Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: Kismet

Many of them sound more like telenovelas than soap operas, but whatever you call them, Turkish television serial melodramas are doing boffo business internationally. Bulgaria and Greece are important markets, but the popularity of Turkish television has exploded in the Middle East. Greek filmmaker Nina Maria Paschalidou documents the progressive influence of Turkey’s primetime soaps in Kismet (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Only in the Middle East could a series about a sultan and his harem be considered liberal and progressive. That would definitely be the awkward case study in Kismet. A far better example is Fatmagul, an extraordinary bold drama following a woman’s quest to bring her three rapists to justice. In the Islamist world, that is explosive stuff. Other shows frankly address issues such as arranged marriages to child brides, spousal abuse, and genital mutilation, inspiring women to speak out and even seek divorces. Not surprisingly, one misogynistic bureaucrat in the Emirates’ Department of Religious Affairs launches into quite a tirade against Turkish television (it goes without saying, but if your government has some sort of Department of Religion, you probably live in a theocratic fever-swamp).

Paschalidou profiles the fans who watch the programming, the cast-members they adore, and the creative staff (often led by women) who put them together and keep them going. While the strongest sequences focus on the Middle Eastern market, she also interviews fans in Bulgaria and Greece (where there is also growing resentment of Turkish programming, not for ideologically reasons, but simply due to its Turkishness).

Frankly, Kismet’s execution will not blow anyone away, but the premise is fascinating. Paschalidou vividly illustrates her points with film clips shrewdly selected for their taboo-breaking content and their inherent theatricality. You are unlikely to see any of these shows picked up by American broadcasters anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. Still, a program like Fatmagul really ought to be available to some extent, just for the way it uncompromisingly reflects the violence and exploitation of women endured by women in the Middle East (and the greater Islamic world).

Having received production support from Al Jazeera and clocking in at about an hour, Kismet definitely has the feel of a television special report, albeit one of reasonable depth and substance. However, you are unlikely to see the hidebound news media tackle this subject, so intrigued viewers should see it now. Recommended for patrons concerned about global women’s rights, Kismet screens this Friday (10/24) at the AMNH, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.