One film festival and three demonstrations tell me something about Istanbul.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Summer in Istanbul.
I am thinking that freedom means different things. It can mean freedom from obstacles, from suppression, or, on the other hand, freedom to something – as in freedom of expression.

Prime Minister Erdogan

In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamic party, AKP, are about to be re-elected. Erdogan doesn’t care about hiding how he suppresses his political opponents; as we see politicians with opposing opinions put in prison for no good reason. Through its socially critical stand, the documentary festival Documentarist shows several film examples of how freedom is limited here in Turkey. Some people I see at the festival call this country a police state. The Prime Minister is called a smart player; something we from the outside don’t see the true extent of. Anyway, I also do see the main street of Istanbul called Istkal as a place with a lot of demonstrations – to some extent having free speech. All of a sudden, as I’m walking through Istanbul one day, I encounter a big, colourful Gay Pride Parade, loudly expressed in shouts, drums and whistles. But the groups of lesbians, homosexuals, transsexuals, feminists and others who made up this demonstration suddenly had to shield their faces from the teargas in the air.
The explanation was actually that, around the corner, a demonstration by Kurds was being brutally dealt with by the Turkish police. Several were injured. Erdogan doesn’t like his Istanbul to be like the old, diversified and multicultural Constantinople; he is using Islamic nationalism as a driving force. Which means that the Kurds are not really accepted. More than 10 million Kurds in this country have limited freedom, they do not have the same rights as the Turkish, their language is not officially accepted – in the courts it is “non-existent”. Turkey still suppresses every eighth citizen, because of Atatürk’s mission to establish one Turkey.

Kurds celebrating Nōrūz

The two-year-old documentary festival has, as the Turkish-Arab festival head Necati Sonmez tells me, created an arena and an audience previously unseen in this city. He and his wife Emel have this year collected 80 films and got 2-3000 visitors made possible by a budget of 15 000 Euros (!) – as documentary festivals of a certain size in Europe normally cost several hundred thousand Euros. About a hundred documentary films are produced in Turkey every year, and one fifth of them were represented at this festival: One Step Beyond shows us three female students, who cared about the Kurdish movement at the beginning of the 1990s. They were arrested and got ten years each, after court cases where only evidence was their connection to the PKK or opinions they had expressed about the situation, and the problems the Kurds were facing.
After the screening, I ask the female director Tülin Dag why her films don’t explain more exactly what they were arrested for – violence or sabotage? No, as she says, it was enough for the governing AKP party that you had been seen in those circles. Also the three women explain how, during their harsh imprisonment, they were convinced that they would be there for life – and forgot the world outside. They lost their pride and self-esteem in the decade they were inside. And when they got out in 2003, the world had also forgotten them; the University would not let convicts back in the first instance. One of them also needed seven years to be able to have an emotional relationship again, it was, as she says, far too late to establish a family. Inside the prison they at least used to sing to soothe their nerves; outside they struggled with depression for years.
I am participating in the protests here in Taksim (means “Independence”) two kilometres away from all the tourist palaces.

Turkish police dispersed gay marchers

First I supported the gay parade, later I joined a demonstration to save the old culturally critical cinema, which has now been closed down to allow space for a new shopping mall. My friend – the Turk who calls herself a Kurd in solidarity – takes me along. An adjacent shopping mall was occupied last Friday, after they sprayed the surveillance cameras. Every Friday they mark the cinema by a demonstration combined with a film screening via a projector on the wall outside. This time it’s the Turkish director Imre Azem’s film Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits.

In Ecumenopolis – which is also part of the Documentarist programme – the director shows how Istanbul is expected to double its population within two decades, from 15 to 30 million. This previously named Cultural City – today with a population twice as big as London’s – shall, according to Prime Minister Erdogan, become the financial centre of the region. But uncontrolled growth and development has its price.
Azem’s film explains how Istanbul is burdened by its growth. In the background of the film’s audio-visual landscape we hear the voices of experts and developers. As told about Istanbul, a lot of people are forced to live on the outskirts in tents, since expensive skyscrapers are gradually taking over their old living areas. According to the film a lack of regulations creates environmental problems. One expert underlines that 70 percent of the city’s buildings are unstable or dangerous to live in. So when I left, I was thinking what an earthquake would have done to the people in this town. Chaos could be on its way…

I am asking my new friends here about Erdogan’s Islamic party, if they would at some point require the wearing of the Hijab in public places, which has been mentioned in one of the newspapers here. The answer is that the prime minister would then risk a civil war… But he is evidently more concerned with establishing modern market liberalism in his country; his party has supported private investment, taken over water supplies further north of the Bosporus, close to the Black Sea – shown in the film A Few Brave People by Rüya Arzu Köksal. More than ten dams collect the water that will be sold, blocking the needs of the local population. In the selection of Turkish films at the festival, The Other Town by Nefin Dinc exposes the prejudices of some of Erdogan’s citizens; we witness xenophobic attitudes towards their Greek neighbours. In the rural village that the director has selected, they see the Greeks as the Others, the enemy that can kill them. It’s strange to hear this in 2011, such a historically outdated phenomenon. But the hate is still alive in some, young and old alike. The crosscut editing in this documentary is skilfully done, between Greeks and Turks, between old people and school children. To this film my friends here shake their heads; this is not how they are, they both have a lot of Greek and Kurdish friends.

Ecumenopolis

The next night, I am walking around the city of Istanbul together with fifty participants following the project “A Wall is a Screen”, 1 where shorts are screened on the walls of the city. At one place we see a film of New York, with Manhattan cunningly digitalised into small building blocks and pixels which fly around, changing the shape of the city. Another short shows Gipsies driven out of Istanbul – a man on the move tells us that they are the real cultural elite, since they respect their traditions – instead of dancing to the tune of spineless market capitalism I think. A shop-owner waves his arms angrily at a screening on his wall. Faces looks out of windows at us outside as their walls are lit up by the mobile projector. Ten metres up on a wall in the main street, a double exposure of images of Istanbul are paralleled with its inhabitants’ declarations of love to their city. But as the writer Pamuk2 says about this his city, it has a lead-grey melancholic tone too. Yes, you don’t have to stray too far from the main street to find the heavy greyness or the filth of decay. And what does the name Istanbul really mean? As far as I understand, it is not “full of Islam” (“Ismal-bol”) as the myth would have it. It means “in the city” or “to the city”. I find most Turks more pragmatic than deeply religious, though prayers sound several times in the city every day, merging with the ruckus the city itself makes. It’s not like in Cairo, where people stand around in the streets praying. Turkish people are becoming more and more modern; but still there is a way to go, as we see with all the protests by politically active in public spaces, as they walk around with placards.
Let me therefore mention a third demonstration that took place while I was here at the festival in June. Friends of my friends, activists and intellectuals, held a conference ten years ago in another town not far from Istanbul. But the building was set on fire by radical Islamists – and more than 30 of the 50 participants ended being killed inside. Here, in the Istanbul’s main street, several thousand now march and proclaim that they will never forget. The yellow banner that they carry between them stretches 20 metres – printed with pictures of all those who were killed. This time all the armed police watching the demonstration, equipped with helmets, kept quiet. There is a strong will to protest – akin to the nature of documentary There is a strong will to protest – akin to the nature of documentary – the task of being attentive to injustice. This third demonstration, like the gay parade, and the documentary festival’s activities, are being left in peace. In Turkey, where the Prime Minister is fond of market liberalism, you also find capitalist free zones in the South.

Bölger Zone , made by director Guliz Saglam

In Bölger Zone , made by director Guliz Saglam, we follow several women who tell us about the slave labour conditions the workers endure in the factories. They have no economic possibility to escape, their freedom equals zero, they say. Saglam’s next film is about “invisible labour”, about how women are contributing to society without receiving payment. So there is still a lot to protest about. In the festival circle I also meet a group of intellectuals behind the periodical Yeni FILM. They are critical of their own society, and also make a little fun of me for not knowing their great poets. I ask them why there hasn’t been a film about Erdogan, their Prime Minister, a man who is often criticised for suppressing his own population? They also wonder, it should not be too dangerous. I ask if a foreigner has to do it then – like Erik Gandini’s criticism of Berlusconi in Videocracy, which was also shown here at the festival. Films about the government? The film Mustafa the Movie by Turkish Can Dundar – about prime minister Mustafa Atatürk and his final years in power in the middle of the last century – starts with the sentence “I miss him”. The film was well financed and seen in the 1980s by one million people in 14 weeks, according to professor Can Candan, whom I meet for a coffee. But this did not happen with a documentary about his adopted daughter though. She was a pilot and her flights contributed to the shelling of the Kurds…

1 See www.awallisascreen.com
2 Arr – History of Ideas journal. Idéhistorisk tidsskrift, on tema Istanbul, no. 1–2 2011, Oslo.


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