Dossier » Politics and Cinema of Turkey

3 Monkeys

Understanding Change in Turkey through a Film

by E. Kesal and H. Birkalan Gedik

Filmed in 2008, 3 Monkeys is based on the screenplay written in 2007. It won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, as a joint production of Turkey, Italy, and France. As such, the film is regarded as an important piece that opened up a new turn in the cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Politics and Cinema of Turkey - 3 Monkeys - Understanding Change in Turkey through a Film

Each character represents a milestone in the greater narrative of
the art work, contributing to the overall narration of the major themes such as internal
migration, social justice and inequality, hegemonic masculinity, and ill-defined sexuality. The
present article scrutinizes these themes in relation to the changing social and political contexts
in Turkey in the 2000s.

The story can be summarized as follows: Servet Gündüz, a businessman who is about to enter
politics, hits and runs a ranger, as he is on his way to his villa located at the margins of the
city. Out of fright, he hides himself in the woods. A passer-by car with a husband-wife and a
child leaves away, pretending that they have seen nothing. Afraid of helping a wounded man
lying in the middle of the road, the family is emblematic of the introverted, selfish, and
obsessive type, which developed in the last few decades in Turkey. Thinking that his possible
arrest will influence his candidacy, Servet, on the other hand, asks Eyüp, his private chauffeur
to assume the guilt and he offers a considerable amount of money for compensation. Eyüp
accepts the offer with the expectations that it will provide a basis for establishing a possible
job in the future.

Eyüp and his family, uprooted from the village, are now dislocated at the very margins of
Istanbul, by the old city walls. Having left their home and migrated to Istanbul, they are
representatives of many other thousands in the low-income neighborhoods, living in a
gecekondu—a squatter settlement. Therefore, Eyüp sees Servet’s offer as the last opportunity
to hang onto life and to survive in the city. All in all, the family represents the palimpsest of
images of a migrant family: the only child İsmail is a high-school graduate who could not
pass the university exam. He is now a member of a mass of youngsters with no job, training,
or profession. He is also a part of the youth that has a potential for crime, who could commit
any sort of felony, with the expectations that he could have a short cut in life.

Servet, on the other hand, is frustrated because he lost the election to become the party
representative to run for the national elections. This meant for him to lose his power as well,
as he started to bemoan his case. He needs a new excitement, a new ardor that will cure his
self-lamentation. Although married with a child, he turns to the nearest possible and
convenient object of his desire—Hacer, the wife of Eyüp. Aware of her passionate dreams
cannot be realized by Eyüp, Hacer hangs onto Servet with a morbid passion. Servet also
plays a key role for İsmail, who sees him as his way out from the life he leads. For this reason,
he even pretends that he did not eyewitness Servet and Hacer’s lovemaking. The fine balance
of the story is disturbed by the release of Eyüp from the prison. Servet, this time too, out of
fright, ends his relationship with Hacer, despite her incessant begging. İsmail, loyal to his
father and ambivalent to Servet’s “deeds,” ends up with killing him. A family tragedy begins
to loom again—Eyüp, who lost a son before, will not lose a child again. The idea of getting
into prison in lieu of his son passes through his mind. Yet, as a man who learnt his lesson
well, he finds an errand boy at the coffee shop to get into jail on his son’s behalf. The
narrative of “corrupted legal” system creates a loop—Eyüp offers the money which he
received from Servet to the young boy.

The film engages with the emergent social and cultural issues in Turkey in the 2000s. The
internal migration which started in the 1950’s has reached to an accelerated speed; and until
now, it has created “new” forms of identities—i.e. fellow-townsmanships in the middle of the
metropolis—as people from Sivas, Erzincan, Giresun and the like schooled together in
ghettos. They were first treated as “invisible,” later on as objects of cheap urban labor. As a
member of such a group, the Öztürk family—who could be the any and every “true” Turkish
migrant family in the city—discovers that they have no chance of claiming a space in Istanbul
unless they play the 3 monkeys. Beyond this personal, family level, the film can also be
analyzed in the larger framework of the social, cultural, and political transformation from a
650-year empire to a young republic, with the ambition of creating a “modern,”
“westernized” and “progressed” nation-state, albeit with a failed implementation. Within this
understanding, the film also significant of telling the attempts of multi-party system that
Turkey witnessed since the mid 1940s. However, hidden in the story is the understanding of a
failed democracy and the inner-party politics, at best embodied in the story of Servet, a
representative of political corruption and social decay; at worst, in the story of Eyüp, a
representative of patience and perseverance. Servet and Eyüp are the opposite poles, in that

Those who were able to take the advantage of the political turn, now live in gated
communities—in homes with a garden and pool, choosing to lead a sterile, hygiene, socially
and culturally isolated life in different margins of the city. It is a process of “othering” the
other and the “self” at the same time, as the other “others” are still in the old margins of the
urban. However, interestingly enough, both the gecekondu and the gated communities are two
but different places of déplacement in a way. While gecekondu is a site of an involuntary
segregation, isolation, and insulation, the gated communities are sites of new urban
marginality, marked by social exclusion and tension. As such, they are the new forms of
urban wealth and poverty.

Most of analyses regarding text can be read through the character of Hacer, whose character is
prone to be interpreted as a “guinea pig,” representing all sources of evil and the ill. She is,
however, the loneliest, most desperate, and most beaten up character in the movie. Her will
does not have any value. She represents a woman whose opinions do not matter. She is not
even asked or being listened to. For Servet, his living in a “gated community” is not different from being with Hacer as “object of desire.” Same is true of his desire to become a parliament
member and to have Hacer as well.

However, the “qualities” Servet has are neither particularly peculiar to him nor to the people
from his class. They are the results of the capitalistic system that is imposed on people in
general. Hacer’s “following the suit” is also exemplary of using the system. She sees her
relationship with Servet as a key to power, just like the same way Eyüp assumes guilt for a
“short-cut.” Eyüp, whose sexuality is ill-formed and performed, refrains from asking the
opinion of his wife even at a vital turn in their life. Servet, who had the right to chose or
decline Hacer, leaves no option for her when he says “it is up to here, everybody minds
his/her business.” However, it is Hacer who follows her dreams, passions, even her utopias, in
the midst of chaos, trying to make her family stand on their feet, despite all the pessimism she

All characters in the movie, nonetheless, are both victims and the guilty. These polar roles are
so embedded that it is almost next to impossible to tell which one of them represents the good
or the bad. Family, honor, and integrity, which are to be treated with sanctity, have been
subjected to profanation. Each character tries to dominate each other, trying to have control
over each other’s feelings. On the other hand, having no control over the total situation, the
best option seems to pretend and play the 3 monkeys.

Themes of both power and masculinity are the determinant axes of the story—as hegemonic
masculinity oppress men and women alike. Hegemonic masculinity takes the form of power
and it is embodied in most of the male characters, but in different ways: masculinity oppresses
women and men, as men also become the perpetrators of it. On the other hand, having power,
or even longing for it—social, economic, sexual or otherwise—is more obvious with every
character. The power-hungry Servet loses candidacy in his party’s elections; obsessed with
Servet and pushed away by her unrequited love, Hacer loses him and her husband at once;
deprived of his manliness, Eyüp loses his family; without a job and hope, İsmail is already
lost and literally “beaten up” in the metropolis. And the last guinea pig is Bayram, the errand
boy at the coffee shop, a recent migrant to Istanbul, and an orphan with no parents. Eyüp
picks and chooses him as the next “victim”—as the one at the very bottom of the social
ladder, who by now, is convinced that assuming someone else’s guilt can be approved by
jurisdiction, the guilty himself, and the society all at once. If Eyüp was able to take the guilt
that his boss committed, then he can find someone else to take over the guilt for Ismail’s
crime. The handicaps of the legal system in Turkey have exhausted juridical model, as the
powerful subjects became the rule of the day, causing the subalterns have a non-belief in
justice. As a result, illegal and unlawful applications have become naturalized, legitimated,
and sustained. A concept such as “blood money” which has no place in modern law is now
proved to verify itself in the so-called contemporary Turkey, causing those innocent ones to
assume the opposite position in exchange of an amount of money, which is barely enough to
lead an honorable life.

The film is also open to fertile psychological interpretations. When we look at the concepts
such as guilt, feelings of guilt, redemption, and double-crossing, these ideas are presented in
an unusual way. Rather than giving the “natural” predictable first implications, the less
known, or less predictable ways are presented to show these feelings. Think about young
İsmail who catches his mother with her lover. The first thing to do might have been to kill
them. But, instead he runs away. Eyüp finds out about the situation. The first thing comes to
the mind is to punish his wife. But, instead, he pretends that he does know.

Visually, too, this creates almost a “disturbing” screening for the viewer, making one ask
constant questions, while experiencing a kind of “popular nostalgia” which evokes a lost and
idealized world, that cannot be regained, which can only be contrasted with the discontents of
the “prosperous” present world. This past is concrete in the private and private (home, family,
and marriage) sphere and well as in the public (politics, law, and everyday participation of the

Aesthetically speaking, the close-ups emphasize that “life” should be experienced first hand.
In the light of the narration; there is a laden criticism of the post-1990 Turkey, which is
symbolized through “sweat.” Simply put, sweat is an excretion which is peculiar to human
beings and animals that react to the situation of being caged, prisoned, or frightened. Just like
the animals who were frightened, the characters in the film. For this reason, sweat becomes a
symbol of fear in the film. Last, but not least, there is a “colorful” play with emotions: at the
beginning of the film, driving into the dark, with only headlights shown, shows Servet’s dark
soul (despite the meaning of his last name as “day” or “daylight”; his dark office is a symbol
of the dark side of the politics, and perhaps himself. The past, which is symbolized through
the yellowish tone, almost stands for an image of an old photograph. The yellowish tone
eventually lightens up creating the most vivid, yet the bitterest reality in the present.

Considered as such, the film weaves together personal, local and political themes in a
handsome fashion at the age of globalization, since the themes outlined that have a particular
connotation in the Turkish case can also be found elsewhere. At the finale, we face Servet in a
gecekondu building which is about to collapse, as he looks afar into the sea with despair. It is
in a relentlessly material world that they have to end up with living. The final scene is what
sums up the family’s dangerous play of the 3 monkeys, i.e. hear no evil (Eyüp, an
eavesdropper his wife’s phone calls), speak no evil (Eyüp, İsmail, and Hacer never talking to
each other), see no evil (İsmail seeing his mother Hacer in flagrante delicto yet keeping
silence). A dark, suffocating, and a rainy day is about to blanket Istanbul. In fact, silence,
gloominess, and a yellowish-darkness accompany the most significant themes in the movie
since the beginning.



Politics and Cinema of Turkey

Politics and Cinema of Turkey

[en] Introduction

[en] Bordering Cosmos?

[en] The Figure of the Perfect Femme Fatale

[en] 3 Monkeys

[en] Making Fairy Tales Real

[en] The Majority

Üç maymun (Three Monkeys) -Ceylan

Üç maymun (Three Monkeys), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008

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[en] Introduction

[en] 3 Monkeys


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