Netflix’s newest Turkish series The Club focuses on a 1950s nightclub, an ex-convict called Matilda who works there, and the multicultural Istanbul of days of yore.
Turkey’s newest Netflix original is a captivating series called The Club. Sitting at the top spot on the most-watched list, the historical series focuses on a Jewish mother-daughter duo trying to make it in the 1950s in Istanbul.
The series has won accolades from the Turkish Jewish community as well as from non-Jews alike, for its attention to detail, be it costumes, scenery, Ladino accents, screenplay, and acting. It comprises six 50-minute episodes directed by Zeynep Gunay Tan and Seren Yuce.
The main character, Matilda Aseo (Gokce Bahadir), gets out of prison early due to a general pardon. She has killed a man and is serving a life sentence, but gets out after 17 years, seeking her child who was raised in an orphanage. Matilda’s teenage daughter Rasel (Asude Kelebek) initially rejects her affection, but comes around, regarding her cautiously as a parent eager yet hesitant to love her offspring.
The scenario, centred around a nightclub and the characters that inhabit it, is filled with twists and turns, and the stellar ensemble cast, from the mysterious club owner Orhan Sahin (Metin Akdulger) to his right-hand man Celebi (Firat Tanis), to Rasel’s love interest Ismet (Baris Arduc) to cabaret singer Selim Songur (Salih Bademci) do a fantastic job.
TRT World spoke with some members of the Jewish community to hear their take on the series - which was unanimously positive.
Moris Levi, one of the leaders of the Turkish Jewish community, says he was surprised when he started watching the show. “I was especially surprised to see Turkish Jews’ mannerisms reflected so well,” he wrote in an email to TRT World. “The actors’ reactions to various events and what was said to them was very-well designed. In other words, they were complete ‘Jews’.”
“Especially Jews speaking Ladino when they are among people from other cultures, or when they get emotional or excited, this was a reflex I saw quite frequently in my elders,” Levi adds. “I enjoyed watching the series in a short time,” he adds.
Asked about the Ladino language, Levi says it is the language Sephardic Jews brought with them in the 15th century to the Ottoman Empire when they emigrated from Spain. “It is an old version of Spanish, enriched by Turkish, Greek, French words as time went by,” he explains.
“Up until the 1930s, when citizens were urged to speak Turkish, it could be said to be the mother tongue of Turkish Jews.
In that period, especially Sephardic Jews living in metropolitan cities, chose not to teach their children this rich language,” he adds. “For example, my grandfather had banned the language to be spoken when I was around.”
The series also refers to the damage done to the non-Muslim Turkish community by the Wealth Tax. Levi says “The law that was brought to life on November 11, 1942, was planned to have capital change hands. Minorities who had been involved in trade for hundreds of years were taxed inordinately so that trade and industry would go to Muslim families.”
Levi adds that Jews, Armenians and Greeks in Turkey sold their merchandise and companies for next to nothing and tried to pay the tax – “those that couldn’t pay, were sent over to work camps in Askale [in the eastern city of Erzurum].”
In the series, Matilda Aseo’s father and older brother were such victims: after the dissolution of Aseo Maritime Shipping, they were sent to the work camps to pay off their remaining debt.
Levi says, “It is unfortunate; our country could have done business with a ruinous Europe after World War II, but the government took away tradesmen’s capital and courage and missed out on irreplaceable opportunities.”
At the time of Wealth Tax's introduction, then prime minister Sukru Saracoglu of the People's Republican Party (CHP) had claimed the tax was intended to reduce the cash flow in the market and bring value to the Turkish lira.
Jewish author and publisher Rifat Bali also says that people who have made comments about the series have said positive things, and those who did so were mostly Jews. “The positive reviews are a result of Jews who have taken roles in the series or who worked as consultants to the series.”
According to a news release by Netflix, Mois Gabay gave seminars to the cast and crew during the preparation process, and arranged historical tours. He also read the script during pre-production and was a consultant to the series.
Forti Barokas was the Ladino instructor, who worked with the non-Jewish actors portraying Jews in the series. She worked especially close with Gokce Bahadir, the main character Matilda.
Izzet Bana was another consultant, who helped the production find Ladino songs. The Netflix news release notes that he was especially helpful with the songs during the Purim scene.
According to Bali, the Jewish community says, “We were always negatively portrayed on TV. As loan sharks, black market traders, as mean people. For the first time we are being portrayed as we are, and the regrettable events we were subjected to such as Wealth Tax have not been left out.”
As for Ladino, Bali says there is a small community of Jews that speak it in Turkey: “Those over 50 understand and speak it if necessary. The young generation doesn’t understand or talk [Ladino]. Turkish is the primary language for young and old these days. Ladino is not popular now but in the time frame that the series takes place [1950s Istanbul] Ladino was quite common.”
“In the 1950s the people living in Kuledibi [near the Galata Tower] and Tepebasi were poor and were small business owners,” Bali tells TRT World in an email. “As in the series, the better off people lived in Taksim or Osmanbey. They were small business owners, merchants, and white collar workers. Moreover there were wealthy merchants and industrialists. In those years [the Jewish] population was 45,000. Now it is 15,000.”
Editor-in-chief of Salom weekly newspaper, geared towards the Jewish community in Turkey, Ivo Molinas says the series was a “great hit” among Jews in Turkey for many reasons. “The portrayal of 1950s Istanbul, the cinematography, the costumes, the streets and classic cars were remarkable,” he says. “Add to that the story of a mother-and-daughter Jewish duo at the centre of the series, portrayed in a sensitive manner, and it was bound to be a success.”
The series portrays Jewish Turks as the lower-class, having been hit hard by the Wealth Tax, Molinas explains. The story is well known in the non-Muslim community, but less so in the Muslim community, he comments. “The series has created an awareness about Turkey’s history,” he says. And also, he emphasises, “it has shown Jewish people as regular people, some of them good, and some of them bad.”
The Netflix series is filled with original songs and choreography, and the set was constructed for the Club on a 2,000 square metre area of which 750 square metres were the Club itself. The stage, the laundromat, and the office rooms were all prepared brand new, as was the Istiklal Street of the 1950s.
The total preparation for the series lasted six-and-a-half months, of which 2 to 3 months were focused on Istiklal Street. There were close to 3,600-3,700 costumes sewn within 24 weeks, with 10 tailors, one associate designer, two design assistants and a set team of eight people.
The production preparations lasted for 12 weeks, while the set took another 12 weeks.
According to the news release by Netflix, the first season of six episodes went live on November 5, 2021, to be followed by a second season of four episodes in the near future.
If the second season is as good as the first, viewers should do well to keep their eyes peeled for the next edition.