Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director renowned for classics such as “Streetcar Named Desire”, “Viva Zapata!”, and “On the Waterfront”, embarked on a personal journey back to his ancestral roots when he visited Kayseri, the hometown of his mother, in Turkey. In his autobiography, “A Life” (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988), Kazan, born to Greek parents in the Ottoman Empire, offers a candid perspective on the complex cultural and political landscape of Turkey.
Through the lens of his illustrious career in Hollywood, Kazan observed a nation grappling with its identity and governance, poised between deep respect for authority and fierce, sometimes volatile expressions of dissent. His observations, as recorded in his autobiography, delve into the dichotomy of Turkish society’s relationship with power and authority.
Kazan noted the paradoxical nature of the Turkish people’s deference to authority juxtaposed with their intense outbursts of indignation. These reflections raise poignant questions about human rights and individual freedoms within the context of a society where, according to Kazan, the concept of honor is perpetually tested, and displays of bravery are a public spectacle necessary to reaffirm one’s standing.
The director’s insights from decades past resonate with the theme of courage against oppression—a motif that not only defines his cinematic masterpieces but also reflects in his contemplations on Turkish society. Kazan mused on the future of human rights in Turkey, expressing skepticism about the relinquishment of authoritative governance and the rise of a more liberal approach to human rights.
Elia Kazan’s narrative on Turkey is tinged with the complexity of his own background, born in a place that no longer exists in the same form—where the Greek and Turkish communities had coexisted and often clashed. His remarks on the Turkish character—fearful yet defiant of authority, valuing honor and courage above all—are indicative of an observer who has witnessed the struggle for identity and dignity in his own life and through his films.
In his musings, Kazan touched upon a universal tension between the governed and those who govern, pointing out the potential for sudden and forceful assertion of power by those in authority. He portrayed the Turkish act of submission not as a sign of weakness but as a prelude to possible resistance, a cultural trait that demands vigilance.
The account of Elia Kazan serves as a contemplative piece on the historical and ongoing challenges faced by Turkey in the arena of human rights. While his perspective is deeply personal and reflective of the time when he wrote his autobiography, it continues to spark dialogue on the need for progress and reform in societies dealing with similar issues.
Kazan’s journey to Kayseri was not only a homecoming but also a moment of reflection on a heritage that shaped him. His observations invite readers to ponder on the larger human quest for dignity and the often tumultuous path nations tread towards realizing the values of human rights and equality. Kazan’s perspective is a reminder of the ongoing dialogue between the past and the present, and the role individual and collective memory plays in shaping our understanding of societal dynamics.
“They humble themselves before authority, then break loose in demonstrations of anger beyond bounds…When are the Turks going to respect human rights? When will they give up police rule? I doubt whether this will happen for many years. They are a dangerous people, and the honor of their males always seems to be on trial; their courage has to be publicly reestablished again and again. They need to show the world that they cannot be intimidated, still they fear their authority figures, and they damned well should, not because they elect them but because those with power will suddenly and unexpectedly use ultimate force over their subjects. When a Turk bends his head in obedience that is the time to watch out.” Elia Kazan