East End Film Festival: The Legend of The Ugly King

The Legend of the Ugly King
The Legend of The Ugly King
Directed by Hüseyin Tabak
Screening at EEFF April 15th, 2018

by Lewis Church

Yilmaz Güney is not a name many might be familiar with, but this Kurdish actor, director and revolutionary is still hailed throughout Turkey as a hero. He is also the fascinating subject of this extraordinary documentary, written and directed by Hüseyin Tabak. Where it offers surprise is in its deviation from the standard narrative drive of a biopic, disrupted after the first twenty minutes when they conclude with Güney’s funeral in 1984. After this Tabak sinks through archival fathoms, leaping backwards and forwards through moments in Güney’s life in order to profile his subject in greater and more vivid detail than might ever have been expected.

A giant of Turkish cinema, the story of Güney is first introduced through an international perspective, a wise decision considering the audience’s probable unfamiliarity with his work. Tabak leads with the point at which Yol (1982) won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, a film completed by Güney after he absconded from his prison in Turkey. It then backtracks through his life, drawing extensively on his prison diary Hücrem, archive footage of his early roles as the action hero of Turkish cinema (known as the ‘Ugly King’ for his plain looks), and beautiful footage lifted from the films he directed, wrote and acted in. Interview footage of his friends, wives and contemporaries is also used to together paint an impressively nuanced picture of a complicated man. As Güney’s first wife puts it, ‘he asked me to tell the bad and the good if I ever was asked to remember’. And there is bad, in the form of abuse and violence, often documented by uncomfortably visceral images and on-set footage. Yet that negative is placed alongside the positive, and this willingness to confront his flaws makes Tabak’s ode to his hero engaging and raw. It allows even those coming cold to Güney a sense of him as a man, rather than just as a towering symbol of political agitation against the dictatorship in Turkey.

The film is further enriched by its release now in 2018, following the failed coup ‘d’état in Turkey in 2016, the continued demolishment of the freedom of the press there and the consolidated position of the latest strong man leader – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As the Yol actor Tarik Akan remembers at the end of The Legend of the Ugly King, creative artists in Turkey usually have to choose between ‘imprisonment, death or exile’. Güney faced all three, and Tabak’s documentary is a worthy tribute to his memory, films and activism.


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