It feels to me that lately there have been more documentaries about filmmaking than ever before. Maybe I am wrong. Perhaps it is because these documentaries are not explorations of one auteur or famous director, but often explorations of gonzo filmmakers who often have never received accolades. Whether it is exploring the history of Australian exploitation film, the brief boom of salacious films made in the Philippines, or the storied career of one of my favorite companies, Canon Film Group, recent documentary filmmakers have turned their cameras on the unexpected and the underdog. Often, these films are fun and interesting because of their topic. Remake, Remix, Rip Off: About Copy Culture and Turkish Pop-Cinema is no different, succeeding primarily because the story it tells is so fun and unique, so any flaws in storytelling are overwhelmed by such a compelling topic.
Remake, Remix, Rip Off tells the story of Turkish cinema, from the ’60s primarily through the ’70s with some brief focus on the ’80s before there was a cultural crackdown under the military junta. Turkey had an immense and thriving filmgoing public, no copyright laws of any kind, and very few resources to put into filmmaking. Thus, the film industry was filled with cheap and easy stories, often copying the films coming out in other countries as well as their own. This though is not a story of a lack of creativity, but an exploration of how necessity breeds its own kind of creativity. Many of these Turkish film studios would have teams of three to four writers working on another production every week. That means in a given year one company could release as many as 300 films into the market. The various stars of this time that are interviewed have film credits ranging from hundreds to thousands of different productions that they performed in. This type of productivity of course led to borrowing from other sources, but the variety of creative ways that these sources were taken from and combined with Turkish themes ends up being compelling in and of itself. With no money, and often very few technical resources, Turkish companies would make massive films and then score them with classic Hollywood music. In some cases they would borrow from Hollywood sources and make their own versions. In fact, in one amazing case they used the actual film stock from Star Wars to make an all new movie that created an entirely new story line.
In Western culture, there is an obsession with authenticity: the idea that one’s ideas are original, that they are influenced perhaps by other sources but they belong to you, and your art then is a reflection of your individual ideas and creativity. That is to say, in Western art we value the creative individual who manages to create a brand new thing while still paying respect to the past. To be honest, I am not above this construct, I love original art and maverick artists. I do suspect though, that this is bullshit. I mean this in two ways. One is perhaps the most important for this film, which is that we all live in a world where we must sell our art. If a director in Turkey manages to come up with an ingenious way to get paid for his art, and lives in a context in which taking from other arts is not frowned upon, is that not also a creative act? Of course, my second reason is supported by the fact that I do not actually believe anything is original. All thought, let alone creative thought, is in fact a remix. Perhaps the resources and demands in Turkey created a situation where our creative borrowing from each other was at times the most crass it could be. However, what was happening there seems to me, with my limited perspective, not that different. We all steal, so the question is what art do we bring to stealing?
Granted, even this description is not giving enough respect to the full story. Remake, Remix, Rip Off is not only about those filmmakers who borrowed extensively. Filmmaking in Turkey required all kinds of tricks and schemes and often dangers. Actors were also stuntmen, much as in other exciting but smaller markets like the Ozsploitation scene. Yet in Turkey there seemed to be even more risk, and sometimes even more reward. The film is also, in some ways, about the spread and popularity of these films. The video market for them in places like Germany was huge, and much of the rural countryside was still dominated by film watching and this film culture. Within this story, however is a tragedy of sort, which this film only gets to near the end.
Remake, Remix, Rip Off ends with the reminder that many of these films are lost. Not only that, but the few directors who felt as if they could go against the system and make challenging art were often placed in danger. Directors conformed to the pop-cinema expectations of them not for some giant pay day, often the economic return on these films were abysmally small. It was that, when one made original and challenging works in Turkey, one was placed in danger. Directors were jailed and beaten, and some eventually had to flee in order to make the art they wanted to make. The directors who stayed were not just creative burrowers, but survivors. Their survival, though, did not guarantee the survival of their films. The government destroyed thousands of film negatives, many of which were not particularly political, but seen as decadent. This was my major critique of Remake, Remix, Rip Off. The film tells a fascinating story, one that has its moments of triumph and struggle. But it spent too little time on the film makers who were persecuted, and on the conditions that led to the destruction of so many important films. Despite this, Remake, Remix, Rip Off is an entertaining and affecting documentary about the creativity of artists even in the least conducive conditions.