The new feature film about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s life is more hagiography than biopic. Released in cinemas in early March, Reis (“The Chief”) is an odd mixture of melodrama, testosterone, and a highly partisan account of Turkey’s modern history. Its release comes amid campaigning for the April 16 referendum on shifting the country to an executive presidential system, tightening Erdogan’s already iron grip on power. But Reis’ troubled $8 million production process may reflect the government’s surprisingly difficult pre-referendum campaign. The “yes” campaign has been given oxygen by the Turkish government’s bitter rift with Germany and the Netherlands over banned ministers’ meetings and spectacular “Nazi” allegations. But up to now, polls have remained tight and there are signs the result is far from wrapped.
The media is currently fixated on Erdogan’s latest spat with Europe, but the narrative of Reis is a good reminder of his populist appeal to many ordinary Turks. The story switches between Erdogan’s tough childhood and his later life as a pious up-and-coming politician hoping to become mayor of Istanbul. We watch him grow up as an earnest youngster in the hardscrabble Kasımpaşa neighborhood surrounded by men with elaborate mustaches, playing football and selling simit bread rolls. Later, we see him, played by actor Reha Beyoğlu, applying those early lessons as a pugnacious figure in the Islamist precursor of today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). At one point he is threatened by a businessman after refusing to take a bribe, but he responds fearlessly: “If we are to die, we will die like men.” He also has a sensitive side: In one scene, he even saves a puppy stranded at the bottom of a well.
Reis also follows a largely fictional group of salt-of-the-earth Kasımpaşa everymen (there are hardly any women in the film) who are scorned and oppressed in the “old Turkey.” Through their story, the film distills the appeal the AKP makes to Turkish citizens before every election: Look at how bad and unjust things used to be. Thank God we now have a brave leader to fix that by taking on our enemies. Let’s rally behind him.
Erdogan’s rise from working-class origins to the country’s unquestioned leader is known by all of Turkey’s 79 million citizens. He may today live in a 1,000-room palace in Ankara, but he maintains a common touch endearing him to millions of Turks who identify with him. However cliché the script and hokey the acting, Reis is unlikely to disappoint viewers already devoted to Erdogan.
But how many viewers are there? At the screening I attended on a Saturday night at a small Istanbul cinema there were only two others in the room. Other anecdotal accounts describe mostly empty screenings and a lukewarm reception. At the time of writing, Reis had an IMDB score of 1.9 out of 10. To be fair, however, the comments indicate most are reviewing Erdogan himself rather than the film. I asked my two fellow viewers, a mother and daughter, what they thought. “The scenario was bad. There wasn’t enough Erdogan,” said the daughter. In fact, on arrival to the cinema they didn’t even know what the film was about and had to ask the assistant before buying their tickets. Surprisingly, even after sitting through two hours of Reis the mother said she was still planning to vote “no” in the referendum. When I asked her why, she just said: “Enough.”
Digging into the production of Reis gives an insight into the murky world of political-economic relations in Turkey. The production company, Kafkasör Film Academy, has no other movies to its name and was set up by real estate investment fund Garantialsat specifically for this film. Garantialsat’s Facebook page offers a large helping of pro-government propaganda, but it also features posts encouraging locals and foreigners to invest in land on the route of the controversial planned Kanal Istanbul project bisecting the city with a second Bosphorus. Real estate and construction, though sputtering now, is among the motors of Turkey’s economy and a crucial engine for graft and rent-seeking as the government dishes out infrastructure contracts. The lucrative construction sector also greases the wheels of most of Turkey’s economically unviable but government-friendly mainstream media outlets. Apparently, it now funds part of Turkey’s cinema sector, too.
Reis’ production was far from smooth. In fact, director Hüdaverdi Yavuz did not even attend the premiere on Feb. 26 (coinciding with Erdogan’s 63rd birthday). Speaking to a Turkish website, Yavuz described a troubled shooting process with an inexperienced production team, disagreements on set and unpaid wages. Following delays, walk-outs and doubts over the project, Yavuz said he was told in January that the film would be released on March 3 and he had to finish it quickly. He described the final released version as “incomplete” and “poorly produced.” Meanwhile, many workers from the set have opened a legal case against Garantialsat demanding tens of thousands of liras in unpaid wages.
One AKP mayor in the eastern province of Erzurum treated local housewives to a trip to the cinema on International Women’s Day, but senior officials have been largely silent on the film. First weekend box office figures were also disappointing, with only 67,000 people showing up – far fewer than rival movies released on the same weekend. Perhaps these problems symbolize of broader difficulties for the government ahead of the referendum. Despite utter dominance of the media, near-monopoly of state resources, intimidation, and a pliant private sector, the most recent opinion polls are unexpectedly on a knife-edge. Many voters are still undecided and the AKP’s base is less energized than it has been in the past. The grassroots of the government’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies are divided and the “yes” camp is struggling to persuade them. There are also disagreements over strategy, with Erdogan in favor of a polarizing campaign but Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in favor of wooing undecided voters with more inclusive language. Polling companies have been refraining from releasing their findings after Erdogan expressed unhappiness with their results.
Nevertheless, the government’s campaign expertise, fearsome resources, and Erdogan’s undoubted strong-man charisma means the “yes” camp remains odds on to win. Perhaps by design, the recent fracas with Europe has injected nationalist energy into the campaign, with one AKP deputy suggesting “perhaps we should thank Germany and the Netherlands, as they have helped ‘Yes’ by at least 2 percentage points.” Reis ends in 1999, when Erdogan was jailed for “inciting hatred” after reciting an Islamic inspired poem. One producer suggested last year that sequels could be released addressing Erdogan’s career as prime minister and president. But the real-life story remains unfinished, and Erdogan’s immediate political trajectory is tied to next month’s referendum.
William Armstrong is a journalist based in Istanbul. He presents the Turkey Book Talk podcast.