Early in the morning when it’s still dark, a row of young boys in shirts stating, «Grandpa, I am here,» wait their turn for what seems like a blessing ritual as a green substance is smeared onto their heads. They are ready to start the 57th Battalion loyalty march, following in the footsteps of Turkish soldiers who, over 100 years ago, made their way to the WWI front. Not too far away, Australian and New Zealand tourists – many in yellow or green casual hoodies – visit graveyards and walk up a hill towards a memorial, «to feel the pain they [their ancestors] felt.»
The landmark of the WWI Battle of Gallipoli (also referred to as the Battle of Çanakkale or the Dardanelles Campaign), where the Turks defeated the Australian and New Zealand troops, has resulted in very similar commemoration practices on both sides.
In Heroes director Köken Ergun address the commemoration practices of the major event for both the Turks on the one side and the Allied forces, represented by Australian and New Zealand army corps (ANZAC), on the other.
In the Allied battle against the Ottoman Empire, the control of the Dardanelles Strait was crucial for the attack on the capital Constantinople, now Istanbul. Following an unsuccessful attempt to secure the strait by sea, they decided to try and capture Constantinople by land.
A victory for Turkey, the event is regarded as the beginning of what became the campaign by Mustafa Kemal – Atatürk – for Turkey’s independence from the Ottoman Empire and the establishing of the modern, secular Turkish state. (The encroaching religious connotations displayed today must make him raise an eyebrow at least.)
Ergun’s observational approach proves a productive strategy and gives the film a spontaneous feel.
To capture the ways both Turkish and the Allied parties commemorate the fallen, video artist Köken Ergun submerged himself in tour groups, joining both sides on their tour buses; on their specific site visits; observing his fellow-attendants and chatting with some of them. His observational approach proves a productive strategy and gives the film a spontaneous feel.
Ordinary men turned into martyrs
In Heroes it becomes clear that individualised heroism is closely tied to nationalist sentiments and patriotism, featuring a corporal, a stretcher-bearer and a couple of donkeys. Switching between the Turkish and ANZAC commemoration practices at the various places of the site, we see the huge differences in approach.
The Turkish tour guides turn every one of their many anecdotes into colourful and dramatic stories. They go out of their way to communicate the dramatic events to their clients. There are also a number of extensive re-enactments and dedications to martyrs, such as corporal Seyit – who allegedly lifted 140-kilo bombshells, placed them in a cannon and sank an enemy ship.
Heroes eventually shows how history becomes an anecdote to be commoditised.
In contrast, the ANZAC tourists are given little direction by their tour guides – we see one of them reading out printed notes – while also leaving the tourists to wonder around. But the New Zealanders and Australians have their heroes to commemorate too: a British (alleged) deserter, now a stretcher-bearer, called Simpson Kirkpatrick who, with the help of a few donkeys, carried about 300 wounded soldiers from the battle fields.
Practices that feed present day populism (and wallets)
For the ANZAC parties, the campaign is considered to be the beginning of Australian and New Zealand national consciousness. The 25th of April, the anniversary of the landings known as «ANZAC Day», is arguably the most significant commemoration of military casualties and veterans in the two countries. More importantly, the campaign also contributed to the sense of self-esteem and independence of the ANZAC countries.
Both sides heavily rely on national myths featuring ordinary men who turned into martyrs or heroes (or gods). It is these kinds of stories and practices that feed present-day populism, says Ergun, when we discuss the film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Heroes eventually shows how history becomes an anecdote to be commoditised. For both sides the commemoration is a tourist outing drenched in nationalist sentiments – exemplified by how the main Turkish re-enactment is performed opposite the tourist shop. The Australian and New Zealand tourists wear the same occasional green or yellow hoody – their countries’ national colours. Despite the nationalist sentiments, ANZAC day and its protagonists have, above all, become a business model.