Film Review: Mustafa

November 9, 2008
Earlier this week I went to see "Mustafa," Can Dündar's controversial new documentary about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

I have always considered Dündar a rather bland figure, well-known for his vaguely liberal left-of-center and very uncontroversial views. Dündar is a newspaper columnist who has written a number of books on contemporary affairs, but he'd always struck me as someone who was more interested in asking questions than in staking out an opinion. Fifteen years ago he came out with an earlier documentary of Atatürk which I have never seen, but which was tame enough to have served as standard fare for Turkish elementary school classrooms every since. It was therefore surprising to hear that many people had found his latest endeavor insulting to Atatürk, even in a country where hagiography often passes for history when it comes to Turkey's first president.

I found the first half of 'Mustafa' much less interesting than the second. Indeed, Dündar is mainly concerned with the Turkish War of Independence and subsequent years, so the parts of the film detailing Mustafa Kemal's childhood and early career offer little excitement. Indeed, Dündar seems to be in a bit of a hurry to get on to the War of Independence, skipping over major events like the Unionist takeover in 1908 and Kemal's activities in Libya. There is, in fact, much about Kemal's life during these years that I think audiences would find interesting, but Dündar doesn't stray far from the general outlines of Kemal's life that are already of general knowledge in Turkey. As a result, the film feels like it is simply going through the motions at this stage while Dündar looks ahead to the second half of the film.

The second half of 'Mustafa' is indeed much more interesting, and is controversial because these parts of the movie depict Atatürk in ways that Turkish audiences are not used to seeing. Dündar is careful here, and much of the film's narration does not extend beyond reading quotations from Atatürk's notebooks and proclamations and reciting facts that are undisputably true yet frequently ignored. When it comes to Atatürk, though, even this relatively low-key approach is enough to unsettle some people.

At one point, for example, a discussion of Atatürk's jailing of political opponents is followed by the observation that "now, in Turkey, there would be no opposition party, there would only be one party," as ominous music is played in the background and viewers are shown a succession of imperious-looking statues of Atatürk of the sort that exist everywhere in Turkey today. No one, of course, can really contradict this charge, but often the lack of an opposition party in for most of Atatürk's tenure as president is portrayed as evidence of the universal support Atatürk is supposed to have enjoyed during these years. For people who have grown up learning this version of history in school, Dündar's film can be quite jarring.

It seemed to me that the aspects of Atatürk's life that Dündar really wanted to engage were from the War of Independence onwards, and this part of the documentary exudes an energy that was missing earlier on.Mustafa's soundtrack is by Goran Bregovic, which I found a lot more suitable for the earlier parts of the film than the latter ones. After all, Mustafa Kemal was born in the Balkans (Thessaloniki), so Bregovic's Balkan tunes fit in well with the mood and the scenery of Kemal's early days. As the film proceeds, however, this music becomes a little more distracting. Why are we listening to Balkan music as we watch Atatürk in Istanbul or Ankara in the 1920s and 1930s? I guess Dündar wanted to suggest that, at heart, Atatürk remained a lad from the Balkans. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that a more diverse soundtrack--perhaps employing some Münir Nurettin Selçuk for the Istanbul scenes in the early republic--would have worked a bit better at this point.

When the film was over, the (Turkish) friends that I had seen 'Mustafa' with were visibly upset. They didn't disagree with the veracity of what was said, but questioned Dundar's motives in focusing on 'negative' aspects of Atatürk's life. "Atatürk looked like a dictator," said one friend, while others were bothered by a scene in which he had appeared rather callous in describing the attachment to Islam of the soldiers he had commanded in the War of Independence. My friends felt that Dündar had ignored Atatürk's positive contributions while selectively using unflattering and unrepresentative samples from his diaries in an effort to make Atatürk look bad.

Frankly, I don't think 'Mustafa' is a movie that anyone outside of Turkey would consider controversial. But for a movie like this to be shown in theatres in this country is, I think, quite noteworthy, given the way in which his reputation has been idealized for so long in this country. Indeed, even discussing Atatürk as a human being can be difficult in Turkey, for the man is so usually presented mainly as a set of principles used to justify the existing political order. And it is precisely because 'Mustafa' manages to humanize its subject somewhat that the film is worth seeing.

While it would have been nice if more had been done to illustrate the social and intellectual milieux from which a person like Mustafa Kemal could emerge, I think 'Mustafa' not only provides a basis for discussing Atatürk's legacy in somewhat less idealized fashion, but it also makes it easier for an individual living in the early twenty-first century to connect with the man on a more personal level.

If I ever have the opportunity to teach a class on modern Turkish history, I would love to be able to show a subtitled version of this film to my students. Not only is the film itself enlightening, but the very fact that it would be made and the reaction it has received can tell us something about what's going on in Turkey today.

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