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Nihal G. Koldas
A feature film about an unusual trio: Daniel, a German photo-journalist in Istanbul without much knowledge about Turkish values. Can, a flamboyant, out and proud male belly dancer with lots of love and support from his family, and Ahmet born to an eastern and conservative family whose quest for honesty and liberty results in a tragic end. ZENNE Dancer is inspired by true stories.Written by
Zenne Dancer, a Turkish film directed by Mehmet Binay and Caner Alper, who themselves are a gay couple, was released in January 2012. The film explores the taboo issue of LGBTQ rights in contemporary Turkish culture, as it follows the relationship between three "unlikely" friends: Can is a flamboyant belly, or zenne dancer, who does not shy away from expressing himself at any moment; Daniel, a German photographer on assignment in Istanbul, is haunted by his past; Ahmet, a university student struggling with his identity, is stuck between the dueling ideologies of his religious parents and the secular Istanbul. By analyzing the film through a critical lens and how it engages with recent scholarship, we may fashion a comprehensive understanding how Zenne Dancer is a prime example of cinema that has political and cultural implications.
The film was inspired by a true event that occurred in Istanbul on July 15, 2008. Binay and Alper's character of Ahmet is based on the Ahmet Yildiz, a close friend of theirs, who was murdered that tragic day. In the film, Ahmet, originally from the rural southeastern town of Urfa, is encouraged by his friends to come out to his conservative family. However, unlike Can, who received love and support from his family, and Daniel, who comes from the more liberal Germany, Ahmet's honesty will ultimately cause his death.
It is for this reason that making Zenne Dancer was so crucial. The film drew international coverage and success, including multiple awards at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival and by the Turkish Film Critics Association. Zenne Dancer not only started conversations about LGBTQ rights and gender equality where they weren't happening, but it furthermore shifted existing portrayals of queer individuals in the media. Typically, Turkish media "ignores or laughs off violence against gays" Media also oftentimes do not show the differences between homosexuals, transvestites, and transsexuals
Although this isn't the first queer film to be released in Turkey, it is the first that actively seeks to explore the difficulties and problems faced by Turkey's gay community. In the film, Ahmet says to Daniel that his mother "likes to clean", foreshadowing the act that is meant to cleanse the family of his illicit relationship.
Because Turkey is a secular republic, homosexuality is, in fact, legal—but even with the most cursory of research, it is evident that homophobia and transphobia are rampant throughout Turkey. In 2001, approximately a decade before Zenne Dancer hit the big screen, a study measuring people's opinions of homosexuality in Turkey was conduced among college students. The results showed that students had negative attitudes toward queer individuals, mostly because of tradition
In a male-dominated and patriarchal society like Turkey, gender becomes a stratification system, ranking women below men. Because Turkish people associate gay men with the feminine, a stereotypical image with an inherent prejudice against it is called to mind
Zenne Dancer takes this issue head-on. First, Ahmet and Daniel are projected as stereotypically masculine figures. Both are burly, muscular men with deep voices and facial hair. They both just happen to fall in love with each other, as well. However, the film represents the character of Can differently. He is best described as gender non-conforming—and not to be confused as transsexual, as many zennes are in Turkey. As a Zenne Dancer he is hyper-feminized, the object of desire for other men at the club in which he perform, but "retains the marks of his own ambiguity and ambivalence" (Halbertstam 3). In an attempt to dodge being drafted into the Turkish military, which will be discussed in the following paragraph, Can stays with his aunt and her hyper-masculine lover.
Zenne Dancer also presents implications for the homophobia that is evident in Turkey is the military. "Homosexuality is regarded as a mental illness, and homosexuals are thereby banned form military service" In the film, Daniel convinces Ahmet to escape Turkey and immigrate to Germany with him. However, Ahmet is required to fulfill his military services—that is, unless he presents the army with pornographic evidence that he is a homosexual. As the final credits of the movie say, "The Turkish Military is in possession of the largest pornographic collection in Europe". But, by portraying Germany as a liberal, all-welcoming nation, Zenne has further political implications on this nation and queer asylum.
Finally, there is an additional facet of Turkish culture that is especially interesting: the stage. This topic will be explored in greater detail in the accompanied video, but it is worth contextualizing the stage and its relation to homophobia and transphobia in Turkey. The space presents yet a dichotomy—the relationship between public and private spaces. Many "heterosexual" men discriminate against queer individuals during the day, but enjoy them, and even lust them, at night. The stage, as Selen describes it, is where "queerness can safely be embodied". For example, Can does not go out in the day out of fear, but is a zenne at night. Many of the men that attend the club don't self-identity as homosexual, but are rather, in a sense, heteroflexible. As Zenne Dancer explores this topic, it manifests larger implications for society. Because Turkish culture is intolerant to queerness, men are oftentimes pushed deeper into the closest, only to express themselves in secret. From this it is logical to say gay culture is underground at its core in Turkey, allowing Zenne Dancer to be categorized as queer cinema
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