The Politics of Zenne

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.

As portrayed in Zenne Dancer, Ahmet Yildiz, was shot and killed by his father, Yahya Yildiz. Yahya and his wife, like many other Turkish families, did not tolerate his son’s homosexuality and relationship with another man. The film, however, departs from the actual event in many ways: Ahmet was in a relationship with a German photographer, whereas his true lover was named Ibrahim Can and moved to Germany after his death; it portrays Ahmet’s death happening after he returns from Can’s performance late at night, when in reality he has briefly left his apartment for ice cream; the real Ahmet was shot five times, with multiple onlookers who refused to come forwards, while the film shows him on the street alone.

Even so, Ahmet’s death signifies a greater problem in Turkey: the growing rift between the secular modernists and conservative Islamic traditionalists. “Ahmet’s father had warned him to return to their village and to see a doctor and imam in order to cure him of his homosexuality and get married” (Bilefsky). The real Ahmet led an open life, and his departure from his family’s views presents an interesting dichotomy that exists in Turkey today—one that pits visibility and awareness against violence and death. This is demonstrated most through a common crime that occurs in Turkey: honor killings.

It is estimated that one person dies every week in Istanbul as a result of honor killings, and “a recent government study estimated that around 1,000 honour killings have been committed [between 2003 and 2008]” (Birch). Honor killings are historically used against women who have sex before marriage, extramarital affairs, or even been raped (Kogacioglu 1).  Kogacioglu also makes the important delineation that honor crimes are also known as “crimes of tradition” (3). Because tradition finds itself core to the identity of family, any association between the two overshadows violence against women—and, in turn, queer individuals. The significance of family is also strongly emphasized by the Justice and Development Party (JDP), which came to power in November 2002. Since them, the JDP has come under fire for letting “fundamentalists whose attitudes towards women and family honor reflect the flat and unforgiving traditionalism of Islamist extremism” (14).

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” (Birch). Media also oftentimes do not show the differences between homosexuals, transvestites, and transsexuals (Sakalli 12).

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” (Zenne), foreshadowing the act that is meant to cleanse the family of his illicit relationship.  Ahmet was a victim caught in the crossfire between old and new attitudes. Like the thousands of women who have fallen before him, Ahmet did not commit a true crime. Rather, living an openly gay life cost him his life.  Yildiz’s death is now seen as the first gay public honor killing in Turkey.

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 (Sakalli 7). 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 (12).

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. As discussed in Sakalli’s study, platonic relationships with queer individuals decrease prejudices against LGBTQ individuals (13). This is evident in Can’s relationship with his quasi-uncle, who not only comes to Can’s aid when he arrives home bloodied, but confronts the man blackmailing Ahmet, as well.

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” (Gerhards 18). 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” (Zenne). The fact that Ahmet and Daniel want to flee Turkey to call Germany home also echoes scholarship on queer asylum. Had Ahmet not been murdered it is interesting to theorize what would have happened in the next chapter of his life: would his lover and he make it to Germany? would he be granted asylum due to the fact his parents were having someone follow him and he feared for his life? Unfortunately, the story could have still had an unhappy ending.  Lewis explores the topic of asylum in Germany (6)—how claims for other have been denied in the past and people still fear disclosing their sexual orientation (7). As the audience, we gather that Germany is more tolerant than Turkey from Daniel, who can’t fathom not being open about his sexual orientation. 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 (Selen 4). 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” (18). 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 (Hayward 1).

Works Cited

Bilefsky, Dan. “Soul-Searching in Turkey After a Gay Man Is Killed.” The New York Times. 25 Nov 2009. Web. 30 Apr 2013.

Birch, Nicholas. “Was AHmet Yildiz the victim of Turkey’s first gay honour killing?” The Independent. 19 July 2008. Web. 30 Apr 2013.

Gerhards, Jürgen. “Non-Discrimination towards Homosexuality : The European Union’s Policy and Citizens’ Attitudes towards Homosexuality in 27 European Countries” International Sociology. Vol 25. Issue 5. (2010). Web. 9 Apr 2013.

Halbertstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

Hayward, Susan. “Film Noir.” Cinema Studies, The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Kogacioglu, Dicle. “The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey.” A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Vol 15. Issue 2 (2004). Web. 9 Apr 2013.

Lewis, Rachel. “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum.” International Feminist Journal of Politics. Vol 12. Issue 3 (2010). Web. 9 Apr 2013.

Sakalli, Nuray “The Relationship Between Sexism and Attitudes Toward Homosexuality in a Sample of Turkish College Students.” Journal of Homosexuality. Vol 42. Issue 3 (2002). Web. 9 Apr 2013.

Selen, Eser. “The stage: a space for queer subjectification in contemporary Turkey, Gender, Place & Culture.” A Journal of Feminist Geography. Vol 19. Issue 6 (2012). Web. 9 Apr 2013.

Zenne Dance. Dir. M. Caner Alper, Mehmet Binay. Cam Story, 2012. Film.