Documentaries are snarling little beasts of art, birthed in passionate fits and sustained by brass and vision as the years wear on and the filmmakers find themselves traveling a long, winding road.
Our road extended over 10 years with curves and potholes, grief and joy. When Sally Sussman, (director/writer/producer), and her husband and old friend, Anthony Morina (producer), heard me mention how I’d always wanted to return to Istanbul, magical city of my youthful adventures and misadventures where I’d been sentenced to life in prison for smuggling hashish, it rang a bell in Sally’s storyteller mind. Knowing the enormous impact Midnight Express had on the culture, she suggested we make a doc about Billy Hayes returning to Turkey, using that vehicle to tell a larger story about the power of film and how Midnight Express adversely affected a country—Turkey—and its people. It sounded bizarre enough for me, and I told her she could talk to anyone about anything and I didn’t want to see any footage until she was finished.
We soon discovered that getting back into Turkey was going to be as hard as getting out.
I wanted to return to set the record straight about the differences between my real story and the movie Midnight Express. Because the film was skewed so heavily against the Turks, I became a hated man in Turkey, mostly for the infamous courtroom speech where my character, being sentenced to life in prison, shouts Oliver Stone’s angry words, cursing out the nation of Turkey and vowing to “fuck all their sons and daughters.” What I actually said in the courtroom to the judge holding my life in his hands was that I couldn’t agree with them, all I could do was forgive them. Big difference. But “fuck their sons and daughters” is what the world has heard for the last 40 years since the film was released.
Our attempts to obtain a visa for me were repeatedly rejected. I was an escaped convict/drug smuggler who’d had an Interpol warrant issued by Turkey for his arrest, and now that I want to return to Turkey they don’t want me back. I’m officially labeled persona non grata. Oh, the irony.
Sally had a long list of people she wanted to interview—including my friends and family, members of the creative team that made the movie, various Turkish officials and other Turks for their side of the issue. She followed me around for years onto sets as I worked as an actor, and as the economic pressure grew, we knew that if I couldn’t get back into Turkey, the guts would be missing from this doc.
It was two years of rejections from Turkey. Then a friend led us to Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and one of the most famous Turks in the world. This gracious gentleman saw that our aim was true and agreed to become our champion in the cause of my revisiting Turkey. We felt for the first time that we could actually get there. But when Ahmet fell backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, went into a coma and died, our hopes died with him.
I let go of my dream of returning to Turkey and the documentary was dead. Then out of the blue I got a call from a man named Farhat, who told me he’s with the Turkish National Police (the Turkish equivalent of the FBI) and wanted to speak about bringing me back to Istanbul. I was floored to say the least, seeing as we had tried for more than two years. He explained that some of his TNP colleagues had seen an old interview on YouTube where I’d expressed my feelings about the Turks and my desire to return to Istanbul. Farhat told me his organization was hosting an international conference on global security in Istanbul and this event would be the perfect opportunity for me to talk to the Turkish people. Despite warnings from my family and friends, including my lawyer, who felt the invitation was a trap and that they would arrest me the moment I stepped off the plane, I decided to take the chance.
With three days’ notice, Sally, Tony, and I headed for Istanbul with no idea what to expect once we arrived. As we discovered, this was a very risky move for the Turkish National Police but they felt it was time for their country to move beyond the stigma of Midnight Express, which they had grown up with. To me, it fulfilled my dream of going back to Turkey. My message of healing and forgiveness will be heard, and hopefully help Turkey move past the horrific images of the movie.
Sitting beside Sally and Tony on the 9:15 p.m. Air France jet that thundered down the runway and lifted into the dark night sky, I traveled back into my past—to the pain and joy of my youth. Last time I flew to Istanbul, I was 23 years old and thought I was invincible, that the world was mine. Until it all came crashing down.
Touching down on Turkish soil for the first time in 32 years, I was greeted by smiling young TNP officers, all excited to shake my hand, welcome me back, saying they’ve heard about me since they were kids. As I was kept in a small room alone with the cops while they explained my visa to the flummoxed immigration officer, I have a flash of the day in 1970 when I was arrested, my arms piled with hash plaques and cops on both sides of me, lining up for a photo like big-game hunters. Then I was the captured prize; now I’m some semi-legendary, mythological figure returning from the past.
Four dreamlike days passed as I spoke to the Turkish people via a lively press conference, and visited places from my youth—like the fabled Pudding Shoppe where I first scored my hash. The owner came out to meet us and told me, thanks to the publicity from my book and the movie, the Pudding Shoppe was the only business in Turkey to benefit from Midnight Express. His family became so successful that they bought the hotel next door. That warmed my heart, considering so much of the Turkish economy was damaged by the movie.
We then visited the Istanbul city jail where I spent my first terrifying night. Walking through what is now a five-star Four Seasons Hotel, I couldn’t believe what was once considered hell was now a paragon of luxury. No doubt Turkey had changed significantly. The next day I was able to slowly circle around outside the tall gray walls of Sagmalcilar Prison, where I spent more than four years. I stopped to look up over the barbed wire at the barred cellblock windows from where I once peered down at this very street. Eventually, I descended into the grimy basement of the long-abandoned Bakirköy Hospital, Section 13 for the Criminally Insane. Truly the most bizarre place I have ever been, I got myself committed there in an effort to escape in 1972—a place I never, ever expected to see again. Circling the infamous pillar in the middle of the room as the inmates did all day long brought back all the terrifying moments I had experienced, and you can see my ashen face as I come out of there, no doubt traumatized by the memories.
When my one-man show, Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, played at the Barrow Street Theater in Manhattan in 2014, prominent members of the Turkish-American community came to see it, and suddenly, their hatred toward me evaporated. They later invited me to raise the Turkish flag above Wall Street for the annual commemoration of the founding of the Turkish Republic, attended by the consul general and other Turkish officials. Talk about coming full circle! Sally finally had the ending for her documentary.
In May 2016, I find myself on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival with my wife Wendy by my side, 39 years after we met there in 1978 at the world premiere of Midnight Express. Now we’re here for the world premiere screening of Sally’s documentary: Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey. Thierry Frémaux, head of the festival and luminary of French cinema, greeted us himself, congratulating Sally and Tony, our long-suffering, ever-steady producer, and Sean Fanton, our editor and co-producer. He playfully pats me down under the arms, and our howls of laughter set the tone for the next four days. We are thrilled to be here; for me and Wendy, it’s a dream come true.
But the postscript to our story is not a happy one for our friends at the Turkish National Police. Like hundreds of journalists, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals, they have been purged in the recent authoritarian crackdown by Turkey’s current government after a failed coup in 2015. Our main bodyguard and friend sits in prison, with no charges against him. His boss was forced to escape with his family into Greece, following the exact route I had taken all those long years ago. I offer geçmiş olsun to them and to my other friends in Turkey.
A last bit of irony: I’m now back in the cannabis world, 50 years after my initial foray, promoting the legal use of this plant around which my fate has so inexorably twined. I wish my dad was still around—the look on his face would be priceless.
Infamous drug smuggler and prison escapee whose experience in a Turkish prison was the basis of the hit cult film, Midnight Express, Billy Hayes recounts his story and his shocking return to Turkey in a new feature documentary, Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey, available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon on March 23.