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Controversial Movie on Ataturk Stokes Debate in Turkey


Turks treat Ataturk, the founder of their republic, with great reverence. So when the release of a documentary divulging details of his personal life was released, a furor errupted. As Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul the documentary on his life, called Mustafa paints Ataturk as a hard-living, hard-drinking, melancholy man who felt increasingly detached from the country he created.

The documentary Mustafa's catchy soundtrack by Goran Bregovic is reverberating across Turkey, as is the subject of the film.

Mustafa is the first Turkish film that takes a close look at the private side of the man who was the architect of modern Turkish society. For many, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has an almost iconic status. But the film's director, Can Dundar, says he is seeking to portray the man behind the legend.

"While we are accustomed to an image of Ataturk with his loud voice and strong statements, one gets surprised to see a Mustafa who noted down his own adolescence worries," Dundar said. "We also revealed very intimate information from unseen letters, about himself. This film reveals the man that disappeared under all big and cliché words about him."

The film explores Ataturk's tough childhood and his difficult early life. But among the films most striking portrayals is Ataturk as a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking womanizer, who loved to party and dance.

The film also shows a vulnerable man who felt increasingly alone and frustrated at the end of his life. These revelations caused a storm, drawing strong condemnation from some sectors of the media.

On the streets of Istanbul there seems to be many who share such concerns about the film.

"It's very bad," one man said. "I did not like it at all. The film Mustafa tries to cheapen the image of Ataturk. We don't need to know he had weaknesses like any other man. Can Dundar is trying to destroy his reputation and his ideas and what he has achieved."

A court case has been filed against Dundar for discrediting Ataturk's image - a criminal offense in Turkey.

Media professor Haluk Sahin of Istanbul's Bilgi University acknowledges such reaction over a man who died 70 years ago may seem strange to some. But Sahin says Ataturk's legacy remains very much alive in modern Turkey, although he says the film Mustafa is an indication of a paradigm shift in Turkish society.

"Ataturk was the one the unifying icon to give the people of this country a sense of an identity a sense of pride as citizens of that country," Sahin noted. "Some 70 years after his death Turkey has developed some other unifying images, but Ataturk still remains the dominating one. So that makes the way he's being discussed as sensitive. Our area of tolerance what can be discussed what can be depicted is expanding and this just another sign of this expansion."

Dundar has been careful not to get too sucked into the controversy , But he is the first to admit his film is by no means a definitive statement of Ataturk. He sees his documentary as another step in a process to help people to draw their own conclusions over who the man is.

"The audience will decide upon what kind of man Mustafa is," Dundar said. "Mine is a subjective interpretation. I can't say this is the truth. This is a kind of archeological excavation to reach to his truth."

Despite the controversy, or maybe because of it, Mustafa has topped the country's box office for the last 3 weeks, with over a million tickets sold.

The film is warmly received by another packed cinema. Many, as they leave to head home or to a nearby café, are engrossed in conversations about the documentary and Ataturk. One of them is Mehmet Tas.

"The movie is really great, because they always teach us that he always does this," Tas said. "He was in a war and he won this. But we did not know he knew really good salsa dance or that kind of things. It's amazing because it shows the other side of Mustafa and many people doesn't know that."

Critics and fans of Mustafa can agree on at least one thing. That the documentary has provoked a passionate debate about who Ataturk really was. His picture adorns most shops, schools and many homes.

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