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Istanbul in Black and White: Cinematic Memory


İpek Türeli
School of Architecture, McGill University

Old Turkish films, most shot in Istanbul, are viewed today across generations with tender regard because they show a city in black and white, a city that was much poorer and more provincial—a city that is no more.[1] When the annual New Directions in Turkish Film Studies Conference launched in 1999, it was already possible to view these films in the comfort of one’s home. Switching on the TV and surfing the channels, one could find many black-and-white films from the 1950s and 1960s. It was even possible, as I experienced quite a few times, to encounter the same film on multiple channels at once, each at different points in the story. The cable channel SinemaTURK was devoted entirely to showing old Turkish films, one after another. Many of these well-known films have now been rereleased on DVD, and they are frequently the subject of retrospectives in Turkish film festivals abroad. Websites such as YouTube also contribute to their spread. Through TV and DVD, and as quotations in contemporary films and other forms of visual culture, black-and-white films from Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s constitute a popular “archive.” I must note this is a phenomenon of the 2000s; before then, it would have been embarrassing to admit to being a fan of these old films. More typically, they were mocked for their deliberate excess—eliciting laughter or tears based on unrealistic, rags-to-riches stories.

This essay explores the cultural meaning and memory work of Turkish cinema. It analyzes several celebrated films of the 1960s in relation to the local history of the medium and the modernization of the city.

The Istanbul of Black-and-White Films

Halit Refiğ’s Birds of Exile (1964), Metin Erksan’s Bitter Life (1963), and Ertem Göreç and Vedat Türkali’s Bus Passengers (1960) are some of the most famous films from the heyday of Turkish cinema that have received due attention within Turkish film studies, dubbed as examples of social realism or “people’s cinema.” They portray experiences of the years in which they were made (i.e., they do not project into the past or the future as in period films) through their characters’ conditions of and aspirations for housing. They present a rapidly changing city with increasing residential segregation on the basis of class differences, and the struggle to maintain individual innocence in the face of such changes. Turkish films from the era generally tended to straddle a fine line between selling images of Istanbul and participating in a civilizing process, simultaneously training their characters in urban behavior and showing how they are able to resist the temptations of the city.

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Clip from Birds of Exile. Watch video | View in new window

Halit Refiğ’s Birds of Exile (Gurbet Kuşları, 1964) has some affinities to Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) in terms of the plotline: A family of elder parents, three grown sons, and a daughter arrives in Istanbul by train at the Haydarpaşa station, in search of fame and riches, but they lose everything and the daughter who has drifted into prostitution kills herself;[2] they return home. Social differences are marked by where the characters live, but public spaces enable encounters across social groups. Refiğ’s migrant characters initially display prowess participating in the consumption of the city. They join the urbanites in flânerie as they stroll in the boulevards and parks, and socialize in cafes, patisseries, film theatres, and nightclubs. The city provides a stage for leisurely exploration. They can easily change their looks, but not their neighborhood. Where the migrating family settles, in the historic peninsula with cobbled narrow roads and wooden houses, is clearly a space for the urban poor. The areas—where one of the son’s urbanite fiancé and the daughter’s boyfriend live—in the northern, “European” part with wide asphalt streets and modern concrete buildings are the domain of the affluent middle classes. And with its churches as well as disreputable establishments, Beyoğlu/Pera is for non-Muslim minorities. Finally, there is another, “other” Istanbul, of the squatter settlements, where rootless peasants take refuge. Not only do characters migrate or discuss migration, but also the newspapers report on the many facets of the phenomenon, all within the diegesis. The sudden sharp increase in the population is accompanied by a rapid rise in housing development. Wooden houses in the historic peninsula are abandoned to a transitory lower middle class, which this migrating family represents, while the upper middle classes opt to live in the newer, modern concrete apartments in the northern part of the city.

While Birds of Exile demonstrates all these transformations, it also reflects the anxieties urban modernity engendered through new class encounters and consumption practices. One of the central concerns of the film is migration—migration to Istanbul of provincial skill-less or semi-skilled people, and immigration to Europe and the US, via Istanbul, of educated young urbanites. The next two films, Bitter Life and Bus Passengers, avoid the migration question while still addressing housing to critique the emerging economic order.

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Clip from Bitter Life. Watch video | View in new window

Metin Erksan’s Bitter Life (Acı Hayat, 1963) is centered on a working-class couple’s desire to get married, the Turkish word for which, “ev-lenmek,” literally means “acquiring a home.” A place to live together is a prerequisite to getting married. A good portion of the film shows the couple looking for housing. However, they cannot find anything suitable. The new apartment buildings she aspires to live in are beyond their financial limit. They can only afford places within squatter settlements or old dilapidated wooden houses that serve as rooming houses for rural-to-urban migrants. Instead of her poor fiancé, she marries a rich suitor; the ex-fiancé, by a twist of fate, wins a lottery, becomes a bitter businessman, and constructs a modern “villa” to show off to her.

There have been many informal remakes of Bitter Life over the years, and most recently in 2005, two popular TV dramas, one with the same title, were based on exactly the same topic.[3] The appeal of the theme persists—the designation of modernity and class are still entwined. Housing remains an expression of modernity.

As in Birds of Exile and Bitter Life, Bus Passengers is ambivalent about this modernity. The gulf between the characters’ economic realities and aspirations is a criticism, i.e., the innocent poor deserve better living conditions but are denied by the corrupt, powerful rich. The contrast in the portrayal of spaces and architecture, however, is celebratory of modernization.

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Clip from Bus Passengers. Watch video | View in new window

Ertem Göreç and Vedat Türkali’s Bus Passengers (Otobüs Yolcuları, 1960) uses a bus and its route as the central narrative device to provide moving images of the city that emulate the function of cinema. All the characters live on the periphery of Istanbul in distinct housing patterns, and only some of them travel all the way to the historic peninsula, to the center of the city. Three kinds of residential spaces dominate the film, and each is associated with a social group or class. Workers labor in the quarry under dismal conditions, the lower middle classes live in squatter settlements and spread out into the informal streets for lack of space, and the upper middle classes keep confined to their interiorized lives. Every morning, members of each group come together on the public bus that takes them to the center of the city. Arguably, the expansion of the city and the consequent impossibility to relate to its collective urbanscape of hills, water, and the silhouette of minarets and domes turns the bus ride into the only remaining way to engage with it. The bus provides moving images of the city, clearly articulated as such by its driver, the hero.

Bus Passengers is an open, direct critique of the rule of the Democrat Party (1950–60), and was only made possible after the Democrat Party was overthrown in 1960 by the military coup. The film critiques the power relations that were operating within the construction sector, which, as one of the leading sectors within the urban economy, seems to have created its own social groups. It aims to expose the stench of capitalist relations, in particular how modest people living on the margins of the city were conned by a power coalition between politicians, capitalists, and technocrats with promises of access to modernity through housing. It points to the inability of a group of cooperative housing victims to organize on their own to seek out their rights, and proposes an alternative form of belonging, which is marked by a cultured enjoyment of the city through its image in pictures; i.e., it offers the cinematic city in lieu of the real one.

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Clip from Bus Passengers. Watch video | View in new window

Black-and-White Visions of the City

These films depict a city through black-and-white visions of housing: the rich live in modernist concrete apartments and villas while the poor in old wooden houses, with the latter group always, and somewhat despairingly, aspiring to the other. This vision does not reflect the complexity of housing now or then. It is rather a trope that fits well with the rich/poor, modern/traditional, male/female axis of the central plotlines. In fact, popular Turkish films of the era (here I am referring to the height of production, roughly from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s) did not introduce such narrative tropes but capitalized on them. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of Istanbul emphasize the contrast between the historic core, where predominantly Muslims lived, and the “European” side, to the north across the Golden Horn estuary. Some of these accounts, especially of nationalist orientation, are critical of the modern districts to the north of the Golden Horn, and associate them with too much Westernization and decadence.

For example, in his famous short novel/long story Fatih Harbiye of 1931, Peyami Safa characterizes Istanbul as a dual city.[4] Fatih (translation: “conqueror”) is an old Muslim neighborhood in the historic peninsula, centered around the great mosque and medrese, and Harbiye (translation: “military school”) is a newer section, located north of the Golden Horn, built around a modern military school and inhabited by people who are too Westernized for their own good. In Safa’s story the differences between Fatih and Harbiye are of the East (Fatih) versus the West (Harbiye); in other words, they are civilization differences. In this didactic novel of realist prose, the daughter of a liberal Muslim family is temporarily lured by the glitter and modernity of the Beyoğlu and Harbiye areas, only to return to her senses and her roots back in Fatih at the end.

Literary and cinematic constructions of urban experience via housing tend to draw upon concrete processes but fictionalize them towards moralistic messages. As scholars note, the move of middle classes out of the historic peninsula accelerated in the postwar period. The housing makeup of the city transformed broadly from socially heterogeneous neighborhoods in the old city, characterized by its wooden stock of houses, to newly created, socially homogeneous neighborhoods of concrete frame walk-ups, with squatter settlements at their skirts.[5] Consequently, the wooden houses of the historic peninsula started to accommodate an increasingly transient population. Another new development was the division of the city into “legal” and “illegal” areas.[6] The illegal areas were set up around the periphery of the city by the newcomers or by those displaced by the urban renewal work. Çağlar Keyder observes, “The legal-illegal division corresponded to the social and cultural divide that came to characterize Istanbul’s ecology. The housing experience was the initial and defining element of life in the big city.”[7]

Local cinema emerged in tandem with rapid urban growth and became one of the key exhibitionary sites through which the city was publicly displayed and consumed. While films elevated everyday spaces to a spectacle for mass consumption, the institution of cinema acted as a “public sphere” where different social groups came together despite increasing residential segregation.[8] Local cinema production dwindled in the 1970s to the point of extinction in the 1980s, when a host of new private TV channels stepped in to recall them from the archive, old films acting almost as memory objects.

Conversely, architectural urban histories of the city from the era choose to focus on piecemeal city-beautification efforts and other top-down planning interventions. In regard to demographic change, scholarly descriptions of these years of intense change continue to use militaristic vocabulary of “onslaught” and “invasion.” A prominent architectural urban history of the city characterizes the growth of the city as an “undeclared war against urban image.”[9] Outright nostalgia for wooden houses permeates descriptions of urban change, and concrete apartment blocks are presented not as expressions of modernity but of rampant petty capitalism. In contrast, old films provide unique perspectives on how the physical expansion of the city with new housing and demographic growth, due to rural-to-urban migration, were experienced and interpreted at the time.

In light of this disjunction between scholarly and popular accounts, what kind of work do these recirculated films do today? In other words, why watch them today when Istanbul could not be more different?

The Circulation of Old Films

Domestic cinema was a late bloomer in the cultural and economic life of the city. Production expanded from a few films per year before World War II to around several hundred in the 1960s, to scale back down to the tens by the 1990s. In the immediate postwar period, Turkey aligned itself with the Western block; America replaced Europe as the paradigm of modernity. Along with popular magazines and imported consumables, Hollywood promoted American lifestyles and star culture. By the 1960s, however, domestic products and a nascent domestic star culture were able to translate and rival that of Hollywood. During the heyday (~1955–75) of Turkish cinema referred to as Yeşilçam (literally “green pine,” perhaps an allusion to “holly-wood”), production consisted predominantly of melodramas and comedies, and its audience comprised primarily families.[10] The medium became the major public entertainment that reached mass audiences in urban centers, with half of the national audience concentrated in Istanbul.[11] Box office figures gradually picked up until the mid-1970s, when a series of factors including the nationwide spread of TV undermined its sway.[12]

Starting in the 1990s but especially in the 2000s, domestic production was on its feet. The deregulation of state-controlled TV and radio, partly driven by the neoliberal agenda of privatization and partly encouraged by the EU’s pressure to reform and democratize, led to the rise in private channels and created work for directors who could then use their earnings to fund their films.[13] By 2006, domestic films accounted for more than 50 percent of box office takings. European funding schemes such as Eurimages encouraged multinational coproductions, helped to improve production values, and supported distribution, thus rendering Turkish films more visible on an international stage. [14]

Yeşilçam and its audience practices may be defunct but are by no means dead. The 1990s witnessed the return of Yeşilçam films and a matching proliferation of Yeşilçam-inspired TV dramas on private channels and Yeşilçam-inspired blockbusters in cinemas, as well as the emergence of revalorizing studies on Yeşilçam films growing out of communication faculties at private universities that have been opened in ever-increasing numbers since the 1990s.[15] In a Turkey strained by neoliberal economic restructuring and troubled by the rise of sectarian identities, this popular and scholarly interest arose from a re-evaluation of the way identity issues have been dealt with in Yeşilçam films. Within local film studies, Yeşilçam films have recently been interpreted as “narratives of resistance”[16] as well as “our imaginary homeland.”[17]

Giuliana Bruno persuasively argues that motion pictures move through the inner space of their viewers, as well as through time, space, and narrative development, and that cinematic motion carries a “haptic affective transport.”[18] Watching these films today, viewers are transported to a past they did not necessarily experience. Perhaps the most evocative description of the memory work old Turkish films do in the present comes from the novelist Orhan Pamuk, who writes in his memoir:

In the 1950s and 1960s, like everyone, I loved watching the “film crews” all over the city—the minibuses with the logos of film companies on their sides; two huge generator-powered lights; the prompters, who preferred to be known as souffleurs and who had to shout mightily over the generator’s roar at those moments when the heavily made-up actresses and romantic male leads forgot their lines; the workers who jostled the children and curious on-lookers off the set. Forty years on, the Turkish film industry is no longer … they still show those old black-and-white films on television, and when I see the streets, the old gardens, the Bosphorus views, and the broken-down mansions and apartments in black and white, I sometimes forget I am watching a film; stupefied by melancholy, I sometimes feel as if I am watching my own past.[19]

What Pamuk is possibly pointing out is that films, especially old films recycled on TV channels, perform as devices of “prosthetic memory.”[20] Presenting a “portable, fluid and nonessential form,” prosthetic memories bear the potential to evoke empathy for others.[21] Furthering the metaphor of prosthesis, Celia Lury argues that there is a shift from aesthetic culture to “prosthetic culture,” from plural society, ordered by variety, to post-plural society, ordered by diversity, and in which the self as possessive individual is being replaced by the experimental self, for the narration of which media representations provide an archival source. It is then the act of watching these films that allow the viewers to “go for a walk,” and that allows the city—that is, its people—to feel communally.[22]

In addition, the relevance of these films for the present and for urban history comes from their presentations of alternative perspectives or voices that other kinds of documents and hegemonic representations may not readily reveal. In fact, it is this aspect of films around which the “cinematic city” literature has evolved since the mid-1990s in the US and UK. Much of this literature (by AlSayyad, Clark, Penz & Thomas, Shiel & Fitzmaurice, and others) attempts to bring to light the “counter discourse” offered by films.[23]

The recycling and consumption of old Turkish films as “objects of tender regard” or cumulatively as an archive of prosthetic memory allow Istanbulites to communally “go for a walk” in more recent times. Interestingly, this recirculation doubles as an effort to affirm Istanbul has moved on from its provincial, poorer past in black and white and is ready for its future as a colorful European city. For historians of architecture, these films also offer the possibility of writing new kinds of histories that are attentive to the “city as a place of making meaning.”[24] If one approach is to conceptualize buildings, urban design projects, and city plans as representational acts, another is to examine the representation of the city itself with the assumption that the city can only be grasped or defined through its representations and that otherwise it is not a fixed entity.[25] Old films provide audiences travel opportunities while opening, for scholars, windows onto diverse past experiences of modern city life.


[1] In terms of a physical collection, many films are stored in the state-of-the-art facilities of the Cinema and Television Department of Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul.

[2] To be more precise, she is encouraged to jump off the roof of an apartment building to her death in fear and view of her enraged brothers.

[3] İpek, Bülent. “Erksan'ın 'Acı Hayat'ı İki Diziye Konu Oldu.” In Sabah, October 27, 2005.

[4] Safa, Peyami. Fatih-Harbiye. 5th ed. İstanbul: Ötüken Nesriyat, 1978.

[5] Keyder, Çağlar. “The Housing Market from Informal to Global.” In Istanbul: Between the Global and the Local, edited by Çağlar Keyder, 149. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid .

[8] Here I am inspired by Miriam Hansen, who suggests that the public sphere is an appropriate concept to think about (particularly early) cinema. Hansen, Miriam. “Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Transformations of the Public Sphere.” In Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, edited by Linda Williams, 144, 145. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[9] Kuban, Doğan. Istanbul: An Urban History, 435, 439. Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfı, 1996.

[10] Abisel, Nilgün. “Türk Sineması Üzerine Yazılar [Writings on Turkish Cinema], 200. Ankara: Phoenix, 2005.

[11] Coş, Nezih. “Türkiye’de Sinemaların dağılışı [The distribution of cinemas in Turkey].” In As Akademik Sinema 2 (1969a), 19–20.

Coş, Nezih. İstanbul’un Sinemaları… [Istanbul’s cinemas…]. As Akademik Sinema 4 (1969b), 11–20.

[12] Scognamillo, Giovanni. Türk Sinema Tarihi, 1896–1997 [History of Turkish Cinema, 1896–1997]. Istanbul: Kabalcı, 1998.

[13] Çatalbaş, Dilruba. “Broadcasting Deregulation in Turkey: Uniformity within Diversity.” In Media Organisations in Society, edited by J. Curran. London: Arnold, 2000.

Simpson, Catherine. “Turkish Cinema’s Resurgence: The ‘Deep Nation’ Unravels.” In Senses of Cinema 39 (2006). Available at sensesofcinema.com. Accessed April 12, 2010.

[14] Göktürk, Deniz. “Turkish Delight—German Fright: Migrant Identities in Transnational Cinema.” In Mediated Identities, edited by K. Ross, D. Derman, and N. Dakovic. Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2001.

Göktürk, Deniz. “Beyond Paternalism: Turkish German Traffic in Cinema.” In The German Cinema Book, edited by T. Bergfelder, E. Carter, and Göktürk. London: BFI, 2002.

Dönmez-Colin, Gönül. Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging, 216–18. London: Reaktion, 2008.

[15] State universities’ communication, radio, TV, and cinema departments have been critically studying Turkish cinema films since the early 1980s. The first annual conference on Turkish film research (Türk Film Araştırmalarında Yeni Yönelimler [New Directions in Turkish Cinema]) was held in Istanbul in 1999 at a private university. There has been a deliberate interest within Turkish film-studies circles since then to analyze early films, and a small but increasing effort to make connections between cinema and the city (proceedings, Bayrakdar, 2001–2008). Some of the more local publications that take on cinema and the city include, but are not limited to, Öztürk (2002) and Türkoğlu et al. (2004). Makal (1987) and Güçhan (1992) are earlier works that concentrate on representations of migration to the city.

Öztürk, Mehmet. Sine-Masal Kentler: Sinematografik Bir Üretim Alanı Olarak Kent Üzerine Bir İnceleme [Cine-tale cities: An investigation on the city as a field of sinemotographic production]. Istanbul: Om, 2002.

Türkoğlu, Nurçay, Öztürk, Mehmet, and Aymaz, Göksel. Kentte Sinema, Sinemada Kent [Cinema in the City, City in Cinema]. Istanbul: Yeni Hayat Yayıncılık, 2004.

Makal, Oğuz. Sinemada Yedinci Adam: Türk sinemasında iç ve dış göç olayı [Seventh Man in Cinema: Internal and External Migration in Turkish Cinema]. Izmir: Köprü, Mars Matbaası, 1987.

Güçhan, Gülseren. Toplumsal değişme ve Türk sineması: Kente göç eden insanın Türk sinemasında değişen profile [Social Change and Turkish Cinema: The Changing Profile of the Migrant to the City in Turkish Cinema]. Ankara: İmge Kitabevi, 1992.

[16] Erdoğan, Nezih. “Narratives of Resistance: National Identity and Ambivalence in the Turkish Melodrama between 1965 and 1975.” In Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide, edited by D. Eleftheriotis and G. Needham. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. Original edition: (1998) Screen 39 (3), 259–71.

[17] Bayrakdar, Deniz. “Türk Sineması; Hayali Vatanımız? [Turkish cinema: our imaginary homeland?]” In Türk Film Araştırmalarında Yeni Yaklaşımlar IV [New Approaches in Turkish Film Studies IV], edited by D. Bayrakdar,. Istanbul: Bağlam Yayınları, 2006.

[18] Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. London and New York: Verso Press, 2002.

[19] Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories of a City, 32–33. Translated by M. Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

[20] Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

[21] Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, 18.

[22] Pamuk, Istanbul, 95.

[23] Fitzmaurice, 2001.

AlSayyad, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006.

Clarke, David B., ed. The Cinematic City. London: Routledge, 1997.

Penz, François, and Thomas, Maureen, eds. Cinema & Architecture: Méliès, Mallet-Stevens, Multimedia. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Shiel, Mark, and Fitzmaurice, Tony, eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

[24] Strieber, Nancy. “Microhistory of the Modern City: Urban Space, Its Use and Representation.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58 (3), Architectural History 1999/2000 (September 1999), 382–91, 387.

[25] King, Anthony D. “Introduction: Cities, Texts and Paradigms.” In Re-presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, edited by Anthony D. King, 5. New York: Routledge, 1996.


Ipek Türeli is assistant professor at the School of Architecture, McGill University. Her research focuses on visual culture, comparative urbanism, and architectural history. She is the co-editor of Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? and is currently working on the forthcoming book Istanbul, Open City: Exhibiting Anxieties of Urban Modernity.


"Cinematic Urbanism" is an online component of Ars Orientalis 42, published October 2012.