Midnight Express, Turkey, Russia, Putin, Pussy Riot… not all is as it seems

In 1978 the seminal movie Midnight Express was released and a generation of young people were warned off from smuggling drugs and going to the seemingly barbaric country of Turkey.

This was very much the plan of the film’s funders who were Greek Cypriots. They were worried that Turkey’s growing tourist industry was beginning to rival that of Greece and wanted to deter would-be visitors to their Aegean rivals.

The consequent success of the film in the West meant Turkey had a branding crisis on their hands so the Turkish junta engaged a US agency to change the image of their country.

The agency that were hired were responsible for the launch of MTV and very hot at the time, so they spent three months visiting Cappadocia, the gorgeous coastal resorts, Lake Van, and the modern bazaars of Istanbul to understand the country.

When they had finally come up with their strategy, they sat in front of the generals in the junta, explained that strategy and then told the generals that they knew how to position Turkey and the way to do that was…

… for the generals to change the name of the country! their ideas wouldn’t work with a name that described a fat fowl. Bonkers.

Not withstanding the utter cojones in saying that to military decision-makers and that the country still retains its name, it underscores how countries need to position their reputations on a continual basis.

So it is with Russia, a place I visited earlier this week on business. Pussy Riot had just been jailed for two years and, rather like Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, I was nervous about what awaited me. The court of Tsar Putin? An unfree press?

But I was surprised. The country’s leading English language newspaper The Moscow Times led with the Pussy Riot story and much of the comment was all anti-Putin with editorial by former Chess World Champion Gary Kasparov who had been arrested protesting against the Pussy Riot sentencing.

Now the Pussy Riot story isn’t as clear as it’s made out to be. You can be certain that when Paul McCartney starts to support something (as he has done so with Pussy Riot) then it’s time to back off, it’s a bit like when Tony Blair said he wore Paul Smith clothes and never going to Floral Street ever again.

Then there are the two odd stories about the art collective Voina that are affiliated to Pussy Riot (thank you @privateeye) that broke into a supermarket where one member of the group grabbed a chicken (not a Turkey) and inserted most of the dead bird inside herself. A fowl act indeed.

Effectively, nothing is always as clear-cut as it appears. Midnight Express depicted a country that was funded by its rival, Russia is portrayed as a fascist regime that hates its people and Pussy Riot as a cause celebre that should not be criticised by anybody purporting to be a Liberal.

In reality, Turkey has always been very similar to Greece, Russia is opening itself up with a huge investment programme and a smiling face and Pussy Riot are a troupe of dirty girls who wore balaclavas and got lucky.

But you might disagree with me…

Monty (632 Posts)

Monty Munford has more than 15 years' experience in mobile, digital media, web and journalism. He is the founder of Mob76, a company that helps tech companies raise money and exit. He speaks regularly at global media events with a focus on Africa, writes a weekly column for The Telegraph, is a regular contributor to The Economist, Wired, Mashable and speaks regularly on the BBC World Service.