"Nazim Hikmet - Living is No Laughing Matter"

- DOCUMENTARY ON THE LIFE OF THE GREAT TURKISH POET NAZIM HIKMET
- LENGTH: 86 MIN.
- SHOT IN 16 MM FILM AND VIDEO IN TURKEY, RUSSIA, FRANCE, U.S. and U.K.


 

Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was one of the leading international poets of the 20th century and one of Turkey's most gifted writers. Yet the Turkish government for decades refused to recognize him, and only recently has allowed his poetry to be taught in schools. That is because he was also one of the first prisoners of conscience in Turkey, jailed for nearly two decades for his political beliefs. His only weapon was his art. His message was of the common pursuit of love, justice and decency - and he wrote in verse as beautiful as any ever written in any language. He was also an accomplished playwright and painter.

Nazim, as he is known, not only survived his ordeal, but left prison a more accomplished poet, more full of love for his people and even more devoted to human rights. One of the film’s interviews is with a former inmate, Ibrahim Balaban, whom Nazim helped become a noted painter in Turkey. His moving and articulate voice for peace, hope, brotherhood and struggle is particularly poignant today.

More than a decade into his last prison sentence, Nazim's suffering became an international cause celebre, with artists such as Paul Robeson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso and Bertold Brecht joining a Free Nazim campaign. In 1949, he shared the World Peace Prize with Neruda and Picasso.

Nazim was finally freed in June 1950, suffering from heart, lung and liver disorders he developed in prison. He was then drafted into the army - at the age of 49. Fearing for his life, he fled to Russia with the help of his brother-in-law, Refik Erduran, who describes in the documentary the daring escape.

In the film, his last wife, Vera Toulyakova, reveals how his struggle continued in the Soviet Union, where several of his plays - scathing satires of Russian bureaucracy - were silenced.

Nazim lived in Moscow until his death on June 3, 1963. Sartre pleaded afterward that "Hikmet must never die." Today, as then, his voice remains a persuasive voice for peace and freedon.

In 2002, the centenary of his birth, the U.N. declared the "Year of Nazim Hikmet."

Thousands of Turkish intellectuals and activists have followed similar paths to prison since Nazim's ordeal, jailed by fearful leaders. Nazim wrote of his beliefs:

"Living is no laughing matter:

                        you must take it seriously,

                          so much so and to such a degree

                    that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,

                                                    your back to the wall,

or else in a laboratory

                  in your white coat and safety glasses,

                  you can die for people -

even for people whose faces you've never seen

even though you know living

is the most real, the most beautiful thing.

I mean, you must take living so seriously,

that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees -

and not for your children, either,

but because although you fear death you don't believe it,

because living, I mean, weighs heavier."

The poet continued his struggle to the end of his life in the Soviet Union, where several of his plays, scathing satires of Russia's bureaucracy, were silenced. 

Nazim was born January 15, 1902, into an Istanbul family of intellectuals, the grandson of a pasha-poet and a descendant of a Polish revolutionary and a Huguenot. Following his family's artistic tradition, he was publishing poetry by the age of 17. In the 1920s, Nazim was drawn to Russia, where he became dedicated to the humanist ideals of the new “experiment." His travels there, and the populist ideals in his writing, led to several incarcerations in Turkey.

In 1938, he was sentenced, without any evidence but the weight of his poetry, to 28 years in prison on two charges of inciting the army and the navy to rebellion. He was released under a special amnesty law in 1950 and escaped to the Soviet Union a year later, fearing for his life.

During his years in prison, Nazim produced a huge body of experimental work showing remarkable talent. He had experienced a personal and artistic transformation through his contact with the villagers, who inspired the poet and took inspiration from him. One of our filmed interviews is with a former inmate, Ibrahim Balaban, convicted of manslaughter, whom Nazim helped become a noted painter in Turkey.

More than a decade into his last prison sentence, Nazim's suffering became an international cause celebre, with intellectuals such as Paul Robeson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso and Bertold Brecht joining a Free Nazim campaign. In 1949, he shared the World Peace Prize with Neruda and Picasso.

Nazim was finally freed in June 1950, only to be drafted into the army at the age of 49. He feared he would be killed or would die from the ordeal because of the heart, lung and liver disorders he developed in prison. He fled to Russia with the help of his brother-in-law, Refik Erduran, who describes in the documentary the daring escape. Nazim lived in Moscow until his death on June 3, 1963.

Nazim is also a romantic hero in his country, remembered for his beautiful "9-10 p.m. poems," a series named for the daily hour in prison that he promised his wife, Piraye, would be spent thinking and writing only of her: 

"How beautiful to think of you:

amid news of death and victory,

in prison,

when I'm past forty...

How beautiful to think of you:

your hand resting on blue cloth,

your hair grave and soft

like my beloved Istanbul earth..

The joy of loving you

is like a second person inside me...”

The film will show rare footage of Nazim in Russia as well as clips from old Turkish movies for which Nazim wrote screenplays that are rarely shown. It also will present materials gathered outside Turkey that were uncovered for the first time.

Interviews filmed in Istanbul, Paris, Moscow and London include Nazim's sister, Samiye Yaltirim; his last spouse, Vera Tulyakova; his friend, the French poet Charles Dobzynski; Memet Fuat, the poet's stepson and editor of his collected works; Nazim biographers Saime and Edward Timms; and some of Nazim’s critics, including a politician who lost a lawsuit for slander against the poet.

In the U.S., interviews include writer Howard Fast, who demonstrated in New York against Nazim's incarceration before being sent to prison himself as a result of the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities; legendary singer Pete Seeger; Mutlu Konuk Blasing and Randy Blasing, a Brown University professor and a poet, respectively, who have compiled a superlative series of translations in English of Nazim’s work; and poets Hayden Carruth and Gerald Stern.