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Hit Film 'Zenne Dancer' Explores Turkish Gay Community

A scene from "Zenne Dancer"
A scene from "Zenne Dancer"

A controversial and groundbreaking film has hit movie theater screens in Turkey. Zenne Dancer is inspired by the true story of a gay man, Ahmet Yildiz, who police suspect was murdered by his father in 2008, in what the media describes as Turkey's first gay "honor killing." Its haunting soundtrack can be heard in cinemas across Turkey, as Zenne Dancer continues to enjoy box office success.

Slain Yildiz was a close friend of the co-directors Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay. According to Alper, until the murder they had no plans to make a feature film.

"One night we came across a 'Zenne dancer', a male belly dancer, and we were working with him to make a documentary, and our close friend was shot dead by his own father. And I went to my partner Mehmet and we discussed the possibility of combining the two characters in a feature film," explained Alper.

A scene from "Zenne Dancer"

Under the banner "honesty can kill," the film explores the fictitious relationship of Yildiz and the Zenne dancer. It portrays their conflicting experiences of declaring their sexuality to their family and close friends.

While Zenne Dancer is in part aimed at Turkey's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, co-director Binay says they have far wider goals for the film.

"We tried reaching people in the streets, people who have kids or colleagues or school friends who are a bit different than themselves, we tried to show them, that there are different identities in society," Binay said. "And we received very positive and encouraging feedback from them. So, I believe if you tell your story right, people are ready to hear the story you tell them."

At Turkey's most prestigious film festival, the Antalya Golden Orange, Zenne Dancer won five major awards and received widespread critical acclaim. Due to the media attention, Zenne Dancer broke out of the festival circuit and into the mainstream - a rare achievement for a small independent movie.

In its third week at an Istanbul cinema, Zenne Dancer is holding its own against Turkish and U.S. mainstream films. Audience members are showing appreciation of the film.

One woman said it is a very brave film, because for the first time a taboo subject has been made into a movie. She explained that it is too difficult to tell such stories in Turkey, but said the country is definitely changing. She feels sure there will be many more films about this issue.

A scene from "Zenne Dancer"

Zenne Dancer
has not been without controversy. The pro-Islamic daily Akit called the film "homosexual propaganda" by gays seeking to "legitimize perversion by art."

But according to Binay, the criticism only generated more interest in the film. Still, Binay admits he had concerns about the reception he and his film would receive in provincial cities, like Bursa, which have a reputation of being religiously conservative.

"In Bursa there was an older couple, the lady was covered, veiled. And I always wondered what they would say about it. And at the end the gentleman wanted to say something, and we said please go ahead. And he said, 'I got pigeons and I breed them, and I raise them. There are always some male couples who fall in love with one another, this is part of nature,' " the man explained, "and his covered wife was nodding and she was saying, 'Yes this true.' And I was prejudiced against them, when I was looking at them, I really felt ashamed."

The success of Zenne Dancer is seen as an indication of wider changes towards Turkey's homosexuals.

Last year, thousands attended the country's largest gay pride march in Istanbul. A few years ago such gatherings were invariably broken up by the police. A recent Amnesty International report documented ongoing hate crimes, along with brutality and discrimination by the government and police.

Co-director Binay believes the success of Zenne Dancer signals changes in Turkish society.

"All sorts of minorities are coming out of the closet now, the Pandora's box has been opened," Binay noted. "Whether it is Armenians, Alawites, the Kurds, everybody has things to say that they could not have said for last several decades or centuries. So the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] issue is part of the bigger picture."

The filmmakers say their hope is that the film will help contribute to building a society in which people are not murdered because of their sexuality.