The new feature film about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s life is more hagiography than biopic. Released in cinemas in early March, Reis (“The Chief”) is an odd mixture of melodrama, testosterone, and a highly partisan account of Turkey’s modern history. Its release comes amid campaigning for the April 16 referendum on shifting the country to an executive presidential system, tightening Erdogan’s already iron grip on power. But Reis’ troubled $8 million production process may reflect the government’s surprisingly difficult pre-referendum campaign. The “yes” campaign has been given oxygen by the Turkish government’s bitter rift with Germany and the Netherlands over banned ministers’ meetings and spectacular “Nazi” allegations. But up to now, polls have remained tight and there are signs the result is far from wrapped.
THE MEDIA IS CURRENTLY FIXATED ON ERDOGAN’s LATEST SPAT WITH EUROPE
The media is currently fixated on Erdogan’s latest spat with Europe, but the narrative of Reis is a good reminder of his populist appeal to many ordinary Turks. The story switches between Erdogan’s tough childhood and his later life as a pious up-and-coming politician hoping to become mayor of Istanbul. We watch him grow up as an earnest youngster in the hardscrabble Kasımpaşa neighborhood surrounded by men with elaborate mustaches, playing football and selling simit bread rolls. Later, we see him, played by actor Reha Beyoğlu, applying those early lessons as a pugnacious figure in the Islamist precursor of today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). At one point he is threatened by a businessman after refusing to take a bribe, but he responds fearlessly: “If we are to die, we will die like men.” He also has a sensitive side: In one scene, he even saves a puppy stranded at the bottom of a well.
REIS ALSO FOLLOWS A LARGELY FICTIONAL GROUP
Reis also follows a largely fictional group of salt-of-the-earth Kasımpaşa everymen (there are hardly any women in the film) who are scorned and oppressed in the “old Turkey.” Through their story, the film distills the appeal the AKP makes to Turkish citizens before every election: Look at how bad and unjust things used to be. Thank God we now have a brave leader to fix that by taking on our enemies. Let’s rally behind him.
Erdogan’s rise from working-class origins to the country’s unquestioned leader is known by all of Turkey’s 79 million citizens. He may today live in a 1,000-room palace in Ankara, but he maintains a common touch endearing him to millions of Turks who identify with him. However cliché the script and hokey the acting, Reis is unlikely to disappoint viewers already devoted to Erdogan.