New Netflix Show Is Going to ‘Upset’ Turkey’s Erdogan
Erdogan beware: Innovative new Turkish drama ‘Ethos’ centers around feminine solidarity, features a lesbian couple and critiques religious institutions.
My wife’s a big fan of Turkish drama series. On a recent visit to Istanbul, she wanted to visit some of the places that appear time after time in the various shows, from “Kuzey Güney” and “Insider” to “Fatmagul” (all of which she watched on Israel’s Viva channel).
A favored location for directors is the boardwalk in the Üsküdar neighborhood, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. From here, there’s a view of the Maiden’s Tower, a small islet on which stands a white tower where, legend has it, the sultan imprisoned his daughter to keep her from falling prey to a curse.
A few stops north on the ferry, in a picturesque neighborhood along the banks of the Göksu River, we ran into a TV crew. They had deployed like a military unit on the coast, below the ancient Anatolian Castle, encircling a pair of lovers who were caught up in a whirlwind of passions against the backdrop of the marvelous skyline of the turrets and domes of ancient Istanbul.
Turkish TV crime scenes, meanwhile, usually shoot in the abandoned factories compound at Beykoz – the last ferry stop in the northern Bosporus, not far from where it connects with the Black Sea.
I have personal and family ties to another popular TV location. It’s my ancestral home at 11 Sakiz Gul Street. Why has it become a favored site? Possibly because the entire building, which belonged to the Jewish Taranto family, hasn’t changed since my grandparents moved there in 1916. Its glory didn’t fade even when all the buildings around it were demolished and replaced by ugly structures. The same latticed front door remains, the glass doors of the cupboards in the dining room are the same ones, and even the circuit breaker above the entry gate is still in place.
For the shoot of “The Bride of Istanbul,” and also the series “My Daughter,” we noticed that the walls of the house had been painted blue. And every time there were scenes in the living room, or even in the stairwell – opposite the panic button that I loved to press in my childhood and hear my grandmother’s voice calling out in French, “I’m coming” – we would call one another in the family and say excitedly: “Did you see that, did you see that?”
Another cause for a pat on the back is the man who heads the vast, and vastly influential, empire that distributes Turkish drama series worldwide, with a far greater reach than the Ottoman empire had at its peak. He’s a 42-year-old Jewish guy from Istanbul called Izzet Pinto. He was a literary agent in his youth, until he entered the TV content distribution industry in 2006 and founded Global Agency (today considered the world’s largest independent distributor). Thanks to him, Turkey has become the second largest exporter of television series in the world, after the United States.
I read about him a year ago in the Istanbul-based Jewish newspaper Salom. Above the article was a photograph of Izzet receiving an award from former U.S. interior secretary Ryan Zinke, for his contribution to the dissemination of Turkish culture worldwide.
Thus, while the material Turkey, the one led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is widely perceived as being an ostensibly dysfunctional country, economically devastated and incapable of coping with the coronavirus crisis, blossoming alongside it is the Turkey of its TV dramas – an imagined Turkey, gorgeous, poetic, but also highly realistic, daring and rebellious in the right degree and also conservative in the right degree.
Any viewer who knows Turkey is momentarily confused and asks themselves what that country actually is. The conclusion – at least in the case of a credible, splendidly made show such as “Ethos,” which is now available on Netflix – is that both versions are equally real. The series, though, successfully arranges the good and the bad, which in reality are intermixed, in an organized manner.
A world without men
Written and directed by Berkun Oya, “Ethos” relates, in eight very plot-dense episodes, a segment from the life of Meryem, a young lower-class woman who lives in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul and works as a maid for a single, affluent playboy. When she experiences mysterious fainting spells, she’s dispatched to a public clinic in the city. [This feature contains SPOILERS about the series.]
The plot takes off from there and also reveals the life story of her psychiatrist, Peri, and that of the therapist whom Peri visits. Each of the characters is repressing a past that eventually erupts, enabling the series to present a tremendous panorama of Turkish society in all its diversity.
This basic recap is enough to show that, precisely because it has no major dramatic shifts or heartrending narratives, “Ethos” is totally different from most of the series the Turkish television industry produces.
It’s true that the engine that drives this entire industry is always an educational and social message. It’s also true that these series will always somehow present the gap between the urban class, with its Western mannerisms, and the rooted, rural, traditional and reactionary Turkish ethos. The family and familial unity will always be at the core, and there will also be characters who are heartbroken for various reasons and have lost their thread in the social fabric. But the genre’s best shows also look to provide an additional contribution by lending a voice to those in Turkish society who don’t have official expression.
The obligation to show concern for women’s rights and their dignity in a macho society is by now a genre trope. “Ethos” takes it a step further, though – toward full acceptance of members of the LGBT community. It seems to me that this is the first time a lesbian relationship has been depicted with such surprising openness on Turkish TV.
Indeed, the world portrayed here is one of feminine dominance, with the men being depicted as women used to be: impulsive, whining, lacking in vision. In fact, the original Turkish title of the series can also mean “Something Else” or “Something Different.”
The ability to be innovative is rooted in the sheer miracle of the Turkish television industry. It wouldn’t have attained the artistic heights it has without a consistent, ongoing tradition of theater and cinema production – which is to say that a large part of this success stems from the state’s cultivation of drama schools, based on the recognition of the immense importance of disseminating Turkish culture.
One of the most famous is the Istanbul University State Conservatory, which every year produces a class of talented actors, some of whom find their way to the drama series. The drama schools emulate the conservative French method, which emphasizes diction and language along with facial expressions no less than body movement.
Öykü Karayel, who plays Meryem, is one of the most brilliant graduates of that veteran institution. Her superb acting skills are apparent from an initial scene: The camera focuses on her face, and it’s only after a while that we realize she’s in a session with a psychiatrist in a public clinic and doesn’t know how she should proceed. But even before she utters a word, the astute viewer grasps – from her hunched posture in the chair (and also, of course, from her head covering) – that she’s from a lower-class, rural milieu, whereas the psychiatrist is sitting with back straight and head uncovered.
The characterization is enhanced by Karayel’s amazing rural accent, without it sounding for an instant parodic or ridiculous. The “low” accent is indicated mainly by the pronunciation of the consonant “k” as a “g,” and by an excess melodizing of the ends of sentences. That’s all. And it’s marvelous.
The first few minutes encapsulate the entire series, like a well-turned opening sentence of a novel. The pattern of the plot and its constituent parts are already perfectly clear. Above all, there’s a pronounced absence of men within a world that looks almost entirely complete without them.
For the most part, the men come across as an element that disrupts the natural order of things. The world of “Ethos” is one that has been conquered by women, who are marching it toward a better future (according to what the series suggests) – and the way to achieve that optimistic future is by creating a feminine solidarity that cuts across disparities between the social classes.
This is one of the key messages of the series and a recurring motif in each of the episodes: The gradual transition of the women from hatred of their fellow women, due to the male presence that tried to incite them against one another, to a mutual sense of tolerance, love and acceptance of their differences.
That motif reaches its dramatic peak in an episode in which open hostility erupts between two sisters – one educated, a therapist by training; the other an ignorant, rural Kurdish woman who’s immersed in a world in which progress is despised. Just as the enraged rural sister is about to tear out her educated sister’s hair, the two look at each other and recognize how groundless the conflict that developed between them is.
The series also dares to show the institution of the hodja (aka khoja) – akin to a neighborhood rabbi whose counsel everyone solicits – as a nonentity who dispenses advice to others and doesn’t understand what’s happening under his nose. Still, the sharp criticism of the hodja is softened by the fact that, ultimately, he doesn’t ostracize his daughter who comes out as gay, but arrives at the conclusion that this is God’s will.
Amid all the “positive” spirit that “Ethos” exudes, it needs to be emphasized that its strength – and perhaps the strength of the whole Turkish drama series genre, both the good and the bad – lies in its inward gaze. In other words, it contains not the merest of winks to a global audience.
“Ethos” focuses exclusively on Turkey’s problems, in a language that will be understood by the local audience, based on the correct artistic recognition that there’s nothing more universal than the local. Furthermore, that an obscure neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul can contain the whole spectrum of passions and human dramas no less than the most central place in the universe.
We learned that lesson – of the psychological diversity of the provinces – from the stories and plays of Anton Chekhov. Indeed, Chekhov and Russian literature in general have wielded a deep influence on Turkish literature and theater. One could basically view “Ethos” as a sophisticated adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”: three archetypes of women, each of which splits into three sub-archetypes, in order to bring into being an imagined dynasty whose continuation no one can know.
The design of these trios is fascinating in its beauty and its seeming simplicity. The problems of one woman become known to the next woman, who converses about them to a third woman, and every time the women discuss the issues of the others, the depth of the abyss that rends their psyche becomes apparent.
Here we should note that, in its own mild way, the series ridicules – or at least acutely critiques – the institution of psychology. For it turns out that in some cases, the expert psychiatrists who supposedly have clear answers for their patients’ problems prove no more than witch doctors, and are convinced of their rightness even when the opposite is true.
This criticism doesn’t come from a conservative place that would praise the wisdom of the masses and folksy common sense – because the series hurls critical barbs at them too. Sometimes the laws of psychology “work,” as in the case of Ruhiye, Meryem’s suicidal sister-in-law, who is cured of her deep depression the moment she succeeds in resolving a sexual malaise that had oppressed her since her adolescence. In other cases, though, those same laws turn out to be a prevarication – as in the case of Meryem, whose therapist is convinced she’s repressing her attraction for the bachelor whose house she cleans, and that this is the reason for the physical disorder she’s experiencing. But it turns out that the therapist is imagining things and couldn’t be more wrong.
Turkish drama series are frequently accused of being kitschy and saccharine, with the finger commonly pointed at the cinematography and set designs. In some cases, the kitsch itself becomes a statement, as in the series “Magnificent Century,” which relates the fraught life of Suleiman the Magnificent and has already been seen by 500 million viewers worldwide.
The colorfulness and grandiosity of “Magnificent Century” appear to be aimed at compensating an audience that longs for the sweeping Hollywood epics of yore. Perhaps also to fill the Turkish people with pride about their past and to prove that Turkey’s monarchs were complex figures too, no less Shakespearean than the kings of England.
There’s none of that in “Ethos,” though. At no point do the majestic panoramic shots of the natural and urban landscapes look like the kind of kitschy postcards of Istanbul that we usually get in less sophisticated Turkish television series.
There’s no way to identify precisely where the square and bridge are that are shot from above and show Meryem in her hunched and hurried walk to her job as a cleaning woman. Nor is there any way to know the location of the shabby neighborhood she lives in, or the public clinic where she meets with her psychiatrist.
The only clue to the general direction is the number 24 bus she travels on. The lack of a specific geographic identity renders everything more credible, underscoring the anonymity of the protagonist and the prosaic character of life as a whole.
To ensure that the viewer is in absolutely no doubt that “Ethos” is doing battle with kitsch, it frequently features quotations from other Turkish series that the characters are watching, either as background noises to their quarrels or as a way to pass the time. At one point, in a stroke of genius, a genuine protagonist from a popular drama series enters the “Ethos” plot and is interwoven into the drama. In this way, the falseness of this industry is revealed, along with the human price it exacts from its participants.
And if that weren’t enough, the series also quietly mocks the custom of integrating song and dance into popular drama series. At the conclusion of each episode, seemingly irrelevant, nostalgic shots of performing singers suddenly pop up on screen – as if the director is saying: “You wanted a show? Well here it is.”
Will an outsider grasp all the series’ nuances? The different accents and the body gestures that characterize a specific social class? Maybe not. For one harrowing but astonishingly simple moment, we see, next to a crooked rural fence, the hodja’s young daughter, who has already recognized that she’s attracted to other women, bidding farewell to her parents as they embark on a trip that will end tragically. She’s happy to be rid of them for a time. In keeping with tradition, she holds a small pitcher in her hand and splashes water from it after the car. My grandmother threw water from just such a pitcher whenever someone from the family went abroad. It’s customary to add the blessing: “Go like water and return like water.”
In this case, the water that was spilled doesn’t return, but galvanizes the girl who threw it not to believe any longer in the conventional lie that what was is what shall be. No, it’s up to her to leave the circle of passivity and live her life as she wishes.
“Ethos” is out now on Netflix.
By: Benny Ziffer