A Swiss gets in touch with the Ugly King of Turkey – Donat Keusch meets the great artist Yılmaz Güney

Donat F. Keusch, October 20th, 2007


It was winter 1979 in cold Berlin during the International Filmfestival when the head of my company’s world sale’s department asked me to go and see a Turkish film at the International Forum programme. The screening took place in the Cinema Arsenal, one of the worst cinema theatres of the city of Berlin: ugly, dirty, rotten seats, bad air conditioning, terrible picture and sound quality. I was nearly blind on my left eye that day, the theatre was full booked and I had to sit on my small suitcase just at the right wall. I forgot all these inconveniences when the screening started and I was seeing the best Turkish film ever made: “SÜRÜ” (The Herd). The print was awful, the subtitles were incomplete and of a terrible quality. But all this could not harm the deep truth and power of this incredible film.

As the head of my company Cactus Film I was also in charge of buying films for our domestic distribution department. I wanted to have this Turkish film but there were two women from a “world sales” company. They had no idea at all about their job. In fact they were just book editors at that time. Finally, they succeeded to sell “SÜRÜ” for 80.000 German Marks to a company in Hamburg for a license period of 10 years instead of selling this same film directly to German TV for 126.000 German Marks for a period of 5 years. I confirmed them the offer of German TV’s second channel but they did not listen to me. Therefore, I decided to buy this film not from these strange people.


Yılmaz Güney

After having confirmed a meeting with Güney Filmcilik I went to Istanbul end of the summer 1979 and discussed, with the help of an interpreter, for 3 days political issues with the head of the company, Nihat Behram. He and his colleague had no idea how to sell a film and had never seen a distribution license agreement before. I explained them everything and all the details but they understood only parts of the matter. On the forth day in Istanbul they were driving with me for more than an hour through this city. I lost my orientation. Finally, they told me that I will meet Yılmaz Güney. At that time I did not know how he looks like but the very moment I entered his apartment I pointed him out of the 15 people standing around and talking in the big living room. He had a day off from the Imralı Island prison where he was at that time. We had a nice talk about the film and some political issues. At the end I told him that he will never get out of the prison. The Turkish army leaders and the government were too afraid of his influence on the Turkish people. But he was convinced that there will be an amnesty in 1980 and that he will be released from prison as a free man. But there was a military coup instead. I bought the rights of “SÜRÜ” (The Herd) for Switzerland. The film was the first success of a Turkish movie in my country and at the end Güney Film’s income from the distribution of the film in this small territory was much bigger than the one they got from Germany!



My company Cactus Film became the exclusive world sales’ representative for all nine films of Güney Filmcilik. Finally, these extraordinary Turkish films were sold for the distribution in some of the major territories, the older ones mainly for television releases.

Güney’s next film was “DÜŞMAN” (The Enemy). Yılmaz had no chance to finish the film in time and therefore it was screened at the International Berlin Film Fest’s competition in a roughcut version of three hours. It got the Best Screenplay Award! Yılmaz was not happy at all with this version of the film. He wrote a list of the main parts to cut and asked us, Cactus Film, to take care of the editing of “Düşman’s” final version. I convinced freelancer and well trained Elizabeth Waelchli for the editing. She delivered the best possible two hours final version of this film without creating too much technical problems for the re-mixing of the sound. Yılmaz was very surprised and satisfied.



At that time we were already talking about the next project which was entitled “BAYRAM” (WT). Yılmaz was still in prison and after “Sürü” and “Düşman” this was already the third script he was writing there. At the same time, in fact two month before the military coup, the head of Güney Filmcilik and his interpreter came to Zürich. We established an office for them on our floor in a business building. Yılmaz’ first version of “BAYRAM” consisted of ten stories of ten prisoners getting some days off and the permission for going home for the time of Bayram. This was a script for a monumental movie about Turkey like Bertolucci’s “1900” about Italy. We had no idea how to finance it. I proposed to cut it down to half of the protagonists, half of the stories and I was not convinced that an episodical movie would be a success in the theaters. But in Yılmaz’ script was a very strong, very human and universal topic dominating all the stories: “prison, to be imprisoned” showing most of its important facets. The final version of the script consisted of six stories and six protagonists. We still had no idea how to finance a film of a Turkish artist being in prison for murder. But we agreed with Güney Filmcilik on a 50:50 coproduction if they deliver the script and if they organize and finance the shooting and the editing of the film. We delivered the negative material (25.000 meters), a Ford Transit and some technical equipment. Furthermore, we had to finance the laboratory work in Switzerland as well as the post-synchro and the mixing in Paris. The first changement in our agreement had to be done by the fact that Güney Filmcilik had no money for covering the shooting cost. We paid for it. Instead of an amnesty the military coup in 1980 took place and Yılmaz had to accept that he would have to leave his beloved country. Therefore, we had to finance also the editing of the film in Switzerland and France. At the end Cactus Film was the only producer of the film. Güney Filmcilik had delivered the script and was entrusted to organize the shooting in Turkey which was financed by Cactus Film. By the way, the negative material and the Ford Transit were entering Turkey with a Carnet A.T.A. and all material was exported the same way.



Unfortunately, we had to fire the young Turkish director chosen by Yılmaz after the first week of shooting. This young man wanted to make his own film. He wanted to show big Yılmaz that he was the upcoming new star. We had to learn that he was only a big pretender. Yılmaz convinced Şerif Gören to take over the job as a director on the set. Şerif was just released from prison and had to visit Yılmaz on the Imralı Island. The line producer on the set was the very experienced Armenian Kerim L. Puldi. He saved the shooting. Elizabeth Waelchli was good for the professional editing and Yılmaz learnt a lot during the long collaboration with her. The filmed material that we got from Turkey was terrible: The shots wer too short and there was a big lack of variations etc.  I still do not know what the hell they did with the 25.000 meters of Fuji negative. At the end, when I was already in panic because we had spent all our own money, Yılmaz and Elizabeth were saving this film on the editing table. During the post-synchronisation and the last editing activities we accepted Yılmaz’ proposition that the title of the film should be “YOL”.


The editing

After the very positive collaboration with Elizabeth Waelchli during the editing process of Yılmaz’ film “Düşman” (The Enemy, directed by Zeki Ökten) it was clear for me that she has to edit “YOL” as well. Yılmaz agreed but we were worried about the ability of them to communicate – she did not speak the Turkish language, Yılmaz did speak and understand very little English, French and German. The very special collaboration between a Swiss militant editor and the greatest Turkish film artist and star was in reality very creative.

The editing work started in Zürich in summer 1981 when Yılmaz was still in his prison at Isparta. After the screening of the more than 6 hours of roughly arranged material I was convinced that we just killed ourselves. It was awful and I could not imagine how to make a decent film with such a mess. Elizabeth was shocked but had some ideas how to get out of this, how to find a way to respect and honour Yılmaz’ screenplay. She made a roughcut of about 3 hours by her own.

The same time Yılmaz had to accept to leave his beloved country. Some European countries were checking the documents of the court case in Ankara where Yılmaz was sentenced to 18 years of prison for having killed a judge in Adana. According to the jurists of the government of a important European country this so called process was a farce. They guaranteed to provide Yılmaz with asylum papers when arriving in their country.

We decided to stop the editing work until Yılmaz’ arrival in Europe. End of October 1981 the editing of “YOL” was taking place in the neighbourhood of the house of the Güney family in Divonne near Geneva but on the French side of the border. There was still this problem of communication between Elizabeth and Yılmaz. But she had prepared cards in different colours with the scenes and separate ones for each of the stories. On these cards was very little text in very simple English and they were pinned to the wall. This is what old fashioned but good screenwriters still do during the creation of a script, especially during the re-writing process. The cards were very helpful for the communication. Like all great artists Yılmaz was a very curious man, and he was a very fast learner. Every day his knowledge of the English language and of the art of editing increased. During the breaks Elizabeth and Yılmaz were walking in the beautiful landscape around Divonne which is a part of the French Jura, a hilly region of eastern France and western Switzerland. Their discussions about political and humanistic issues were helpful to solve a lot of the editing problems. The most important reason for the successful collaboration was the confidence between them. They respected each other as artists and as human beings.

After the big success of “YOL” in Cannes Yılmaz wanted to re-edit all his films. From my favorite “Sürü” he planned to cut out at least half an hour. I was convinced that it could not be more than 20 minutes. And we agreed to finish “YOL” in cutting out some of the repetitions. Furthermore, we discussed about a re-mixing of the sound and adding some more interesting and unusual real music. But Yılmaz had at first to take care of his health. The cancer became more and more dangerous in 1982.


The Palm

The film was refused two times by the director of the Cannes Film Fest. But after the third screening for him with the almost finished version Gilles Jacob revised suddenly his refusal. With the help of some friendly people like the minister of culture, Jack Lang, the opposition against “YOL’s” participation in Cannes’ competition dissolved into an unfriendly acceptance. As we were in trouble to finish the subtitling Gilles Jacob promised to programme Yılmaz’ film in the second half of the festival. But finally, he announced “YOL” only at the last minute and programmed it on the very first day of the festival. We got in some heavy troubles but succeeded to be there in time. In this unusual situation it was no surprise that the gala screening of this film from the “Third World” was not sold out. Therefore, I forced Gilles Jacob to accept 500 additional viewers without tickets and – what a insult for him – without black tie. Just before the evening screening these 500 Turkish and Kurdish people were demonstrating in front of the festival palais against the military junta of their country. They wanted to see this film and Yılmaz Güney in freedom and alive. For the first time somebody dared this festival to accept a lot of normal people in normal outfits for a gala screening. The director of the festival became no friend of mine. But he had to congratulate us on the last day when “YOL” got the most important festival award of the world: The Golden Palm.

Donat F. Keusch, October 20th, 2007