10 Turkish Films to Watch on Streaming

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10 Turkish Films to Watch on Streaming

As a Turkish-American film critic, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Turkish cinema. As a child of the ’80s, I grew up idolizing American blockbusters; the cheery and awe-inspiring optimism of the Spielberg era was a stark contrast to the overtly melodramatic, sometimes downright miserabilist Turkish output. “Yesilcam” movies, a nickname given to a specific formula of tear-jerking melodramas, mostly about forbidden love that ends in forced tragedy, felt as if they went out of their way to depict a world full of nothing but desolation and disappointment. They also dominated a majority of mainstream Turkish releases. Over the years, I not only learned to understand Yesilcam’s tenacity when it came to establishing its own sub-culture, but to also appreciate the underexposed versatility and creativity of Turkish cinema outside of it.

During the last couple of decades, the Turkish film industry has been going through some growing pains, expanding more and more to the global market with bigger budgets and output that experiments with previously unexplored genres and styles. All the while having one foot still firmly planted in the Yesilcam identity of old. This creates a distinct opportunity to recommend some examples of contemporary Turkish cinema, all found on various streaming services, to western audiences who are looking for some well-executed universal storytelling delivered with a distinctive cultural flavor they might not have been exposed to otherwise. Here are ten hopefully diverse and exciting Turkish movies I selected from a surprisingly bountiful batch available on streaming services. (Very special thanks to Turkish film critic Ali Ercivan for his valuable recommendations.)


Vizontele (2001)
Available on: Netflix

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By the time Vizontele hit theaters in Turkey and became a box-office juggernaut, writer-director Yilmaz Erdogan was already a legend thanks to a massively successful sit-com. The show was lovingly about working class rural characters, but executed with a complex and sly sense of humor that also appealed to intellectual metropolitan types, magically bridging this cultural gap. He applies this formula successfully to his feature directorial debut, Vizontele, a charming ’70s-set dramedy about how the lives of the modest residents of a rustic Anatolian village change when confronted with a mind-boggling and suspicious new thingamajig: the television. Erdogan deftly explores the culture shock experienced by the various village folk as their once secluded existence is opened up to the global information possibilities of the idiot box, while also applying his trademark mix of populist drama and sophisticated humor. It’s a bit too overstuffed with characters and sub-plots, some of which could have easily been excised by a more experienced filmmaker, but it delivers an intriguing window into Turkish rural life.


G.O.R.A. (2004)
Available on: Netflix

As we giddily explored in our list on fascinatingly awful Turkish Mockbusters, Turkish cinema has a gloriously bonkers history of “so bad it’s good” micro-budget science-fiction classics, some of which are affectionately known by global lovers of schlock as Turkish Star Wars and Turkish Star Trek. While sporting a decent budget and surprisingly passable special effects, G.O.R.A. seems to still be aware of Turkish cinema’s inability to compete with straight genre fare. Therefore it adopts a parody route that seems to take a page out of Turkish Star Trek’s premise. Just like that timeless gem, G.O.R.A. is about a self-serious sci-fi space adventure being invaded by a Turkish working class caricature (Cem Yilmaz). By the time of G.O.R.A. ’s release, Yilmaz had already solidified himself as a comedy legend, having pretty much single-handedly popularized stand up comedy in Turkey during the ’90s. This clout allowed him to secure a then unheard of budget to basically bring his famous stand-up comedy set making fun of American sci-fi tropes and how a Turkish character would relate to them. Even though it contains a considerable amount of humor based on Turkish culture and slang—most of which would be lost in translation to American audiences—and the narrative becomes sloppy at times, G.O.R.A. is still worth a quick watch for those interested in how the Middle East would parody an established western genre.


Inflame / Kaygi (2017)
Available on: Amazon Prime

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A Polanski-esque psychological thriller with political overtones, it would be easy to dismiss Inflame by smarmily exclaiming, “Looks like someone watched Repulsion and The Tenant!” However, as derivative as writer/director Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik’s feature debut may occasionally feel, she still manages to extract her own artistic personality while providing a politically urgent twist on Polanski’s trademark claustrophobic social anxiety and paranoia. Ozcelik showcases a formidable focus on her film’s hauntingly personal style and aesthetic, especially for a first-time feature helmer. This meticulously constructed, mostly single location thriller is about the psychological decay of a video editor (Algi Eke) who increasingly closes herself off to the outside world as she’s disillusioned with the propagandistic methods of the news station she works for, while trying to uncover the truth behind the mysterious deaths of her parents. Ozcelik intimately examines her protagonist’s slow descent into madness as she presents a microcosm of modern secular Turkish youth’s political displacement in a country that not only seems to have no use for them, but is actively trying to suppress their free thought.


Autumn / Sonbahar (2008)
Available on: Amazon Prime

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Writer/Director Ozcan Alper’s heartbreaking rural drama works almost as a counterpart to Steve McQueen’s prison hunger strike masterpiece, Hunger. It explores, with striking empathy, how a political prisoner who’s willing to kill himself through hunger for his beliefs could reenter society after being denied his humanity for so long. The released prisoner is Yusuf (Onur Saylak), who’s sent to live with his mother in a fairly isolated village in the Black Sea region. Yusuf spends most of his time stewing in his depression, when he’s not an anxiety-ridden mess due to the PTSD he suffers from the torture he received in prison. Meanwhile, his loved ones expect him to find some form of happiness in a world he perceives to be increasingly hostile or indifferent to his ideals. Some hope appears in the form of Yusuf’s romance with a Georgian prostitute named Eka (Megi Kobaladze). But whether or not there’s real love there, or if these desperate people cling to one another in order to experience some form of genuine human contact, provides this solid drama’s emotional anchor. A slow burn without any easy answers, Autumn should satisfy fans of similarly desolate but gorgeous-looking work by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev.


Climates / Iklimler (2006)
Available on: Amazon Prime

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Even though Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s as close to a globally recognized art house superstar as contemporary Turkish cinema will get, his openly pretentious, Tarkovski-on-quaaludes approach to filmmaking can generally be suffocating and self-aggrandizing. However, though his slow-crawl pacing can be frustrating in a lot of his films—it certainly doesn’t work in a procedural like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—the narrative through line of his 2006 drama Climates perfectly fits his doggedly art-house style. Told over three seasons in three vastly different Turkish locations, Climates tells the gloomy on-again, off-again relationship between a couple played by real-life husband and wife Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan. They are still together in real life, so whatever toxicity they were trying to exhume from this openly personal artwork seems to have paid off. (It certainly didn’t for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt when they made By the Sea.) The tail end of relationships, especially if both sides are aware of how much it’s not working, is full of uncomfortable silences and awkward miscommunication. In that sense, Ceylan’s style of letting large chunks of silence permeate during dialogue scenes perfectly matches the themes on display. The film’s gender politics can come across as a bit dubious—after an intense but emotionally restrained break up scene, Ebru Ceylan’s Bahar is so distraught that she tries to kill them both—as if Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns into a hacky ’80s comic who ends his set with “Bitches be crazy, am I right fellas!?” But at the same time, he never shies away from showing his character’s openly self-destructive behavior, brought on by his crippling self-hatred.


Garbage in the Garden of Eden / Cennetteki Copluk (2012)
Available on: Amazon Prime

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German-Turkish director Fatih Akin is mostly known for his films about the Turkish immigrant life in Germany, like his breakthrough drama Head On and his recent revenge fantasy In the Fade. Akin takes an uncharacteristic documentary route with this conservationist treatise about the cultural and environmental damage brought onto a town in the Black Sea region by the county government using the area as one massive garbage dump. Akin throws a wide net as he deconstructs the bureaucratic nightmare suffered by the underdog legal team waging an uphill battle against big government, while also honestly depicting the air of depression felt by the locals who used to live and breathe the gorgeous countryside, only to become yet another modern society cooped up at home, staring at their phones or their computers, because they’re understandably repulsed by the stench and visual of the dump. For stateside environmentalists, Garbage in the Garden of Eden is an important documentary to expand their global horizons and see how different cultures are impacted by rampant industrialization. The beautiful cinematography with a vibrant color scheme, effectively communicating to the audience what’s at stake for the villagers, is also a big plus.


I Saw The Sun / Gunesi Gordum (2009)
Available on: Netflix

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I Saw The Sun is basically a traditional Yesilcam melodrama with a slight modernist slant. Stories of culturally naïve and ideologically pure rural families moving to the big city with high hopes, only to find those hopes crushed by the chaos of the concrete jungle is such a staple of Yesilcam history, that it’s practically a sub-genre of its own. Writer/director Mahsun Kirmizigul switched to a respectable career in filmmaking after a successful couple of decades as an Arabesque singer. A Turkish form of highly melodramatic folk music, Kirmizigul’s experience with Arabesque paved the way for the heightened emotionality of his cinematic output. A tearjerker through and through, I Saw The Sun seems tailor made for fans of prime-time soap operas like This is Us, full of horrific tragedy offset somewhat by the inspirational bond showcased by the family at the center of the narrative. Kirmizigul stars as the patriarch of a rural Kurdish family who are kicked out of their Eastern Turkish village due to the ongoing fight between the Turkish army and the Kurdish rebels. While the family tries to find some form of normalcy after moving to the staggeringly big metropolitan maze called Istanbul, they are gradually torn apart. While Kirmizigul’s film sympathizes with some of the outdated patriarchal norms—his character’s obsession with having a boy after being disappointed by a slew of female children is seen as charming—he also shows some surprising social tolerance for such a folksy product, mainly in the form of a sympathetic depiction of a trans supporting character (Cemal Toktas).


Love Likes Coincidences /Ask Tesadufleri Sever (2011)
Available on: Netflix

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Love Likes Coincidences, an emotionally potent romantic dramedy, proves that Nicholas Sparks adaptations don’t have a monopoly on shamelessly tearjerking romances. As much as director Omer Faruk Sorak milks every melodramatic opportunity posed by the script to its very last drop, he also inserts an instantly likable and light rom-com into the proceedings to keep our spirits up. The story of a young couple (Mehmet Gunsur and Belcim Bilgin) who finally fall in love after fate has been futilely trying to bring them together for decades, only to have a predictable and overtly maudlin tragedy threaten to pull them apart, doesn’t provide any refreshing surprises as far as the genre is concerned. But the natural chemistry between the two leads and the neon-drenched cinematography depicting metropolitan Turkish life keeps us interested.


Neseli Hayat (2009)
Available on: Netflix

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Writer/director Yilmaz Erdogan once again graces the list with this Capra-esque heartwarming drama about a mall Santa named Riza (Erdogan). (Yes, they exist in Turkey, albeit with Santa Claus being a New Year’s figure as opposed to a Christmas icon.) Riza decides to bring joy to the children in his poor neighborhood after finally finding out what this bearded dude he pretends to be for chump change actually stands for. His newfound Santa persona not only pulls him out of his funk fueled by economic anxiety, but manages to bring his broken family back together. Like most of Capra’s best works, Erdogan doesn’t flinch when it comes to depicting his protagonist’s hardships, which includes him being tragically scammed by a pyramid scheme, but he also puts a neat spiritually enlightening bow on the whole enterprise, focusing on what’s truly important in life. If you’re looking for a Turkish version of It’s a Wonderful Life, check it out.


Kedi (2016)
Available on: YouTube Premium

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Kedi, an affectionately crafted documentary tribute to the thousands of stray cats who contribute immensely to Istanbul’s unique personality, and the various people who take it upon themselves to take care of these creatures, is as cuddly and warm as its feline protagonists. Director Ceyda Torun captures the bustling Istanbul underground universe ruled by all kinds of kitties, with enough glamour shots of the animals to make any cat person fall in love with the doc from minute one. Hell, I’m a dog person who doesn’t even like cats, and even I had to submit to the film’s stubborn adorableness. Torun also weaves a delicate psychological and spiritual link between the cats and the humans, who all come from various social and political backgrounds and are bonded over their love for the animals.


Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.

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