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On common ground: the making of meaning in film and life

The maker of new film essay Taskafa: Stories of the Street charts the journey that led her to write a ‘manifesto for co-existence in film and life.’

The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can't do is to change its consequences.” (from Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Mike Dibb, 1972).

 

We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity…” (from Seize the Time, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, 1970).

As our cities change and become their own ‘brand’ through calculated 'development', they are cleared of all undesired elements. Film works as a memory of what once was (at the time of its making), but also as a deeply felt, present tense means of cultural-activist resistance to the ongoing erasure by which this progress of branding develops, one where forgetting is an indivisible part of its machinery; one where co-existence is banished. The future proposed becomes mono-cultural. Spectatorship is reduced to a singular viewing.

Taşkafa, Stories of the Street is a feature-length documentary essay, a film about historical memory and the most necessary forms of belonging, through a search for the role played in the city by Istanbul’s street dogs and their relationship to its human populations. Despite several major attempts by Istanbul’s rulers, politicians and planners over the last 400 years to exterminate them, the city’s street dogs have persisted, thanks to an enduring alliance with widespread civilian communities, which recognize and defend their right to co-exist.

Taşkafa is structured around readings by storyteller and essayist John Berger, drawn from his novel King, a story of hope, dreams, love and resistance, told from the perspective of a dog belonging to a community facing disappearance, even erasure. In Taşkafa, this voice is gifted to a wider network and range of perspectives: to dogs, a city and, finally, to history. John Berger’s exemplary text and delivery accompany the viewer on a journey from Taksim to Hayirsiz ada, the island where, in the 1800s, tens of thousands of dogs were exiled to die.

I read King on my first visit to Istanbul. I experienced the street dogs through this lens, one that informed my subsequent journeys there. I felt but could not initially grasp the particular sense of fellowship that informed my journey through the streets, a feeling that was / is so hard to describe, and yet one which could / can so clearly be felt. It was the dogs. We use them as metaphors, or excuses, or as the agents of a certain kind of fear, but they are first of all themselves; creatures of presence, with and amongst people, in busy streets.

For Taşkafa John reads nine sections where King dreams and talks to himself. King resists the ‘victors’ intent on shaping the past in their likeness under the ruse of ‘progress’. The lives of the human protagonists in King bear witness to the cruel processes of the machine that is built on their misery; yet, hope is not abandoned.

Similarly, the film combs the streets to find the street vendors, shop keepers and activists, the homeless and advocates, to open a window on the contested relationship between power and the public, community and categorization, both in location and identity. Most importantly, the film is made as part of an ongoing resistance against a single way of seeing and having to be. 

There are many films that feature ‘normal’ people, ‘everyday’ people. However, such individuals and communities most often appear because they have been witness to, victims of, or participants in extraordinary – and almost always negative - events (e.g. from the personal and familial horrors of drug addiction to the displacements of international conflict).

What I wanted to do with Taşkafa is to show such ‘ordinary’ people talking about an important aspect of their daily, local lives. I believe a success of the film (if I may venture such a claim) is that, by doing this, these people of course, like all of us, reveal themselves to be anything but ordinary and show us the extraordinary in the everyday.

Offering this collage of testimonials to the inestimable value of non-human populations, to the emotional and psychological health of a city, a statement of witness both to advocacy and persecution across the centuries, Taşkafa seeks to portray and embody the spirit of protest, in an enduring solidarity with the events it features at its close (mass demonstrations from autumn 2012, opposing the latest municipal proposals to clear the city of its street animals and anticipating the much more internationally visible 2013 assemblies).

In Werner Herzog’s feature The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), a scientist declares that the first things he would imagine being built on Mars are a shopping mall and a gym. This always struck me as the ultimate cruelty of our future, packaged as ‘progress.’ Malls exclude all life that does not consume. My grandmother, who never made enough money to leave the place she ended up in after the war, would, on our rare days together, take me to such centres for dinner. She used to find out which ones had the cheapest offers and we trailed far to save a little, and ate in brightly light restaurants with hundreds of other shoppers. This is what she called ‘modern’. Such spaces are entirely human centered, and no other life is tolerated, not even the occasional pigeon flying in (although, in the past, when I was a child, one could buy pets there, and this is how I got to have a hamster; so animals are allowed when they can be sold…).

Andrew Thacker, pondering Heidegger, writes that, “we should not think of space as something external to human beings, since space is intrinsically linked to the dwelling experience of humans.” [1] On the streets, the only space allowed to other species remains, provisionally, and even if threatened and besieged, still offers evidence of what has long been forgotten elsewhere, this other possibility of life, as described above.

A film from such streets, before all is forgotten...

And such a film, like those by which it is energized and informed (the oeuvres of Pedro Costa and Jean Rouch, for example) draws on a profoundly different relationship to time and finance than that which normally attaches to moving image production. This is not because of any desire wilfully to operate outside of the system of making, or free of the ‘taint’ of capital. Rather, it is that such procedures simply do not allow for the dynamic – between ‘maker’ and the ‘community of interest’ – to unfold in the way it must, the way that gives it legitimacy. This equivalence between partners is critical to the film, not as a badge of some dubious alternative honour, but because the insights sought about living in the world as it is today require time and a companionship in the felt economic, social and topographic experience of reality.

Finance capitalism seeks consciously to sever individuals and populations from history, and therefore from their own sense of self, identity and belonging through various forms of erasure, withdrawal and dismantling. By offering a constantly receding, solely consumer-accessible future, one based entirely on purchase, and by accelerating as fast as technology allows away from the ‘burden’ of the past and any sense of contentment or idea of ‘enough’ in the present, this imposed structural authoritarianism of being cannot by definition allow for consideration of the trials and triumphs of the lived and living daily.

It becomes, therefore, almost a pre-requisite, in seeking to represent this reality, to abandon a form of financial consideration or framing. On a simple level, this means that salaries dissolve, but more importantly, it allows for a genuine encounter with time, the duration needed to reach a mutual understanding free of judgment and binary occupation. Hannah Arendt called this will to comprehension, without default positions of security, ‘thinking without a bannister.’ In the filmic production analogy, this bannister would be the conventional expectations created by the institutional production arc.

Portuguese film-maker Pedro Costa, undoubtedly one of the very few makers globally questioning through his work the fundamental nature of the moving image and its purpose in a culture both drowning in image production and in social / economic crisis, has increasingly dissolved the boundaries in his making between the filmed work and the lived life (both his own and that of his subjects). And yet, he has talked often about how there remains always a gap between those in front of the camera and those behind, as there is a gap between people in day-to-day existence. And it is in this space, between, that the possibilities arise; opportunities for identification, for compassion, for empathy, and a chance to challenge the tired clichés of encounter; because, of course, without a space there can be no observation and meeting with the ‘other’, and therefore, no means for empathy.

Since my collaborative involvement over a decade ago in the collective Vision Machine, this form of making has been my guiding framework. As makers we must always make choices (conscious or not), about how to work, whom we take funding from, and how to collaborate (as Jean-Luc Godard observed), as well as concerning the stories we tell to ourselves and about ourselves in order to make them. On one level, films reproduce their founding ideas and so it is imperative that we find strategies by which we might challenge the often passively-accepted ideology of the image. The hierarchical impositions within the clichés of branding and corporate image making are often predictable and transparent but can also be much more deeply embedded, and part of the self-censoring process by which their makers subscribe to inclusion in the machineries of finance, patronage and promotion.

So the form and content – of production and artefact - together need to develop and embody these strategies of resistance…

Taşkafa premiered at the Istanbul International Film Festival in April 2013. Throughout the gathering, activists, film lovers and film-makers protested against the demolition of the historic Emek cinema in Beyoglu (1924-2013). Despite years of campaigning, the cinema and many other historic buildings in the area, close to Gezi Park, were not saved. They were demolished to build shopping malls, or to clear the way for modern luxury apartments, (segre)gated, again excluding the street animals, of course.

The delicate sense of a place, the fragile balance of co-existence within it…

When I made Taşkafa, I wanted to offer that sense to the audience, a sense that, for me, can only be shown in film and not easily carried in words. So, writing about the film becomes something else, more an act of activism and advocacy. Now, in July 2013, many of the street animals have been displaced, killed, blinded by the ongoing tear gas attacks. When the protests against the proposed erasure and redevelopment of Gezi Park started (in May), it was kitten season. The areas affected by the tear gas are known for their abundance of cats, loved and looked after by the neighbourhoods. The state machine turned its attentions on its citizens and, in the process, also attacked all else that was gentle and unable to protect itself. However, just as volunteer doctors were out attending to wounded protesters, so there were vets giving their free time to help the animals of the streets.

I attended the festival as a maker and a viewer. In the latter role, and with all too short a visit, I focused exclusively in my viewing on new feature and documentary works by Turkish and Kurdish filmmakers.

Although on the fast track towards the ‘global village’, it is perfectly possible (in a way that is absolutely not the case in my native Germany or the UK, my adopted home since 1991) for a filmmaker now emerging in Turkey to have grown up in an agricultural Anatolian village in significant ways unaffected by the dynamic modernising forces of recent globalisation and international commodity / finance capitalism. That is not to say, of course, that this imagined village would not partake in commercial and consumer exchanges, international telecommunications by whatever platform, and all the social / communal shifts felt elsewhere and, most specifically, in large metropolitan centres.

However, the village’s continuity with the past remains far more visible, felt and experienced than in the vast majority of Europe, and the industrialised world generally. The sense of tradition (positive and negative), the enduring relationship with the land and forms of labour associated with it, and the strong sense of folk practices, beliefs, tales and music all persist in a way that provides a significant brake on aspects of these constantly accelerating shifts.

So, crudely put, such environments are perhaps better placed to resist the less appealing mono-cultural and imposed forms of ‘progress’ all too visible elsewhere. It is this particular aspect of contemporary cultural transformation that interests me here, because it relates to my own film Taşkafa, and because explorations of this theme were evident in a number of the films I viewed and, most notably, in Derviş Zaim’s Cycle (2012). Each late summer, the villagers of Hasanpasa hold a traditional shepherding contest. The shepherds dye their leading sheep red, and in the contest, the shepherds entice their sheep through a stream. Scripted around the actual event, the film is set on location and performed by non-actors – shepherds play shepherds. Cycle is also notable for its strong sense, in a key scene that bookends the narrative, of mythic storytelling, strikingly caught in the opening image of a damaged stag ‘wearing’ wooden antlers in place of its own (sawn off), the meaning and implication of which the film explores.

Here is not the place for detailed plot summaries of either film (I have added links at the end of this piece). What is important, however, is briefly to identify what these two works, despite their obvious differences – form, location, narrative structure, budget, and scale – share, and what effect or effects they intend to have.

Most notably, each seeks to investigate an unthinking, collective belief in progress, especially in social, economic, and structural development and to identify, with some urgency, the growing distance between the human and non-human realms, whether in urban or rural environments. That both focus their thematic and narrative drives around the relationship with animals (dogs in Taşkafa, and sheep in Cycle) is important. I can only speak here of my reasons for such an approach in Taşkafa, but I imagine and feel, having been genuinely touched by Cycle, that Zaim’s intentions in his film are not dissimilar.

With Taşkafa, I have sought, as mentioned, to explore how public space becomes contested, especially in the relationship between corporate city making - through the demolition and the redevelopment of vast swathes of the city - and the local, accreting lives of the neighbourhoods affected. Taşkafa is not finally about dogs. Rather, it concerns the way people still, and especially now, seek to be part of a larger context, one that respects other creatures and wishes them to play a significant role in their lives. The key issue is not whether we live ‘securely’, especially in its official sense, but that we do not lose touch with the shared reality that surrounds us.

In this way both films, I feel, while committed thematically to their evident subject matter, and artistically to their own forms of making, within the frame and behind the camera, share, finally (but not exclusively of course), a sense of values and a belief in the role of filmmaking now, at an urgent and uncertain time for human communities and larger ecological and natural systems. This uncertainty stems primarily from a crisis of belonging; that is to say, from profound splits within the human realm about the fundamental nature of our place within these larger structures. We are paying a very heavy price – environmentally, economically, socially and psychologically – for this crisis, one driven by the increasing demands and damages of a techno-rationalist model of organising society.

This model believes that life is a problem to be solved, that one can arrive at a kind of neutral state (neutral only in that it has fully accepted the imposed imperatives of contemporary capitalism) whereby all that remains is endlessly to carry out the dictates of this order, as all decisions as to its efficacy have already been made. That this is impossible and undesirable is, I hope, entirely obvious and yet this motivation is the driving impulse of our world today; or rather, of those directing our world, economically and politically.

In Taşkafa, this mindsets manifests as a desire to cleanse Istanbul of its non-domestic and formally untamed animal life (dogs, cats, and urban wild creatures) because they do not conform actually, or aesthetically, to the processes of gentrification. Taşkafa, meanwhile, celebrates the coexistence that has worked with great success, and widespread popular support for centuries. The earth is clearly a common dwelling place for all species, however much certain human beings dislike the idea.

Therefore, it goes without saying, that a place on the earth, in this case the city, should also remain commonly held. In rural environments, it can sometimes feel, despite the obvious human effects on the landscape through farming, road building and other forms of infrastructure, that the non-human defines and predominates. And yet, as numerous environmentalists have written, and when human pollution reaches as far as the body tissue of penguins and polar bears, sadly it can now be argued that nowhere on the planet can be said formally to be ‘wild’, to be beyond the effect of our actions. So, the world of Cycle feels equally, if sometimes less apparently, the same pressures.

If these views are accepted, then, in filmic terms, it might be possible and productive, as I close, tentatively to propose a modest manifesto prompted by thinking about this relationship between filmmaking, meaning and values. Such a manifesto, as is often the case with this form, could swiftly be challenged, denied as naïve, reductive, ignorant of complex realities etc… However, that does not mean that manifestoes per se do not serve a particular purpose at a particular moment in gathering thoughts for further discussion. And so, here below I offer my manifesto for coexistence in film and life (grand titles are a prerequisite of the medium) and of course I welcome any and all responses. 

Manifesto for Coexistence in Film and Life

 1. Life is a work in process: unfinished, provisional and uncertain. Film must reflect this or it has no purchase on reality.

 2. A work seeking internationalist reception – through content, form, aesthetic or technology – without a specific grounding in the lived experience of people and place, is not internationalist.

 3. All filmmaking that is worth the name, regardless of its apparent construction, is a process of making through community; on screen, behind the camera, and in the intention of all its makers. There is such a thing as society.

 4. The budget and production structure of a film should always be in proportion and humane relationship to its protagonists, its theme, and its intention. It should be modest.

 5. The most productive form of filmmaking today, regardless of its outward expression (fiction, documentary, etc) is the sketch, the essay, from the French, essayer, to try; and then, from Beckett: Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

 6. Heightened realism in filmic expression is both desired and the making manifest of what is latent in the material, waiting. Sometimes metaphors need to be expressed literally.

 7. Braudel identified three strata in time – the personal, the social and the natural. The fourth dimension is empathy. Film is this fourth dimension, gently held.

8.  All films must feature animals. Without them, it is like a camera without tape, without a reel. It ignores the majority world. It is not legitimate.

9. In the same way, a world - and a film - without hope, is invalid. Hope is the thing.

10.  Left blank for the reader’s own needs...

Many films, I believe, already embody these principles, declared or not, but I wish now to draw attention to one outstanding recent feature, The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, by Marseille’s ‘filmmaker in residence’ Robert Guédiguian (French born, of German and Armenian parentage). Please track it down and view it with pleasurable urgency, as it speaks to the challenges and pressures of our times in a way that few films have managed. That it does this with emotion, insight, political acuity and immense empathy towards its ensemble of characters is remarkable.

Made by a filmmaker of hybrid origins, in a city far from the political ‘centre’ and itself on the shore of a sea of great and rich diversities, with a family of actors and collaborators who have shared his journey over many works and years, it only serves to underscore the importance of committing to a place and to ways of working, as well as to a refusal to settle for the status quo as defined by the current political and economic elite. Follow this way of working, the film and its means of making suggest, and you cannot do otherwise than produce such work, work that matters, and helps.

This is how things come together.

 

Acknowledgements

To John Berger, whose generosity and political conviction, expressed always with the most deeply felt humanity and love, I will always carry with me.

 

To Gulen Guler, the producer of Taşkafa and kindred traveller of the streets; without her, the film would not have been.

 

To Bill McAlister, whose long-term passion for the subject encouraged the film to happen.

 

To Gideon Koppel, for his thoughts on co-existence.

 

To Gareth Evans, for ongoing conversations.

 

This essay reworks and builds upon some of my initial thoughts put on paper for Dieter Wieczorek, who curates and programmes the Signe De Nuit Festival in Paris.

 

 

Screenings of Taşkafa, Stories of the Street in the Experimenta section at London Film Festival, 2013

Filmed and Directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Produced by Gulen Guler and Bill McAlister 

Hackney Picture House, October 16, 18.30 (with introduction by the filmmaker)

BFI Southbank, October 18, 21.00 (with extended Q&A) 

Booking here.

 

References

Bibliography

Berger J., and Dibb M. (1972) Ways of Seeing, BBC TV and Penguin Books.

Thacker, A. (2003) Moving Through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism, Manchester University Press. 

Seale B. (1970) Seize the Time, Random House.

 

Filmography

Guédiguian, R. (2011) Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro / The Snow of Kilimanjaro

Zaim, D. (2012) Cycle

Herzog, W. (2005) The Wild Blue Yonder

Zimmerman, A. L. (2013) Taşkafa, Bir Sokak Hikâyesi / Taşkafa, Stories of the Street

Yalan Dunya Film, Turkish / UK Production; English, Turkish, German (English subtitles)

Director, Camera: Andrea Luka Zimmerman

Readings from his novel King: John Berger

Producer:  Gulen Guler

Co-Producer: Bill McAlister

Editor: Alper Sen

 

Links

Devir: derviszaim.com/en/category/films/

Taşkafa: http://film.iksv.org/en/film/2445

 

 

About the author

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a filmmaker, cultural activist and educator.  Co-founder of the artists’ collective Fugitive Images (responsible for the photographic installation i am here and the artists book-work Estate: Arts, Politics and Social Housing in Britain) she is now in production on Estate, a Reverie, a feature length essay film made in collaboration with the residents of the housing estate in Haggerston, London where she also lives.


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