HAMAM CLEANSES TURKISH CINEMA


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- 'Along with bodies, hamams loosen traditions'
- The hamam in the center of the movie becomes the symbol of a culture that has been lost or that has gone underground. These public men's baths become one of the few tracks that shed a light on a fallen empire and a changed society

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By Emrah Guler / Turkish Daily News /October 1997

 


Turkish cinema has been on the rise for the last couple of years. Especially with the much hype that's been made about Istanbul Kanatlarimin Altinda, (Istanbul Beneath My Wings) and Eskiya, Turkish audiences are relieved to realize that Turkish cinema is finally getting out of the repetitive circle in which it has been residing for the last two decades.

But there is one current movie which needs special attention: Ferzan Ozpetek's debut film, Hamam (The Turkish Bath). Hamam stands out as a unique, courageous and sincere film.

Turkish audience first heard about the film about a year ago, and the anticipation built up gradually as it began winning various awards from Italy's Golden Rose to the Golden Orange's "Best Film" award. Being well received in various international festivals, including at Cannes, created many expectations for loyal and hopeful cinema-goers.

UNDRESSING THE WESTERNER

Hamam is the simple and powerful story of Francesco's unexpected travel from Naples to Istanbul to see what is in store after his aunt's death. His extended stay in Istanbul at the house of a typical middle-class Turkish nuclear family with a son and a daughter turns into a journey within himself. Deciding to restore the shabby hamam left to him by his aunt - referred to as "Madame" by the family who looked after her until her death -- he enjoys his time in Istanbul with the children of the family, finding himself relaxed in the routine of his new life.

The unsent letters of "Madame," revealing her tremendous love of Istanbul and her fascination with the male bonding in the new society she met, loosens the pressures he was facing in his upper-class life in Italy. As Madame blatantly wrote in one of the letters: "Hamams loosen the body, along with traditions." Hamam captures the audience from its first minute with its splendid cinematography, charming characters, powerful music, skillful editing and moving plot. As a Turkish director who has been living in Italy for almost 20 years, Ferzan Ozpetek has achieved a most difficult task which is to reflect a culture both as an outsider and an insider. A Turkish culture -- more specifically an Istanbul culture -- is depicted with an honesty and poignancy that has been missing in Turkish cinema for quite some time.

The hamam in the center of the movie becomes the symbol of a culture that has been lost or has gone underground. These public men's baths become one of the few tracks that shed a light on a fallen empire and a changed society.

ISTANBUL REVEALED

Hamam is forceful in two respects: First of these is its depiction of Istanbul, showing it as a bewitching, intriguing, and at times seductive city. Ozpetek's Istanbul is a city that arouses the senses, a city to fall in love with and to fall in love in.

The film can very well be marketed as a documentary about Istanbul and Turkish traditions. Ozpetek scatters typical traditions and details on Turkish life throughout the film like folk dancing in a wedding ceremony, the belly dancer in the restaurant, two boys in a circumcision ceremony, fortune telling by way of an empty Turkish coffee cup or simply the Turkish cuisine. Such scenes are generally risky, as they can distract attention from the story or the general flow of the film. However, in Hamam these scenes never stick out. On the contrary they help in building the essential tie between two different cultures, making it stronger and more real.

HOMOSEXUALITY OR HOMOSOCIALITY?

The most crucial part of the story is the enigmatic relationship between Francesco and Mehmet. Ozpetek's interpretation of the bonding between the two men is unusual and realistic, strengthened with a distinctive eroticism. The first half of the film carries uncertainty over whether Francesco's attraction will be for Mehmet or his sister, Fusun. Her attraction to the charming Italian is apparent in the beginning, which eventually is cut off in a society where there exists a patent sexual segregation.

The male bonding in the film is unique as it doesn't assert homosexuality as an antithesis to heterosexuality. Nor does it depict homosexuality as a distinctly different sexual practice as in many mainstream gay films. Homosexuality in Hamam is the final phase of male bonding in a sexually segregated society, in which sexes have the least chance to communicate. A longing for interaction, love and contact unravels as a homosociality, rather than a clear-cut homosexuality.

The hamam is the most private of the public areas which men share. They are the Turkish coffee houses, football matches, the streets and finally the hamam. Francesco and Mehmet enjoy peeking through a hole at the women bathing, and amuse themselves by talking about the "tits" of Martha, Francesco's wife. But this doesn't stop a homoerotic tension from building between the two men. Theirs is not a love shared by lovers, nor is it a simple love between friends. And the film is not forcing itself to find a name to the relationship.

THE INFAMOUS HAMAM

It would be quite ignorant to dismiss Ferzan Ozpetek's portrait of a hamam as a homosocial, and at times a homosexual public place for men, as the interpretation of a creative mind. Its sexual connotation is quite obvious in the Turkish language. The idiom, "to protect the virtue of the hamam" is used for finding a solution incapable of saving the name of something with a bad reputation. "Hamam weed" is a herbal medicine to get rid of the unwanted hair on the body. And "to become a hamamci (hamam person)" simply means needing to wash up after sexual intercourse.

Hamam opens the door to a deeply rooted culture which stays concealed beneath the written history and oppressive traditions. With its brave and convincing style, Ferzan Ozpetek's first film predicts Turkish cinema waking up from its big sleep.