Devoted readers of Film Threat will recognize Turkish cinema as a treasure chest of wildly absurd no-budget rip-offs of Hollywood classics, including The Turkish Wizard of Oz and The Turkish Star Trek. However, Turkish filmmakers are capable of creating serious and intelligent productions and the new documentary “Exile in Buyukada” by filmmaker Turan Yavuz is such a work of quiet intelligence and profound power that it puts American documentaries to shame.
“Exile in Buyukada” offers a multitude of stories tied to a single event: the 1929-1934 exile in Turkey by Leon Trotsky following his expulsion from the Soviet Union after his losing power struggle with Stalin. The film offers not only a personal history of Trotsky’s unusual exile, but also a rich history of the development of the modern secular state in Turkey, the rise of communism and fascism in 1930s Europe, the chilling global reach of Stalin’s police apparatus and the cult of celebrity in the pre-digital era.
Trotsky originally had no desire to spend his exile in Turkey. He did not speak the language, had no affinity for the culture, and was singularly opposed to the anti-communist focus of Kemal Ataturk, who was trying to kickstart the once-backward Islamic nation into the midst of the 20th century. Nor was Turkey originally pleased to have Trotsky. Not only did his presence bring a sudden wave of secret agents and would-be assassins, but there was also a large population of exiled White Russians who were eager to see Trotsky killed and there was also the nascent Turkish Communist Party that was eager to find new political strength.
Trotsky originally settled in the Soviet Consulate in Istanbul, which was a curious choice of location considering there was the genuine risk of his being killed by Stalin’s henchmen. He then briefly settled in a swank Istanbul hotel and then retreated to Buyukada, an exclusive island 12 miles off the Istanbul coast. On Buyukada, Trotsky devoted himself to creating an extraordinary torrent of essays and books while planning the spread of global communism with a parade of international visitors.
“Exile in Buyukada” is rich with a wealth of rarely-seen newsreel footage, photographs and newspaper clippings showing Trotsky’s years in Turkey. Ironically, Trotsky never comprehended what an incongruous figure he was in this time and place: as a political figure who preached the worker’s revolution in a country which underwent its own profound socio-economic revolution which not only stood in stark contrast to the rest of Europe, but was also completely at odds with the rest of the Islamic world. (Watching this film, one wishes countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran could have their own version of Ataturk.) Trotsky, however, did enjoy a high level of celebrity status and was frequently interviewed by the Turkish media and by visiting reporters who sought him out. He also penned his own newspaper commentaries that received international publication (including regular bylined features in the New York Times), and for someone espousing Marxist rhetoric, he had an unusually strong interest in collecting royalties from his many publishers.
“Exile in Buyukada” is the rare political documentary which offers a balanced picture even when the subject at hand is clearly not worthy of respect. While Trotsky still exerted great influence as a political scientist, he was impotent in offering a genuine opposition to Stalinism and he was clearly a toothless force in preventing the rise of fascism in Germany. Even within his Turkish base of operations, Trotsky was ultimately check-mated by Stalin who abruptly courted and won an alliance with the Turkish government in 1932 after years of studied indifference between Moscow and Ankara. Trotsky’s politics also took an acute priority over his family life, resulting in strained relations with his children and even driving one of his daughters (who could not break down her father’s aloofness and perceived hostility) into severe depression and suicide. By the time he left Turkey for periods in France, Norway and Mexico, his authority on the world stage was minimalized and his influence within the Soviet Union was nil.
“Exile in Buyukada” takes the unusual step of presenting detailed and lengthy recreations of Trotsky’s activities during this period. These are clearly required since only a limited amount of movie and photographic imagery of Trotsky exists. But while most dramatic recreations of historic events are frequently cheesy endeavors, they work stunningly in this film thanks to a magnificent production design that faithfully recreates Turkey of yesteryear and a marvelous performance by Russian actor Victor Sergachev as Trotsky, who beautifully underplays his role and thus provides a rich human dimension to the passionate and frequently overbearing revolutionary. The film is also blessed with a crisp narration by Vanessa Redgrave which offers an intelligent running commentary to the amazing events being presented.
Communism in general and Trotsky in particular have long since fallen out of style, and perhaps this is why “Exile in Buyukada” is bypassing the demands of theatrical release for a straight-to-video debut. In a way this is too bad, as the film is a cerebral and invigorating journey into the mind of a towering political icon…and, honestly, how many films today not only make the audience sit up and think, but also celebrate the worlds of those who asserted influence and authority solely by the power of their intellect?