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In a Man's World: Turkish Women Animators

Dr. John Lent and Asli Tuninvestigate the inroads women have made into the animation industry in Turkey, long thought of as a male stronghold.

How Spring Ended. © Meral Simer.

The story of Turkish women animators is short -- a blip on the global animation and the women in communication scenes. Some reasons for this readily come to mind. Animation itself is relatively new to Turkey, a phenomenon mostly isolated to the 1970s and beyond. Until recently, women had a very weak presence in cartooning, the profession from which many Turkish animators drifted. Furthermore, because of social and cultural norms, the field of animation was considered a male domain. The few women who have ventured into animation can be categorized into those who did one or two films in the 1970s and left for other fields, and those just beginning. The differences between the two groups are considerable. The first generation of women animators worked under an informal mentor-protégé system and used traditional animation techniques, while younger animators studied animation (primarily computer) at Anadolu University and then went to work in advertising. Veteran Women Animators Meral Simer, Meral Erez, and Ayla Seyhan form the core of the first generation; all three were animtors in the 1970s.Simer's major work was Bahar Nasil Tamam Oldu (How Spring Ended), a five-minute film produced in 1972. Erez, who also worked under her maiden name Meral Birden, has collaborated closely with her animator husband, Cemal Erez. In a telephone interview July 10, 1998, Erez claimed she was the first woman animator trained in film and not hailing from the mentor-protégé tradition; she graduated from the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts (Mimar Sinan University) and attended fine arts courses in Italy and did film studies in France. Her films with Cemal Erez span from 1976/1977 to 1998 and are Il Gatto (The Cat), Bisiklet (Bicycle), Les Cordes (Ropes), and Haset (Jealousy).

l Gatto, Bisiklet and Les Cordes. © Meral Erez.

Erez, whose quarter-century animation career surpasses that of all other women and most men, has been greatly influenced by Eastern European animation, the surrealistic films of Luis Buñuel, the new wave films of Jean Vigo, and the paintings of Goya and Dali. She described her work as dealing with universal themes such as jealousy and fear, containing "no authentic elements whatsoever," and being devoid of "anything about my national identity."

The Kafka-esque nature of the Erez work has led to ambiguity in determining a target audience and difficulty in obtaining sponsorships. But, Erez pointed out, ways of reaching an audience do exist, through a few European television channels that have begun to use art films, and by selling films at international festivals. Ultimately, however, Erez must depend on the advertising sector, producing "little logos, spots, or vignettes for the music channels," for survival. Ayla Seyhan faced similar handicaps while doing puppet animation for Filmar Advertising and Cultural Films Company in the 1970s. Trained by animator Vedat Ar, with whom she worked for a decade, Seyhan had an unfulfilled goal of producing a message-laden, feature-length puppet animation film. In a July 16, 1998 telephone interview, she recounted her frustration in the 1970s when she had scripts but no sponsors: "One of my scripts was about a world where men became women and vice versa; but I could not implement the project [for lack of money]. In the 1980s, a Japanese film used the same theme and won a grand prize. When I watched the film, I broke down and cried. This could have been my film!"

A puppet film from Ayla Seyhan. © Ayla Seyhan.

However, Seyhan remembered with pride the inventiveness, "imagination and creative power" she and Ar used in his tiny workshop, stating she did not expect financial reward. "The chance to spend time creating puppets from nothing was satisfactory enough for me," she said. The Ar-Seyhan team tried to emulate techniques used by McLaren in Canada and Trnka in former Czechoslovakia, but were strapped for adequate equipment and materials. She reflected that: "Our situation was quite sad actually. Even making dolls was a problem. I moved the puppets with wires which is the most primitive way to do it. While our European colleagues used filters and all sorts of equipment for lighting, we used cardboard to filter light. I used glue to give the same effects that Trnka gave to his works. I produced dolls from egg shells. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every minute of my working at Filmar; it was a great experience, and I miss those days -- our naive enthusiasm and passion. After Vedat Ar died, I quit animation." Umut Sanat Studio: Giving Woman A Chance The second generation of female animators has found niches in advertising agencies and animation studios servicing Turkish television and overseas clients. A number of these women are associated with the studio Umut Sanat (Hope Art), a multi-purpose firm with a high female presence. Started in 1975 as a copyright agency, the company was founded by Seher and Üstan Karabol. The animation studio was inaugurated in May 1997 by Seher Karabol and Idil Urfalioglu, the latter serving as director of animation and merchandising. The third woman in Umut Sanat's management is Senior Vice President Nida Karabol. Other women occupy 35 posts ranging from key and assistant animators, in-between and clean-up staff, to background artists and ink-and-paint teams. Most are under 30 years of age and products of Anadolu University's Animation Department. Taking pride in Umut Sanat's support of female animators, Nida Karabol said, "The studio is under the dominance of women and you will hear more about our contributions to the animation sector in the near future."

Examples of work from the Umut Sanat Studio. © Umut Sanat Studio.

The studio has already produced feature-length films and a 13-part TV series for Saudi Arabia. Other work has been for French television, domestic advertising commercials and development-oriented films. A high priority Umut Sanat project is developing female cartoonist Piyale Madra's strip, Piknik, into 52 animated segments (each consisting of a 20-second gag) for Turkish Radio and Television, and eventually into a feature-length animated film. Capable of producing 26 to 30 minutes of animation per month, Umut Sanat is equipped with the latest computer technology, incorporating Turkish-created painting software. Besides animation, the company supplies 30 percent of all foreign television programs in the Turkish market, owns a chain of theaters and deals in theatrical film and documentary production, copyright representation and merchandising/licensing. Working in a "Man's World" Although women animators acknowledge working in a "man's world," they appear little concerned, judging from our interviews and questionnaires. They believe the situation is changing for the better. Veteran animator Meral Erez said that when she worked with men, she did not experience problems because of her gender. She sees changes that bode well for women in animation, such as the preponderance of female animation students at Anadolu University and their collaboration with male students, the selecting of animation as a career goal by teenaged girls and the forced hiring of women by studios seeking inexpensive labor, since woman are hired at cheaper rates. Ayla Seyhan also said she had no gender-related problems while working at Filmar, but that she "struggled to survive as a woman" upon entering "the real world of advertising." Stating that because Turkish women's lack of power is obvious, she saw animation as just another field of men's dominance. Others were encouraged by the inroads that young women animators have made. The owner and creative director of Artnet Animation Studio, Ali Murat Erkorkmaz, felt these "young and dynamic" animators merit attention, but lamented that some had already left the profession or the country. A computer animator at Artnet, 24-year-old Zeynep Kayaalp, predicted many changes in the next three to five years when, "These young female animators will be well known in the field and the demand for more animated films in the domestic market will increase." Already at Artnet, producers of children's educational animation marketed in 44 countries, Kayaalp, with just two years of experience, participates in every phase of production.

Six women animators interviewed at Umut Sanat saw strong evidence of male prejudice directed against them, but did not think it was debilitating or permanent; they felt the situation already has changed or will do so rather quickly. Nida Karabol said when she meets male colleagues, "Theydon't know how to react at first, and in half an hour, they relax." Problems Idil Urfalioglu faces are not related to gender, she said, but rather to the underdeveloped, unpublicized animation sector itself, not perceived abroad as being competitive with the labor pools of Asia or Eastern Europe. Similarly, computer animator Çigdem Uçarcan, while acknowledging she is not taken seriously in a "male hegemony" that limits one's success as a woman, listed bigger concerns unrelated to gender, such as: "Not many jobs for young people, dealing with clients who are totally unaware of animation and some conditions are not provided for us." Computer animator and editor Handan Kara thought men discriminated against women animators because of their scarcity, thus, making them vulnerable, but believed the situation would change. The chief of the computer department Zeynep Özcan agreed that the male domination of animation causes difficulties for women, but pointed to prejudice against college-educated animators as well. Jealousy on the part of male animators was a concern to inker and illustrator Derya Tekin. She said, "If men see that you have skills for animation, they have a hard time accepting this fact and try to ignore you. Fighting with them is very frustrating and depressing and takes my motivation away." Women have made, however, some impressive breakthroughs in the male-dominated animation industry of Turkey. By holding managerial positions at Umut Sanat, a studio noted for taking the lead in hiring women, working in all aspects of production at Umut Sanat and Artnet, taking up an increasing number of slots in the country's only university animation department and having their print cartoons converted to animation as in thecase of Piyale Madra, woman are building a presence that will not go away and to which will have to be adapted. Dr. John A. Lent has been writing about comic art for decades; among his recent books are Pulp Demons, Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning and a four-volume bibliography on comic art. An edited volume on Asian animation is in progress, under contract with John Libbey. He recently founded,and edits, The International Journal of Comic Art, due out in March. Asli Tunç is a doctoral student in the Mass Media and Communications Department at Temple University. She is working exclusively on animation and other aspects of comic art. Her latest work (with John A. Lent) on animation in Turkey appeared in the Fall '98 issue of Animation Journal.