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Thursday, October 22, 1998 Published at 07:10 GMT 08:10 UK

World: Europe

Filming Turkey's hero

Sixty years after his death Ataturk remains an icon

By Chris Morris in Istanbul

As Turkey prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the modern republic on 29 October, patriotic fervour is being pumped up across the country.

Watch Chris Morris report on the controversial Ataturk film
The image at the centre of the celebration is the face of the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

His stern gaze looks down from giant billboards and banners, his photograph hangs on the wall of nearly every shop or office.

Sixty years after his death Ataturk remains an icon, a national hero for a nation still searching for an identity with which it feels comfortable.

[ image: His stern gaze looks down from giant billboards and banners]
His stern gaze looks down from giant billboards and banners
The adoration, however, is matched by unremitting hostility from exile groups - mainly Greeks and Armenians - who believe that attacking Ataturk is the best way for them to attack Turkey, a country they believe deprived them of their birthright.

The British film producer Tarquin Olivier, the son of Lawrence Olivier, is finding out just how powerful that animosity remains.

He has just finished filming a documentary on Ataturk's life. Next year he plans to go one better and make a multi-million pound feature film, complete with a big Hollywood star.

The film has been the target of a virulent campaign conducted by Greek and Armenian Americans, who accuse Ataturk of everything from mass murder to child molestation. They fear that Mr Olivier and his Turkish wife plan to canonise Ataturk.

[ image: Antonio Banderas has already dropped out of the film]
Antonio Banderas has already dropped out of the film
One actor who was cast in the starring role, Antonio Banderas, has already dropped out. He was inundated with letters and e-mails from the anti-Ataturk lobby, which broadcast urgent appeals over the Internet.

Tarquin Olivier says he has another star lined up, but given the circumstances he is not naming names. There is no doubt that Mr Olivier is a great admirer of Ataturk, but he dismisses suggestions that his film will be a whitewash and he calls his critics "ignorant buffoons" motivated by hatred.

"Ataturk was a man not a god", said Mr Olivier, in a break from filming in the garden of Istanbul's Dolmabahce palace, the place where Turkey's founding father died. "We will illustrate his failings as well as his remarkable achievements".

[ image: Tarquin Olivier call his critics
Tarquin Olivier call his critics "ignorant buffoons"
There have been previous attempts to portray Ataturk on the big screen. They fell foul not of his critics, but of the Turkish authorities, who were fearful of what Hollywood might say. Outright criticism of Ataturk within Turkey remains unthinkable, and it can be a short cut to a prison sentence.

Parts of Ataturk's legacy, particularly state control of the economy, have been quietly discarded, but his Big Idea - aligning a strictly secular Turkey with the West - remains a cornerstone of state policy.

For a man who died 60 years ago, he still holds a remarkably powerful grip on his country.

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