Soviet Orientalism across Borders: Documentary Film for the Turkish Republic
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Soviet Orientalism across Borders
Documentary Film for the Turkish Republic

In the early 1930s, Ankara’s requests for productions about Turkey created a dilemma for Soviet filmmakers.1 How could a single propaganda film satisfy two governments with conflicting ideologies? Moscow knew that Communists languished in Turkish jails, and the Turkish military had already blocked screenings of Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin).2 Yet Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and many of his supporters sympathized with elements of the Soviet project, and their proposition was intriguing.3 Ultimately, film as a revolutionary tool brought representatives of the Turkish and Soviet states together, and their joint cinematographic endeavors help explain similarities in practices across state and ideological borders.

A Bolshevik faith in the persuasiveness of scientific truth facilitated cooperation, for it suggested that objectivity could overcome subjective difference. When Boris Shumiatskii—head of the Soviet film industry for much of the decade—reviewed an early proposal for Soviet-Turkish cinema, he [End Page 35] argued that the creation of a common set of images would avoid “ideological concessions” for both sides. The trick, he claimed, was to produce a work that was “logical, true, and historically founded.”4 Shumiatskii echoed prominent members of the Soviet avant-garde who maintained that film was an artistic medium uniquely capable of documenting reality. Supraideological alliance led one enthusiastic Soviet reviewer to hail cinematographic cooperation as a world historical event. He alluded to the Tower of Babel and proclaimed the Soviet-Turkish venture evidence that national and ideological “boundedness” (ogranichennost´) could be breached.5 Shumiatskii and the reviewer both underestimated the challenge of making a Soviet representation of reality recognizable to their Turkish counterparts, but Shumiatskii’s logic is revealing. Turks who participated in these efforts also appreciated film’s capacity to be a documentary tool, and both sides hoped the camera could historicize Turkey—that is, simultaneously capture Turkey’s particularity and situate the country in a broader historical process. The latter was particularly important, for Soviets and Turks felt that Turkey had long been the subject of ahistorical orientalist fantasies.

During a brief but intense moment, Soviet and Turkish elites negotiated how best to present an image of modern Turkey on the screen. Forgoing Istanbul’s alleyways, Sergei Iosifovich Iutkevich’s Ankara—Serdtse Turtsii (Ankara—The Heart of Turkey) celebrated the Republican capital and was released in Turkey and the Soviet Union in 1934. Novelty was in the title of Idet novaia Turtsiia (The New Turkey on the Move), which Esfir´ Il´inichna Shub worked on in 1934 and early 1935. Shub’s experience testifies to the difficulty of these projects, as she had long left the project by the time Ha-Ka Studio released the 1937 Türk İnkılâbında Terakki Hamleleri (Steps of Progress in the Turkish Revolution).6 She had complained when her producer, Halil Kamil, refused to let her film camel caravans and peasant women riding donkeys because they would inevitably be cut, but her plan for the film suggests she was perfectly ready to speak a language acceptable to Turkish censors.7 Her script promised “factory buildings stretching out” along the Golden Horn [End Page 36] as symbols of progress, “nothing like” the romanticized depictions left by the French writers Pierre Loti and Claude Farrère, whom she dismissed as retrograde.8 Industry was one of many themes recognizable to both Soviet and Turkish audiences, and finding shared symbols was not difficult. Iutkevich’s Ankara presented the hallmarks of modern times—not only factories but also what one reviewer called “the face of the new Turkey … institutes, the art of the youth, scientific laboratories, construction, new factories, new buildings, and hydroelectric plants.”9 In the discussions of these films, participants and viewers repeatedly staked claims to define interwar Turkey. Propaganda film was a favored instrument of contemporary states, but here representatives of two competing states employed the practice together. The sense of a shared foe evident in Shub’s reference to French novelists proved crucial in this collaboration.

This episode offers a new perspective on what a line of distinguished historians has referred to as “Soviet modernity.”10 Soviets and Turks...


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