In Turkey, a surprise-hit crime drama trades the glitter for grit

Screenshots from the Turkish television show Sifir Bir. (Screen captures)
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A vicious stabbing. An evening of booze, cigarettes and casual hookups. Bored young men with dead-end lives, racing motorcycles for thrills.

This was not what Turkish television usually looked like.

Screenshots from the Turkish television show Sifir Bir. (Screen captures)

“Sifir Bir,” an underground hit about an upstart crime gang, has struck a nerve in Turkey and garnered millions of viewers here and around the world since it launched last year. The show’s creators and fans say that its uncommonly frank depiction of life in a poor neighborhood, and the struggles of the people stuck there, is precisely the reason for its popularity.

The team behind the production — inspired by American crime shows such as “The Wire” — intended it as a retort to the lavish historical epics, summer-romance serials and white-collar crime dramas that dominate Turkish television. Those shows, which are among the country’s most popular exports, are dubbed into local languages from the Middle East to South America and beam a largely lustrous image of Turkey around the world.

They have also frequently reflected the priorities of Turkey’s leaders by amplifying nationalist rhetoric or, more recently, reviving the Ottoman historical legacy that is central to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Islamist appeal. The striving ethos of the Erdogan era is often reflected in the extravagantly wealthy protagonists, ensconced in Bosporus mansions.

Television projects the president’s morals, too: Alcohol and cigarettes, for instance, are blurred out or covered up in television shows.

But the appeal of “Sifir Bir” suggests that some portion of Turkey’s television-obsessed population was yearning for something a little more real. The main characters are working-class anti-heroes. They preside over streets a million miles removed from the Turkey of travel brochures: neighborhoods that recall Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, long neglected by the government, where policemen feared to tread. 

It's realistic. It's raw. It doesn't hide anything.
Yigit Cakir, 33, a fan of the show

“Sifir Bir” features no-name actors and residents recruited from quarters of the city where it is set. Scenes are often shot with handheld cameras, and Turkish rap music thumps in the background.

“It’s realistic. It’s raw. It doesn’t hide anything,” said Yigit Cakir, 33, a barista and actor in Istanbul who is one of the show’s fans. “They use the language that we use in our daily life.”

The first two seasons were carried on YouTube, freeing the creators from the conventions of Turkish broadcasters and allowing them to evade government censorship of difficult topics such as teenage drug addition (and also allowing the characters to smoke). The decision to post on the Internet did not prevent “Sifir Bir” — “Zero One” in English, for the first two numbers of the Adana license plate — from finding an audience. The first episode has racked up more than 10 million views on YouTube, though the show’s producers say the number of regular viewers each week is about 2 million to 3 million.

The Post’s Kareem Fahim breaks down two scenes inside ‘Sifir Bir.’

The plot follows a group of young men from a hardscrabble Adana neighborhood as they form a gang and methodically eliminate their rivals. The violence — drive-by shootings, beatings and stabbings — is graphic. In the first season’s finale, young boys shoot two of the protagonists in the back.

But in a nod to conservative Turkish sensibilities, the gang leaders possess an unshakable, if particular, moral sensibility. So, as they murder competitors, they also rub out pimps who abuse sex workers and drug dealers blamed for hooking teenagers on heroin.

It also depicts a world almost exclusively of men: The few female characters play love interests or a doctor who patches up the bloodied gang members.

One of the stars of “Sifir Bir,” Cihangir Ceyhan, created the show with Kadri Beran Taskin, the director. Both grew up or spent portions of their childhood in the setting they chose for the drama, a city of 1.7 million people near the Mediterranean coast that is known for its summer heat and high crime rate.

The show is a riff on a well-worn genre in Turkey, crime shows revolving around the culture of what is known as kabadayis, or tough uncles — mafia bosses who protect their stomping grounds and their kin by any means necessary. But theirs are rarefied worlds of fitted black suits and entourages and chauffeurs.

The stories in “Sifir Bir,” by contrast, are mined faithfully from Adana’s streets. The episodes are largely shot in the city’s ethnically mixed Hurriyet neighborhood, with regular input from locals as well as the crime bosses who still hold sway here.

The result was something “different, in all sorts of ways: the language they use, the lives they portray,” said Elcin Yahsi, a former journalist who is the founder and editor of Ekranella.com, a Turkish website that tracks television shows.

Some of “Sifir Bir’s” innovations were subtle — a scene, for instance, where a mother mourning her dead son grieves in Kurdish, rather than Turkish, in a rare acknowledgment on television of the country’s minority. Such scenes tore at the “uniformity of Turkish television,” Yahsi said.

The show may have a much larger audience soon. The third season will move from YouTube to BluTV, a paid subscription channel in Turkey. Taskin and his colleagues said that they did not think the switch would compromise their vision. It also meant they could stop paying for the filming largely out of their own pockets, Taskin said.

The creators were reluctant to discuss aspects of the show that could be viewed as sensitive and said that they were determined to keep a distance from Turkey’s charged political debates. With its depictions of casual street violence and policemen as bystanders, “Sifir Bir” challenged the government’s confident projection of power and control at a time when authorities have embarked on a wide-ranging hunt for state enemies after an attempted coup last summer.

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The show is set in the 1990s, when Adana’s streets were more chaotic, the filmmakers explained. But also, in some parts of Turkey, “the rule of law is not enough,” Taskin said. “You have to make your own rules. People know that.”

The creators were also hesitant to say too much about the crime bosses who served as their underworld consultants or to discuss how closely their story lines matched real events.

“You can’t show too much truth,” said Savas Satis, who shares a first name with his “Sifir Bir” character, the leader of the gang. “We have to show our respect to people who do this underground work.”

Director Kadri Beran Taskin, center, discusses a scene on the set of 'Sifir Bir' in Adana, Turkey. Taskin and his co-creators drew inspiration from shows like “The Wire” and mined their storylines from Adana’s streets.

The crime bosses of Hurriyet, though, seemed pleased.

“Thanks to these brothers, we have gotten such positive feedback,” said one, known as Uncle Emin, who did a stint in prison on a murder charge and spoke on a recent afternoon in a teahouse that doubles as his office.

“We are watching ourselves,” he said.

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Credits: Story by Kareem Fahim and Zeynep Karatas.