Fictional Worlds and Real Figures: the world of Turkish TV Series

A Report on the conference Turkish TV Series ‘Diziler’: Production, Representatiomns and Reception in the Mediterranean, Paris, La Fémis, 17-18th October, 2014. 
Tournage d'une série TV à Beykoz, 2012 - photo Julien Paris

Tournage d’une série TV à Beykoz, 2012 – photo Julien Paris

In recent years, the twinkling world of Turkish TV series (dizi) has progessively deserved and acquired growing attention. Undoubtedly, the economic figures generated by the production and exportation to several countries of such a product has stirred the interest of scholars and political analysts alike. But a phenomenal industry able to export in 81 countries (mainly in the MENA region, Balkans and central Asia, but also in other parts of Africa and even in a soap-opera “castle” like South-America), brings along issues of a socio-cultural nature, concerning the encounters and “dialogue” – through the TV series medium – between different countries and mindsets. To ratify and discuss the importance of this question, an international colloquium entitled “Turkish Tv Series ‘Diziler’: Production, Representations and Reception in the Mediterranean” has been held last October 17-18th, in Paris at the national school of cinema La Fémis. The event was organized by several partners, such as Réseau S.E.R.I.E.S, CNRS, Paris 8, INALCO, La Fémis and CETOBaC and sponsored by the Turkish Embassy in Paris.

Scholars coming from Film and Tv Series studies, but also from a wide range of research areas of the Social Siences and Humanities, gathered in Paris and debated on some general crucial aspects of Turkish dizis, but also analysing in detail some specific TV Series. Hülya Tanrıover, a pioneer in the field of Turkish TV series studies with a sociological approach, gave a much needed overview of the historical evolution, differentiation and progressive segmentation of the Turkish TV-screen and audience. Tanrıover followed the development of the product according to the historical changes occurred in the country. According to the researcher, in the 1980s, following the coup d’état, we have the establishing of a dizi audience in a sort of imposed ‘curfew-tv-watching’, with a scarcity of content offered by the only national TV broadcaster (state channel TRT) and the wide circulation of foreign products like e.g. Dallas. In the 1990s we have the opening up of the market. With the stabilizing of private TV channels (the first being Star TV in 1989) the content offer moves towards a differentiation. The “mahalle dizileri” (neighbourhood tv-series) might be considered as a first genre, while later on, with a gradual connection of Turkish economy to the global market, the emerging new burgeoisie starts to represent itself and its wealth on the screen. Slowly and progressively the dizis start to tackle political events, while the production surges at an impressive rate. The relevance of Anatolia (in opposition to the Istanbul life) increases, also in prospect of its touristic exploitation and little by little issues related to minorities begin to emerge. The audience split in fragments, so that we have TV series targeting specifically women, men, youth as well as certain social classes or political mindsets. Lately, says Tanrıover, the affirmation of biographical and historical dizis (be it Ottoman or Republican history) is to register.
Tanrıover’s paper set the scene to more specific papers dealing with key issues regarding the studies of Turkish TV Series. Many presenters focused on issues related to the representation of the Turkish society through the dizi. Others talked about the TV series in terms of soft-power, exportation and “encounter” with other cultures. A panel was dedicated to technical aspects concerning the music production for TV Series, in which Burcu Yıldız and Murad Özdemir presented dizi-music as a new popular genre in Turkey and as a key tool to bond the public to the specific dizi. However, to begin with, Arzu Öztürkmen underlined the need to agree upon a genre definition and distinguish the dizi (literally “serial, row, sequence” in Turkish) from other similar products such as i.e. soap-opera, TV series or telenovela, given some narrative peculiarities of the product, molded on the fruition needs of the Turkish viewers. Some technical characteristics as for example and among others the length of the dizi’s episodes (generally longer than similar products from other countries) or the substantial role played by long and frequent music interventions to comment events on the screen, seem to be peculiar to dizi and establish a sort of Turkish style. Certainly, compared to other countries products, Turkish TV Series present distinct theme features, as they often tackle social and /or political questions inherent to Turkey’s life and history. During the colloquium indeed, the bulk of the presenters focused on this kind of problems. How does the paternalist and patriarchal mentality still weigh on gender issues in the country? What are the representations of the generational conflict between youth and adults, or of the geographical opposition between the East and West of the country, city and village, at large modernity and tradition? How is the “other” – be it internal (minorities) or external (neighbouring countries) – -perceived and depicted on the screen? How do dizis tackle current political issues and try to influence political choices? These are some of the questions presenters tried to answer or pose, focusing each on one specific TV Series. İlker Bırkan for example focused on Aramızda Kalsın and analysed the representation of Turkish male-dominated domestic world; Demet Lüküslü, looking at Leyla ile Mecnun, focused on youth culture and the creative ways in which authors may trespass censorship through means of creativity and absurdity; Francesco Marilungo focused on the silencing of the Kurdish issue and on the problematic representations of Diyarbakır’s urban space in the dizi Sultan; Petra De Bruijn analyzed the production of TV series by the gulenist channel Samanyolu, characterized by an outlandish mingling of fictional worlds and factual realities in order to influence political opinions; Josh Carney, focused on the immensely popular Kurtlar Vadisi and on the relevance of the conspiracy theory in Turkey as an interpretive framework to understand society; finally, Stéphane Sawas, looking at Yabancı Damat, elaborated upon patterns of representation of the ‘other’ (in this case Greece, thus the West at large) and the ways dizi might challenge or corroborate existing stereotypes. Ayşegül Kesirli Unur, Aslı Tunç, Sarah Elkaim Behar and Clémentine Vallet studied the readaptations of the American Dream to the Turkish society, focusing on dizis like Kuzey Güney, Medcezir and Umutsuz ev kadınları: these presentations set again the issue of the technical specificity of the Turkish genre (length and music being again the main distinctive features) while discussing codes of cultural translation; often what is morally acceptable in the U.S. has to be “filtered” and adapted to Turkish sensibility. From all these papers and following discussions, came up the fruitfulness of the dizi as a key to enter Turkey’s social and political discourse and see its dynamics “at work”. Sensitive topics are often exploited as means of raising interest in the audience, but they are rarely examined. Biases and prejudices are confirmed and strengthened, although sometimes we might see mild attempts to create a counter-hegemonic discourse. Turkish society and history seem to offer a vast array of “raw nerves” that tease audience’s attention and are fruitfully exploited by the producers to attract viewers and glue them onto the screen. Indeed, on the first day in a evening event there has been space for the analysis of a “failure”; it is that of Kayıp Şehir a dizi that, in the intentions of the authors and producers of Kanal D, would deal with the problematic reality of Tarlabaşı neighbourhood (adapting the narrative pattern of the italian neorealist film Rocco and his brothers by Luchino Visconti), but that in the end had very low audience ratings. After the screening of the pilot episode of Kayıp Şehir, in the discussion with Kanal D director Pelin Yaşaroğlu, bystanders discussed how a product with a high content quality and a good welcoming by the critics resulted eventually in an economic loss for the channel: some social problems are evidently still hard to digest for the Turkish primetime TV audience.

The other main issue that emerged from the colloquium held in Paris, is that of the exportation of the dizi. In this respect, after the groundbreaking success of Gümüş (2005-2007; translated as Noor it became a pop-culture phenomenon in the Arab World since 2006), the leading role has now been taken over by the famous recent TV Series Muhteşem Yuzyıl, which narrates the public and private life of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In his presentation, Tahar Ouchicha looked at the success of that dizi in the Arab world introducing a Turkish-Arab paradigm of cultural re-approachment, while Jonathan Larcher focused on the reception of Muhteşem Yuzyıl in Romania and on the way it clashed with Romanian national and folkloric culture. Şirin Dilli talked about the Arab women reception of Turkish TV series while Yeşim Kaptan analyzed the Turkish-language newspapers discourse about the reasons of the success of Turkish dizi abroad. From the following discussion came up that Turkish pundits seem to agree on the fact that the MENA region, Balkans and central Asia prefer Turkish TV series because of cultural and religious proximity. American and European products instead are often doomed to fail in those regions because of a perceived cultural distance. Commentators stress the image of Turkey as a bridge between two worlds, a country owner of a cultural vocabulary that enables it to communicate (and trade) with both the ‘East’ and the ‘West’.
The colloquium confirmed  TV series studies as a fertile field of research, both in general terms and specifically for Turkey which is one of the leading world producers. The fictional world of the dizis says a lot both on the actual culture and society of the country that produce them and on the country that import and consume them keenly. Thus, dizis prove to be useful lens at researchers’ disposition and we might rest assured that the interest and the level of analysis in this field will grow quickly.


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