An old abbey in a small village north of Paris has suddenly become part of Turkey. Above the main gate is an inscription, in Turkish, “Central Jail of…” overlooking a statue of the Virgin Mary. There are inscriptions everywhere glorifying the Turkey of Mustafa Kemal, such as “What happiness for the man who says he is a Turk”.

Inside the main yard of the abbey, newly built walls delimit small courtyards where prisoners take daily exercise under the eye of a guard in a watch-tower. In the alley leading to the main building, a Cadillac with Ankara plates glides slowly through a crowd of women, heads covered with the traditional Anatiolian kerchief, and men with wide trousers.

Yilmaz Guney is filming the unexpected arrival of the inspector general of prisons. The actor is a Frenchman, who as it happens also works at the French Ministry of Culture. Always smiling, patient and good-humoured, Yilmaz Guney is struggling with an army of extras.

“Break the windows so that the birds can set themselves free”, as the film is provisionally called, tells the story of a revolt in a jail (Yilmaz Guney’s last film, Yol, also used the jail theme).

The children of the jail lead the revolt. Yilmaz Guney directs an amateur actor from Uruguay, who plays a guard, how to react when one of the children working in the prison kitchen threatens him with a huge knife. But the revolt will be crushed and the film ends with the arrival of new young inmates.

Yilmaz Guney directing an actor

To reconstruct the special atmosphere inside a jail is a very difficult task with non-professional actors, but Yilmaz Guney  tries to overcome it by using his technique of “poetic realism”.

He is shooting the film with 100 children mostly Kurdish children from West Berlin and from France, and about 100 adult extras: prison guards, inmates, relatives and so on. There are also some 100 technicians and crew living with Yilmaz Guney in the old abbey.

The children were delighted to join in this venture. “Imagine what an adventure it is for cchildren who cannot dream of a decent life in West Berlin or Paris; now they are stars”, says Tuncel Kurtiz, the only professional actor in the film.

In reality, it is quite painful to see how the lives of children are spoiled due to war.  Their life is the worst hit as they give up their education.  Look at this web site to know full details.  The children gradually give up their childhood, dreams and even simple games.  They learn to juggle between living at normal times and during emergency situations. 

In normal times the abbey is a village school. On one wall you can still read the rules as written by the children of an elementary class, for instance: “It is forbidden to dream during class”.

Yilmaz Guney refused offers from several big producers who wanted him to make films, because he wanted a free hand in his own film. But the producer he finally chose has nonetheless set very strict conditions of work. Nothing must filter out about the scenario of the film before the date the producer chooses for the launch. This interview is a remarkable exception.

Q: Looking back, how do you judge your films The Herd (Suru) and The Way (Yol)?

Yilmaz Guney: During my whole life as a creator, I have had to use indirect means to express my thoughts, and I must frankly admit that to date my works have not totally expressed what I wanted, either in their style or in their spirit. The dominant element in these works is that they are a compromise.

The Herd, in fact, is the  history of the Kurdish peopl, but I could not even use the Kurdish language in this film; if we had used the Kurdish language, all those who took part in this film would have been sent to jail.

Portrait of Yilmaz Guney

In the case of Yol, the focus was to be on Diyarbakir, Urfa and Siirt. I tried to create a Kurdish atmosphere by the use of music. But although the film was dubbed in Europe, I did not succeed in making it all in Kurdish.

Q:  When did you find out that you were Kurdish?

A: I must say I am an assimilated Kurd. My mother was Kurdish, my father a Zaza Kurd. All through my childhood, Kurdish and Zaza were the languages spoken at home. I spoke Kurdish until I was 15. Then I was cut off from my family.

At that time I heard speeches saying: “There are no Kurds; there is no Kurdish language”. But I heard people speaking and singing in Kurdish, and I could see that the Kurds were living under very difficult conditions. My father was from Siverek; I saw Siverek for the first time when I was 16. It was then that I really realised who I was. There I knew the suffering of an uprooted family; my father said: “you are cut from your roots”. And at the age of 34,  I was able to go and see my mother’s country, Mouch, the tribe of Jibran. The Herd is the story of what happened to this tribe.

Q: Since the main characters in your films are Kurds and your subject Kurdistan, how will you be able to go on filming outside your own country?

A: Here we are confronted with the following difficulty: we have only one professional actor, Tuncel Kurtiz (who played the father in The Herd). All the others are amateur; most of them have never played in a film before. It is impossible to get professional actors to come from Turkey, and even those who are in Europe do not dare come to work with me — they even refuse to talk to me.

Q: Turkish actors would not work with a director who got a Palme d’Or in Venice?

A: Those who sing revolutionary songs when everything is quiet prefer to hide behind doors when things get difficult. So I have a Turkish cameraman, but the technicians are not professional. I don’t have a single professional technician fior the sets. The theme of the next film deals with jail. So I describe the darkness, the sadness, and all things which do not need any scenery, any nature.

Q: Why did you choose the jail?

A: There are two reasons. First, it is the subject most appropriate to the present situation of Turkey. Then, I am still not ready to shoot in Europe.

Q: What importance will Kurdistan have in your next films?

A: The Kurdish question is a very difficult one. One day I would like to shoot the film telling the story of the fight of a people for its birth — or rebirth. Now, it is a very difficultproblem. One must tell how the Kurdish people was split and of their different perspectives of their situation. It is difficult to treat this problem in an objective way. History is not only full of victories; it is also made up of defeats, errors and deceptions.

Q: You mentioned the technical problems you face when filming outside your country. How can you create now that your roots inside Turkey have been cut? You deal with the people and nature of your country, but your films are not seen by your fellow citizens. How are you going to solve this problem? Are you going to settle down abroad?

A: Certainly we shall find a way to show this film to our people, but I cannot tell you how. As for your second question, after this film on the jail I do not want to shoot a film on Kurdistan in artificial conditions.

Q: Then your stay in France is an interlude in your career?

A:  I am staying in France with a special permit to shoot this film. I am allowed to remain in France to launch it. After that, I do not know. I do not want to talk about the future now.

(The Middle East magazine, Juanuary 1983)