On the 85th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, Can Dündar, columnist at the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and a documentary filmmaker, made a documentary on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Atatürk = father of the Turks). Released in Turkey on October 29th, the documentary is called, simply, Mustafa — a clear indication of the director’s intentions of portraying the Turkish leader as… human.

This is enough to raise a racket in some Turkish circles. For bringing out Atatürk’s weaknesses — such as heavy smoking, heavy drinking, womanizing, and dying a lonely death — Dündar made dedicated enemies and was even accused of being a pawn of imperialist powers in a psychological operation aimed at undermining the Turkish army (article in Turkish). The director is also facing a criminal complaint for insulting the father of the republic (most probably under law 5816 against publicly “insulting the legacy/memory of Atatürk”).

The noise has been coming mainly from circles normally described with the blanket terms “secularist” and “kemalist”. But if the debate awakened by the release of the movie shows anything, it is the complexity lying behind these simplistic shorthands. The director himself does not fit neatly into the Turkish military’s jargon of “enemies within” — i.e. Kurds, Islamists, and “Europeanized” liberals such as Orhan Pamuk. A fan of Mustafa Kemal, he also claims to have wanted to present him “in a more intimate, affectionate light.”

The figure of Atatürk has been elevated sometimes to the degree of absurdity — school children every week swear to walk down Atatürk’s path. A Turkish friend of mine had to face school detention as a child for refusing to partake in a similar ritual. But that idealization only reflects the degree of insecurity about Turkey’s borders and identity — an insecurity that reflects more violently in the popular and institutional refusal to deal with the Armenian history, the Kurdish issue, and, in some circles, the Muslim character of the country.

It is a positive sign that the documentary was conceived, made, and delivered, even met with public appreciation and praise. When conspiracy theories are shifting political quarters with the Ergenekon trial and when Turkey is facing several crossroads of identity — from Islam and the EU to a more active regional role — such a debate is not only healthy and necessary, it is also long overdue.