There’s a strong temptation in writing about “Remake, Remix, Rip-Off,” considering it’s playing at the Göteborg International Film Festival in Sweden, to forge some labored pun about “sweding,” a more systematized version of which is essentially what the indigenous Turkish film industry thrived on from the mid-1940s to the late ’80s. But Cem Kaya‘s raucous, heartfelt documentary quickly renders that comparison irrelevant — this is not the ironic recreation of Hollywood classics for consumption by a bunch of hipster kids temporarily embracing a lo-fi approach to mass culture. It’s the ethos that was embraced for roughly four decades by what was at one point the fifth largest national film industry in the world that reached untold millions in viewership both at home and through the Turkish diaspora. Still today it exerts a powerful influence in the remaining film and TV infrastructure, and in the nostalgia felt by a new generation of commentators and critics, but perhaps most lasting of all, is its legacy in shaping the storytelling style and tastes of a nation.
It may not have been an ironic movement, but that’s not to say there’s no irony employed here — devotees of the kitsch, the campy, and the so-bad-it’s-insanely-good will find much to tickle them, especially in the witty, lightning-edited compilations of clips from the old films in question. Whether used to illustrate the cheapie approach to location scouting (a compilation of scenes from different films all unfolding against the same waterfall backdrop had our audience howling), or to dubbing (ditto the moment in the crap dubbing montage in which a dog barks a clearly human “woof woof!”), or to soundtracking (the theme tune to “The Godfather” appears to score about 95% of the films), these compilations are an absolute joy.
Even in their stupidest, crassest moments — like the car chase in which we cut from anguished actor to a tiny toy car turning over, or “The Exorcist” rehash, or the sweded “Superman,” which begins with a shot of planets that are clearly Christmas tree baubles — they are presented with very endearing sense of affection and creeping admiration. Well-crafted for maximum entertainment value, it’s like Kaya’s aware that any one of these films might, absent the sheen of nostalgia that one who had grown up with them might have, be just too tedious to sit through for any length of time. So these digestible glimpses give us a frenetic flavor without filling us up, and remain among the freshest, funniest film clip compilations we’ve seen in ages.
But it’s not all just clips — the film also includes substantial interview footage with the directors and actors of the time, which is seldom less than riotously entertaining in its own right. The level of self-awareness the participants have is remarkable and unaffected: the actors shrug off doing their own stunts, recycling their own costumes, and appearing, as one claims, in anywhere from 500-1000 films, while the directors and producers are occasionally more defensive (or even sometimes rueful), but mainly because they’re totally aware of their place in the artistic pecking order. Mostly they emerge as roguish self-professed Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich (Hollywood) to give to the less fortunate (rural Turks, themselves). But the unapologetic, mischievous glee with which they recount their extraordinary tales of making-do-and-mending (a diverting sequence showing how to construct a makeshift dolly by nailing bars of soap to the legs of a table and wetting the “tracks” on which it slides, is a masterclass in homespun, practical genius) gives a joyous kind of nobility to their unmistakable rip-offs.
Unmistakable they are, from the story lines to the soundtracks to, occasionally, actual footage, all proudly lifted and mixed and matched from big international imports, with the kind of insouciance that only a culture of non-existent copyright law can breed. In fact, as a couple of critics and bloggers argue persuasively, the very shoddiness of the productions forced their own kind of gonzo creativity, with occasionally quite hypnotic and/or hilarious results, as in the superhero “The Iron Fist,” who wears The Phantom’s mask but has the Superman logo emblazoned across his chest and the Batman insignia on his belt.
Edited down from the 110-minute cut shown in Locarno, even the film’s newly trim 96 minutes does flag in the final section when, after the brimming wit and brio of its first hour plus, the focus shifts and the momentum slows. But it’s hard to hold the slackening of pace against Kaya when his intentions are this good, and the results valuable, if not as electric as before. After all the stories of seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-night productions and splicing together photo negatives to make film reels, he finally brings the story of Yeşilçam (the street on which the production houses were located, which therefore gives its name to the whole industry of the period) right up to date. Necessarily more somber, as it approaches events in Taksim Square in 2013, the film traces the end of the Yeşilçam era signaled first by the encroaching competition from adult movies and TV, then by the tentative introduction of copyright regulations, before it’s finally given a symbolic full-stop with the sad demolition of the spectacular movie palace that was the Emek cinema.
Kaya spent seven years making his film, and the breadth of his knowledge of his subject (he is the son of Turkish immigrant parents who grew up watching these films as VHS bootlegs that found a huge expat audience in Germany) and his affection for its excesses is palpable. Despite all the illegality, Yeşilçam embodied a kind of innocence that is pretty much gone from this changing world, but “Remake, Remix, Rip Off,” while it may bite off a little more than it can comfortably chew, stands a wonderfully fond, funny memorial to a lovably outlaw national film industry and the cowboys, pirates, and celluloid bandits who populated it. [B+]