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2. Représentation du passé : les médias télévisuels et cinématographiques

Politics of Counter-Memory in Turkey: Docudramatizing the Past as a Panacea for Official Discourses?

Nuran E. Işik


Le passé de la République turque de même que la vie de Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (le fondateur de la République) ont toujours été narrés à travers des rituels mémoriels, des discours et des annonces officielles, des célébrations, des films et des rapports qui ont créé un ensemble de pratiques redramatisant les événements et figures historiques. Les narrations historiques révèlent une lutte entre différentes voix et idéologies, lutte qui constitue une importante clé pour comprendre les projections sur l’avenir. La production du docudrame Mustafa fondée sur l’idée d’une lecture alternative de l’histoire de la République et d’Atatürk conduit à une individualisation de l’histoire. Le documentaire couvre la vie d’Atatürk’s de façon à révéler des détails ou des anecdotes inconnues sur sa vie privée qui n’ont jamais été couverts dans ce genre de production. Ce faisant, le texte se définit comme un contre discours en opposition aux discours officiels qui ont notamment célébré ses accomplissements militaires et son rôle dans l’établissement de l’État-nation. La première partie de l’article porte sur le background historique dans lequel l’historiographie turque a employé des formes symboliques de légitimation comme modes de pouvoir et de domination. En tant que réponse aux discours hégémoniques, une historiographie critique et démocratique a influencé des travaux en histoire populaire comme des documentaires, des biographies et autres genres. Dans la seconde partie du texte, Mustafa, en tant que discours d’une contre histoire, est décrit. Il est montré que la relecture proposée par le docudrame donne une opportunité pour comprendre les importantes divisions politiques et culturelles en Turquie. Nous terminons en soulignant que Mustafa nous aide à délimiter les lignes de pensée idéologiques autour de l’essentialisme et du relativisme qui sont tous les deux problématiques à une comprehension de la mémoire collective de même que de l’identité nationale.

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1In the political scenery of Turkish society, the debates on what has happened in the past have been significant in different political narratives. The competing narratives of the nation, that is, the Turkish Republican, Kurdish, and Islamist constitute different discursive markers which result in an ambivalence that currently rule the political cultural environment in Turkey. Nationalistic, modernist, secular, liberal and conservative claims are important discursive markers on formulating and defining the nation, the Republic, the state and the society. The clash between different claims of the past is a worthy theme to investigate, because it provides us an analytical tool to draw a picture about the ways in which knowledge of the past is used as a way of representing what is really happening today. In this paper, it is argued that the docudrama called Mustafa presents itself as an alternative voice that characterizes the life of Ataturk, which leads to the individualization of history. The discipline of history helps us “construct representatitons of past realities which interpenetrate the present, thereby shaping and constraining possibilities for future action” (Patterson, 1989: 555-566). Analyzing the documentary form, therefore, will not be based on judging the truthfulness of historical evidence. Instead, what will be emphasized is the capacity of the docudrama in terms of presenting a view of the history which is negotiable and dialogic. I will also argue that the docudrama opens up a debate on the representation of Turkish history and memory which has become a contemporary battlefield regarding legitimacy and propriety of mass media. It is assumed that re-interpreting the interpretations on Mustafa will reflect upon diverse implications of the mass media-history relation.

An Outlook on The Turkish Historiography

2The independent Turkish Republic was founded on 29 October 1923 after the victory in the War of National Struggle against the occupying imperialist powers and Greece, the Sultanate was abolished in 1923, and the Caliphate in 1924. Religious schools were closed and education was put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. Arabic script was replaced by Latin letters which was a reform to follow Westernization. Marriage, divorce and inheritance laws were to be arranged as in Europe. The constitituonal status of Islam as the official religion of the Turkish people was removed from the constitution in 1928 (Ahmad, 1990).

3The mission of Mustafa Kemal1, one of the Ottoman civil-military bureaucrat-elites, and his friends was to save the state from decline and to end its inferior position with regard to the West without any social change. Kemalists like their predecessors aimed at saving the state through modern, secular, and authoritarian reforms and to transform or westernize the society. The reforms of the early republican period laid the foundations for a secular education, and a conception of public service, both within the bureaucracy and in the political arena, which did not rest on kinship ties, ethnic background or class differentiation. Parts of the Ottoman social order characterized as “not Western enough” were replaced with newly established institutions. Thus, political establishment never belonged to a specific ethnic group, family, clan or people of the same class. On the other hand Turkey’s political elites voluntarily attempted forming a secularization process in institutions. Thus, Kemalist revolutions replaced the religious value sphere with the ideology of secularism, legitimated by the universalist code. Secularism as well as nationalism, from time to time turned out to be ideologies which substituted one another. They became very important markers of such a contested world; and instead of a symbolic sharing buttressed by traditions and Islam, a secular identity was formed and protected by the state.

4Following the transformation of Turkey from an Empire into a Republic and the abolition of the Caliphate, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave his famous Speech (Nutuk), delivered over several days in 1927 before the second congress of the Republican People's Party, thus laying the foundation for the official and still prevailing historiography of the Turkish Republic. According to Ataturk and his official and academic successors, Turkey had literally been reborn from the ashes of the Ottoman collapse, as a westernizing, modernizing, essentially Jacobin nationstate. According to this narrative, the republic had come into existence fully grown and armed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with no organic antecedents, and therefore lacking a past, but basing itself on the eternally existing Turkish people. The fact that both the spoken and, more fundamentally, the written language were transformed and the script changed from Arabic to Latin, meant that historical memory became excessively difficult to maintain (Eissenstat, 2003).

5Given the complexities of a history which depict various different characteristics of a transition from an Empire to a republic, constructing a collective memory has been one of the central elements in the constitution of a “national” past in Turkish history. In the context of official, organized efforts to contitute this past, commemorative events and rituals are valued very highly. Selecting the type of events which are accepted as glorifying the birth of the Republic is central to the project of constructing the “nation” as a coherent community through the reinstating, or even at times the “invention” of relevant traditions (Kook, 2005). The ritualistic repetition of these traditions serves to reinforce, on both collective and individual levels, the belief in the coherence of the nation’s past. In Turkey, since the birth of the Republic in 1923 the repeated commemoration or celebration of events and holidays defined as belonging to the nation has been serving to strengthen their so-called “traditional” character.

6The official discourses of the past have always been relying on the use of symbolic forms of legitimation (i.e., glorifications, mystifications, ritualization) as modes of power and domination in the understanding of the history. Such a historiography, along with other social scientific disciplines (i.e., sociology), was seen as an important political avenue whereby ideological struggles could be legitimated through the claims of historical truth. In fact, Ataturk himself was  aware of the power of history writing as an ideological tool2. Among the institutions of the Republic were The Turkish History Society, The Turkish Linguistic Society, and Directorate of Religious Affairs. The aim of the Societies was taking action to rewrite the history of Turks, their prehistoriography and civility. The mythification of history went in hand with the glorification of Ataturk himself. Ataturk became a leader which would be identified the Republic and modernization. After his death, he was made a symbolic, eternal leader. His principles and ideas have been formulated as a systemic form of governance for society (Cetin, 2004). The Turkish nationalism of the 1930s claimed the unity of race and language as the fundamentals of Turkishness and it became one of the important discursive markers of a national-secular identity. Every Turkish schoolchild files past the mandatory bust of Ataturk adorning every schoolyard, every morning, chanting Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene (Happy is he whosays, "I am a Turk"); the history books the students are provided depict the hegemony of the official definitions of the past events. The essentialism embedded in such a unitary historigraphy had a major impact on the ways in which the birth of the Republic as well as the Turkish identity have been defined by the proponents of nationalism.

7The way in which modernity carries ambivalent characteristics has been reflected on intellectual works as well. Emancipation from the Western allies; liberation movement; the formation of a secular state; the birth of a contemporary society were all narrated through scientific, intellectual, and artistic discourses some of which revealed the nature of strains in the emergence of a modern society. As is emphasized earlier, the offical narratives have been heavily focusing on creating a collective memory and a sense of social integration through the notions such as millet (nation) and devlet (the state). The backlash against such a wave of patriotic historiography was resulted in the works of some historians as well as other intellectuals who read the commemorative events as part of hegemony building practices. As part of the very same process, the intellectual climate of Turkish society has been witnessing different interpretations of historical incidents and identities such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. These interpretations provided a grammar of history, society and memory through which different ideological narratives could be formulated. Those who criticized the official patriotic discourses have claimed that a heroic and a militaristic reading of history helped people misuse and misinterpreted the history which led to certain ommisions in collective memory3.

8The tension between hegemonic and non hegemonic historiography in Turkey displays characteristics of the monumental history and critical history emphasized by Nietzsche, which provides a theoretical base for the concept of “effective history” formulated by Foucault. As Bruner vividly notes:

9“Whereas traditional history is thought to deal with reality, continuity, and objective Truth, effective history holds that history should be used rather than discovered because history moves paratactically (from one system of domination and capacity to another) rather than hypotactically (progressive toward the telos of the Absolute Spirit or Absolute Same)” (Bruner, 2005: 318).

10The docudramatic text which presents itself as part of the effective history rather than traditional history is based on the presumption that any articulation of history is a political interpretation. The discourses employed in Mustafa are claimed to have been constructed as having the major characteristics of effective/critical history. Discourse, in a Foucaultian sense involves different kinds of discursive acts. Does Mustafa offer us a counter historiographic reading of Ataturk? Or, does it include the pitfalls of an essentialist reading of the history? Analyzing the hegemonic and counter hegemonic discourses necessitates us to take a look at devices through which representations of historical figures are constructed. As Charland argues, discourse “textualizes audiences through the creation of transhistorical and transindividual subject positions” (Charland, 1987: 147). The evaluations made below, therefore, will be based on discursive strategies, categories of analysis, the use of metaphors, the role of social actors, and representations of social actors.


11The docudrama is usually based on historical events, thereby providing an analysis of past proceedings.  The docudrama is the marriage of two unlikely forms – the documentary and drama. The documentary is a record of factual events. It is the story of “something” or the process of “something”. On the other hand, drama is the imitation of life – a contrived story. The docudrama can therefore be described as a hybrid game. The docudrama uses both footages of real events and the talent of actors and actresses in performance to act out written stories, thereby gaining leeway to take dramatic liberty and events. The docudramas are basically works of fiction, which endeavor to let in reality, and preferably center on topical or controversial issues. Due to its hybrid character, the genre requires a fusion of history and non-story elements difficult to reconcile (Ogunleye, 2005).  

12According to Paget (1997) some important functions “Dramadoc/docudrama” are:

  • to re-tell events from national or international histories, either reviewing or celebrating these events;

  • to re-present the careers of significant national/international figures, for broadly similar purposes as (a);

  • to portray issues of concern to national or international communities in order to provoke discussion about them.

13These films are densely imagined, technology and cultural development ensuring a rich concatenation of documentary and newsreel film footage, still photographs, witness testimony, acted performance in sripted reconstruction and the elaborate fashionings of digital technology. The popularity of docudrama form exposes the fact that cultural and collective fantasies about what happened in specific historical events are as important in producing national meaning as many residue of the actual event.

14In addition, the docudrama succeeds as a form of popular culture specifically through its exploitation of the dual role of cinema as a representation of the real and a source of fantasy and identification. The reenactment of docudramas reveals the traffic between the realms of cultural memory and history and indicates the fluid realm of memory itself.

15Mustafa, the documentary or docudrama was written and directed by Can Dündar, a well known journalist in Turkey4. The film was opened on October 29 2008, the National Day, and has been shown in more than 200 theaters around Turkey. Mr. Dündar, also known as a leading documentary maker, claimed that he wanted to show private side of the man whose life has always been narrated through his militaristic achievements in most history books assigned in schools. He also claimed that he “wanted to present Mustafa Kemal in a more intimate, affectionate light. All those statues, busts and flags have created a chief devoid of human qualities”5. He also said that he “wanted to show a more human Atatürk than the Atatürk they teach us about at school and in the military service”6.  “The film’s topic also scared off potential investors. Turkcell, one of Turkey's largest mobile phone operators, was due to be a sponsor until it backed out of the pic following the political furor. Ultimately, the $1.2 million project was fully funded by Turkish satcaster NTV and conglom Sabanci Holding”7. The documentary, blending original footage and photographs with re-enactments, carried the leader's childhood name, Mustafa, rather than the honorific “Atatürk”. It highlighted Atatürk's political successes, but also portrayed him as a lonely, ambitious boy, a failed family man, a leader frustrated at Turkey's slow modernization, and an old man fretting about his legacy8.

16Apart from the docudrama, Mustafa, Can Dündar also wrote a book titled “Mustafa”, an expanded version of the scenario. The very last sentence he employs in the preface of the book emphasizes that he wished that the book will “be a tool for people for us to have a deeper understanding on Atatürk” (Dündar, 2008: 7). He lists the names of the archives by which he and his research team did an extensive research on Atatürk. Both the docudrama and the book is based on numerous original sources such as drawings, paintings, memoirs, audiorecords, letters, photographs, and pictures9 which describe Atatürk’s life along with the War of Liberation and the foundation of the Turkish Republic.

17As is argued above, the title of the docudrama, Mustafa, has been chosen by Dündar to refer to the humane side of the national leader. When the boy was in school the name Kemal (the “perfect”) was added to his initial name of Mustafa (the “chosen”) in order to distinguish him from a teacher or collegue who bore the same name. Mustafa Kemal became “Atatürk”, when all Turks adopted surnames. In an interview with the writer, Dündar claimed that he chose the title Mustafa because he was disturbed by those who misinformed the public for years:

18“We’d put him in a closet. In this film, Atatürk is talking about himself. If you ask me why we picked up Mustafa instead of Atatürk; we tried to see him from the lenses his mother would have seen. We tried to reach Mustafa in the real sense, we tried to use his letters to understand his personality[…]”10. In another interview he made a rather postmodern remark: “This is my own Atatürk; it’s my own interpretation. What I am trying to prove is that this (version of Atatürk) is closer to ‘real’ Atatürk”11. The author claims to authenticate the past through constructing personal and collective memory. On the one hand, official discourses are negated on behalf of re-interpreting the life of a national leader; on the other hand, unmasking the real life of Atatürk is ironically defined as a legitimate artistic act based on “his own interpretations” some of which are exemplified below. Such an ambivalent purpose of the filmmaker is revealed in the docudrama in the sense that it allows for re-interpretations and historical documents, which leads to reproduction of some of the monumental historical themes.

19The opening scene of the docudrama starts with a picture of the Palace of Dolmabahce, where Atatürk died in 1938. The camera slowly zooms into a window of the palace at night where Atatürk is waiting for his death. The starting moment of the story is based on a narration of a man who is looking at a painting on the wall, “the four season”, by a Russian painter: “Let’s go there Afet” (his adopted daughter), he says, “[…] let’s leave everything behind. [...] A basic home with a room and a stove […] let’s go to the forests […] let me be fine […]” (Dündar, 2008, 9-10).

20A nostalgic moment is narrated through resembling the picture of the forest on the painting to those forgotten mountains of Salonika, where he was born in 1881. The same scene is re-used at the end of the docudrama. The same nostalgic moment of the story continues with narrating his childhood:

“In fact, he had not experienced a happy childhood in the place where he was born. He lost his father when he was very young and had to leave the school. When the family struggled for surviving Mustafa Kemal, his mother and his two sisters left their home and move to their uncle who was working in a farm nearby Selanik. His duty in the farm was to chase the crows harming the crops. But nothing could help to rid of the boredoom of a boy who left his home with his mother and two sisters […] Sometimes he was building up a shack by using the bushes, and he was staying there to rest his mind. This was the home which replaced the house he had to leave […] It was much more smaller than his house, but at least it belonged to him, a small haven […] A dream of home at exile […]” (Dündar, 2008, 10).

21One of the most important images representing both the docudrama and the cover page of the book, Mustafa depicts a picture of a boy sitting in such a shack, alone, probably waiting for something, someone to come. The picture is showing a declining movement of the sun, a moment of an evening or morning, signifying the end or the beginning of something. In either case it has a connotation of feeling which can be labeled as “ennui” which is reflected upon the themes and topics used in the text.

22The narrative is heavily based on a nostalgic sentiment which sets the tone in terms of dramatizing and over-sentimentalizing of the life of Atatürk. This tone of melancholy is being reproduced in other parts of the biography of Atatürk by using re-enactments and fantasies. The metaphor of the home reflects the notion of vatan (homeland) which is a gendered concept in the text. Just as he fears of loosing his mother, he also gets afraid of loosing the motherland. Dündar, who also borrows from the biography of Atatürk, written by Volkan and Iskowitz (1984) argues in an interview that “growing up with a father may be influential in becoming a father figure”12.

23An important critical thematization of the biography of Atatürk in official discourses is being formulated through a story about his childhood whereby he chases after the crows. While Dündar claims to position himself as a filmmaker using a counter hegemonic discourse, he finds himself in the trap of using the same stereotypical images and characterizations in the text. While he attempts to replace the common didactic approach with “his own reading”, he creates a popular and an emotional approach which identifies counter hegemonic discourses with a sentimental perspective. In other words, he constructs a sensual and a subjective space which reinvents historical development by reorganizing images of the past as subjective images of remembrance.

24“Metaphors support the construction of specific ‘event models’, which serve to establish a coherent narrative” (Wodak and Cillia, 2007: 348). Musolff introduces the concept of ‘metaphor scenarios’ to grasp the attempt of (re)defining historical trajectories (2006). Musolff notes that “these highly specific source scenarios [. . .] are ubiquitous and constitute an essential feature of metaphor use in public discourse registers. Scenarios appear to dominate public discourse not just in terms of overall frequency but also in that they help to shape the course of public debates and conceptualizations in the respective discourse communities” (Musolff, 2006: 28). The scenarios used in most monumental history books have been heavily based on using such metaphor scenarios which depict Mustafa Kemal’s childhood through the image of a boy chasing the crows. The victimhood of Mustafa Kemal is identified by the imprisonment of people by the Empire. Once he grows up and breaks up his chains, the Republic is born out of the ashes of an order which made suffer the nation.

25The homeland as a safe haven is lost; and his life project is totally based on re-discovering his home, a symbol of security and serenity. Just as he struggles to regain a place at home, he tries to save his homeland from the enemies; he tries to rebuild his home. Even the utterances he used before his death reflect the search for a secure haven, one of the most significant thematizations in the docudrama. When Dündar narrates the revolutionary days of the history he uses a similar metaphor scenarios of home/homeland:

“When Atatürk lost his father and his home 35 years ago in Langaza, that boy who was trying to build a safe haven for himself did form a homeland for his people as well as for himself. A home which had to be left, a home which is very far away. A safe haven which is smaller than the older one; but a home which belongs to him” (Dündar, 2008: 123-124).

26When he loses his home, it is assumed, his struggle to form a nation starts; when he is beaten by his teacher at school his decisiveness to form a secular education system is triggered. The text which also narrates about his youth contructs various different linkages between his personal life and macro issues. For example, the abolishing of the Arabic alphabet corresponded to Atatürk’s own psychological urge to liberate his mother and the country from the vestiges of superstititon.  When Atatürk did everything to implement his revolutionary plans, these projects are represented as an outcome of his strains experienced during his childhood:

“A man who wrote that ‘if I have the power, I can do the revolution in our social life overnight’ was realizing what he was imagining six years ago in Karlsbad. He was taking revenge of the beating by his teacher when he was a child” (Dündar, 2008: 124).

27These type of simplifications clearly help creating ommisions and misuse of information for those who try to understand the intricate and complexties of a historical process whereby an Empire was being dissolved into a Republic.

28The text also borrows from popular dramatic characterizations of events and highlights those events of highly psychological nature which brings about underestimating the major events which can be understood within a historical context. Atatürk’s life is narrated via action-roles that recall classic fairy-tale structures: at the heart of the story is the hero who has to decide between good and evil, followed by struggle, triumph, the eradication of evil, and redemption. Thus what we have is an archaic sequence of motifs and actions that remind one of Vladimir Propp’s classifications of Russian folk tales (Propp, 1968). C. Dündar’s Atatürk, though, does not seem to be a hero in the classical sense; he is a man overburdened by his vices, his loneliness, and the loss of his mother. Although the text mentions the wars he has won before the formation of the Republic, his agony and grief is emphasized so much that these macro-events are reduced into a bundle of details in his life. He is forced to decide between the good and evil in his personal and public life. The struggles emanating from such a choice are described as a vindicating force in his life.

“To love? Did we find sufficient time? Can someone find time to love in mountains, tents in the hills, headquarters? Yet we are human too. We have a heart beating too. Did you ever get suspicious if we are a soldier?” (Dündar, 2008: 112).

“It has been three months since I came from Selanik. I thought I started a stable life in the beginning days. I though I could get rid of my sorrows which captivated me spiritually and materialistically. Is it really so? Today I am crying by hearing the complaints of groanings in my heart. As usual even at this moment” (Dündar, 2008: 16).

29When he meets his friend Ali Fuat in 1911, their dialogue is being narrated as follows:

“Mustafa Kemal had a melancholic psychology. I said ‘There is something wrong with you; what happenned’ He replied: ‘Nothing, but I feel sad’ he sighed: ‘Ah Salonica. Will I ever see you again?’ I looked at him; he was crying”(Dündar, 2008: 33).

30After the first National Parliament opened in 1923, Atatürk, one evening he was resting in his room at the headquarter:

“There was only one candle light in the building he moved to […] A commander who was preparing for an important fight expressed one of the most important weaknesses to his aid: ‘I cannot sleep in the dark’, he said, ‘find a solution’ […]” (Dündar, 2008, 83).

31One of the historians who evaluated the docudrama, Turgut Özakman, writes that there is no historical memoir reflecting Atatürk’s fear of dark. He adds that “a leader who has spent his life in the wars, mountains, barricades, headquarters; a leader who was a fighter in the wars, a leader who saw people being killed in front of him [...] can he get afraid of sleeping in the dark?” (Ozakman, 2009). Vices of a leader are accepted as his humane side (Özakman, 2009).

32In a docudramatic text, when fiction and history is brought together in a literary and narrative scope, a story-like depiction of an actual event may lead to deletion of relevant historical actors. In Mustafa, one of the most significant strategies of the filmmaker is the agent deletion, on behalf of easing the understanding of the complex web of events. Colonization of the text by the psychological accounts and the absence of important historical actors are outcomes of the psychohistorical devices used in the text. Although Atatürk was a leader of the War of Liberation which led to the emergence of a secular republic, relevant social and political agents are ommitted in the documentary. When he fights in Sakarya, in Canakkale, in Afyon; the perpetrators are never mentioned. When Istanbul was invaded by the “forces of invasion” in March 1920, there is no word on the process of political bargaining among international actors who had plans to conquer the lands in Anatolia.

33When historical events and even personal memory which is an outcome of collective memory are isolated from the surrounding dynamics, the text becomes de-politicized due to the absence of social and political agents. The absence of significant moments of history, the Treaty of Lozan, the process of creating a contemporary republic, the revolutions, the liberation of women, the establishment of schools, the fight against numerous social problems, are all related to the articulation of collective memory, dismissed by the text. Most importantly, the people, men and women, old and young, who also fighted with Atatürk against the perpetrators during the War of Liberation, are totally underestimated in the text.

34The role of Islam and of religious leaders in the War of Liberation and their emphasis on secularism as the key ideological force of Turkish politics is constructed in a simplistic ways. Such a controversial issue has been characterized as though it has been a war betwen the good and the evil, another binary opposition. Dündar, in an interview in the newspaper, Hürriyet, argues that “Atatürk  talks about the elimination of all religious remnants or the past in social and political life. Such a radical leader” (Özakman, 2009). The topic of secularism in Turkey has been discussed and analyzed in various different studies whereby Islamists make a similar interpretation quoted above. Özakman (2009) claims that some of those religious leaders in the War of Liberation were close allies of Atatürk who was never againts religious ideas or values; he was against those who, on the basis of religious arguments chalenged his authority.

35On the 6th of March, 1930, Atatürk goes to Antalya. He is very tired on that day. When he was left alone with his secretary, Mr. Soyak, he utters the following sentences:

36“We have been listening to complaints and grievances everywhere. There seems to be poverty everywhere. We come across few positive things. That’s the situation of our country. Such a country like haven finds itself in such a situation” (Dündar, 2008, 170). This paragraphy is quoted in the documentary. A sorrowful and a fatigued Atatürk, after achieving those revolutions and establishing those secular institutions feels worried about his country. Nevertheless, he also adds that “It’s impossible to achieve the goal of reaching the level of advanced societies in one year, five years, even one generation. We are tracking this road. We have been extremely struggling to make the band to follow the right track. Even if we know our situation, we should not loose our courage; we have to follow our road with hope and energy. Eventually, we will achieve our goal” (Dündar, 2008: 171). Dündar omits the quoted sentence in the narrative which could have helped him contextualize and historicize the event.

37What the documentary includes, shortly, the personal life of Atatürk with an emphasis on the psychological and macro history; a man with the ultimate power; a man whose words are legal principles; a man who gets retired after he becomes the President of Turkey and finds himself in boredoom and grief; a man left alone by all of his friends; a man who is daydreaming when the people in his country has been suffering; a lustful, a heavy drinker, and a smoker; a man who died alone.

38The hegemonic reading of the Rebublic heavily emphasized the victories, wars, virility of leaders which led to an expectation of revealing the lives of leaders as regular people. Dündar, who also made docudramas on the women who were romantically involved with Ataturk, presents his work as a contribution to understand the national leader by referring to the historical sources that was not used before13. The need for authenticity can be interpreted as a consequence of the increasing dominance of popular culture and media society. So there is an obvious need for authenticity, and this need is served by market structure. But what can be seen as authentic? Can images, can documentary or even fiction films, be authentic? Cultural studies sees it as a commonplace that there is no immediate access to the “true”, and that thus the term as such is an inherent paradox. The paradox, however does not lead to one to deny any claims of authenticity, but rather to continually renewed efforts of authentication: “the actual betrayal” as Bolz has it, “lies in the promise of the real” (Bolz, 2006).

39Additionally, authentication is first a means of constructing evidence. In the worst case this results in a synthetic concealment of the subjectivity, sectionality, mediality, and timeliness of representations and interpretation. In either case authenticity is a cultural construct: what is seen as authentic depends on interpretations and allocations of meaning; it is based on conventions of representation, established discourses, and also on faith in the appropriateness of images, symbols, and metaphors serving as representatives of reality. Thus, “authenticity” has to be historicized and contextualized (Classen, 2009).

The ConstructIon of a Pseudo-Critical History

40The production of Mustafa created an uproar and a polarity of opinions, spurred numerous controversial discussions in Turkey. Those who clearly criticized the text claimed that it was disrespectful and indignant to depict a national leader as a vulnerable,  and a weak man for the large audiences. The believers of secularism regarded the film as a threatening symbol in the sense that the codes and conventions of the republicanism have been questioned. They also claimed that the youth watching the documentary would have a distorted image of Atatürk who achieved what was unthinkable, that is, forming a republic out of the trashes of an Empire. One professor even sued the filmmaker, arguing that no one can portray Atatürk as a smoker14. Those who strongly condemned the film pointed out the cognitive dimension of the argumentations made in Mustafa in terms of historical veracity. It was astounding to see the intensity of the debates in the news media. These debates also provided codes by which significant ideological debates regarding identity and politics have been constructed through the docudrama15. The division between discourses which borrow from hegemonic and effective history became more dramatic.

41Those who were positive about the film employed a discourse of freedom which was referring to the right of people to see Atatürk from a different angle. Liberals as well as Islamists referred to the necessity for a re-interpretation of Atatürk’s life which has been glorified and mystified for years. They claimed that the official discourses have been masking the details about Atatürk’s private life; and Dündar’s efforts were worth praising. They also argued that so far the Turkish government has been configuring a heroic and a mythic figure to such an extend that understanding our history became totally impossible.

42The participants of the public debates on Mustafa contributed to a process of othering and demonizing each other by replying to ideological comments of the other side. The debates set the boundaries of speakable and unspeakable in the Turkish public opinion. The pro-Mustafa people used discourses of de-tabooization, while the others accused the fans of the filmmaker as traitors. The war among the essentialist claims and the relativist claims were being used to formulate a moral and a political agenda through the docudrama. The struggle over the popular representation of Atatürk depicted an important moment in Turkish history in terms of juxtaposing different interests related to different semiotical codes. These debates as an “extra-textual” event were actually referring to a conceptual struggle over accepting the past as a construction on the one hand, and referring to the past from the angle of historical truth, which brings about the problem of collective memory and it’s place in understanding the media texts.

43The memory/history relationship is a complex one because it involves not only questions of truth and representation but also the social and political dimensions of remembering and forgetting (Halbwachs, 1992). Memory is not history, least of all in the academic sense, but it is sometimes made from similar material. Unlike history, collective memory is not about objective facts, but how events of the past are understood. The re-enactment in docudramas reveals the traffic between the realms of cultural memory and history and indicates the fluid realm of memory itself.  The popularity of docudrama form exposes the fact that cultural and collective fantasies about what happened in specific historical events are as important in producing national meaning as many residue of the actual event (Sturken, 1997). In Mustafa, the ways in which  historical events are presented are significant discursive tools to see how our memory is conceptually and collectively structured in the narrative.

44As Poole vividly argues:

“[…] collective memory has a propositional content: this battle was fought and won, these men and women died […] and so on. So one aspect of collective memory […] is a claim to historical truth. Many theorists of collective memory are impressed with the all too obvious political agendas, the oversimplifications, condensations and exclusions behind the consecration of certain events and interpretations as part of a group’s memory” (Poole, 2008: 11).

45The hegemonic discourses have been constructing the image and the identity of Atatürk as a taboo, which has been an outcome of forming national identity in Turkey. As is emphasized above, the formation of the Turkish nation state has been identified with the father figure of Atatürk. In schools, the national history have been taught as part of the collective memoy which provided a story of the nation’s struggles and eventual triumph. So the critique of dominant memory narratives have been searching for different readings of the past16. These studies, as well as the people who created Mustafa, focused on an “alternative” reading which would not glorify the national leader or the history of the nation as part of the collective consciousness.

46However, we should question the difference between memory and history. Collective memory is not immune from historical revision which brings about a political agenda of its own. Part of the answer is that collective memory cannot be accepted as a collection of claims about the past. It is also a source of a group identity. “It provides an account of the group’s existence up to – and even beyond – the present moment. It provides a narrative of struggle and achievement, victory and defeat, in which members of the group can find their present identity” (Poole, 2008: 17).

47Is the use of memory without the question of truth a worthless attempt? As Ricoeur argues, “we confront problems of historical representation and reference to the past, but we must never eliminate the truth-claim of what has been. This is for ethical as well as epistemological reasons” (in Kearney and Dooley, 1999: 14-15). Therefore, the role of memory cannot be separated from finding out the historical truth. In addition, it cannot be separated from crucial questions: whether or not people living in collectivities and having commitments to groups should disassociate themselves from the projects and policies of their precedessors becomes a moral question. If one neglects the issue of locating aspects of past by de-historicising the collective memory, people cannot be informed about the obligations and responsibilities related to what has happenned in the past (Poole, 2008). It is natural and necessary to seek for a panacea against dominant characterizations of national identities which mask significant social contradictions and marginalize other voices. Nevertheless, identifying a counter hegemonic reading with a re-contextualized, de-contextualized and de-politicized narrative does not solve the dilemma between exploring the historical truth and dismissal the fabrication of authenticity.

Banality of Essentializing and Romanticizing History

48Mustafa as a docudramatic text offers a wide variety of information on Atatürk’s life. In these narratives, where the “poetic” confronts the “political” (Resina, 2000), the audience’s desire to see their own received understanding of history is confirmed by historical evidence. The fictionalization and dramatization of history meet the spectator's desire to see how historic events took place. But these interpretative representations also fulfill the desire to fit national or personal versions of history to officially remembered history by offering a framework for interpreting and reconstructing historic incidents in the viewer's mind. In so doing, historical docudrama makes a double offer to the audience. The aim is to emotionalize history for a mass audience and to find a way into the historic incidents that will facilitate spectators' identification (Ebbrecht, 2007).

49Rüsen distinguishes among three dimensions of historical culture, namely political, aesthetic, and cognitive. The aesthetic dimension not only includes the historical contents of art, but more generally the sensual qualities of perception regarding historical representations and their formal coherence. The political dimension refers to the political function related to the present, the field of historical politics. Finally, the cognitive dimension involves the area of assuring knowledge, an area that modern societies have institutionalized in historical studies. Rüsen claims that no dimension can exist without the others, and that only in balance do they generate the effect that is perceived as historical meaning. Despite this, each dimension tends to make itself independent at the others’ expense (Rüsen, 1994). The docudrama described in this paper contains several characteristics of three layers of historical culture. Whether or not it offered a balanced usage of those characteristics can be questioned; and the reasons of this asymmetrical situation vary. The ommision of certain agents from the historical portrayal of events, the insubstantial correlation between Atatürk’s psychological tendencies and complex web of events around him; the description of some of the events without taking the relevant context into account all weakened the balance of three dimensions. The political dimension, which is the most relevant layer of meaning for the question of morality, led to the question of conflict of interests or common denominators between different ideological positions in Turkish society. As Todorov argues, the usage of memory can be negative and positive. “In order for people to define themselves as people, they need to select a series of atrocities or achievements which can help define themselves separately from the others. Yet, the inevitability of referring to the past does not necessarily mean that the past is always good” (Todorov, 2004: 7-8). Our understanding of the past has ethical consequences. Collective memory can be used to sustain the feelings of revenge from the past, which can harm the political good or civic virtues of the citizens. The characterizations of Mustafa from the essentialist and relativistic positions are both destructive in terms of leading to glorification of the past as well as banalization of the past. If what we choose to remember and interpret about the past also requires us to have responsibilities, one cannot and should not avoid using the past so as to re-create banalization or sacralization. What Mustafa did was help us to delineate the ideological lines of thought around essentialism and relativism which are both problematic to understand collective memory as well as national identity. “Both essentialism and relativism are tyrannous in that the former fails to recognize its hegemonic status and the latter is politically ineffective in a political world comprised of unreflexive hegemonic articulations. To productively destabilise national identity is to destabilise articulations of national identity that naturalise and essentialise what it means to be a hero-patriot” (Bruner, 2005: 323). If the role of the memory is also normative, not only epistemological, then citizens should be exposed to codes of progressive forms of national identity which would be part of a political imagination, a way of thinking that does not perceive all types of commitments as part of a totalitarian practice. A dialogic language, in the Bakhtinian sense, is necessary for integrating the acts of remembering and forgetting, imagination and perception. After all, dire consequences of a monologic language have been clearly documented in the records of humanity.

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1  Mustafa Kemal was given the surname “Ataturk” (the father of Turks) by the Turkish National Assembly when Western style surnames were adopted in 1934.

2  The historical studies personally led by Ataturk hastened in the early 1930s and became more and more important. Turk Tarihinin Anahatları (The Fundamentals of Turkish History) which reflects the view of the Kemalist regime’s official history, was one of the most important products of these efforts. See: Günaltay (1939).

3  Writing on the characteristics of a counter historiography is not an issue which could be covered in this paper. However, one can see the impact of such historians as: Fuad Köprülü, Omer L. Barkan, Kemal Karpat, Halil Inalcık, Stefanos Yerasimos, Mete Tuncay, Ilber Ortaylı and Ahmet Y. Ocak. Although he is a sociologist, Şerif Mardin’s work had a major impact on such a historiography which underlined a Weberian reading on the Ottoman-Turkish history with an emphasis on re-interpreting the Ottoman past not as the other, unlike Kemalist historians who did the opposite. See: Mardin (1971).

4  The information on the docudrama: Mustafa; the script writer and the director: Can Dündar; music by: Goran Bregovic; Production: 2008, NTV & Komedya Productions; co-director: H. Mehmet Dursun; producer: Dilek Dündar; project coordinator: Kemal Can; general coordinator: Naza Gezer; advisor: Faruk Alpkaya; Research: Cemalettin Canlı; art director: Yusuf Akcura; archive research: Saadet Özen and Saadet Türker. 130 minutes.

5  For a thorough coverage of all newspaper articles on Mustafa, see: URL: htpp:// See: Birch (2008).

6  See: Villelabeitia (2008).

7 See: Jaafar (2008).

8 See: Delphine & Guler (2008).

9  The analysis in this paper is mostly based on the written evidence rather than the visual material. Since it was impossible to access to the transcription of the scenario, the book (Mustafa) which is an extended version of the docudrama is referred for this article. See: Dundar (2008).

10  URL: “Can Dundar ve Mustafa” (Can Dundar and Mustafa) 10.1.2008, URL:

11 See: URL:, 10.11.2008.

12 See: URL:, 11.11.2008.

13 The producer did get an official permission to use personal diaries of Ataturk in the docudrama. These diaries have been archived at ATASE (The Head of Command Military History and Strategic Studies) in Ankara. It has been claimed that the archives were never opened up for other historians who wanted to read Ataturk’s diaries. See: Arman (2008).

14  Prof. Dr. Ahmet Ercan and Prof. Dr. Orhan Kural made a legal claim to the legal authorities in the Court of Ankara on 11.10.2008 claiming that the filmmaker harms the honour of Atatürk, that no one can call the national leader as Mustafa, that it is disrespectful to show a Greek boy named Yorgo in the scene where Atatürk traces the crows, that the documentary film demeans Atatürk by representing him as a smoker. They also said that the film provides an advertisement of smoking by abusing the Atatürk’s dignified image. See: URL:

15  C. Dündar collected all the information, criticism and evaluations, and the coverage of the docudrama in the Turkish and international media in his own web site. See: URL: http://www.candü

16  For example, see: Glyptis (2008).

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Nuran E. Işik, « Politics of Counter-Memory in Turkey: Docudramatizing the Past as a Panacea for Official Discourses? », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #9 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2011, consulté le 27 février 2021. URL :

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Nuran E. Işik

 est professeur adjoint au Département des médias et des communications, École des communications, Izmir University of Economics (Turquie). Ses intérêts de recherche sont la sociologie politique, la communication politique, la citoyenneté, le genre et les médias et les méthodes qualitatives de recherche. Elle travaille actuellement sur un projet intitulé « Disengaging the Ambiguities of Citizenship in Turkey: Pictures from the Problematic Terrain of Gendered Politics in Turkey ».

Nuran E. Işik
is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication, School of Communication, Izmir University of Economics (Turkey). His research interests are political sociology, political communication, citizenship, gender and the media and qualitative research methods. She is now working on a project entitled “Disengaging the Ambiguities of Citizenship in Turkey: Pictures from the Problematic Terrain of Gendered Politics in Turkey.”

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