IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ataturk film draws Turkish crowds, controversy

A documentary that portrays the revered founder of modern Turkey as a lonely womanizer with a weakness for alcohol and cigarettes is drawing massive crowds but outraging hardline followers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A documentary that portrays the revered founder of modern Turkey as a lonely womanizer with a weakness for alcohol and cigarettes is drawing massive crowds but outraging hardline followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular tradition.

More than a half-million people have watched "Mustafa" since it premiered Oct. 29 on the 85th anniversary of the Turkish republic, making it one of the most-seen films in Turkey in recent years.

But hardline secularists are livid over its portrait of Ataturk as an authoritarian leader who was detached from the people and spent his final days smoking and drinking alone.

Turkey's top mobile telephone operator, Turkcell, withdrew its sponsorship after watching portions of the documentary before its release, fearing association with the documentary could cost it customers. And two university professors filed a formal complaint with a court in Istanbul on Monday demanding an investigation into the film's director, journalist Can Dundar, for "eroding Ataturk's respectability." Insulting Ataturk is a crime in Turkey.

"Ataturk is the glue that holds the Turkish people together, he is its leader, a model personality," professors Ahmet Ercan and Orhan Kural wrote.

Ataturk became a hero for his fearless leadership against Britain and its allies in the World War I battle of Gallipoli and went on to lead his demoralized, occupied nation to independence in 1922. He embarked on a series of radical reforms aimed at turning overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey into a European-style democracy — abolishing the Ottoman caliphate, giving the vote to women, restricting Islamic dress and replacing the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet.

Admirers say he created a model nation that shows that democracy and Islam can blend. Ataturk is idolized as the personification of that tradition 70 years after his death at age 58 of cirrhosis of the liver. His portrait is virtually ubiquitous, on home, school and office walls, currency and even jewelry such as tie pins and shirt buttons.

Dundar's documentary
But Islamists dislike Ataturk for reforms that reduced religion's role and banned religious orders such as the Sufis.

"Mustafa" does not delve deeply into Ataturk's bravery and achievements and critics say it devotes too much time to his weaknesses. It depicts him as afraid of the dark and terrified by a distant cloud of dust he thinks is kicked up by soldiers loyal to the Ottoman sultan who are trying to get him. It turns out to be a herd of animals passing in the distance.

The two-hour documentary narrated by Dundar shows Ataturk often alone, melancholic and spending his days in the palace in Ankara, the capital he founded, drinking a bottle of the traditional Turkish spirit raki and smoking three packs a day. Critics say Ataturk was rarely alone and that his dinners were lively occasions where state affairs and reforms were discussed.

Critics have also slammed the documentary for showing Ataturk's establishment of a secular system as motivated by vengeance for being punished by a religious education teacher at school.

Yigit Bulut, a popular columnist for the Vatan newspaper, called the film "freaky" and the "latest attempt of an effort to belittle Ataturk in the eyes of the people."

"Do not watch the documentary, prevent people from watching it and most important of all, do not allow your children to see it and prevent the seeds that belittle Ataturk from being sowed into their subconscious minds," he wrote.

Writing love letters
Dundar has conceded he was wrong to portray the secular reforms as "vengeance" but defends his work as a realistic depiction of a man seen too long as beyond criticism.

"I wanted to present Ataturk to the new generation through cinema," Dundar told The Associated Press. "I wanted to present a warmer, a more human side to Ataturk."

"I knew the film would be spark a debate but I was surprised by the petty things the film was criticized for," Dundar said. "I have been criticized because he appears to be short in some photos or because he smoked."

Critics also say the documentary suggests Ataturk was a womanizer. It touches on his brief marriage and alleged romances without going into details. Part of the film is based on letters he wrote a lover from the war front.

"For the first time we see a leader writing love letters from the front," Dundar told the AP. "This is beautiful. I cannot understand how people come to the conclusion that the film depicts Ataturk as a womanizer."