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Turkish-Kurdish-German Cinema today
In conversation with mobile* filmmakers of Germany

Savaş Poyraz, Patrick Orth, Leo Lokai, Jannis Keil, Johannes Kreuser.
Savaş Poyraz, Patrick Orth, Leo Lokai, Jannis Keil, Johannes Kreuser. | © private

In a conversation in 1975 Edgar Reitz and Alexander Kluge point to an easily ignored aspect of a practice dominated by auteurs: No matter how independent they seemed to be acting compared to their American counterparts, the European auteurs were in fact an undefined, unbound collective. (1)

By Evrim Kaya

Soon after this paradigmatic recognition, one of the most interesting cases in the history of cinema that was not economically driven was coming to its collective end. It is questionable whether the void after this political-intellectual cinema was ever to be filled but as Deniz Göktürk points out, a new generation of Berlin and Hamburg based filmmakers were born, and their films were christened at Berlin Film Festival in 1999 as the “New German Cinema” – made by young Turks.(2)

Looking back after another twenty years, we see that a lot has changed. Some thrilling moments that made the current film scene in Germany are connected to that cinema heralded in 1999: The sensitive realism of Berlin School included a gaze towards the second-generation migrants from Turkey drawing circles in the post-unification streets filled with tension and distress and one of the founding figures, Thomas Arslan was born to a mixed family. They contributed to how the representation of the Ausländer has evolved in German film.

New dimensions, new lines

The depictions became more and more dimensional as lines got blurred and many of the filmmakers managed to escape the Turkish-German box. And for some young filmmakers, their migration background was not limiting, it was simply another resource. At the same time, some lines that have been conveniently ignored are finding expression:

One of the four filmmakers that Göktürk mentions signaling the rise of political Turkish-German film was Yüksel Yavuz, who from his first film on, had been very open about his Kurdish identity. He started his career with a documentary about his father who was a first-generation immigrant worker that returned to his homeland. Kurdish cinema in Germany was easily subsumed under Turkish-German cinema. But the arrival of non-Turkish Kurds forces us to rethink previous categories.

I had the chance to meet and chat with filmmakers from different generations and experiences, hoping to take a snapshot of the current landscape inhabited by filmmakers with Turkish and Kurdish migration backgrounds in Germany. I kept in mind that definitions are labels that help us understand things but also have tangible, material effects on the phenomena they are attached to – sometimes detrimental ones. And in our case, many filmmakers are aware that their personal struggle to make their films goes hand in hand with a constant fight for un-labeling themselves.

Ayşe Polat points out the fact that this particular label has an implicit connotation: “Early 2000, it was surely important but now it is an idle term, you wouldn’t use it. It made us visible but for a price: You had to follow certain clichés. This was government money and you were expected to reproduce certain images. So much was written about this label Turkish-German Cinema, and we didn’t want this label at all.”

Yüksel Yavuz, another pioneer from the second generation supposes that his first films could be evaluated within a context of a migrant cinema but stresses that the later ones are directly connected to his Kurdish identity. In each of his films, there is an actual journey undertaken from Germany to Turkey and Kurdistan and this should be noted as one of the motives common to works of many filmmakers in recent years.

In Fatih Akın’s iconic works such as In July (2000), The Edge of Heaven (2007) and İlker Çatak’s very recent Stambul Garden (2020), this is epitomized in the journey of the Biodeutschen curious about where those immigrants come from.

İlker Çatak (born in 1984) doesn’t hesitate to say that he experienced his own background as an advantage. Like other filmmakers that I talked to, he considers himself part of the German film but adds that he sees himself also as part of Turkish cinema.

For Nurhan Sekerci, who is completing her seventeenth year working as a producer for Fatih Akın, it was never her background but always her own individuality that shaped her career.

The younger filmmakers that I talked to exemplify a heterogeneous scene perfectly: For Soleen Yusef, who was born in Duhok in 1987, there is certainly a difference between her experience as a child of a politically conscious family who had to escape Kurdistan and the experience of a child of migrant workers.

When I ask Yavuz whether he sees himself as part of German film industry, he makes an undeniably painful and crucial point by telling me about the time when his film A Little Bit of Freedom (2003) was screened in Cannes in Quinzaine des Réalisateurs. Christina Weiss, the Minister of Culture at the time had openly complained that the French kept ignoring German cinema, while she forgot to mention the only German production which actually was at the festival. “You may need to address this question to Germans,” he says. 

Migrant workers as workers

Born in Hannover in 1986 to Spanish and Turkish parents, Ceylan Ataman-Checa stresses out his experience connected to two traditional Gastarbeiter countries: “I don’t think about migration as much as I do about class theories. The majority of people with migration backgrounds are also subordinate to lower classes.”

Here, a central point of the debate is echoed: The emphasis on integration in the scholarly debates has been simultaneous with the elimination of the issue of work and labor.

Polat talks about her experience which included the realization of a lack of power to take a common stance when it came to modest ideas for taking action such as boycotting the TV taxes to demand that the minorities that are subject to such taxes are represented substantially on TV.

When I ask them about their ideas of an imaginary viewer, I get different answers. For Polat, there is an arthouse viewer that is rather universal. Yavuz has observed that to a large extent it consists of German viewers in addition to the Kurdish community – the Turkish audience is negligible.

A mechanism that might help us overcome a problem that film production anywhere in the world faces – the changing habits of the viewer – are the festivals that create an agora with the accompanying discussions. One thing that cinema can do is to shape the discourse on the war in Kurdistan and there are anecdotes that screenings of films serve as a public space where sides of a war faraway can face each other on a semi-neutral ground. That was also part of my own brief experience of four years in Germany.

There is room for cautious optimism, first and foremost arising from relatively positive experiences of young filmmakers like Çatak, Yusef, and Ataman-Checa, since their experience might be indicative of the coming years. It is not easy to talk about a (positively) transformative capacity in terms of the effects the cinema might have on society and politics. That, I believe cannot be isolated from the broader discussion of the limits and challenges of arthouse cinema today. After talking to these filmmakers and seeing the connections in their struggles, which may seem to be isolated, I was convinced that the point that Reiz and Kluge make is not only accurate but it can easily be expanded to a broader context of implicit collectivities in intersecting categories.

* The terms mobile people and mobile filmmakers were suggested by the filmmaker Erol Mintaş when he founded the Academy of Moving People and Images, a platform in Helsinki for mobile people - those who have arrived in Finland for different reasons; be they displaced people, forced immigrants, students, asylum seekers, employees, or those who immigrated for love.

(1) Reitz, E., & Kluge A. (2012)  “In Gefahr und größter Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod”. Was heißt Parteilichkeit im Kino? Zum Autorenfilm – dreizehn Jahre nach Oberhausen (1975) in Provokation der Wirklichkeit: Das Oberhausener Manifest und die Folgen, Ralph Eue & Lars Henrik Gass (HG.) Munich, edition text + kritik im Richard Boorberg Verlag

(2) Göktürk, Deniz (2003). Turkish Delight-German Fright: Unsettling Oppositions in Transnational Cinema in Mapping the Margins: Identity Politics and the Media edited by Ross, K. & Derman, D. Cresskill, Hampton Press, Inc

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