Law of the Border: Breaking Boundaries and Building Bridges

“He was tall and thin, with short curly hair. He gazed out intensely through dark eyes, and his olive skin seemed to have been wrapped tightly around his bones.” This was how veteran Turkish director Lütfi Ö. Akad described his first impressions of the eager young man who walked into his Istanbul office one day in the fall of 1964. Yılmaz Güney, then a rising star of violent genre knockoffs, had come to pay his respects to the filmmaker who had made him want to go into the business in the first place. “I fed myself on your movies,” Güney told Akad. “I slept on top of the boxes holding the reels.” This was not an exaggeration: before he started acting, Güney, born to a Kurdish family in the southern town of Adana, had held a job transporting film reels from village to village in rural Turkey. He said that he had spent his youth dreaming of the day he would go to Istanbul and make movies with Akad, who had become one of the country’s most important directors through a variety of successful historical epics, neorealist melodramas, and romantic fables. Touched by Güney’s words, Akad apologized that this was no longer possible—suffering from burnout and professional frustration, he had effectively quit directing several years earlier. “No, brother,” Güney replied. “You’re going to make many more movies, right here. We’ll make them together.”

It was a couple of years later that Güney, whose fame had only grown in the meantime, presented Akad with a screenplay for Law of the Border. Very much in line with the actor’s schlocky, populist hits, Güney’s draft followed a charismatic smuggler and ladies’ man who was in constant battle with the authorities, killing people left and right. It was the kind of story on which the actor had built his reputation. At a time when the Turkish film industry seemed dominated by fresh-faced, “jeune” heartthrobs starring in romantic melodramas, Güney’s gaunt, intense face and violent movies had earned him the nickname Çirkin Kral, or Ugly King.

As Akad would later describe it, Güney’s draft was violent, juvenile, and abnormally long. “My first instinct upon reading it was to fling it across the room,” he said. Instead, the director suggested to Güney a complete rewrite, one that foregrounded the setting and the socioeconomic status of the characters. The original draft had simply used the Syria-Turkey border as a convenient backdrop for an outlaw’s adventures. Akad asked about motivations: This was a treacherous land covered in barbed wire and minefields, with a hostile government on either side. He wanted to reflect that tension, and to understand why people would risk their lives to cross the border. Güney relented, even though he felt that the film Akad wanted to make wouldn’t be nearly as successful as the one he had written. As the director prepared to rewrite the script, he traveled to the town of Urfa and met with veteran smugglers as well as military personnel. (He asked to be introduced to older smugglers with lots of experience; he was told that such people in that region never got a chance to grow old.) In short, he did everything in his power to create a work of great authenticity and realism, at least by the technically impoverished standards of the Turkish film industry at the time.

What emerged would become one of the most important works in Turkish cinema, and mark a pivotal moment in both men’s careers. Güney went on to produce and direct his own pictures, along the way becoming the most seismic and controversial cultural figure of his generation and a catalyst for a new era of politically engaged filmmaking. (Though he died in exile in Paris in 1984, he remains an icon in Turkey to this day, his face gracing posters in coffeehouses and theaters, his name regularly invoked by contemporary filmmakers.) Akad would have his career renewed and go on to create works of increasing complexity, realism, and social commitment. In many ways, Law of the Border (1966) is the fulcrum on which much of modern Turkish cinema turns.

That’s a tall order for a film that’s quite modest in many ways. Running well under eighty minutes, Law of the Border is haunting in its terseness, disarming in its simplicity. What grounds it, first and foremost, is the mesmerizing presence of its lead, Güney, playing the quiet, charismatic smuggler Hıdır. Like Clint Eastwood, an actor to whom he was often compared, Güney came to understand the value of cutting out most of his dialogue. And also not unlike Eastwood, the Ugly King became famous for his glances. Young men would find inspiration in the actor’s half-melancholy, half-vengeful stares, which evoke both pathos and bloodlust. Law of the Border isn’t nearly as genre-heavy as some of Güney’s earlier films, but you can still see why an entire generation of Turkish viewers was captivated by him. As Hıdır, his dialogue is scarce, but with his soulful reserve and animal grace, it’s clear that this is a man of immense authority—even though the film rarely relies on close-ups. The character would prove to be an important step in Güney’s development as an actor, from action hero to folk figure—many of his later performances hark back to this one.

Akad mixes moments of harsh realism with a lean visual poetry that recalls a western. (He even includes a tense, silent showdown between multiple men that brings to mind Sergio Leone’s films—although the first of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, wouldn’t be released in Turkey until 1967.) The camera remains mostly at ground level, and the horizon stays continually in focus, which feels like both a narrative and a symbolic device. We’re constantly reminded of the immensity of this land, but we’re also, in some senses, looking toward the future. A similar duality can be found in the scene where a new school is opened in the village of Deliviran. The wind that whips the Turkish flags around during the ceremony serves to highlight the challenge of doing something meaningful in such harsh territory; it’s as if the school itself could be swept away with one strong gust. But we’re also seeing the winds of change—the kind of overt symbol that Turkish cinema wasn’t afraid to indulge in at the time.

Throughout the first half of the 1960s, the country’s film industry had grown dramatically. Even though most of what was being produced were undistinguished, quickie melodramas, a small group of filmmakers—including Akad, Metin Erksan (Dry Summer), and Halit Refiğ (Birds of Exile)—attempted to create works of greater refinement and artistic value. But these directors also found themselves being attacked from both sides: as the relatively progressive political environment of the early sixties gave way to a more conservative backlash in the later years of the decade, they often encountered trouble from the censors; but they were also rejected by many on the left, as the Western-minded Turkish intelligentsia, in thrall to the new cinemas coming out of Europe and elsewhere, frequently ignored or denigrated their work.

Akad’s style had varied greatly from film to film—from the theatricality of his debut feature, Strike the Whore (1949), to the frenzied noir of In the Name of the Law (1952), to the moody, almost Antonioni-esque expressionism of The Lonely Ones’ Quay (1959). He even made a couple of musicals along the way. But right before Law of the Border, at a time when he thought he’d abandoned feature filmmaking for good, the director had made a short nature documentary, Tanrinin bagisi orman (God’s Gift, the Forest; 1964), part of which took place in barren villages, showing the dangers of drought, deforestation, and sandstorms.

For Law of the Border, Akad sought a style that, though direct and unvarnished, would give the film the quality of a fable. But he also borrowed a page from his documentary efforts. The land is inseparable from the story: the desolation of this terrain never stops bearing down on the characters. This is not just an aesthetic device but a narrative one. As Hıdır notes, “This land is no good. It’s sand.” That’s ultimately what drives these men into a life of crime. At the same time, Hıdır’s embrace of the authorities’ decision to try to turn this society into an agrarian one is strangely poignant: the scene of him and the other men walking the newly cultivated earth, planting seeds, has an aura of triumph to it. Hıdır is willing to change and to embrace civilization for the sake of giving his son a better life.

Akad’s one regret over his script was that he didn’t get a chance to explore the theme of the individual versus the collective; he writes in his memoir that he downplayed this element in part as a way to avoid government censorship. Still, the film’s politics are more complex than they might at first seem. The presence of the dedicated teacher Ayşe (Pervin Par), who isn’t quite a love interest but who attracts the attentions of both Hıdır and Lieutenant Zeki (Atilla Ergün), works over a common motif of Turkish literature and cinema from the period following Atatürk’s founding of the modern republic in 1923: tales of young, bright-eyed educators from big cities traveling to the country’s heartland to teach poor children and townspeople. But even as the film argues for the social advancement provided by education and the benevolence of the state, it also seeks to understand and sympathize with folk-hero outlaws like Hıdır. For Akad and Güney, the bad guys aren’t the government or urban elites but rather craven, indolent landowners such as Duran Ağa (Muharrem Gürses), who reluctantly opens up his fertile, unused land for planting by the townspeople, then secretly arranges for a herd of sheep to be driven over it, thus destroying the crops and pushing Hıdır back into a life of crime.

Despite Akad’s attempts to tone down the politics, Law of the Border still had its share of difficulties with the censors. The shoot in Urfa was even raided by the cops, who attempted to seize the footage, claiming that the script had never been approved. It turned out that Güney’s original draft, sent before Akad had finished his revisions, had been rejected by the Central Film Control Commission in Ankara. To help settle the problem, Akad had to pause the shoot for a week while he sent his own draft of the script, under a different title (The Law of the Mountains), to Ankara and awaited official approval.

This was not the first or last time that Güney ran afoul of the authorities, even just on this shoot; true to his roughneck spirit, he also briefly wound up in jail before the film wrapped, for firing a handgun during a bar brawl. While shooting was eventually allowed to continue, the movie again ran into trouble upon its release, when, despite its critical and box-office success, it was reportedly blocked from being submitted to the Berlin and Venice film festivals by the Turkish censors.

In later years, Law of the Border would suffer simply for its association with the politically explosive figure of Güney, who spent most of the seventies in prison, first for harboring and helping left-wing guerrillas and later for murder (amazingly, this didn’t seem to affect his productivity, as he continued to work on his films from behind bars, often taking advantage of the fact that the soldiers assigned to guard him were also huge fans). During this period, Güney also became more outspoken about Kurdish issues in his work, further provoking the ire of the government and the military. After he escaped from prison and fled Turkey in the early eighties—following the 1980 military coup—he was declared persona non grata. Many of his books (he was also a novelist) and films were seized and destroyed by the authorities; only one print of Law of the Border survived.

But the film’s legacy endures. Akad’s influence is evident in the films Güney directed: in rural dramas like Bride of the Earth (1968) and Hope (1970), the writer-director-actor further explored this terse, fablelike style, with haunted characters filmed against harsh, authentic landscapes. But unlike Akad, he didn’t pull back on the politics. Throughout the seventies, his work proved to be enormously controversial, racking up acclaim and awards while being banned by the authorities, the director’s notoriety increasing exponentially with each release. (This all culminated in the triumph of 1982’s Yol, which Güney wrote and produced from prison, then edited on the run and premiered at Cannes—where it shared the Palme d’Or with Costa-Gavras’s Missing—with Interpol on his tail.)

Akad’s subsequent work didn’t prove to be nearly as politically incendiary as Güney’s. Instead, he doubled down on the naturalism of Law of the Border, on understanding the inner lives of simple people in harsh circumstances. The film would form a loose Anatolian trilogy with his subsequent pictures Red River, Black Sheep, which also stars Güney, and Mother (both 1967). These would in turn prove to be a model for what is still one of the great achievements of Turkish cinema, Akad’s monumental trilogy of migration—The Bride (1973), The Wedding (1973), and Blood Money (1974), an ambitious triptych about families from the rough, rural Southeast looking for a better life in the cities. Still, despite their different paths, Akad and Güney were undoubtedly both transformed by their experience with Law of the Border. Both men felt that the film represented a pinnacle in their careers. It was certainly that. It was also a point of no return. 

You have no items in your shopping cart