Home Movie

By Ben Walters

a-time-for-drunken-horses-bahman-ghobadi.jpgA Time for Drunken Horses, dir. by Bahman Ghobadi, 2000

Communities, cultures and cinema are coming together with fruitful results in London’s burgeoning Turkish and Kurdish film scenes

The idea of home – a sense of belonging and a stake in something larger than the individual – is central to the film culture currently developing amongst the Turkish and Kurdish communities around Dalston, Hackney in north-east London. Celebrating its tenth season in December, the Turkish Film Festival (TFF) is the most established hub of a nexus of interconnected projects including the fledgling Kurdish Film Festival (KFF), youth video work and proposed screening clubs. Always central to the repertory tradition in which such festivals are located, the notion of home is especially crucial here, where the core audiences are drawn from immigrant communities facing the challenge of defining an identity as minorities in a new country. The cultural, social and political dimensions of such activity are intractably linked, with the Rio Cinema providing a primary physical locus for their expression and interaction in Dalston.

beyond-our-dreams-hiner-saleem.jpgBeyond our Dreams, dir. by Hiner Saleem, 2000

In this respect, the Turkish-speaking immigrants who began to arrive in Hackney a little over a decade ago were fortunate to find the Rio on their doorstep. Its track record of involvement in community work is well established; indeed the cinema’s incarnation in the mid-70s was founded on council funding granted for the development of a community arts space. Local film-maker David Lawson’s relationship with the Rio dates back to 1985 and his work with the Black Audio Film Collective, including their Handsworth Songs, which the cinema was among the first to screen. For Lawson, now of Smoking Dogs Films on Dalston’s Shacklewell Lane, the ethos of community dialogue is a crucial source of intellectual and artistic nourishment. “You’re given this quite diverse range of views in a thematised way, from different perspectives. It allows for different communities within an area to understand more about who they’re living next door to”.

The TFF’s origins came from within the Rio itself: co-ordinator Vedide Kaymak was an employee when she conceived the Festival and remains so today. The impetus behind its creation was, she says, twofold: to provide a service to the Turkish-speaking community and to offer an opportunity for Londoners to gain an insight into modern Turkey and its cinema. For various reasons the sense of community many immigrants experienced at home is not reproduced in London. Many older people are unable or reluctant to participate fully in London life while, latterly, many younger people have little interest in their ethnic heritage. Substantial neighbourhood involvement is therefore crucial to the TFF’s aims to nurture links between countries, cultures and generations. It has always involved a network of local Turkish-speakers assisting in coordination of the short film programme, guest hospitality, transport and interpreting.

photograph-kazim-oz.jpgThe Photograph, dir. by Kazim Oz, 2000

The international film community was also crucial to the TFF’s establishment: the three-day first Festival of 1993 was essentially lifted from a Cologne season of that year; since then Kaymak, as a guest at the annual Istanbul Film Festival, has curated herself. The event has now expanded to two weeks each year, scheduling entries in the Turkish language from Turkish, Cypriot and Kurdish film-makers, international co-productions (like Hamam), work by Turkish or Kurdish directors in Germany (Lola & Bilidikid) and films made in Turkey by outsiders (Time of Love).

The main audiences remain local residents and their friends, with Turkish, Middle-Eastern and film studies academics also present. Rio manager Charles Rubinstein suggests the festival might even be the most important event in the Turkish community’s cultural calendar. It provides a unique opportunity for social as well as cultural nourishment. Kaymak is aware of friendships that persist only through regular encounters at the season.

visontele-yilmaz-erdogan-omer-faruk-sorak.jpgVisontele, dir. by Yilmaz Erdogan & Omer Faruk Sorak, 2000

Yet the TFF has also experienced significant growth outside its core constituency. Post-screening discussions are held in Turkish, where hand-counts suggest barely 10% of the audience require translation into English, yet up to a quarter of the names on the TFF’s mailing list are non-Turkish. Kaymak has noticed the growing popularity of a kind of intra-London cultural tourism in which a collective attraction is exerted by institutions like the TFF and Dalston’s award-winning Turkish restaurants. Admissions have risen from around 2,000 in 1993 to over 7,000 last year and this year the TFF will be complemented by a season at the NFT and a BFI-funded regional tour to Bristol, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. There are even tentative plans to visit the US – from local service to international out-reach in the space of a decade.

However, one aspect largely absent from the TFF so far has been local self-reflection: features made by London’s Turkish-speaking immigrants themselves which would allow the Festival to fulfil both sides of David Lawson’s dictum that rep cinema of the Rio’s kind should aim not only to cater to local audiences but also to showcase indigenous talent. The exception to this is Project Bizim, also based in and around Dalston, which in the past two years has produced five shorts screened at the festival. Even more than the Rio or the TFF, Bizim’s originating concerns emphasise community before pure aesthetics. A youth scheme with annual funding of around £20,000 from the DfEE’s Neighbourhood Support Fund, its name translates as ‘Our Project’ – an index of its intended function in enhancing the self-esteem and self-expectation of the area’s Turkish-speaking teenagers, for whom the routine adolescent problems of alienation from family backgrounds and mainstream life can be especially acute.

Project Bizim is co-ordinated by Ufuk Genc and Cengiz Bozkurt, both of whom have strong experience in community work as well as film and drama: the aim is to encourage youngsters to consider careers in the media both for their own sake and that of their communities. Despite teething problems – many of the participants took a flexible approach to attendance and attentiveness – the group had the benefit of community support (useful for practicalities like meeting places and exerting pressure on wayward students) and has produced ten films to date. Largely autobiographical and relatively politically well-informed, they reflect the frictions of their home life and integration into British society as second-generation immigrants. Last year’s films, shot on video in Turkish and English, included Eye Of The Street, a wide-ranging voxpop survey of the local community, the light-hearted Jammed on adaptation to London life and, perhaps the most cinematically accomplished, Just For You, about family angst and arranged marriage.

“When we conceived the scheme in 1999”, says Bozkurt, “we wanted to see the Turkish-speaking community’s voice in the mainstream in five or ten years time”. It remains to be seen whether the creators of the above films will be working as directors or broadcast journalists as he hopes, but the project’s community aims have largely been achieved. Bozkurt estimates that 80-90% of participants have gone on to higher education, and describes a 15-year-old boy with a background of minor crime and violence who has made two successful films and is moving into teaching himself. Bozkurt and Ufuk have also been invited to address youth work conferences, with Project Bizim used as a model for other immigrant communities (such as the Somali) and approached by the Melinsky Fund, which works with refugee and asylum-seeker youth.

herd-zeki-okten-yilmaz-guney.jpgThe Herd, dir. by Zeki Okten & Yilmaz Güney, 1978

Social or community work is a common trait of many of the key figures in this area: Kaymak’s background is in community health, while Bozkurt has served on the executive committee of the Turkish Education Group for the past decade. The organizers of the Kurdish Film Festival (KFF), inaugurated last year, have also been active in their community, one in which issues of belonging and identity are made especially fraught by the lack of a nation-state homeland. Thus, the assertion by Kurdish immigrants of their ethnic culture is both inherently political and practically more difficult. Just as the indigenous Kurdish Diaspora is spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, so the immigrant population in London does not have a single epicentre comparable to Hackney for the Turkish. Similarly, films made by Kurdish directors are habitually attributed to other nations: Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time For Drunken Horses, say, is primarily described as an Iranian picture. Part of the KFF’s mission lies in fostering awareness within the Kurdish communities of their own activities: “selecting our films”, as organizing committee member Hasan Sahan puts it, “so that Kurds can see films from Turkey or Iran they wouldn’t have considered as Kurdish”.

The KFF is remarkable for being the first sustained celebration of Kurdish cinema mounted anywhere outside Kurdistan. Held at the Rio, it is co-ordinated not by an employee but by an organising committee made up of residents and activists. Sponsorship comes from local businesses, often small operations with whom the committee already has personal relationships. Echoing similar feelings voiced by Kaymak regarding the TFF, Sahan insists, “we want people to feel that the festival belongs to them, from film-makers to sponsors to audiences”.

hamam-ferzan-ozpetek.jpgHamam, dir. by Ferzan Ozpetek, 1996

The gathering also included three production workshops, reflecting a conscious desire to encourage film-making by British Kurds. In this respect there are perhaps more examples for London’s Kurdish population to follow than the Turkish: because of the nature of the Kurdish Diaspora, Rubinstein notes, the KFF contained a majority of films about immigrant experiences in many new countries.

The festival’s ground-breaking success was established not merely in its financial viability but in its provision of a service unavailable elsewhere. People travelled from across London, and indeed across Europe, to be present last November. As in the TFF, a social dimension was soon evident, spilling over into the professional: it provided one of the few spaces where Kurdish film-makers could meet one another and as Sahan observes, “I think they went away with ideas and projects inspired by others”. Its profile was soon international: Swiss-based Kurdish director Ayten Mutlu called one committee member for information about the London Film Festival but, on learning about the KFF, chose to enter her film there instead. Last year’s selection has already formed the template for festivals to be held in Stockholm and Frankfurt, with Paris and Berlin set to follow. And now Rubinstein and the KFF committee are planning moves into distribution, starting with Jano Rosebiani’s, Jiyan, a compelling and moving feature about the chemical bombing of Halabja. To see the fruits of their work spreading across the continent is a source of justifiable pride for the organizers: as committee member Mustafa Gundogu puts it, “we proved it could be done”.

There are important differences between the two festivals discussed, as between the communities they serve, but the TFF’s success is a guiding light for its already accomplished younger relation. More than anything, it provides an example of how a grass-roots project tailored to local needs can become embedded within a wider consciousness, confirming that one of the most reliable ways to serve a specific community is to establish its culture not only among its own members but in the minds of outsiders.

Ben Walters is a freelance writer and critic.