Alaaddin F. Paksoy*
“The fault of the movie is simple. It is a movie about Turkey without any Turk in it, neither in the cast nor in the production team. Its hatred against Turks is too overt which makes the narration weak and less riveting than it could have been.”
Midnight Express is a story about a young American man, Billy Hayes, who was arrested in Turkey when he was smuggling hashish before boarding airplane. The film was released in 1978 and won 2 Oscars. Now it is much easier to reach the movie but it is getting less popular while there are more sources to learn something about Turkey.
Midnight Express has a big impact in restricted Turkish image in the western world. In absence of the internet and other alternative information networks in the late 70s and 80s, the movie had been a crucial keyword in the discussions regarding Turkey’s ill-treatment to prisoners. However the movie depicts more than a regular human rights violation and represents everything BAD if they are somehow related to Turkey/Turkish/Turkishness: Ugly moustached, very dark tanned (probably darker than Turkish average), homogenous police officers grinning and looking at a naked American boy (Bill Hayes) with homosexual intentions, the Turkish lawyer is a real trickster, the Turkish prosecutor is so cruel, the Turkish prison is like a pigsty, the Turkish prisoners are dirty, and even the glorious city Istanbul and Turkish food which all Turks are proud of are bad in Midnight Express.
The fault of the movie is simple. It is a movie about Turkey without any Turk in it, neither in the cast nor in the production team. Except some establishing shots from Istanbul, all scenes of the movie were shot in Valetta, Malta. Even this information could be enough to watch it critically and think it as a clear anti-Turkish propaganda.
“Midnight Express aroused so much interest in a relatively less globalised world. If a script as overtly hatred as Midnight Express used in a new movie today, it could be perceived like a comedy or just a rubbish fantasy.”
The movie is full of stereotypes and exaggerations but it should be definitely powerful on audience who has never visited Turkey or made some research on it. However, it can be claimed that Midnight Express was not cleverly made. Few people can praise the script of the movie or its cinematography in general. First of all, its hatred against Turks is too overt which makes the narration weak and less riveting than it could have been. Secondly, it includes clear mistakes that you may not expect from a professional film crew. The story reveals that the production team did not (or could not) dare to ask help from a Turkish perspective.
Call of prayer (the azan) and Muslim prayers are incorrect in the movie. As an anachronism, the “fez” hat were shown several times worn by Turkish public although it was abolished in 1925 and not popular at all in Turkey in the 1970s. Also, the Turkish conversations are mainly incorrect in the movie as they were made by foreign cast. It is even impossible for Turkish audience to understand them as the original movie does not include the English subtitles when the conversations are in Turkish. Regarding this, in Dervis Zaim’s article, Representation of Turkish people in Midnight Express, it is emphasised that the director Alan Parker wants the Turkish characters speaking in Turkish so that the audience can understand Billy Hayes’ isolation in the middle of mayhem. The director says: “Part of Billy’s problem was the alienation because he was surrounded by people speaking a strong guttural language he couldn’t understand so he did not know what was going on a good share of the time” (1).
Technically, the successful part of the movie is in its visuality. The sets were perfectly made and the director used the light finely when he shoots the scenes at prison and court. Politically, the successful part of the movie is that it reached its aim as it has been a strong evidence and reference when Turkey’s bad human rights record was on the agenda.
Midnight Express aroused so much interest in a relatively less globalised world. If a script as overtly hatred as Midnight Express used in a new movie today, it could be perceived like a comedy or just a rubbish fantasy. Alinur Velidedeoglu shot an amateur interview video with the real Billy Hayes in Cannes in 1999 and Hayes confessed that the movie was full of exaggerations. Although the movie aimed to humiliate Turkey and Turkish people, one should claim that the movie could also have little (or moderate) impact on rehabilitation of human rights and democracy in Turkey. Amendments in regulations, the reports of international organisations, and people’s own experiences show the huge change when it is compared with the conditions in the 1970s.
* Alaaddin Paksoy is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sheffield.
1) Zaim, Dervis. Representation of Turkish people in Midnight Express. The literary journal, November 1994.