TURKISH cinema has kept a low profile in the United States and other Western countries where big-budget Hollywood releases tend to dominate movie screens and attention spans. Hoping to reverse this pattern, Turkish filmmakers are beating the drum for their efforts more vigorously than in the past, and the world is starting to take notice.
The just-concluded Montreal World Film Festival presented a 19-part program devoted to ``Turkish Cinema of Today,'' and New York's influential Lincoln Center is currently hosting a 10-day series called ``New Turkish Cinema: Visions of Exile and Homecoming,'' billed as the first US tribute to Turkish film.
Next in line is the Pompidou Center in Paris, where a major retrospective is slated for the near future.
As the title of the Lincoln Center program indicates, concern with exiles and homecomings of many kinds - emotional and psychological as well as physical and political - play an important role in today's Turkish cinema. The offerings reflect the multifaceted interplay between individual film artists and a complex national culture.
In geographical terms, Turkey's location has encouraged respect for both European and Asian artistic traditions.
In social terms, major government upheavals (most notably the 1971 and 1980 military coups) have kept any single trend or tendency from permanent domination of the filmmaking arena.
If one quality can be seen as an ongoing characteristic of Turkish cinema, it's an affinity for social realism that reached its highest point in the films of Yilmaz Guney, perhaps the most renowned of all Turkish directors.
After establishing himself as a popular actor, he turned to filmmaking and became the central figure of a Young Turkish Cinema movement during the 1960s, earning international fame with his ironically titled ``Hope'' and his screenplay for ``Yol,'' shot by another director while Guney himself was imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
Although he died 10 years ago, after winning a grand prize at the Cannes film festival for ``The Wall'' in 1982, his spirit survives in the work of such directors as Erden Kiral and Tunc Basaran, creative explorers of the tense relationship between individual freedom and political control in modern Turkey.
For all the importance of social realism in Turkish film, other approaches have also been prominent.
After the 1980 military coup there was a strong movement away from politics in Turkish art and entertainment, according to Vecdi Sayar of the Istanbul International Film Festival, who discussed Turkish cinema with me during the Montreal film festival.
In this nonpolitical atmosphere, filmmakers of the 1980s and '90s have turned to more personal material, ``each looking for his own personal style and his own story to tell,'' as Sayar puts it.
Another current tendency is for young directors to turn away from Western influences and look to Eastern culture for inspiration, trying to evoke a more philosophical and even mystical sensibility in their works.
``This is quite healthy,'' Sayar says, ``because they are trying to create a cultural synthesis using what they've learned from their education and their roots.''
Some filmmakers, such as Kiral in ``The Blue Exile'' and Isil Ozgenturk in ``I Love You Rosa,'' have managed to combine mystical subcurrents with social-realist ingredients, evoking yet another kind of cinematic mood.
LOOKING at the financial side of the Turkish film scene, it's interesting to note that while art cinema runs a distant second to commercial cinema in most national film industries, Turkey is currently in the opposite situation.
This is because dedicated auteurs with a personal commitment to cinema are tenaciously holding their own despite the fact that funding problems (related to devaluation of the Turkish lira and elimination of government subsidies) have reduced mass-market production to a fraction of its normal activity, from an average of 70 or 80 films per year to about a dozen that are still slated for completion in 1994.
Sayar hopes the financial situation will improve before long, with government support resuming this autumn and annual production rising to at least 40 or 50 movies. Although this would still be a sharp reduction from the nearly 200 films per year produced during the early '70s, it would restore Turkey to its former place as a cinematic leader in the Balkan region. It would also provide a firmer foundation for the efforts of serious artists devoted to what Sayar calls a cinema of ``change and diversity'' reflecting a society of vast complexity and potential.
* Lincoln Center's program of ``New Turkish Cinema'' began Sept. 14 and continues through Sept. 23 at the Walter Reade Theater.
Among the highlights are screenings of ``The Blue Exile,'' by Erden Kiral, an imaginatively filmed drama based on the experiences of an author sent into political exile; and ``Don't Let Them Shoot the Kite,'' by Tunc Basaran, about a four-year-old boy growing up in a Turkish prison.