Rejecting societal norms and trying to do something outside of what’s popularly deemed acceptable is taxing at the best of times.
However, when you grow up in a strictly conservative, Muslim country like Turkey, it’s another matter entirely. ARADA is a remarkable film that tells the story of the inception of the punk/hardcore scene in Istanbul in the 90s. Based on a true story, the film follows Ozan (played by Burak Deniz), a budding punk musician who, inspired by bootlegged tapes of bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies, sets about using music as the vessel to flee his oppressive birth country. The film was written and directed by Mu Tunc, and based on the story of his brother Orkan, whose band Violent Pop was one of the first Turkish bands to take on the punk ethos and start kicking against the establishment with their songs, whose lyrics spoke out about against racism, extremism, and neglecting the environment.
“I believe that my brother’s band was one of the first punk groups in any Muslim country,” Mu tells me, before going on to explain that Orkan’s musical leanings weren’t foreign to his family. Mu’s dad Altan was actually a successful musician in Turkey in the 70s. However, a violent coup d’etat in 1980 led to three years of military rule, and Altan, along with many others, was conscripted, effectively putting an end to his musical career. To say that Altan wasn’t exactly thrilled with Orkan pursuing music, especially foreign, brash music like punk, would have been an understatement. The opening scene of ARADA depicts a standoff between Ozan and his father. “I wouldn’t care if only four people showed up at my concert. I would keep on singing,” Ozan says, before being asked to leave his keys and never come back.
“People weren’t open to anything new,” Mu says when I ask him to describe growing up in 90s Istanbul. “People would say bad things to you if you walked around wearing ripped jeans, and none of my friends understood why I was listening to punk, hardcore or post-punk music. Even wearing sneakers was considered strange. It was like, ‘when you’re a little kid you can wear sneakers, but when you grow up you should wear leather shoes.’ I know it sounds super weird to anyone outside Turkey, but these were the real facts.” This hyper-conservative attitude juxtaposed with the bands that Mu was listening to—”Napalm Death, The Cure, Cabaret Voltaire, Suicidal Tendencies, My Bloody Valentine, Stone Roses, Gang of Four, OMD, Echo & The Bunnymen, Clan of Xymox, Minor Threat, Bikini Kill”—goes a long way in explaining why he was so passionate about bringing the remarkable story of his brother and his friends to life.
It’s been well documented how effective punk music was in offending conservatives in the West, but I’m curious as to how this translated to the Muslim world. Mu says that it was more localised, as punk music wasn’t widely circulated, and the only copies of records you could get were home-recorded cassettes. “There was no censorship because these were not legal records,” he says. “They didn’t use the Turkish government ISBN number or anything when they were releasing it.” He goes on to tell me a story that pretty well sums up his own experience with punk music interjecting with the Muslim faith. Mu explains that there’s a “hand kissing” tradition that’s unique to Turkey. On religious holidays like Ramadan or Eid al-Adha, young kids receive money in exchange for spending time with their family. “You go to the older generation’s houses and spend time with them, and then you kiss their hands and they give you money. It’s like a ritual,” Mu explains, before pointing out that after a whole day of doing the rounds he’d end up with quite a bit of money. And more importantly, he was able to spend it on whatever he wanted. “The day after, I’d run to the record store to buy the most bizarre and satanic records I could find,” he says. “I remember buying Terrorizer, World Downfall—the craziest, loudest grindcore ever—and Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman, which is pretty much the most acidic electronic rave record in the history of mankind. I love this story and the cultural connection.”
Since releasing ARADA, Mu says he’s been delighted with how it’s been received, although certain factions of the Turkish media have gone out of their way to shun the film. “One of the biggest film festivals in Turkey doesn’t want to show my film,” he says. “Some people are just afraid that if it becomes big that it might draw attention to the subject, but it’s growing like crazy.” Mu goes onto explain that in making the film, he wanted to simultaneously tell the remarkable story of his brother’s friendship group, and inspire the current vanguard of Turkish creatives. “Even the liberal Turkish kids didn’t know that punks existed in Istanbul in the late 80s and 90s,” he says. “Now all the cool kids in Turkey have seen or heard of the film. I just wanted to say, ‘Look! They did this in a time where there was nothing, and now we have choices. We have the internet, and you can reach the whole world from your tiny home. I know we are living a fucked up time, but you have the energy to change things.'”
The central theme that permeates ARADA is getting out. The main characters feel that Turkey is backward and never going to change, and to get what they want they need to move to America or England. I ask Mu whether, given Turkey’s current political climate, this is still this attitude among his friends, and he says that unfortunately, it is. “The rich ones, they’ve already left Turkey, but the ones who don’t have money are still here and they just talk trash about their country all the time,” he says. “But we all need to keep on giving our energies to our cities to make it better. Talking trash about your people and your city is a disease in Turkey and I want to change that with my actions. The cultural heritage of Istanbul runs so deep that even an atom bomb couldn’t destroy it. I’m not going any-fucking-where.”