Yilmaz Guney during his Palme Dor win at Cannes in 1982

04/06/2017 - 08:01 0
The word 'Kurdistan' is forbidden: a look at a new version of Yilmaz Guney's film 'Yol'

by Karzan Kardozi

On 25th May, 1982, Yilmaz Guney won the top prize, the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Yol. He shared the prize with Greek director, Costa Gavras, for his film, The Missing.

Guney was born to a poor Kurdish family in a small village in North Kurdistan [Southeast Turkey] in 1937, became one of the most popular actors in Turkey during the 1960s, then an acclaimed director in the 1970s. Due to his political views he spent 12 years of his 47 year short life in various prisons in Turkey. What is incredible about Guney winning Palme d'Or at Cannes is the fact that he made Yol while in prison, escaped, edited the film in Switzerland then France, and a few weeks before the opening of the festival finished the editing of the film and submitted it. It took him 5 months, from October 1981 to April 1982 to edit the film, record, mix sound, and get it ready for the festival; he was in charge of every single step of editing the footage, recording and mixing the sound.

On 19th May 2017 a new version of the film called "Yol - the Full Version" was shown at Cannes Film Festival. This new version was produced by Donat F. Keusch, who claims to own the copyright to Yol, a claim disputed by Guney's family. According to Keusch, this so called "Full Version" has been edited according to Guney's wishes, a claim that is far from the truth, for many changes have been made that goes against the wishes of Guney and the original version of Yol that Guney himself edited and approved.

As Guney died in 1984 in Paris, the new version cannot be his film or have been approved by him, for Guney left no will behind nor ever had any wish to re-edit Yol. since Guney himself edited the original version of the film with Elizabeth Waelchli, and this new version according to Waelchli, according to Edi Hubschmid who produced the film, and according to Fatos Guney, the late director's wife, all agree it differs very much from the original version and goes against the wishes and will of Guney. Many changes have been made in this so-called "Yol - the Full version, some can even be described as censorship, the most striking the removal of the word "Kurdistan" from the film, a word that was put in a scene by Guney himself when he edited the film in 1982, to show the location of a village in North Kurdistan.

Guney's wish to make Yol goes back to early 1980, a time when he was in prison serving 19 years and facing more than another 100  for other investigations to do with his political views and actions. In September 1980, following a coup, the new Turkish military junta banned most of Guney’s works, including his films, book and publications. Knowing that all his future work would also be censured by the military, Guney declared, “There are only two possibilities: to fight or to give up, I chose to fight” and he fought back by making Yol. The film was written by Guney while in prison and with detailed plans and advice on how to direct the film, his friend Serif Goran shot it. When the shooting was finished, the footage was smuggled out to Switzerland after which Guney escaped from prison and then edited the film in Switzerland and France.

Yol charts the journey of five prisoners who are given a week on parole. Their journeys start from the island prison of Imrali, via Turkey's Anatolian heartland to different regions of Northern Kurdistan. During their journeys, each encounters many obstacles, some have to face their past mistakes and each finds many other prisons in the outside world - social, political, personal, cultural or moral. Most of these prisoners are Kurds; Seyit Ali is on a mission in the name of an "honor killing", he travels eastward to a snowy mountain, to the isolated village of Sancak in North Kurdistan; from there he must find his wife in a farm and punish her for allegedly having relations with another man. According to the local and feudal custom, her punishment is death. Mehmet, who is guilty of abandoning his brother-in-law during a failed bank robbery, leading to his death, travels to Amed (Diyarbakir) in the hope of seeing his wife and children. His wife's family are against seeing him and blame him for their son’s death. Omer, a Kurdish farmer, travels to his village Birecik in Urfa, a village on the wired and minefield border between Turkey and Syria, to meet his family. He finds his village in a bloody battle between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish army. He waits to hear news from his brother, who is fighting  against the Turkish military, and like others Omer find himself and his village under occupation, oppression, hardship, raids by the military, and minefields that have left many disabled, including his father. The young Yusuf is traveling to meet his new young bride, goes as far as Bursa before being arrested again by the military for forgetting his pass papers. Mevlut travels to Gaziantep to meet his fiancée under the watchful eyes of her conservative family. The journey ends back at the prison in Imrali for most, for others death is the only way out, and for some, a new-found freedom and redemption gives them a glimpse of hope.

Guney portrays Turkey under the military dictatorship as an open prison, the outside world seems by far more dangerous and more of a threat to the prisoners than the prison itself. Perhaps none of the prisoners' lives is as desperate as the young Omer, who returns home only to find destruction and death as a result of a constant, bloody battle between the Turkish army and Kurdish fighters. Although he is in love with a beautiful girl of the village, custom and tradition force him to marry his brother’s wife and take care of her children after tragedy strikes and he finds out that his brother has been killed in the fight. Faced with the choice of going back to prison or marrying his brother’s wife, Omer decides to take off and rides to the snowy mountains to join the resistance in search of his freedom; he has no desire to go back to the prison, but rather fight for the freedom he desires. 

If one looks at the original version by Guney in 1982 , and the new version of the film that was edited against Guney's wishes in 2017, one can find many changes:

1. First of all. the so called "Full Version" is wrong, both in term of using the words "Full Version" and in term of the content. This new version is not a 'Full Version" and in no way close to the original that Guney edited with Elizabeth Waelchli in 1982. Many scenes from the original version have been removed and new ones added. Scenes that Guney himself had chosen and edited have been taken out and new material which Güney did not want to use in the film has  been added. Therefore the "Full Version“ has new meanings and content that goes against Guney’s original version.

2. According to the press release for the film  27 minutes have been added to the "Full Version", if so then the length of the film should be 139 minutes, yet this version is only 112 minutes, which means some of the scenes in Guney’s original have been shortened or completely removed. The result is that in the "Full Version" changes have been made to the narrative, editing, pace and rhythm of the film. This was done according to the wishes of the producer and the editors, not Guney.

I have seen both versions of the film and compared scene by scene the changes that have been made. It will take many long articles to analyse in detail the many changes. therefore I would like to only point out one single scene that will prove that not only have things been changed that go against Guney's wishes, but some changes can even be described as "censorship".

As a Kurd who was born in 1937 during the Dersim Genocide, grew up in Turkey at a time when Kurds were denied their basic right to speak their own language, the Kurdish nation was denied its existence and called "Mountain Turks", Guney always felt that he was a member of an oppressed minority. In many of his films he refers, albeit indirectly, to the oppression faced by Kurds in Turkey. Even though he was denied the use of the Kurdish language in his films, Guney always managed to show Kurdish identity by using Kurdish names for his characters, Kurdish music, clothes, and symbolism or by shooting his films in locations in North Kurdistan.

Because Guney edited Yol in Europe he did not have to face censorship as before and so used Kurdish language in the background of many scenes, recorded Kurdish voiceovers, used Kurdish music, and most importantly defied the Turkish censor by using the word "Kurdistan" in a large text to describe the region that the officials in Turkey call "Southeast Turkey". Towards end of his life, Guney always referred to these regions as "Kurdistan" or "Turkey's Kurdistan", he was an active supporter of the Kurdish cause and was one of the founders of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.

This word "Kurdistan" is one of the reasons Yol was banned in Turkey for more than two decades. It was only shown in 1999 in theaters in Turkey, and only after the word "Kurdistan" was removed. Even today, as this article is being written, the original version of Yol, which has the word "Kurdistan" in it, is forbidden in Turkey. This is perhaps one of the reasons that in this new version the word "Kurdistan" has once again been ommitted, so that it can be approved for theatrical release in Turkey and gain a market share. This simply means that Guney's vision and wish has been censored once again, more than 32 years after his death. 

Guney shows Kurdistan in the film as a location like other places.

If we look closely at the original version of Yol (above) and this new version (below), we can see that the removal of the word "Kurdistan" is done for the simple reason of censorship, for its length is only 5 seconds.

1. Each one of the five prisoners travels to different locations, and each time Guney shows a text describing these locations, such as "Bursa", "Diyarbakir", "Gaziantep", "Konya", and "Kurdistan". All the text that Guney used in the original version has been used in this new version, only the word "Kurdistan" has been taken out.


The shot of "Kurdistan" censored.

The editing was done very simply, by removing the scene that has the word "Kurdistan" written in it. In the original version this is how the word appears in a combination of three other shots:

A. Wide shot of a bus that has Omer in it, comes toward camera (8 second).

B. Close-up shot of Omer, happy and smiling as he looks around the spring scenery of his village (7 second).

C. Long Wide Shot of a spring landscape with the word "Kurdistan" written on top of it, the bus stop and Omer gets off (5 seconds).

D. A Long Wide Shot of a dusty road, Omer walks towards his village. (7 second)

This is how these scenes are shown in the new edited version:

A. A Wide shot of a bus that has Omer in it, comes toward camera (6 second)

D. A Long Wide Shot of a dusty road, Omer walks towards his village.

Both shots B and C, two important shots which show Omer's happiness for being back to his village in Kurdistan, and the shot with the word "Kurdistan", that establish the geography of this region have been taken out.

Omer, the Kurdish farmer, on the Syria-Turkey border

This is just one simple example of many changes made to the film that goes against Guney's original version and intent. Changes have not just been made regarding imagery but also to sound and the dialogue spoken by characters, some of them are Kurdish spoken words that have been taken out, whereas others are words that have political significance. For example in one scene (above) Omer is sitting with his brother on the border between Syria and Turkey - or the border between North and West Kurdistan - and talks about the hardship of being Kurdish, how his land is divided between the borders, how his father has lost his leg because of minefields on the border and how soldiers patrol the area and shoot people and accuse them of being smugglers. Omer clearly refers to the separation and division of the Kurdish people and Kurdistan, which is an integral part of the story, however all this dialogue - recorded by Guney in Paris with Kurds who were gathered from all around Europe and with whom he worked with during the recording process to be used in the original version - have been taken out in this new version.

Guney died at the age of 47 in 1984 in Paris. His citizenship was revoked by the Turkish government and his work was banned and is still neglected. He spent 12 years of his life in prison and faced many injustices. He suffered much, overcame many challenges, hardships and restrictions and made many important films, which are now part of the cinematic heritage of the 20th century. We should preserve Guney's work and show it the way he made them, and wished them to be seen. It is against all his wishes, memory and copyright law to change and re-edit a film like Yol, which Guney himself edited and won the top prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1982 for. The "Full Version" is yet another injustice committed against Guney more than 32 years after his death. Due to the neglect, censorship or banning of his films during his lifetime and after it, and because his films have been shown on rare occasions after his death, few critics and film historians have written about Guney. This is another reason why his best and most well know film, Yol, can be butchered, edited against his wishes, and shown at a major film festival like Cannes, without public outcry.

June 1st, 2017

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