Passport to Terror (1989, USA)
Also known as Dark Holiday, this film about an American woman in a Turkish prison invites inevitable comparisons with Midnight Express (1978). But it being about an American held in a Turkish prison is where the similarities begin and end.
Like Midnight Express, it is based on a true story - that of 56-year-old American tourist Gene LePere, who in 1983 was pressured into buying some small stone heads for $20 from some intimidating street hawkers, and was then detained by the Turkish authorities who suspected that she may have been trying to smuggle Turkish antiquities out of the country. Her book, ‘Never Pass This Way Again’ forms the basis of this made-for-TV film.
Blonde, divorced, middle aged and middle class, Gene (Lee Remick) is remanded into custody at the Buca Prison in İzmir. She can’t stifle some frustrated ranting on realising that the country in which she is imprisoned is not the US: “Don’t I have any rights? What sort of country is this, anyway?” she cries. Nor can she avoid visibly recoiling from the primitive Middle Eastern toilets and the prison soup. But despite these small insults, her prisoner colleagues are almost all wonderfully welcoming and helpful (if a little intrigued by her blonde hair). “My tenderhearted Turkish cellmates believed I should not have to experience the indignities they willingly suffered as their natural lot,” the real LePere wrote in her book. In the film version, one of them, Lufti (Shanit Keter), appoints herself as Gene’s protector (for cigarettes and money) and translator, being the only one, she claims, who speaks English.
Her main support is her lawyer, Isha (Norma Aleandro), whose function seems to be to warn Gene that she might be looking at five or ten or more years in prison, and then to leave her to tell her story to sceptical judges without intervening. Oh, and the US Consulate is supportive, too. In all the foreign-national-in-nasty-overseas-prison movies I can think of, Passport’s Ken Horton (Tony Goldwyn) is the only consulate official who is even remotely helpful or sympathetic. Throughout, Gene remains stoic and dignified, but tired.
There are, of course, trials to be endured; a shakedown for drugs, a fight in the dormitory, her growing resentment of Lufti, conflicting views about the artefacts’ value and an inability to get bail or a trial date. There are people purporting to work on her behalf to secure her release who promise much but deliver little. And, to diverge just a fraction, there are prisoners who are engaged to depilate their guards’ legs, which just might be the most unusual prison job I’ve seen.
Ultimately Gene makes bail… and then determines to skip out of the country rather than wait to be found guilty. With help, she gets a new passport, and then with some very reluctant assistance from consul Ken, she slips onto a plane and is again free. We are relieved for her. Hooray for brave bail jumping!
Extraordinarily, before the credits roll we are informed that, “After eight Turkish trials, in absentia, Gene LePere was finally judged not guilty.” So it seems that the Turkish system delivered justice - even in her guilty absence - after Gene had flagrantly broken the law to avoid going to trial.
After Midnight Express, the film provides a welcome and very different take on the character of Turkish people… and no doubt made a much more generous contribution to US-Turkish relations. The Turks are depicted as a little over-zealous in their desire to prevent artefacts from leaving the country, but their prison is mostly orderly, their women prisoners almost all gracious, and their officials resistant to corruption. Not all of the American citizens fare so well.
As an alternative peek into one person’s experience of the Turkish prison system, it’s interesting. As a study in ethics, or drama, it’s not so strong.
Posted on January 22nd, 2017 at 2:41 pm. Updated on January 22nd, 2017 at 2:41 pm.
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