A biography written by Hüseyin Tabak
Yılmaz Güney Pütün (his birth name is Pütün, Güney his artist`s name) was born on September 1st 1937 in the village Siverek near Adana/Turkey as a son of a simple farming family. He makes his first contacts with the film world at the age of 15 when he started working for a regional film distribution company, carrying film prints on his bike from one cinema to the other. As an employee he is allowed to watch the films himself and is deeply impressed by the emotions that images can evolve in people. Inspired by this, he starts writing his own short stories for which he even finds small publishing houses as buyers. 1955 he writes the short story "Three Ways to a an System of Equality" about a young village girl who is being oppressed by the feudal society structure as a member of the lower class. Because of the sentence „If we were all equal we would live in paradise. “, the public prosecutor presses charges against Güney on account of communist propaganda. In court, Güney hears the word communism for the first time. Thereupon he leaves Adana and goes to Istanbul, not because he fears conviction, but because he doesn’t understand his fault and therefore doesn’t see any chance for a fair process.
Since he cannot find anybody in Istanbul who would publish his stories he earns his living carrying out newspapers instead of writing for them. In May 1957 the nowadays world-famous Kurdish author Yaşar Kemal sees Yılmaz at work. Kemal has just sold the film rights for one of his novels to master director Atıf Yılmaz and together they are looking for an actor for the leading role. Yaşar Kemal sees the main character of his novel in the 20-year-old Güney. He hands some money for the taxi to the young man and asks him to immediately head to Atıf Yılmaz. This is the unique opportunity for Güney to set foot into the film industry . He seizes the chance and gets the role. Soon after he changes his last name because he is still wanted in Adana as Yılmaz Pütün. Yaşar Kemal suggests him to call himself Güney (Turkish: south), because it suited his dark eyes and his dark, dry skin, which is characteristic for a boy from South Anatolia.
After this film Atıf Yılmaz engages him for many other projects. In the beginning he plays minor parts, but later also main roles. At the same time, he works as assistant director and co-author. With his distinctive face, differing from the typical look of a beau, he soon becomes the darling of the public. The audience sees itself in this simple boy from Anatolia. Yet his past is quickly catching up with him and the public prosecutor orders his detention at the film set in Adana in 1960. They want to sentence him for communist propaganda to 7,5 years, but with the help of his excellent attorneys, whom he can afford by now, he manages to reduce the verdict to 1,5 years.
In prison Güney has lots of time to read and engages in Lenin, Mao and Marx. He writes his first, award-winning novel BOYNU BÜKÜK ÖLDÜLER (They Bowed Their Heads And Died), educates himself politically and decides to take action against the oppression of the working class by the Turkish government.
After his release in 1963 Güney continues where he had stopped his work before he went to prison. By this time he gets offered only main roles. Thanks to his charme he is very popular and has many affairs with successful actresses. After his famous role in CIRKIN KRAL (The Ugly King) he makes himself a distinctive name and becomes an absolute superstar. The film is about a simple man fighting against the Mafia in order to protect a single woman. It is not a classic love story, since no romance is developping between the two. Actually it is about virility and the protection of the weaker sex. With this role Güney is now popular not only with the women but also the men in the country. Wherever he goes he is surrounded by a knot of people. Once he is spotted in his car at a red light whereupon a cheering crowd of people runs to him and lifts up his car. His popularity is unlimited. By now he acts in more than 10 films per year and becomes the by far highest-earning actor in Turkey.
In 1965, he has an affair with the bar singer Can with whom he has a daughter: Elif Güney. At the beginning of Can's pregnancy he is at her side but soon after the birth of their child he decides to end the relationship. Despite his philosophy of life, education and modern political worldview the feudal system in which he grew up is so deeply rooted in his mind that he is disappointed to have a daughter instead of a son. He finances the living of his daughter and her mother, but never sees Can again.
Soon after he starts another affair, this time with the famous actress Nebahat Cehre. They become the dream couple of the Turkish movie scene and appear in another tabloid every week. In 1967, they get divorced. At this point Güney starts to direct films himself and writes almost all the screenplays for the films in which he is acting. In 1966, he wins the Turkish Film Award for Best Actor and Best Screenplay for the first time. Meanwhile he drinks and gambles a lot until he meets Fatoş, his future and last wife. He sees her on set for the first time, where she is with a friend who visits her father. Although Fatoş is only 17 years old, Güney immediately knows that she is the right one. Fatoş is educated, beautiful, still a virgin and comes from a good home. Already on the first day he proposes to her but she first refuses. After exchanging letters for 1,5 years and countless proposals she eventually eases and marries him in 1970. The same year he starts Güney Film and UMUT (The Hope), his first own production, which is the first Turkish film ever to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival. At the Turkish Film Awards UMUT wins in all categories, but is banned by the Turkish censorship, because of agitation against religion. Only in 1995 the film is shown legally in Turkish cinemas, after most viewers had already seen it illegally on VHS or in movie theaters. Nevertheless more than 400.000 people go to watch the movie in cinemas in Turkey, which in those days is a sensation for a 25-year-old film.
UMUT is Güney’s international breakthrough. After this success he receives offers from Europe as well as the USA, but he decides against a big Hollywood career and in favour of filmmaking for his people instead. The marriage with Fatoş provides him an anchor which he can hold on to. He doesn't go to the casinos that often anymore, makes less films and focuses more on the content and values of his stories. At the same time hostilities between the Left and the Right break out in Turkey leading to a civil war. A military coup is established which has mostly the Left in their target. Regarded as fair game, members of the Left are arrested and even shot on the street. In 1971, when Güney and Fatoş already have a 7-months-old son, he hides rebels in his attic. Although the military searches his house they can't find anyone there. A couple of days later the young activists move on and get soon after caught by the military. Under extreme torture they reveal Güney's name, who gets arrested the same evening and is sentenced to 7,5 years for "Attempted Overthrow of the State". In 1972, he goes to prison in Selimiye. From there he continues his political activism using his production company Güney Film in order to publish his own newspapers and to mobilise followers. He gets his writings, screenplays and novels smuggled outside by means of bribe and even has the prison guards at his side who admire him so much that they help him voluntarily.
Thanks to a general amnesty Güney gets released in May 1974. In the following summer he begins to shoot ARKADAŞ (The Friend). Parallely to the post-production of this film he starts working on two other films, ZAVALLILAR (The Poor Ones) and ENDIŞE (The Fear). After the first shooting day of ENDIŞE, where he plays the leading part, an unfortunate incident occurs that changes Güney's life from one day to the next.
At the end of the first shooting day Güney, his wife and some staff members go to a restaurant in Adana. ENDIŞE tells the story a group of cotton pickers who revolt against the big landowner. Since in his past he was a cotton picker himself, Güney knows these people and their environment very well. While they are having dinner on the terrace Güney decides to record a couple more shots for his sound editor using his gun so he could use them in the film. The Turkish judge Sefa Mutlu who sits at a table close to theirs is annoyed by the shots and starts attacking Güney and his entourage verbally. Already before the shots he had been shouting at Güney. The restaurant owner asks the drunk judge to leave, who gets totally out of control. Yılmaz Güney first remaines calm, but the situation escalates when his wife stands up in anger and shouts back. Sefa Mutlu attacks Güney's table with a chair in his hands which leads to a broil. All of a sudden a shot is triggered hitting the judge in the middle of his forehead. He is immediately dead. The shot came from Güney's gun.
Yılmaz Güney is arrested on the same evening, even though his 21-year-old nephew Abdullah Pütün repeatedly claims that he shot Mutlu. Yılmaz has to go to the court in Ankara, although he should have ben summoned where the murderer had happened. Yet the government takes this opportunity to lock Güney the troublemaker, who is loved and respected by the Turkish people, behind prison bars once and for all. During the hearing his nephew is shot dead by strangers in front of his house. The public prosecutor can hence squarely focus on Güney’s indictment and pleads for lifelong imprisonment, which meant 17 years at the time. 17 years is usually the punishment for planned murder but if Güney had shot the judge it was murder in the heat of the moment, which was punished with only 5-7 years in Turkey. Güney is put into prison in 1974, where he stays for the next seven years.
Meanwhile his films ENDIŞE, ZAVALLILAR and ARKADAŞ are completed and released in cinemas. In 1975 these three films win the Turkish Film Awards in all categories. Güney continues working on his screenplays in a concentrated manner, although the government changes the prisons where he is arrested every six months so he cannot get organized anew time and again. His wife Fatoş and their son are following him. In the meantime also his daughter Elif is allowed to visit him in prison. She is not living with her mother anymore, but on Güney's wish she stays with his mother and sister. He doesn't like Can's environment who started to work as a barsinger again and has a new boyfriend.
Until 1981 Güney writes seven screenplays in prison, as well as four novels and countless columns for his own newspapers as well as international newspapers. His film SÜRÜ (The Herd) wins the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1978 and DÜŞMAN (The Enemy) receives the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1980. With every film he makes and every novel and column he publishes new proceedings against Güney are initiated, so in 1981 he is sentenced to more than 100 years of imprisonment. But since he is an exemplary detainee, from 1978 on he is allowed to exit the prison on some weekends, where he meets with his film team and can maintain control over his company. Usually they discuss screenplays and parts when they visit him in prison. He shows them how he imagines the parts and includes stage directions for his assistants in the screenplays, which they carry out on set. Later on dailies are smuggled into the prison, which he watches on the building’s outer walls. In 1981, the Turkish public prosecutor sentences Güney to another seven years, because he uses the forbidden word "Kurdistan" in an open letter to the San Sebastian Film Festival. Güney loses the hope to ever get free again and finally decides to break out of prison.
His Swiss producer Donat Keusch organises an international team that helps him with his escape and to get out of the country. A German editor drives him from Istanbul to Antalya in the South of Turkey during his day parole. From there his escape continues to Greece on a fishing boat, navigated by the Frenchman Joel. In Greece he goes on a jet airplane, which belongs to a rich Güney fan from France. Eventually, he and his family are granted asylum in France. Before that Güney signs over all of his property to his wife in order to prevent the government from confiscating any of it.
Just a few days after his arrival he starts editing his film YOL (The Way) with the Swiss editor Elisabeth Waelchli. After three months of fast and intense work the film celebrates its world premiere in Cannes. The media attention is enormous because Güney is still wanted both by the Turkish Police and Interpol. There is a high danger of an attempt on his life or for the Turkish Secret Police to kidnap him. Nobody, not even the festival director Gilles Jabos, knows whether Güney will make it to the premiere of his own film. On the day of the premiere, thousands of people who want to see their idol up close have gathered in front of the cinema. A few minutes before the screening of YOL Güney arrives through the back entrance of the movie theater and sits down in the second row with Fatoş. The rows in front of and behind him remain empty for his security. The press and the audience are enthusiastic, so he wins the Golden Palm ex aequo with Costa Grava for his film MISSING. YOL becomes a big box-office success in France, Germany and many other countries. In Turkey, on the other hand, it is not officially permitted until 1997. YOL is sold to over 50 countries and brings a lot of money into Güney's empty purse. After that he receives countless offers, but remains true to his principle of only telling his own stories. In his Parix exile he is politically very active, too, and holds speeches in front of thousands of people. Güney gives them courage and still believes deeply that he can some day return to his country as a free man.
The famous French producer Marin Karmitz produces his next film DUVAR (The Wall). At the same time his stomach pain, which he has already suffered from during his years in prison, become worse and worse. But Güney doesn't allow them to hold him back and refuses to see a doctor. Probably he was already back then frightened of the examinations result. Eventually he starts the lavish shooting of DUVAR. The film is about the conditions of children in Turkish prisons, which are arrested in separate sections, but still encounter the adults in the yard or in the dining hall.
Güney orders to transform an old Catholic school 50km outside of Paris into a prison which his actors (mostly amateurs) as well as his staff are not allowed to leave for three months. He insists that everyone adopts and internalizes the feeling of being imprisoned.
In 1984, DUVAR has its premiere in Cannes but only gets moderate reviews. Güney is very disappointed. Also, his stomach causes him more problems each day. The doctor of the former French President Mitterand examines him and diagnoses stomach cancer at final stage.
Güney dies on September 9, 1984 in Paris. Accompanied by a long procession, he is buried at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris on the 10th of September. Over 500.000 people come from all over Europe to attend his funeral. It is not a religious one, instead thousands of people stand around his grave and raise their fists into the sky while a man is calling out the poem "The Song of the Sun of Drinking People" by the Turkish writer Nazım Hikmet.