Guney and his work were almost entirely unknown outside of his Turkish homeland until his 1981 escape from imprisonment in Turkey and his "discovery" the following year at the Cannes Film Festival for his autobiographical screenplay for "Yol," the festival's grand prize winner. Born in 1937 in a village near the southern city of Adana, Guney studied law and economics at the universities in Ankara and Istanbul, but by the age of 21 he found himself actively involved in filmmaking. As Yesilcam, the Turkish studio system, grew in strength, a handful of directors, including Atif Yilmaz, began to use the cinema as a means of addressing the problems of the people. Only state-sanctioned melodramas, war films and play adaptations had previously played in Turkish theaters, but these new filmmakers began to fill the screens with more artistic, personal and relevant pictures of Turkish life. The most popular name to emerge from the Young Turkish Cinema was that of Yilmaz Guney.
Guney was a gruff-looking young actor who earned the monicker "Cirkin Kral," or "the Ugly King." After apprenticing as a screenwriter for and assistant to Atif Yilmaz, Guney soon began appearing in as many as 20 films a year and became Turkey's most popular actor. More than a screen idol, Guney was a Turk who believed in the Turkish people and their way of life, as well as being personally committed to social change. Although the early 1960s brought some political reform to Turkey, Guney was imprisoned in 1961 for 18 months for publishing a "communist" novel. The country's political situation and Guney's relationship with the authorities only became more tense in the ensuing years. Not content with his star status atop the Turkish film industry, Guney began directing his own pictures in 1965 and, by 1968, had formed his own production company, Guney Filmcilik. Over the next few years, the titles of his films mirrored the feelings of the Turkish people: "Umut/Hope" (1970), "Agit/Elegy" (1971), "Aci/Pain" (1971), "Umutsuzlar/The Hopeless Ones," (1971).
After 1972, however, Guney would spend most of his life in prison. Arrested for harboring anarchist students, Guney was jailed during preproduction on" Zavallilar/The Suffering Ones" (completed in 1975), and before completing "Endise/Anxiety," which was finished in 1974 by Guney's assistant, Serif Goren. This was a cherished role that Goren would repeat over the next dozen years, directing several scripts that Guney wrote laboriously while behind bars. Released from prison in 1974 as part of a general amnesty, Guney was re-arrested that same year for shooting a judge. During this stretch of incarceration, his most successful screenplays were "Suru/The Herd" 1978) and "Dusman/The Enemy" 1979), both directed by Zeki Okten. After escaping from prison in 1981 and fleeing to France, Guney was greeted at the Cannes Film Festival with a Palm d'Or for "Yol," again directed by Goren. It was not until 1983 that Guney resumed directing, telling a brutal tale of imprisoned children in his final film, "Le Mur/The Wall," made in France with the cooperation of the French government. At that point, Guney's name was unspeakable in his homeland; 11 of the films he directed or appeared in were confiscated and reportedly burned to ashes; even so much as writing about Guney was forbidden. Despite the great international success of "Yol" and "The Wall," Guney was ultimately a Turkish director for the Turkish people; his final separation from his home audience must have been even more painful to endure than his years of imprisonment.