Istanbul. Early March 2003. The banner on Taksim Square could have marked a protest against the (upcoming) war in Iraq, but it did not. It was a peaceful invitation to watch documentaries at the 6th International Belgesel (Turkish for ’documentary’) Festival.
The organizers, however, could easily have protested against Bush and Blair. If you decide to make documentaries in Turkey, you do so from a political standpoint and with a strong commitment to what is going on in the world. You want your films to be seen and used. You want opinions to be expressed. Turkish documentary filmmakers focus on injustice. Needless to say, in Turkey’s political reality many documentarists have been imprisoned for political views and opposition to diverse military regimes.
In many ways, the hallmark of modern Turkish documentary is the kind of militant documentarism we remember from the ‘70s in Western Europe. With a different aesthetic approach, several films take a political look at disappearing cultures in the country and at violence and political oppression.
The activists from the festival organizers BSB (Association of Documentary Filmmakers in Turkey) had put a banner on a square where thousands of people pass each and every day, close to the French, the Italian and the German cultural institutes where most of the screenings took place. The organizers couldn’t afford to hire commercial cinemas for the screenings. There were no red carpets, but there were full houses at almost every screening. Young people gathered to watch the eighty documentary films that were selected “to cover the problems of the world” (quote from catalogue foreword). Politics, human rights, culture, history. Those were the themes. The programme was devoid of ‘me and my family’ films.
BSB has a clear goal for their work. Whenever a film has been produced, it has to reach the audience, and television does not fulfil this task sufficiently. This is stipulated in the festival catalogue foreword, a clear indication of why BSB has taken the initiative to set up a nation-wide distribution scheme:
“Whenever documentaries are shown on television in our country, the only channel that achieves both production and broadcasting – with one or two exceptions – is TRT (Turkey’s public service channel – ed.). Most of the channels don’t hesitate to call some productions a ‘documentary’, even though they are not. Excursions, TV crew adventures, murders, ‘lion eats deer’, scientific explorations are unfortunately all called ‘documentaries’ by the TV channels.”
Most of us are familiar with the content of this text from the BSB association when we think about the situation in our own countries, where public service obligations are not always interpreted to include the production and purchase of documentaries. This is said without comparison: many producers and directors who have individually worked with TRT shook their heads, smiling, at the question of whether the national channel was independent and free of political influence.
BSB organises four festivals a year in various Turkish cities. Plus free screenings and debates in towns and villages that provide venue and accommodation for the BSB representatives who bring along mobile cinema equipment, i.e., in this case a VCR and a video beamer. For professionals, the organization publishes the periodical Documentary Cinema. Members teach at universities and write manifestos and declarations to promote the role of documentaries in society. Founded in 1997, BSB (a non-governmental initiative that ’advocates documentary films as an indispensable element of the plurality of civil society’) gathers together ’academics, theoreticians, professionals, amateurs and aspiring documentary filmmakers’. Hence the broad perspective and the concern for social history and cultural identity expressed during the adjoining conference on documentary and globalisation.
Hunger Strike, Prison Violence and Cultural Tradition
Your DOX correspondent saw thirty Turkish documentaries during his stay in Istanbul. All these films were screened at the festival. Yet this number of films is, of course, by no means a sufficient basis on which to evaluate the state of the art. Nor was it sufficient for Thomas Balkenhol, a film editor who graduated from the Munich Film School and who has been teaching in Turkey for several years and has edited many Turkish documentaries.
But at least Balkenhol can give an outsider’s inside experience in answer to the question about the quality of Turkish documentaries. In his opinion, “It’s developing. The mainstream tradition resembles what we had in Germany, ’der Kulturfilm’, which is the type shown on TRT. The cultural richness of Anatolia, glorious historical places, traditions. These are the themes. But there are also independent productions that are far more cinematic. The political films are often made in connection with lawyers who are investigating human rights abuses.”
Balkenhol’s characterization was applicable in relation to this year’s festival programme. Let me give some illustrative notes on a small selection of films. To connect to the last comment by Balkenhol about the political films, a film on the consequences of carrying out a hunger strike had a strong effect on the audience. Sonra (After), by Metin Yegin, is a very touching visual documentation of a group of people who have contracted the so-called Wernico-Korsikoff disease. It is shocking to watch human beings who have been seriously affected by a hunger strike that, for some, lasted 110 to 135 days! Their speech is limited, mobility is impaired and memory is weak.
It was also quite shocking to watch Kelepce (Handcuff), by Sedat Yilmaz, who describes a military operation against the inmates at the Buldur Prison exercising brutal violence. This was not discovered, however, until a stray dog was seen wandering around with a man’s arm in its mouth outside the prison! Again there is no reason to salute the cinematographic qualities – there are none – as the story is basically built on crosscut interviews. But the pure journalistic research that led to the publishing of this visual documentation is extraordinarily important and brings out a story that has to be told!
”There is a new generation of filmmakers who want to combine the journalistic themes with a more cinematic approach,” says Balkenhol, who mentions that the country has around twenty university faculties with a communication department. Film studies is offered by these departments, differing from place to place, of course. Konya University in Anatolia is a good example. Here you find filmmakers who have a different artistic and aesthetic ambition that they use to convey subjects like street kids, the Kurdish culture, how disabled persons cope in Turkey or what it’s like to work in a tractor factory.
When Balkenhol says filmmakers, he means students who make their graduation films before entering the professional world consisting of very few independent companies to absorb them. As a result, many university graduates end up in television where they have an opportunity primarily to make the above-mentioned culturally oriented films. They are nice half-hour programmes, like two parts from the series Street Stories by Hatice Gürler, who describes traditions and history from two towns, told by charismatic citizens. Fine pictures, a voice-off for the storyteller and wall-to-wall music are elements frequently used in such TV productions.
Balkenhol points out that many filmmakers operate from abroad. Germany has a solid community of Turkish filmmakers who often make their own psychological stories about the search for roots and identity in a foreign country. It is outright impossible to lead a professional life as a documentary maker in Turkey. Funds are unavailable, so you have to earn your living on commercials and corporate films.
Or you can work for the national channel TRT or other sponsors during the day and make your own films at night, which is what young cameraman Levent Alas does. Together with Ilhami Yildrim, he presented a handful of ultra-short observational films on rituals like the charming and humorous Belge (Document) about the negotiation performed by male family members of a bride and groom, ending with a piece of paper to be signed by the Imam.
At the same time as the world was following whether the war would start or not, the SBS organised a conference about ’Documentary and Globalisation’. It was a very long day with speeches and only a few film clips, a day full of politically correct sentences from several academicians, but also a day of serious thought and calls for solidarity. And – outside the auditorium in private conversations – a day of fear. Where would Turkey be if the war should break out? Now, in the middle of April, when the war is still going on, even if most people consider it to be over…, the questions could be asked, ‘Where is Turkey now? Did it succeed in performing a balancing act by preventing the US to use Turkish territory to get to Iraq, at the same time as it was maintaining a good diplomatic relationship?’
Let me end this travelogue with two quotes. The first is by SBS and expresses a beautiful thought. The second is by the important Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (Guardian 14.03.03) and is provokingly realistic.
“Documentary cinema is a medium for cultural continuity and revival, a means of understanding history, a tool for a community to reconstruct itself and for humanity to regain its self-confidence. It can share a common and equal language with the rest of the world.”
“I believe that globalisation can be beneficial, opening the way for the free circulation of capital, goods, ideas, and even people, and weaken local, nationalistic states and dictatorships. But the Bush government’s idea of globalisation is not freedom of goods and thoughts but the unconditional freedom of the US army to bomb whatever it chooses, whenever it chooses. For this purpose, the US has demonstrated its willingness to undermine local democracies and spurn parliamentary decisions.”
The Man in the Middle
Look at the picture of Enis Riza. He does not appear at all stressed, even if he has every reason to be. He is at the start of a festival and conference, doing press work all day long, hosting foreign guests and has his own company to take care of.
The picture is taken on the terrace of the SBS (Association of Documentary Filmmakers in Turkey) building. Behind him are the Bosporus and big ships. Asia. The building has three floors. On the first floor, the SBS has a public Internet café. The second floor holds a meeting room with screening facilities. This is where a committee of 25 people saw all the films that were submitted to the festival organisers for discussions and decisions. On the third floor, two women work full time for the SBS all year round to make the festivals, meetings, screenings and publications run smoothly.
SBS is a democratic association, yet Enis Riza’s title is ‘Chairman of the Board of Directors’. And everyone agrees that he is the ‘de facto’ mastermind behind the association, the one who writes declarations and constantly fights for better conditions for the Turkish documentary. And thus constantly tries to find sponsors for his work.
Without being very explicit about it, one of the sponsors of the festival and conference was VTR, Enis Riza’s company, situated in a quiet street of central Istanbul. The company’s offices and archives are in a flat on one side of the street, while the editing room and a private home are in a flat on the other side. Two young assistants (Bahriye Kabadayie and Ebro Eremetl) of Enis Riza live in the flat as well, as does Nalan Sakizli, the production manager for VTR. Enis Riza’s son, Sinan Riza, lives downstairs. He is a composer and has made music for his father’s documentaries! They are one big family with a production van that takes them all to make the commercials they need to have money for food, documentaries and SBS activities.
At the festival, two films directed by Enis Riza were screened. Sorrow is one of three films about the Greek Levissi people who as a result of international politics in 1922 were exchanged with Turkish people living in Greece. Riza, who bears a clear francophone influence in his film language, has visited the deserted town of Kayaköy to depict a beautiful piece of nostalgic, cinematographic memory. The witnesses are Turks and Greeks alike. He is able to bring the same feeling into the other film Journal of the Fish that deals with fishing and environmental problems expressed by the fishermen in Foca in Izmir.