Historical story

Ataturk the myth

The first president of the modern republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938) aka Atatürk, partly owes his mythical status to film. Through this modern medium, the Father of all Turks showed the world a civilized, democratic and western-oriented country.

Atatürk and his supporters used film to show the world a modern and industrialized country rather than 'the sick man of Europe'. This was the uncomplimentary nickname of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. After the First World War, when the Turks had sided with the Germans, the Allies occupied the Ottoman territory. The sultan accepted the humiliating loss of power and territory, but General Mustafa Kemal resisted. He resigned from the Ottoman army and started the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) together with other soldiers.

Enis Dinç (Media Studies, University of Amsterdam) received his PhD this week on Modernity in Progress:Atatürk on the Silver Screen (1919-1938). With his research he shows how Atatürk has grown into a mythical figure thanks to film and a controlled image. For his research, Dinç analyzed known film material in Turkish and foreign archives as well as newly discovered film material at the Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) of the University of South Carolina (USA).

During the War of Independence, Kemal already used the medium of film to influence public opinion, according to Dinç. “The footage, which was shot by a special film crew within the military, was under the control of Kemal and his supporters. They showed the Turks images of the general who came to greet the soldiers before a battle, but also of burned houses, corpses and crying children. The latter to gain popular support and legitimacy for the struggle for independence and the new republic.”

Collective memory

The film images were not only for propaganda purposes during the war, argues Dinç. “After independence, these images, the only ones we have of this war, formed an archive of images for the future. They have shaped the collective memory of the Turks. These images are still used, for example at commemorations. The films define how the Turks should view the war of independence, but no one wonders who made those images and why. Are those who are blamed for the misdeeds in these film images actually the perpetrators? We don't know.”

Dinç investigated how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk related to the medium of film during his period of power (1919-1938). Today it is propagated that Atatürk foresaw the importance of film before its use became common. The first president had predicted the future with this, which is one of the reasons for the mythical proportions that have been measured to him.

Dinç undermines this view with his research. “Atatürk was an early adopter of film, but he really wasn't the only statesman of his day. In addition, cinema was already a well-known phenomenon in Western-oriented Istanbul during his early years, so he was not that original. However, it was mainly Westerners and non-Muslims, the liberal avant-garde, who went to the movies at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Western look

Also important in this research is the role of cinema for the Turkish-Ottoman modernization process. Dinç thus looked beyond the function of film to retell historical events. He shows that cinema in the new Turkey was a driving force for cultural changes. “Atatürk changed the layout of the public space. During the Ottoman Empire, women were only allowed to watch a movie in a separate room or box. Now men and women sat next to each other.”

The films that were shown came from the west. Atatürk himself was a fan of Charlie Chaplin, but also from his own soil. The Turkish films were under state control and only showed images of the country that were in line with Atatürk's modern vision. In this way they guarded the image of the modern and civilized nation state.


Dinc emphasizes that Atatürk had achieved a lot in terms of modernization in a short time, but that this did not apply to the entire republic. “Atatürk, for example, allowed himself to be filmed by foreign film makers, but in places where progress jumped off the screen. On his Bosboerderij, modern machines drove around and the farmers worked the land in western clothing. In cities, filmmakers were shown modern buildings, shopping streets where women and men walked together in Western clothing, and schools where children learned the Turkish-Latin alphabet. Atatürk also had private images shot, including playing with his daughter on the beach."

All this greatly amazed the western world. When they thought of Turkey, people thought of a backward country full of poor peasants and veiled women. US President Roosevelt even sent Atatürk a letter after seeing the footage. In it, Roosevelt expressed his admiration for all that the Turkish president had achieved in a short time. This letter was also published in the New York Times the same year and, together with the film images, went all over the world.

No Hitler

It is  characteristic according to Dinç howthat Atatürk was consciousof the influence of film images onforeign public opinion. Particularly at a critical moment in global politics, namely during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, Atatürk wanted to emphasize that Turkey was peaceful. “Although Kemal was a general, he was mainly filmed in civilian clothes. He absolutely did not want to project an aggressive policy, as was the case in Germany and Italy. He adhered to the liberal ideas of the West and was in favor of peace.”

The image of Turkey and Atatürk had to be checked, both at home and internationally. A good example comes from 1930, when the American filmmaker Julien Bryan films on Kemal's modern Forest Farm. The great Turkish leader strokes a bull, but recoils when the beast shakes its head violently. This can of course be misunderstood. "That's why I think the last bit has been cut from the Turkish version of this film. In Bryan's own film archive you can see Atatürk's shrinking from the bull.

Although the government controlled a lot, it was not in control of everything. Like what would be done with this kind of footage outside the Turkish borders. “They kept a close eye on Turkey's image. The difference with other media is that film is more than a single moment in history and that it is therefore less controllable. A lot of material can be cut and pasted, other sound edited, etc., and things can get out of hand.”

Image anchored

Dinç argues that Atatürk partially constructed the modern Turkish Republicand nationby propagating the imageof selfthrough different publicmedia channels. "When Atatürk came to power, he was not well known to the general public. But the effort and dedication he and the Turkish government put into building his image gradually transformed Atatürk into a superhuman hero."

All in all, without a film, the Turks would never have known Atatürk or his deeds as well as they do now. According to Dinç, Atatürk and his followers understood very well how to use PR to present the people with a modern and civilized image of Turkey. “These film images are so entrenched in Turkey's collective memory. When we think of the first president now, the government-directed images are the first thing that comes to mind. The influence of the medium of film has really shaped the way we still view Atatürk and Turkey itself today.”