ANKARA, Turkey (AFP) — A new film about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to hit cinema screens weeks before an April referendum on whether to boost the president’s powers.
“Reis” (“The Chief”) stars well-known Turkish actor Reha Beyoglu as the Turkish strongman and shows his life up to 1999, beginning with the president’s childhood in a poor district of Istanbul to his rise to become the city’s mayor.
Turkish actress Ozlem Balci plays his wife Emine while child actor Batuhan Isik Gurel plays Erdogan as a boy.
The movie, the first ever feature film about Erdogan, will be released on March 3 across Turkey before the Turkish public vote on whether to approve an executive presidency on April 16.
Beyoglu, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the younger Erdogan, delivers passionate one-liners in the trailer, including “a person dies only once, if we die, let us die like a man!”
The actor told Kanal D broadcaster this week he was “proud” when Erdogan said he could see his younger self in Beyoglu.
For Hudaverdi Yavuz, the film’s director, he wanted to tell Erdogan’s life because it was “really interesting” and the film’s title came from the name Erdogan has long been known by.
“When he got elected mayor of Istanbul, automatically people used the word ‘Reis’ (chief)… His childhood friends, his acquaintances, they call him that,” he told AFP.
Questions have been raised over the film’s timing so close to the referendum — it had been due to come out in March last year — but Yavuz said he had no control over the distribution date.
Erdogan, the most powerful Turkish politician since founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became president in 2014, but the role has usually been more ceremonial.
Under the new constitution, the president would have strengthened executive powers to directly appoint top public officials including ministers.
The director hit back at claims of election propaganda ahead of the referendum: “This film is absolutely ours. This is not propaganda,” adding there was no outside intervention.
“For some, my film can have a political meaning, for others it can be a burden, that is not my problem.”
Yavuz, who has previously worked for state broadcaster TRT channel, said the film producers did not seek Erdogan’s authorization nor did they have to.
The film ends before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Erdogan co-founded won power for the first time in 2002 because the director said he wanted to finish “on a beautiful note.”
One key moment in the picture appears to be Erdogan’s period of imprisonment after he recited a poem deemed to be Islamist while mayor of Istanbul, a term still remembered by his supporters as a symbol of the unfair treatment of pious Muslims at that time.
Erdogan served four months in jail from March 1999 over the poem that was regarded as incitement to religious hatred. The trailer shows him cheered by supporters as he prepares to enter jail.
The movie was filmed in Istanbul and Cyprus over six weeks, Yavuz said.
Turkish audiences in Europe including Germany, France and Britain will also have the chance to see the film, local media said.
In a teaser shared online, a young boy — not Erdogan — watches his grandfather physically beaten for reciting the Islamic call to prayer in Arabic. It was only allowed in Turkish until 1950 after it was banned in Arabic in 1932.
Demonstrating Islam’s strength against the secular military, the young boy begins to recite the prayer in Arabic after he sees the violence.
Another clip highlighting the military’s treatment of the pious includes one scene from September 1961 when a man — the child who recited the prayer — is taken away by soldiers as he is praying.
It begins with a young Erdogan, who would have been seven, watching as soldiers come to the house of a man who defied the authorities to oppose the execution of then premier Adnan Menderes.
Menderes, who lifted the ban on the Arabic-language call to prayer, was executed in the wake of the 1960 military coup.
The last scene shows Erdogan looking with defiance as the narrator says a “brave hero” will grow up honorable against such oppression.