Atıf Yılmaz

Atıf Yılmaz, who virtually forged the memory of an entire people in his films of every conceivable genre, put his stamp on Turkish cinema through hard work and constant innovation.

A film sometimes has a significance that is different, very different indeed, from what it sets out to depict. There are few people perhaps whose lives are changed by watching a film—and they usually turn out to be directors or actors—but certain films become lodged in either the most vulnerable, or the most exuberant, times of a person’s life. He is gone now, but some of Atıf Yılmaz’s films are not mere personal remembrances but a virtual repository of the memory of an entire society. There is hardly a Turk, for example, who is not familiar with this pithy line from his film, Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalım (The Girl with the Red Scarf): “What is love? Love is hard work!” Asya’s silent cry of the heart, caught between love and loyalty, has long been immortalized in the history of Turkish cinema.
The fact of the matter is that even though the blame largely lies with the writer of the novel on which the film is based, in other words, with Cengiz Aytmatov, ‘The Girl with the Red Scarf’ belongs to a period in Yılmaz’s life when he distanced himself from women. A time when he separated love from woman—as if, for a woman, love signified lack of virtue, as if by choosing love a woman would commit a great sin. And the audience lauded him for this film, which in any case coincided with a time when putting loyalty before love wouldn’t have been a problem for anybody. Later a day would come when Yılmaz would abolish that distance between himself and women, without in any way diminishing the value he placed on loyalty. With his film ‘Mine’ (a woman’s name), Yılmaz would again open the door to woman and love, and everything that goes with it—desire, renunciation, desertion...


Atıf Yılmaz, who died last month, crammed 119 films into his eighty years. Among them, those that deal with the plight of women can be counted on the fingers of two hands. But as far as films of that period go, for now at least he is well-established as a maker of women’s films. But let’s take a look at Yılmaz’s life story. Born in Mersin in 1925, his real name was Atıf Yılmaz Batıbeki. After studying first at the Istanbul University Faculty of Law and then the State Academy of Fine Arts, he took his degree in painting, his first love; in 1947 he even joined a group known as the ‘Garret Artists’. But cinema was the up-and-coming art form of the day, based as it then was on actors and directors with roots in the theater. Inevitably the influence of the theater was palpable in films, and the time had come to form a new, uniquely cinematic language. Yılmaz prepped himself for becoming a director by writing film reviews
for the magazine, ‘Beş Sanat’ (Five Arts). Accelerating the process by composing filmscripts and designing posters, in 1950 he entered the cinema as Semih Evin’s assistant. Directing came a year later with ‘The Bloody Cry’, which he later called the ‘engine’ that propelled him into a life in film that would last forty years.


Trying his hand at almost every genre from comedy and melodrama to rural life and heroism, he filled his first decade with films like The Sob, Gelinin Muradı, The North Star, Aşk Istıraptır, If A Woman Loves, and Iki Kafadar Deliler Pansiyonunda (films cited here in English are those with international English titles). In 1960 he formed his first production company together with the celebrated actor, Orhan Günşiray, founding Güneş Films in 1966. In the same year he began producing what would eventually become his signature films with ‘O Beautiful Istanbul’, in which Sadri Alışık and Ayla Algan shared the lead roles. Cinema was no longer a profession to be taken lightly, and ‘Yeşilçam’, Turkey’s Hollywood, had quickly earned a name for itself, producing three hundred films a year. Directors like Yılmaz Güney, Zeki Ökten, Halit Refiğ, Şerif Gören and Ali Özgentürk, all of whom learned the art of film making under Yılmaz’s tutelage, had struck out on their own. His driving force was curiosity and daring, which explains his films in every style and genre. Naturally he never violated the basic principles of cinema. “Every time I embark on a new film, I invent a world in my head,” he would say. “I then try to capture with the camera scenes that will bring that world to life in the most effective way, and I decide where to use them based on the film’s dramatic structure. I think about the lighting too, and talk my ideas over with the cinematographer, the gaffer and my assistants.” Film was a collective business for Yılmaz, who was open to suggestions not only from his assistants but from whoever was involved in the making of the film, from the actors right down to the workers on the set and, when he thought their ideas made sense, put them to use. Even the script was not limited to what went through the director’s head. In Yeşilçam, which was just taking shape in the period when Yılmaz shot his films, he not only arrived on the set with sheets of paper on which were written the actors’ lines as well as detailed instructions about how to shoot the scenes, he also distributed the filmscript to the entire crew.
It was this democratic approach, together with his modesty and, above all, his sense of humor, that distinguished Yılmaz from other directors. Rather than angry tension there was laughter on his sets. This was reflected in his films as well. According to Hale Soygazi, who made three films with him, you could find humor even in his most unabashed melodramas.


In the sixties and seventies Yılmaz again put his signature on films in almost every genre: Menekşe Gözler, Güllü, Cemo, Mağlup Edilemeyenler, The Girl with the Red Scarf, Talihli Amele, Dolap Beygiri and Zulüm, to just name a few, which alternately brought him awards for either ‘Best Director’ or ‘Best Film’ every year at Antalya. ‘The Girl with the Red Scarf’ in particular was singled out for applause when Yılmaz was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 33rd Antalya Film Festival.
The eighties were a turning point as much for Atıf Yılmaz as for Turkey. While the 1982 production of ‘Mine’ had depicted a woman suffocated by small town morality, new possibilities were opening up, enabling woman to discover her identity. ‘Mine’ was followed by Seni Seviyorum, A Sip of Love, Dağınık Yatak, Vasfiye Is Her Name, Aaahh Belinda, and Kadının Adı Yok, which clinched Atıf Yılmaz’s identity as a ‘women’s film director’. His protagonists now were urbanized individuals who knew what they wanted, were aware of their bodies and their desires, and knew how to demand and how to reject. In a period when more and more women were joining the work force and seeking their rights, Yılmaz made films with Turkey’s leading female actors such as Türkan Şoray, Müjde Ar, Nur Süer, and Hale Soygazi. Writers such as Selim Ileri, Latife Tekin and Duygu Asena were the catalysts that brought them together. Berdel, Hayallerim Aşkım ve Sen, Gece Melek ve Bizim Çocuklar, Walking After Midnight, Bekle Dedim Gölgeye, Nihavend Mucize, and After the Fall formed a long series of films, culminating in ‘Eğreti Gelin’, in which Yılmaz broke down traditional prejudices, sometimes skirting, sometimes homing right in on the political breaking points of the recent period. The last named was again a women’s film, again holding out hope of a bright and happy future.
“I never kept a diary in my life, nor did I manage to accumulate any artifacts relating to my films,” says Yılmaz in his book, ‘Memoirs of a Filmmaker’, in which he recounts his life and films. “I don’t even have a video cassette of any of my films at home.” Who knows, perhaps he had some sense that his true archive lies in the memories of his viewers. Atıf Yılmaz was no passing phenomenon; he is here to stay.

We are grateful to TÜRVAK Cinema Museum for providing the visuals.