Born in 1937 to a Kurdish family in a village near the southern city of Adana, Turkey, Güney 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 Yesilçam, the Turkish studio system, grew in strength, a handful of directors, including Atıf Yılmaz, 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/Kurdish life. The most popular name to emerge from the Young Turkish Cinema was that of Yılmaz Güney. Güney 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 Atıf Yılmaz, Güney soon began appearing in as many as 20 films a year and became Turkey's most popular actor.
Although the early 1960's brought some political reform to Turkey, Güney was imprisoned in 1961 for 18 months for publishing a "communist" novel. The country's political situation and Güney's relationship with the authorities only became more tense in the ensuing years. Not content with his star status atop the Turkish film industry, Güney began directing his own pictures in 1965 and, by 1968, had formed his own production company, Güney Filmcilik. Over the next few years, the titles of his films mirrored the feelings of the Kurdish people: Umut (1970); Agit (1972); Aci (1971) ; Umutsuzlar (1971).
After 1972, however, Güney would spend most of his life in prison. Arrested for harboring anarchist students, Güney was jailed during preproduction on Zavallilar (1975) (completed in 1975), and before completing Endise (1974), which was finished in 1974 by Güney's assistant, Şerif Gören. This was a cherished role that Gören would repeat over the next dozen years, directing several scripts that Güney wrote laboriously while behind bars.
Released from prison in 1974 as part of a general amnesty, Güney was re-arrested that same year for murdering a judge. During this stretch of incarceration, his most successful screenplays were Sürü (The Herd) (1978) and Düsman (1979), both directed by Zeki Ökten.
"The Herd, in fact, is the history of the Kurdish people, but I could not even use the Kurdish language in this film; if we had used the Kurdish language, all those who took part in this film would have been sent to jail..." Güney said in his last interview with "journalist Chris Kutschera".
After escaping from prison in 1981 and fleeing to France, Güney won the Palme d'Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival for his film Yol, whose director in the field was once again Şerif Gören. It was not until 1983 that Güney resumed directing, telling a brutal tale of imprisoned children in his final film, Duvar (1983), made in France with the cooperation of the French government.
Güney remains a highly controversial figure in Turkish and Kurdish political and art circles. His works are still highly regarded by cinema critics.