to invade Iraq in March 2003, TV screenwriters also have gotten inspired. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations cites two episodes — one from Fox`s “24” and the other from NBC`s “The West Wing” — in which they say Turkey and Turkish people are unfairly maligned. In the “24” episode, Turks are depicted as terrorists and given Arab names. In the “West Wing” episode, the Turkish government adopts Islamic laws under the leadership of the AKP, and convicts and orders the execution by beheading of a woman for having sex with her fiancee. Both shows offended many Turks. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul mentioned them to Miss Rice when she visited Ankara, and her response was that America is a free country, and the government does not control the movies.
Finally, PBS is airing a documentary next month called “Armenian Genocide.” Turks disagree that what happened to the Armenians was not “genocide,” and note that the Armenians also killed many Anatolian Muslims. PBS refuses, however, to show the documentary “Armenian Revolt,” which depicts the massacre of the Anatolian Muslims. PBS has also refused to hold a suggested panel discussion among historians after airing “Armenian Genocide.” I am not looking to open a debate on the nature of what happened, but if we support freedom of speech, we have to allow all opinions to be heard.
It`s important that any film, documentary or feature, be put in context. Since when do governments make decisions or take action against other countries because of a movie? These are movies, and they should be treated as such in the larger debate.
State Department spokes-man Sean McCormack was asked recently about “Valley of the Wolves” and he summed it up exactly right: “I don`t do movie reviews.”