Turkey in Flames: Genre Film, Memory, and Politics in Kaygı

By Kenan Behzat Sharpe

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Can you produce a cinematic dystopia about a historical situation that has itself already reached dystopian proportions? Can the abject terror that suffuses everyday lived experience under current, intersecting crises be represented within the bounds of the horror film? What uneasy, tenuous relationship exists between genre and the real, and how much pressure can be put on this link before the fictional world and our historical one collapse into each other? In thematizing Turkey’s past and ongoing historical nightmare, Istanbul-based director Ceylan Özgün Özçelik’s first feature film Inflame (2017) has created a new occasion for reflection on the political uses of genre film.

Hasret is a 30-something employee at a Turkish TV channel. Having lost her parents in a car crash two decades prior, she lives a circumscribed existence shaped by a small circle of good friends (upwardly mobile creative types whose semi-bohemian existence is darkened with demobilizing dread about the future) and a passion for producing documentary film. Caught between a dulling, oppressive, casually sexist work environment which leaves little room for her creative endeavors and the all-pervasive sense that something about her past is being kept from her, Hasret is haunted by recurring nightmares. These visions so thoroughly consume her that they begin to bleed into her waking life. Unable finally to tolerate the cacophony of constant construction and the toxic hyper-politicization of life in the behemoth that is Istanbul, she retreats physically and psychologically. Barricading herself in her apartment, memories once forgotten (or perhaps censored) slowly begin to resurface and Hasret becomes unmoored from the outside world.  

Kaygi2.jpg

The Turkish title of Inflame is Kaygı, meaning “anxiety.” A foreign viewer with even cursory familiarity with the relentless barrage of headlines describing Turkey’s rapid descent into madness—economic crisis, extreme social polarization, coups and counter-coups, a state apparatus at war with itself, massive purges in the civil and private sectors, repeated terror attacks, a browbeaten media and news establishment, state-sponsored gentrification, plundering of natural resources, violent spillover from regional wars and conflicts, and finally a massive concentration of both capital and political power in the hands of a highly effective clique of unscrupulous, God-pedaling, authoritarian neoliberals against whom there exists no viable opposition—will be able to recognize the deep anxiety of present-day Turkey that seeps into the marrow of a film like Kaygı. Yet however much the film serves as a commentary on current politics, it is in essence a meditation on memory, historical trauma, and the amnesia which allows us to treat each fresh blow as a singular event disconnected from the chain that proceeds it.

In Kaygı these themes are represented not in a realist mode but through the conventions of genre film. Herself a cinephile who for years produced film criticism and ran a cinema program for television, director Özçelik reveals that it was her intention to make use of these conventions in this first feature-length film. When setting out to make Kaygı she was “hoping to make a film that swam far out from safe waters, that left no space for the exploitation of [the viewer’s] emotions, a genre film unafraid to use its own effective voice or a camera constantly in motion, an atmospheric film.” [1] In the list of films which influenced Kaygı Özçelik mentions Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. (Despite other differences, all three films significantly share an obsessive attention to closed spaces and the fear and madness that can rise from the sensation of being trapped.) In terms of genre, it would not be amiss to describe the film as split evenly into two separate acts. The first plays with conventions of horror and dystopia while the second has something of the psychological thriller, or even the conspiracy film. Much of the power as well as the limitations of the film stem from this attempt to combine and distinguish between competing generic modes.

In the film’s first act, Hasret moves within an ever-tightening triangle of the TV channel where she is subjected to the tyrannical authority of her bosses and coworkers, the massive and sprawling non-places of the megacity of Istanbul, and her eerie flat located in a neighborhood soon to be demolished to make space for urban ‘renewal.’ It is this first hour of the film that it is closest to horror and dystopia. Wherever Hasret goes, there is a constant, low rumbling or roaring which gives the viewer an intense sensation of foreboding: what is this monster that is lurking behind construction sites, hiding under cranes, trapped in the cameras and machinery of the television station, or looming in the dark corners of Hasret’s apartment in the time between opening the front door, disarming the alarm, and turning on the lights? In truth, however warped or distorted they may be, these sounds resemble the constant clanging, clashing, and booming familiar to all residents of Istanbulas much an open construction site as it is a city. However, combined with the phantasmagoric visual lexicon of cinematographer Radek Ładczuk, most well-known for his work on The Babadook (2014), the sinister symphony of the city makes it clear that this so far realistic film could at any moment take a turn for the supernatural.

Kaygi3

In addition to horror, what gives this first section of the film the feeling of a dystopian film is less the atmospherics and more the details of everyday life, from the fabric of the city itself to the venomous newspeak spewed by the talking heads on television. Added together, these subtle particulars cause one to wonder: is it a slightly stylized version of today’s Turkey that is being portrayed in the film or is this rather Turkey as imagined ten, fifteen, twenty years in the future? An uncanny sensation is produced by the fact that it is impossible to tell for certain. Certainly, much of the dysfunctionality obvious in urban, political, and professional life in the film is eerily similar to the current reality. Have these small details caused life to tip over into a dystopian realm without our even having noticed?

In terms of urban life, the film is punishing in its portrayal of the built structure of Istanbul. Eschewing indulgence in any of the picturesque views of the city that could provide relief from the endless concrete and construction upon which it focuses, Kaygı marks a new phase in the visual representation of Istanbul. Even scenes shot in one of the few remaining city parks (which the resident will duly recognize as located on the banks of the breathtaking Bosphorus straits) the camera work carefully maintains a tight, 180 degree perspective facing inland and sprawl-ward.

In truth, the transformation of Istanbul from a mega-city to a veritable ecumenopolis or “city without end” has long been the source of debate and conflict in the country. For decades people have been resisting urban policies that have lead to brutal gentrification and disenfranchisement of the poor, a lack of access to green spaces, the destruction of historic buildings and landmarks crucial to collective memory, and the Disneyfication of those that remain. The protests that shook the country in summer 2013 had their origin in “right to the city” organizing and were sparked by the government’s plan to demolish and develop Taksim Square’s adjacent Gezi Park. Instead of galvanizing resistance, however, the way Istanbul’s urban texture is represented in the film asks us to imagine how the utter and complete failure of such movements might look and feel. Kaygı’s Istanbul has none of the city’s architectural gems or natural features. Instead, it is a nauseating indeterminacy of overpasses, scaffolding, half-finished skyscrapers, and factories. All historical markers have been demolished or hidden behind corrugated metal.

Cognitive mapping in such a place has become all but impossible: those who wander these streets no longer have any familiar landmarks to grasp onto but are swallowed up in a sea of grey. As claustrophobic as Hasret’s apartment – the locus of the film’s second act – may be, this anonymous city outside her walls is no less suffocating. It is this portrayal of a form of sprawl both expanding endlessly and simultaneously closing in upon its residents like a trash compactor that makes the film something of an urban dystopia. However, we must recall that the footage of the city used in the film is not futuristic but real footage of today’s Istanbul: it is simply the combination of all these true-to-life images that allows us to recognize the dystopian proportions of the landscape that surrounds millions on their daily commutes.

Kaygi4

In Kaygı, the politics are in the details. A dystopian Turkey can be glimpsed flashing across televisions above characters’ heads, on banners and advertisements hung in the background of a shot, or on a piece of newspaper. A pair of politicians called the Muzaffer Brothers are constantly present as talking heads. We observe short snippets of them pontificating from television screens, wearing the beard and close-cropped hair of the Islamist politician and making bombastic pronouncements on the political matters of the day. At one point Furkan Muzaffer appears to be justifying some outbreak of popular violence in a provincial city, saying that “our people are very sensitive about their religion there.” At the same time, the two-letter initials of the Muzaffer Brothers (MK in Turkish) can be seen branded all over the metal walls of construction sites. It becomes unclear whether MK is the name of a political party, a ruling house, or a corporation. As the film progresses, one gets the impression that the organization are all three combined. The dystopian portrait of Turkey presented in Kaygı is that of a neoliberal, Islamist, dynastic, oligarchic party-state in which every matter, from the opening of a shopping mall to foreign policy, is determined by a long-armed, interventionist state apparatus.

Kaygi5.jpg

Perhaps the most dystopian element of the film is its portrayal of media culture. Hasret works in the news television sector. She works for a company called Tek TV—whose name means “single” but is suspiciously proximate to the word tekel, or “monopoly”—and whose chilling slogan is “What you see is true, what you hear is true.” After being arbitrarily transferred from the documentary department, where she had some creative license to realize her own projects, to newsreel editing, she comes into intimate contact with the practices that produce a uniform voice in media. Her new task is to listen to interviews with government officials and ministers, edit and combine the most important portions for airing on TV, and provide a caption to be displayed underneath. It turns out that both the sections to be highlighted and the captions are predetermined by the bosses. Already perturbed by the language used in these interviews and official statements, Hasret is further disgusted by the falsifications she is required to perform. For example, Furkan Muzaffer’s speech on the opening of a shopping mall is to be accompanied by a caption about increased employment in the country. When she objects, making a quip that a single shopping mall will hardly provide employment for a population of 80 million people, she is faced with the exasperated stares of her co-workers at the editing board. “The captions are given to us from up above,” she is told. In another telling moment of the film, Hasret walks up to a grocery stand to buy some water. To the left of her we observe a display of newspapers: six different papers with six different logos, all with the exact same headline: “The People Have Meted Out Their Punishment.” [2]

Once again, we see that the material for this dystopian-horror film comes from reality itself. The rapid and unrelenting destruction of the urban fabric, the toxic concentration of political power, the monopoly control suffocating the media: all this is already happening in Turkey today. Hasret’s own position within this world will be all too familiar for many viewers. She is one of an army of highly educated, liberally minded young people in Turkey who once expected their extensive training and cultural capital to catapult them into the utopia of the vaunted “creative class” only to find that jobs in media, tourism, advertising, or education are thoroughly proletarianized, insecure, and deadening. This occupational futurelessness is compounded a general sense of dread, dramatized by the repeated news of explosions and civilian deaths flashing across television screens in the background: news so commonplace that nobody bothers to turn their heads. If Kaygı is a dystopian/horror film it is “because what we are living is a horror world,” as director Özçelik has remarked in an interview. For many in Turkey, there is the constant fear that participating in a march or choosing to retweet something will cause someone come to your house and take you away.

Kaygi6

In fact, to construct her dystopia Özçelik admits that she actually had to tone some things down. Having worked in the media sector herself for over a decade, she describes having seen such a degree of intimidation, government intervention, and lackeyism that if one were to present such incidents to an audience in a film, they would appear utterly exaggerated and unbelievable. [3] And it is exactly this fact that makes Kaygı a novel experiment: not only is the film utterly faithful to a contemporary situation from which it takes its source material, to succeed generically as a horror/dystopian film it had to be made less horrific and dystopian than the reality upon which it is based. Ironically, though, it is only by virtue of this distancing that the first act of the film avoids didacticism, utilizing a form of derealization that provides a glimpse of reality from a mirror held askew, whose indirectness offers a more true-to-life portrait of the real than any dead-straight angle.  

Remembering and Forgetting

The film’s second act is less successful. Its more direct, straightforward relationship to the real undoes this productive tension, localizing the diffuse anxiety of the film in a single point of origin and ending in a mode not only didactic but documentary. Here Kaygı leaves the unreal and rarified space of horror and dystopia for that of the more concretely grounded conspiracy film and psychological thriller, in that sequence. In this way, as the film progresses its scope of focus becomes increasingly narrow, having started with a portrait of an entire social/urban complex and ending with that of a single unhinged mind trapped within the narrow confines of an apartment. Unable to take the pressures of the world outside, Hasret locks herself up inside her flat, providing the film an opportunity to journey deeper inside her damaged psyche.

In the second act of the film it is not Hasret’s wanderings through a dystopian Istanbul but her personal history that takes precedence. She becomes increasingly consumed by the feeling that she is not being told something about the death of her parents. She begins using the news archives at work to see if she can find any reports of a car crash, but nothing she finds confirms the official story. This investigative frenzy yields no results. In fact, not only is there no news of deaths or accidents that day twenty years ago, there is nothing political of any kind. She is obsessed that the idea that someone is keeping something from the public, that an important event has been erased, censored, stricken from the record. When her public investigations fail, she begins digging into her personal archives: both the boxes, letters, sketches, cassette tapes, and documents in her family’s apartment and the faulty memories of her unconscious. In a scene reminiscent of the final scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation where Gene Hackman’s paranoid character destroys his apartment looking for a hidden surveillance device, Hasret even begins tearing up the walls and floorboards of her apartment looking for clues. If she can just uncover the right piece of evidence, she feels she can remember whatever it was she was compelled to forget.

Kaygi7.jpg

In various interviews and statements, Özçelik elaborates on the themes that animate the film:   

It was inevitable that personal and collective memory [hafıza ve bellek] would be at the center of Kaygı. Because we all forget. We forget everything. Everything from bloody events in our recent history to the names of our streets… Everything. We’re on the verge of losing our capacity to confront and reconcile with [yüzleşme] each other and our past. The more I thought about this loss, and began doing research about forgetting/forced forgetting, I found myself within a dystopia that had been fictionalized and reconstructed over and over uncountable times. Like all of us. [4]

Özçelik discusses this tendency towards forgetting both in terms of urban space and political/collective memory. She describes the destruction of historic structures in Istanbul, especially around the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Taksim/Beyoğlu, as the destruction not only a city but an entire culture. Memory is so fragile a thing in an urban location as rapidly changing as Istanbul that when a building is demolished and something else put in its place, eventually it becomes harder and harder to remember what things looked or felt like prior to the change—even if one was oneself part of the struggle to preserve it in the first place. Özçelik describes a game she began playing with friends about the neighborhood she has lived for a decade. Together they try (and often fail) to recall what existed in a familiar location before the previous building was built, or one before that. Even within the space of three or four years a single urban plot can go from holding a cafe to a bank to a restaurant to an office complex to a luxury residence. In a situation of such unrelenting change, it becomes increasingly challenging to perceive, let alone emotionally process, the transformations that affect one’s lived experience in the city, let alone organize around them. Thus, the film argues, the practice of remembering is a crucial to politics.

Kaygi8.jpg

Yet remembering is no simple task. People eventually find themselves adapting to even the most the most thoroughly rejected changes in their built environments, slowly forgetting what existed before. In the case of Hasret, her efforts to consciously regain memory are frustrated not only by her own inertia and forgetfulness but by an imposed amnesia. She is certain that something is being purposefully hidden from her. Every lead turns out to be fruitless. Whenever she gets close to the truth, she hits a dead-end of some kind. Hasret’s friends begin to be worried that she is succumbing to some kind of paranoiac obsession.

For if we are not merely forgetful but have been made to forget, then this forgetting must have been for someone’s benefit; to remember may be at the basis of politics, but this also means that the one who controls access to information, and thus memory, is the one who rules the day. From the shutting down of newspapers and journals, the heavy censoring of the internet and monopoly control of the media sector to the firing of academics and even the expropriation of entire universities, we can see that paranoia in today’s Turkey is not a sign of being delusional but rather simply perceptive. What could be a greater symbol of a vast conspiracy against collective memory than the recent banning of Wikipedia in the country? Conspiratorial thinking may be the “poor man’s cognitive mapping,” but in some situations it is the first step to wisdom.

During the course of the film, we have moved from trying to uncover the lurking monster to temporally diagnosing the dystopia to unravelling the conspiracy. As Kaygı spirals towards its dénouement, the space of action gets increasingly narrowed into our protagonist’s unconscious. We began to wonder if the deus ex machina animating this story all along will have been Hasret’s pathology. Will her eyes suddenly open, her body tethered to a white mental hospital bed, the evil of the story explained away in the cold light of medical science? Fortunately, the film does not take this tired route, though the device offered to provide closure to the mystery is no less risky.

It is in the ability to predict what the conclusion might be—and what the forgotten/repressed memory might consist of—that the experience of viewers of the film in Turkey and viewers abroad most diverges. One’s own political memory and prior knowledge makes it possible to pick up on the the clues provided by Hasret’s condition. At the same time that she cuts herself off from the world, Hasret dedicates herself completely to obsessive investigations directed towards uncovering her blocked memories. She stops going to work, dodges the half-hearted attempts at support from her friends, and locks herself in her apartment. Meanwhile, a sensation that has bothered her since the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming: Hasret is burning up. Whereas while she was working at the newsroom or sitting with friends she was constantly showing subtle signs of overheating—wiping away sweat, getting up to turn down the thermostat— once she is isolated at home she is haunted by the suspicion that the walls are hot, that somewhere something is burning.

Kaygi9.jpg

Later, she begins to realize that her parents’ disappearance occurred right after they left for a cultural festival somewhere in provincial Anatolia. She tracks down a relative to learn more about their fate, but the woman is silent or perhaps even mute. Back in her apartment, Hasret’s hot spells transform into fever dreams: she sees visions of a crowded street, a city square bathed in white smoke, people running and hiding, men gathering and shouting, a woman in red falling to her knees and choking. Even earlier in the film when we see flashbacks of Hasret’s parents as they sit at home playing the bağlama and singing folk songs, or arguing about whether it is a good idea to visit their home province for the cultural festival, it will already have become obvious where the film might be concluding. By the time these visions of the smoke and the crowds appear it is all too clear what the source of Hasret’s nightmare is and the reasons she lost her parents: the Sivas Massacre.

Kaygi10.jpg

Sivas

With all the cues and signals signifying nothing to them, most foreign viewers will be hearing of this event for first time as the credits roll and an explanatory paragraph appears on the screen in both English and Turkish. The Sivas Massacre, also known as the Madımak Massacre after the name of the hotel where it occurred, took place on July 2, 1993. A group of musicians, writers, and intellectuals had gathered at the Madımak Hotel in the city of Sivas in central Turkey. (Most of the group were Alevi, a religious minority associated with Shi’a Islam that makes up roughly 15-25% of the population of Turkey, a country that is otherwise heavily Sunni. Because of their different worships practices and closeness to secular/leftist politics they are often perceived by the Sunni majority as heterodox or, at worst, heretical. For differing from the practices and conventions of the Sunni majority they have been subjected to various massacres during the course of the twentieth century and still face various forms of discrimination and violence.) The event was to be a celebration of the work of sixteenth-century Alevi poet and minstrel Pir Sultan Abdal, a favored symbol of Alevi resistance and identity within a community that strongly values art and music and which continues to produce many of the best practitioners of folk music made with the lute-like bağlama.

The meeting in Sivas became an object of controversy once it came out that Turkish satirist and novelist Aziz Nesin would be attending the event. Nesin, always a polarizing figure, had recently come under fire for translating segments of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Islamic organizations in Turkey began to target Nesin, just as Rushdie had himself been faced with death threats and fatwas. In the weeks leading up to the event various flyers denouncing Nesin were distributed around the city of Sivas. After Friday prayers on the day of the event, a mob of thousands of Sunni men marched from the mosques to the Madımak Hotel, surrounding it. Over the course of eight hours they proceeded to attack the building, eventually setting it on fire as police stood by and the governor refused to call the military or the fire department to defuse the crisis. In the end, 35 people died in the hotel, including prominent Alevi intellectuals, musicians, writers, and two members of the hotel staff. Two men from the attacking mob also died. In the end, Aziz Nesin himself was able to escape the burning building when the attackers failed to recognize him. Among the thirty-five people murdered were important cultural figures such as Marxist literary critic Asım Bezirci, beloved folk musician Hasret Gültekin, and poet Metin Altıok. Faced with this horrific loss and the government’s clearly half-hearted attempts to bring the agents of the massacre to justice, the Sivas Massacre continues to haunt Turkish society. Countless poems and songs have been written about the event and every year on the anniversary of the massacre protests are organized throughout the country. Despite these efforts, the Madımak Hotel has still not been turned into a commemoration museum, as many activists had hoped, and most recently several suspects were freed based on statutes of limitation.

Kaygi11
A recent commemoration of the Sivas Massacre

Most egregious of all, however, has been the revolving door between the halls of the law, where many lawyers defended the perpetrators of this massacre (often pro bono), and the halls of government. I quote from a column written on the 22nd anniversary of the event in 2015:

One Sivas massacre defense attorney became the justice minister when the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) earlier predecessor, Welfare Party (later banned by the Constitutional Court on charges of attempting to topple Turkey’s secular regime) came to power in 1996. One was appointed as a member of the Constitutional Court by the AKP. One became an AKP state minister. Two became Erdogan’s personal lawyers. Four became AKP members of parliament (MPs), with one AKP MP becoming a member of Parliament’s constitutional commission. Three became AKP mayors. Two became AKP’s provincial chairmen and two, deputy provincial chairmen. Two became directors at the AKP-controlled Istanbul municipality. And one was appointed by the AKP as a board member of the state-run news agency, Anatolia. [5]

One can form their own conclusions regarding how the government, and much of Turkish society as a whole, perceives this massacre based on the above information. One of the most haunting aspects about the film, however, is that the words used by the Muzaffer Brothers and the other governmental talking heads in the news clips are all direct quotations from statements made at the time by the minister of internal affairs, the prime minister, defense lawyers (soon to be ministers), and even parliamentary reports on the incident. In this sense, a statement like “our people are very sensitive about their religion there,” gains a new and haunting resonance once one is aware of the context. This masterful directorial choice draws attention to how little has changed in the toxic discourse used by official channels in the country—especially when one notices how the same language is in use today.

Memory and the Market

This continuing neglect, lack of apologies for, or even glorification of the massacre is one reason why the question of memory which animates Kaygı might actually not be the most useful problematic for grappling with such events. As director Özçelik describes of her own field research in Sivas, one can find children out in the central markets of Sivas who, when asked about the massacre, remember very well what happened and will argue that the infidels “had it coming.” Whether we are talking about this event in specific or not, hatred of religious or political minorities is no less on the rise in Turkey  than it is in many other places at the current moment. Though certainly true that politics cannot develop without a form of collective memory, it is also true that when it comes to remembering, the question “how” is as important as “what.” It is on this topic that Kaygı is most conspicuously silent—not only how we remember, but what we then do with the knowledge. Simply remembering is not sufficient.

And yet the whole advertising and social media campaign surrounding Kaygı has been based around this thoroughly uninterrogated thematic of memory. Promotional material for the film features the hashtag #hatırla, meaning “#remember.” To understand how this discourse functions in the film and in its local/international advertising campaigns, it is useful to look at the academic fields of oral history and memory studies that have been growing in Turkish academia since the 1990s. Without the work done in these fields, a film like Kaygı would not have been conceivable.

Kaygi12.jpg

Leyla Neyzi, a pioneer of oral history methodology and memory studies in the country, describes the global development of oral history internationally as an attempt to study and analyze the violence and trauma of various wars, massacres, and genocides in the twentieth century through understanding the experiences of those affected. [6] Memory Studies as a separate field grew out of the realization that practicing oral history raised a host of issues related to power relations between interviewer and interviewee, the complex interrelationship between personal memory and collective history, and other thorny theoretical and ethical questions. Turkey in the twentieth century saw no shortage of violent and traumatic events, “resulting in complex, divided subjectivities and a convoluted, tortured and often traumatic relationship to the past” [7] and thus both oral history and memory studies have found fertile ground there.

Scholarship in these fields by Neyzi and others has been both inspired by, and helped to stimulate, “the production and consumption of memoirs, biographies, autobiographical novels, documentary films and television series related to questions of identity and Turkey’s past.” [8] This work has filled important gaps in the official state narratives for events such as the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Dersim massacres against Alevis and Kurds in the 1930s, various pogroms against non-Muslims, military coups, and civil war in the southeast with the PKK.  [9] The scholarship of researchers as well as the activities of various NGOs devoted to oral history and collective memory have done important work in uncovering forgotten or repressed histories and giving voice to those silenced in standard narratives.

We can see from the way Kaygı frames the questions of memory and forgetting that Özçelik is essentially in agreement with Neyzi in terms of why it is crucial to work individually and collectively to “remember.” The latter writes: “If Turkish society is able to come to terms with its taboos about the past, to face its fears, and to reexamine its present in terms of its experienced and remembered past, it may have the chance of building a more democratic, participatory society.” [10] While Neyzi is careful to qualify her hopes for the political effects of the oral history and memory studies (“may,” “have the chance”), the relationship of memory to politics is more hazy in Kaygı. To whom exactly is the call to “remember” addressed? The state? Civil society? The perpetrators? Victims? Is there any automatic connection posited between keeping a atrocity alive in public memory and preventing such an event from occurring again? How feasible is it to begin the work of remembering and reconciliation when the travesties keep piling up and young people, leftists, religious/ethnic minorities, and random civilians continue to be killed in the street? There will be time to remember and take stock, but first fresh tragedies need to be prevented. To use a phrase of Walter Benjamin’s, before anything else we must pull the emergency break on this runaway train.

What might then be seen as a somewhat simplistic faith in the political power of memory can partly be explained by how meager the attempts have been on the part of the Turkish state to recognize, let alone apologize for, the tragedies for which it is responsible, whether because of neglect or direct participation. In countries such as Germany, where the state has been engaged in intense, long-term efforts—through events, museums, educational curriculum, and other means—to come to terms with its past, or in the case of Holocaust commemoration, it has been easier to perceive some of the limitations and pitfalls of the discourse of memory and “Never Forget.” [11] With its history of right-wing dictatorships and political violence, the experience of Latin America is closer to that of Turkey. And yet, because attempts (however weak) at apology, reconciliation, commemoration, and musealization have been more advanced relative to Turkey in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, they provide a good model for what are likely to be the future limitations of state actions that currently only exist as demands in Turkey (the transformation of Madımak Hotel into a museum of shame, for example).

In Accounting for Violence: Marketing Memory in Latin America Ksenija Bilbija and Leigh A. Payne argue that “memory” has proven itself very much open to commodification: “the memory market has developed a ‘brand’ or a ‘Never Again’ logo” [12]. Just as Memory Studies has proven marketable in academia thanks to its practical applicability, so too sites of memory are easily added onto tourist itineraries as places where the experience of the tragic past can be sold for the cost of a ticket and a range of atrocity memorabilia is available for purchase. [13] In Turkey the first harbingers of such phenomena are certainly now visible, from the first military prison museums [14] to what we can call the growing ‘atrocity industry’ in film.

Besides Kaygı on the Sivas Massacre, in recent years we have seen director Yılmaz Karakoyunlu’s Pains of Autumn (2009) on the 6-7 September 1955 anti-Christian pogroms in Istanbul, Fatih Akın’s The Cut (2014) on the Armenian Genocide, and Kazım Öz’s Zer (2017) on the Dersim massacres. It is undoubtedly laudable to attempt to raise awareness of such events in ways that can potentially reach a larger audience—most especially in a context where the discussion of them in mainstream news or in pre-university classroom is mostly still taboo. However, the worst way we can remember these travesties is to let them devolve into kitsch, or easy fodder for new films. For it is hard not to be made uncomfortable by the increasing frequency which with such topics are spun into film, suggesting that there is a market for a growing cottage industry of atrocity films which follows formally the same logic of adaptation as the superhero film, the history film, the literary film. In Hollywood and beyond these adaptations (Captain America: Civil War, Dunkirk, The Beguiled) seem to account for a growing share of the market. It is certainly crude to compare the never ending supply of ready-made scripts found in old comics or once popular novels with the potential filmic adaptations of numberless massacres and pogroms in our recent history, and yet the potential equivalence that is set up by this cinematic trend should cause us to wonder whether what is potentially political about such films is compromised by their relatively easy slotting into current market trends.  

Kaygi13
“Kaygı: The past definitely returns”

While Kaygı was certainly far from being a blockbuster in Turkey, the film has racked up accolades and garnered buzz in the international festival circuit, recently even landing a deal with the U.S. company Filmrise which will allow the film to be streamed soon on Amazon for American audiences. It is impossible to know what exactly to attribute this relative success to (the film’s numerous stylistic merits, Özçelik’s directorial skill, general international interest in Turkey in the wake of the attempted coup), but it is impossible to rule out the easy digestability and marketability of its themes (memory, trauma, forgetting) and its slogan: #remember. As Bilbija and Payne discuss in terms of the way memory has become a kind of “brand” in Latin America:

“Never Again” has become the slogan for the purposeful remembering past atrocity. In terms of marketing, slogans always accompany sale campaigns, and their function is to increase profits. Slogans are convincing, evocative, and short. Importantly, they reveal collective identity and contain a promise of satisfying a need for something desire and appealing. [15]

While this potential marketability of memory should not in itself be cause for discouraging such films to be made, it is certainly grounds for more caution and self-interrogation.

Whatever the final dangers and pitfalls may be, in itself the work of remembering is certainly crucial. Building off the efforts spearheaded by Memory Studies scholars like Neyzi and others, organizations in Turkey such as the Hafıza Merkezi (The Memory Center) “uncover past violations of human rights, strengthen the collective memory about those violations, and support survivors in their pursuit of justice” and even continue to face legal and other consequences for this stance. There can be no worse insult to the memories of those who have been cut down than to forget their names and fates. As the local slogan for such commemorative protests has it, “if we forget, may our hearts dry out.” Any potential revolutionary movement must possess an elephant’s memory. However, whether memory in itself is a coherent politics or just the precondition for it, we cannot deny that its opposite, forgetting, is intolerable. In this spirit of not forgetting, then, I want to end this section with a curse—a speech act oriented more towards a just future than the unjust past. Here is journalist Özgür Mumcu in March 2012 when the AKP government dropped the investigation into the Sivas massacre:

 This country has a calendar where each day of its year is bloody. The names of those who smear that blood, and who do not clean it will be written in history books. You may not be able to see it, but your children and your grandchildren will read your names in those books. I wish you a long life so that you may see that day. 

An Indeterminate Dystopia

Undoubtedly, the film’s mission is noble—even in just getting us to talk about Sivas again. If there are those who hear about it for the first time thanks to the film, then Özçelik should consider her efforts well spent.  It is important that Kaygı activates and supports this kind of politics of memory. Whatever we think about this politics, though, does Kaygı remain successful as a film? We should be loath to suggest politics and art can be separated, so perhaps we are better off asking: how are the politics different from the first half to the second half of the film? What is lost and what is gained? The film begins with a diffuse sense of dread. Of all the recent political films by young directors—Emin Alper’s Abluka/Frenzy (2015), Tolga Karaçelik’s Sarmaşık/Ivy (2015)—Özçelik’s is strongest in capturing the very much lived anxiety (kaygı) of Turkey today under the shadow of gentrification, authoritarianism, state violence, and a sinking civil society. The strength of the recognition seen in this film by those who exist in such a context is undeniable. And yet this strength in capturing a lived feeling originates partly from the film’s distancing strategies and its eschewal of the tired forms of directly agitational aesthetics used to much more limited effect in such films as Kıvanç Sezer’s Babamın Kanatları/My Father’s Wings (2016) to bring attention to the pandemic of workplace deaths among factory/construction workers. Kaygı’s initial strength, in contrast, lies in its ability to sneak past the censors—both those of the state (the film received some support from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which helps fund such small-budget films that have the potential to stir buzz about Turkish filmmaking in the international festival circuit) and also that of the otherwise sympathetic viewer exhausted and unmoved by twentieth-century conventions of local socialist realist cinema that have continued limping along mostly unchanged into the twenty-first.

Kaygı’s greatest virtue is its experimentation with genre form as an indirect political vehicle. However, as the generalized terror and anxiety so deftly embodied in the first part of the film begins to be contained—its origin located within a single, terrible event as misremembered/remembered by the psyche of a single individual—something aesthetically and politically novel about the film begins to dissipate. The film loses what made it speculative, and thus able to provide a refracted view of the present, a view clear only to the degree it remained partially distorted.  Neither dystopia, nor horror, nor finally a conspiracy, the film gives way to a documentary impulse that, however noble, shatters what was instructive about the illusion by trading illusion for instruction. We end the film not with new knowledge of our own world given by the fleeting vision of an alternative, even worse one, but with the same catch in our throats we get whenever we ponder the painful past and present: a sensation indispensable as humane feeling, but useless for seeing beyond the current impasse. We end up back where we were before entering the theater.

Or perhaps not. There might be another way to read the film’s ending. After the clues about Sivas become more apparent (yet before the final explanatory note appears on the screen) Hasret is in her apartment, digging through chests full of notes and letters. She becomes increasingly distressed and frantic as her delusion grows in strength, or as she moves closer to the truth: the walls are burning up, the smoke is growing thick, she can’t breathe. Apparitions of her mother appear in corners of the apartment. Is this now Sivas or Istanbul? Whether from relived trauma or the power of the memories, Hasret seems close to death. She begins searching for an escape route. The door appears to be locked and the metal door handle is scalding to the touch. In desperation, she grabs her father’s bağlama. Like the iconic images of minstrel/folk hero Pir Sultan Abdal holding his instrument above his head in a gesture of resistance, Hasret raises the bağlama and crashes it against the living room window. Just as in the finale of Polanski’s The Tenant, she tumbles from the apartment. Unlike Trelkovsky in that film, however, Hasret’s aim is not self-destruction but survival. She is able to survive the fall from the second story relatively unscathed. We see her crouch onto her feet and look around, an expression of determination rippling across her face.

She is surrounded by crumbling nineteenth century apartments fenced off with corrugated metal: a typical scene of gentrifying Istanbul. We have moved from the dystopian megacity through the horror of the massacre and its personal reverberations back to the city and collective life again. Free of one nightmare, Hasret is back in another. Is this the alternative city of future still or is it the Istanbul of today? Are we back in the generic mode of horror once again, where the unnamed monster roams the horizonless grey? Or are we still in the psychological thriller, though now seemingly safe in the denouement where personal demons have been momentarily vanquished? Or rather now that the smoke has cleared are we simply in today’s Istanbul, among the wreckage of the ‘rejuvenated’ Tarlabaşı neighborhood, not a five minute walk from the soon to be boarded up theater in Taksim where most filmgoers in the city will have seen the film? The ending is powerful for the very reason that we cannot with any certainty decide which after all is correct. This indeterminacy focuses us to toggle between the multiple possibilities, shuddering at the knowledge that they are not so different from each after all.

Works Cited

Thank you to Britt Van Paepeghem and Paul Benjamin Osterlund for stimulating conversations in today’s dystopian streets of Istanbul after seeing Kaygı at Beyoğlu Sineması. Much appreciation also to Feride Çiçekoğlu for reading an early version of this piece and for generously sitting down with me to do hash out our thoughts about the film. Thank you as always to the rest of the Blind Field Collective for their thoughtful editing and support.

[1] XOXO The Mag: “Ceylan Özgün Çelik ve Kaygı”Güvenli sularda yüzmeyen, duygu sömürüsüne geçit vermeyen, hareket eden kameranın ve etkin sesin varlığından korkmayan bir tür filmi, bir atmosfer filmi yapabilmeyi umut ediyordum.”

[2] Though filmed well before this incident, seeing these headlines one cannot help but recall calls since the attempted coup of July 2016 for the death penalty to reintroduced in Turkey. After a recent political victory, the president spoke to crowds of supporters chanting “Death penalty, death penalty!”

[3] Televised interview, Medyascope TV “Kaygı: Sinemada Toplumsal Bellek Ve Hafıza: Ceylan Özgün Özçelik ile Söyleşi”

[4] XOXO The Mag  “Hafıza ve belleğin Kaygı’nın atardamarı olması kaçınılmazdı. Hepimiz unutuyoruz çünkü. Her şeyi unutuyoruz. Yakın tarihimizdeki kanlı olaylardan sokaklarımızın adlarına… Her şeyi. Birbirimizle ve geçmişimizle yüzleşebilme yetimizi kaybetmek üzereyiz. Bu kaybedişi düşündükçe ve unutma-unutturma üzerine araştırma yaptıkça, kendimi defalarca kez yeniden kurgulanmış bir distopyanın içinde buldum. Hepimiz gibi.”

[5] Burak Bekdil, “22 Years after Sivas Massacre, Turkish Islamists Hail the Murderers,” Middle East Forum http://www.meforum.org/5377/sivas-massacre

[6] Leyla Neyzi “Oral History and Memory Studies in Turkey” in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century.Celia Kerslake, Kerem Öktem, Philip Robins, eds. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 446

[7] Ibid.

[8] Leyla Neyzi, Nasıl Hatırlıyoruz: Türkiye’de Bellek Çalışmaları, İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları (2009), p. 9. “1980’li yıllardan itibaren Türkiye’de geçmişe ve kimliğe yönelik artan ilgi, anı, biyografi, otobiyografik roman, belgesel film ve tele-vizyon dizisi gibi ürünlerin üretilme ve tüketilme sürecini tetiklemiş,sivil toplum kurumları ve akademisyenler de sözlü tarih ve bellek çalışmaları alanında projeler geliştirmeye başlamışlardır.

[9] Neyzi, “Oral History and Memory Studies in Turkey,” p. 446

[10] Ibid. p. 457

[11] Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler: How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold, London: Routledge (2000)

[12] Ksenija Bilbija and Leigh A. Payne, Accounting for Violence: Marketing Memory in Latin America, Durham: Duke (2011), p. 2

[13] Ibid. p. 7

[14] See Elifcan Karacan,  Remembering the 1980 Turkish Military Coup d‘État: Memory, Violence, and Trauma, New York: Springer (2016), pp. 97-102

[15] Bilbija and Payne, p. 15

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s