A critically acclaimed film in Turkey about the murder of a gay man by his father is prompting Turkish society, once again, to examine its tolerance of differences.
Zenne Dancer is inspired by the story of 26-year-old university student Ahmet Yildiz, who was gunned down in Istanbul in 2008 in what has often been called Turkey’s first gay “honor killing.” Yildiz’s father is the prime suspect in the murder and remains on the run from police.
Film directors Mehmet Binay and Caner Alper were shooting a documentary about male belly dancers, called “zenne” in Turkish, when they got the news that Yildiz, a friend of theirs, had been murdered. "We stopped filming, but a few months later I suggested to Mehmet that we make a feature film instead, combining the two different stories,” remembered Alper.
Zenne Dancer uses the friendship of three gay characters -- Yildiz, a male belly dancer, and a German photographer – as a vehicle to explore the fraught question of whether or not to reveal sexual identity to family and friends. "The aim of the film is to look at the changes in Turkey and [the] wider Middle East, and try to warn the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual) people to come out and be proud, but with a lot of caution; especially by looking around carefully at their parents and the people they have to live with,” said Alper. “Being open can be very dangerous."
Co-director Binay said the film, which is promoted by the slogan “Honesty may kill you,” also had a message for Turkey’s wider society. "We tried reaching people in the streets; people who have kids or colleagues who are a bit different from themselves. We tried to show them that there are different identities in society. I believe if you tell your story right, people are ready to hear the story you tell them."
Homosexuality, while legal, still remains a largely taboo subject in socially conservative Turkey. Members of the LGBT community in Turkey are the victims of hate crimes, as well as political and legal attacks, according to a 2011 Amnesty International report. But change appears in the offing. Last year, Zenne won five awards, including Best First Film at Turkey’s International Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival.
"We were so surprised," said Binay. "Over 1,000 people attended the screening, and the ovation at the end lasted seven minutes. A lot of people were crying. It was an experience."
The fact that Zenne Dancer could be made in Turkey, rather than abroad, is another indicator of change, the directors believe.
The film, though, has not been without controversy. "Homosexual propaganda by gays seeking to legitimize perversion by art," the pro-Islamic daily Akit wrote in a denunciation of the film. Meanwhile, some LGBT activists have criticized the film over its ambiguous message about whether to reveal sexual identity or not.
The controversy made for effective publicity. Extensive media coverage within Turkey meant that little had to be spent on “conventional advertising,” Binay said. The publicity also enabled the film to move out of the small festival circuit and into the mainstream. In a rare occurrence for an independent movie, Zenne is being screened across the country. In Istanbul, it is in its third week and is continuing to attract large audiences.
One filmgoer, forty-something writer Emine Umar, applauded the film as “very brave.”
“For the first time, such a subject is made into film. It is a taboo in Turkey; it is too difficult to tell such things in Turkey,” Umar said. “But Turkey is changing definitely. I am sure there will be many more films on this issue in the future.”
To the filmmakers’ surprise, the film is finding audiences even in Turkey's traditionally conservative provincial cities. Binay, who has participated in several Q&A sessions at cinemas across the country, said the experience has challenged his own prejudices.
"In Bursa [a city in northwestern Turkey], there was a religious couple in the cinema, and I watched them during the audience discussion and wondered what they were thinking,” he recounted. “Then at the end, the man spoke. He said ‘I breed pigeons. There are always some male birds that fall in love with one another. This is part of nature.’ And his wife sat nodding, saying ‘Yes, yes.’ I was prejudiced against them, when I was looking at them. I felt ashamed."
The filmmakers are now looking overseas for screening venues. Even though Zenne has not yet been screened internationally, interest appears to be growing in the Middle East, the directors claim.
"As soon as they read our slogan 'Honesty may kill you,' Iranians and other countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they all understand how dangerous it is to live with a different identity,” said Binay. “So, we are looking at ways for the film to be screened in these countries, maybe via satellite TV or the Internet."
Meanwhile, the directors are looking for further change to come within Turkey itself. Last year saw thousands joining a gay pride march in central Istanbul; a far cry from earlier marches that were frequently broken up by police.
"[A]ll sorts of minorities are coming out of the closet now,” said Binay. “The Pandora's box has been opened. Whether it’s Armenians, Alawites, the Kurds, everybody has things to say that they couldn't have said for the last decades or centuries. . . . The LGBT issue is part of the bigger picture."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.