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An Appreciation for Classic Turkish Melodrama: Metin Erksan’s ‘Dry Summer’

An Appreciation for Classic Turkish Melodrama: Metin Erksan’s ‘Dry Summer’

Dry Summer Dry Summer

Written by  Metin Erksan, Kemal Inci, and Ismet Soydan

Directed by Metin Erksan

Turkey, 1964

In 2013, the Criterion Collection released a Blu-Ray/DVD box-set entitled ‘Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project’. The box set consists of six films from various parts of the world that have received high-quality restorations, thanks to the assistance of Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation. And yet, it has to be said that some of the films Scorsese had commissioned for restoration and home video release leave a lot to be desired: Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Journey of the Hyena (1973; Wolof title: Touki Bouki) is a Senegalese-made bore of a chore to sit thru as it imitates the horrid French New Wave works of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; The Wave (1936; Spanish title: Redes), an American-Mexican co-production between directors Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel and photographer Paul Strand, which is a short tale about abused fisherman with an in-your-face message that leans just too close to Communism/Marxism to be enlightening; Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973; Bengali title: Titash Ekti Nadir Naam) is a look at Bengali life thru the eyes of varying characters and trapped with a bloated running time and virtually no compelling story to tell; Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (1981) documents the legendary Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane and manages to be compelling in some aspects yet also disappoints due to not letting the viewer get to know the subjects well; and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960; South Korean title: Hanyo) has been highly over-praised as being the best South Korean film ever made by film critics, but it’s really an overhyped thriller that wants so desperately to be in the same league as Alfred Hitchcock and doesn’t even come close settling in the Master of Suspense’s shoes. So far, it sounds like Scorsese’s set is slim pickings in terms of re-discovering unknown foreign films. However, there is one film in the set that, in terms of both artistic merit and being entertaining, does stand out as not only the best of the six films but it should’ve gotten a separate home video release on its own: Dry Summer (1964; Turkish title: Susuz Yaz) from director Metin Erksan.

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Classic Turkish cinema isn’t represented very much in international circles. The majority of early Turk films lean towards the melodrama genre, and some of which manage to be fairly decent productions for their time, yet those films have received very little re-evaluation or exposure outside of Turkey. And yet, in the west, Turkish cinema has received some minor appreciation from cult movie enthusiasts who tend to look at the films from the pop-era of the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s, most of which tended to either be over-the-top Cuneyt Arkin action flicks or rip-offs of American films like The Man Who Saved the World (1982; Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam), which is basically a Turk take on George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), right down to using effects footage from the Lucas film! And it’s a shame, because Dry Summer is one of those films that is truly original and very well-made for its time. Of course, the talent lies in its writer-director Metin Erksan.

Before setting out as a feature film director, Metin Erksan had started out as one of Turkey’s first film critics in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, Erksan began directing films and would be recognized as filmmaker who made personal works, some of which dealt with social issues. In 1962, Erksan had made Revenge of the Snakes (Yilanlarin ocu), which focused on land ownership and the hardships of local farmers. Erksan’s next production Dry Summer would focus on water ownership between two brothers and the local neighboring farmers. It was Dry Summer that brought Erksan to the 1964 Berlin Film Festival and the film would win the Golden Bear Award for best foreign film. And yet, despite Erksan’s film receiving international acclaim, the celebration was rather short-lived as the Turkish film industry would continue to look towards producing cheaper domestic product, while Dry Summer’s award was looked at as a stroke of luck instead of an achievement. The film itself would fare very little when released in America by distributor William Shelton and producer/actor Ulvi Dogan: Dry Summer would be re-edited with the alleged assistance of David E. Durston, the director of the grindhouse cult horror I Drink Your Blood (1970); featured newly-shot nude scenes featuring a look-alike of the lead actress, and released as a soft-core sexploitation film under varying titles like Reflections or I Had My Brother’s Wife! Erksan would continue forward making features in the 1960s and 1970s that would not achieve the international acclaim Dry Summer did; he would even fall into the pit of ripping-off popular American genre films with Satan (1974; Seytan), which is essentially a shot-by-shot rip-off of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). And yet, Martin Scorsese and the World Cinema Project took interest in restoring Dry Summer for all to see and it is very much worth discovering.

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Dry Summer opens in a small Aegean village in which two brothers, the eldest Osman Kocabas (Erol Tas) and the youngest Hasan Kocabas (Ulvi Dogan), own a section of farmland and a spring which provides water for both their crops and their neighbors. Osman decides to close up the damn and keep the water for themselves as they own the spring; Hasan is very wary of the idea, but he goes along with it for the same of his eldest brother. At the same time, Hasan gets married to his fiancé Bahar (Hulya Kocyigit) and the two live with Osman to help out with the farm. Once Osman goes thru with his plan to close up the spring the local farmers try to take legal action against him, but the courts eventually side with Osman and he closes up the damn. One night, two farmers attempt to destroy the damn and Osman shoots one of the men dead. The next day, the local police arrive and arrest Osman and Hasan. Osman manages to convince Hasan to take the fall for him; Hasan is then sentenced to 8 years in prison. While Hasan serves his time, Osman begins to forget about his brother and lust for Bahar as the days go on, all the while the local farmers continue to not receive any of the spring water for their crops.

Dry Summer has all the makings of a pulpy drama in the classic sense (characters in constant conflicting situations, inner turmoil, dramatic situations, etc.), but Erksan’s film remains true to its intentions of telling a vicious tale of brother vs. brother, coming off as a very well-aged film and never leaning towards becoming “corny”. Visually-speaking, the film contains very effective black-and-white cinematography, with Erksan taking advantage of the Aegean setting and soaking up the summer atmosphere in every frame. The performances in Dry Summer are excellent all around: Ulvi Dogan and Hulya Kocyigit are fairly good as the standard melodramatic couple tortured by the situations they find themselves in. However, the best performance comes from that of Erol Tas: despite being the antagonist, his character does become the central focus of the story and Tas delivers quite a performance. His brief scene, in which he talks to a scarecrow as if he were speaking to Bahar and pining for her love, is effective and gives his character more depth than one would expect. Tas would have quite a career in Turkish cinema playing bad-guys galore and one would wonder if his performance in Dry Summer helped solidify his career in any way. If there is one element that will be a turn off for viewers is a scene in which an angry farmer shoots Osman’s dog: from the looks of it, it seems that an actual dog was indeed shot and killed for this scene. And, there is a brief shot of Osman cutting off a live chicken’s head. These two scenes are disturbing, for sure, and definitely a weak link for those who don’t like animal violence. But, those two scenes aside, Dry Summer sticks to telling its compelling story and never let’s up during its 90 minute running time.

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It’s a shame that Dry Summer, as well as Metin Erksan’s career, has spent the many years in obscurity amongst classic international cineastes. But, after its restoration, one hope’s that its recent exposure on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion Collection will re-introduce classic Turkish cinema to foreign film lovers out there. Anyone walking into this film expecting it to be some cheesy piece of pulp action or bad rip-off of American cinema will be pleasantly surprised: Dry Summer is exceptionally good.

– Christopher William Koenig

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