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

In a conversation in 1975 (13 years after the manifest in Oberhausen, a very peculiar moment of film history, which birthed New German Cinema – a ghost treading into every discussion on German film ever since) Edgar Reitz and Alexander Kluge point to an easily ignored aspect of a practice dominated by the so-called auteurs in comparison to the studio system that was dealing with its own crises at that time. No matter how independent they seemed to be acting compared to their American counterparts, the European auteurs were in fact an undefined, unbound collective:

The enlargement of film history takes place unconsciously through auteurs, who feel themselves to be individual inventors, who however in reality work together. At a certain point, this is also economically true. The work of each is a precondition for there to exist this production form – that is counter cinema – at all. 1

Soon after this paradigmatic recognition, one of the most interesting cases in the history of cinema that was not economically driven and was bound to its own social, political, and aesthetic objectives and norms 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. Göktürk notes how a critic in Tagesspiegel hypothesizes that “perhaps the Turks were the only ones in Germany these days to make political movies on present-day issues”. 2

Looking back after another twenty years, we see that a lot has changed. The struggle of cinema in Germany for international recognition continues but there have been achievements that make an obsession with that famous manifest and its aftermath tiresome. We have seen the return of non-Turks, who dealt with present-day issues in political ways. 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 inevitably 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 ensuring that their experience was depicted from an insider perspective as well. This all contributed to how the representation of the Ausländer has evolved in German film and that clichés like the “immigrant” as sexual competition – the funny little Italian – or as a threat, or as source for condescending sympathy started to lose their dominance. 3

New dimensions, new lines

The depictions became more and more dimensional as lines got blurred and many of the filmmakers managed to escape the stifling Turkish-German box. And for some young filmmakers who stepped into the scene as a new generation, their migration background was not limiting, it was simply another resource that made them see the world better. At the same time, some lines that were already there but had been conveniently ignored are starting to find 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 that followed his father who was a first-generation immigrant worker that returned to his homeland in Elazığ Karakoçan without any security or pension. Yavuz’s film screened in Berlin that year was April Children (1998), a fictional portrait of a Kurdish family whose patriarch was played by Yavuz’s own father. 4

Yüksel Yavuz, photo by Savaş Poyraz

For reasons that need to be explored further, what was glossed over by the politics, was easily overlooked by critical work so Kurdish cinema in Germany was easily subsumed under Turkish-German cinema. Whether it is a simple oversimplification or a deliberate position, the arrival of a young generation from non-Turkish Kurdistan forces us to rethink previous categories – to the advantage of all of them. On an international scale, Kurdish cinema has been categorized as a transnational cinema since the 2000s, produced from various locations including Turkey, Rojava, Iraqi Kurdistan as well as the diaspora starting with Germany. 5

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. As imaginable, one conclusion that can be made immediately is that there are as many perspectives as there are filmmakers and each perspective is subject to change at any moment. 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 of the danger of ghettoization and 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, and it differs very much from any other label used within the European context: “Early 2000, it was surely important but now it is an idle term, you wouldn’t use it. And that is good so. It made us visible but for a price: You had to follow certain clichés. There were expectations about which themes you would take. This was government money, so there were authorities who wanted you to reproduce certain images. Standing against it wasn’t impossible but it was hard. So much was written about this label Turkish-German Cinema, and we didn’t want this label at all, firstly because we were making very different films.”

Ayşe Polat, photo by Patrick Orth

Polat was born in Malatya and came to Germany as a child. A filmmaker from the second generation who made her debut in 2000, she is one of the pioneers and she emphasizes her identity as a woman which makes her a double minority.

The certain themes that she refers to, have been subject to endless academic discussions. Göktürk borrows the term “cinema of duty” from Sarita Malik 6 and in one of the important sources on the recent past7, Gozde Naiboglu quotes Kobena Mercer talking about “burden of representation”.  Göktürk aptly complains about stereotyping via narratives of victimization and alienation. From the early examples as Tevfik Başer’s famous 40 qm Deutschland (1986) and Farewell to False Paradise (1989), the dominant scenarios were (female) entrapment, claustrophobia, a clash between cultures, and a longing for home, and in that sense, they weren’t radically different from the early depictions of Turkish immigrants by German filmmakers such as Helma Sanders (Shirin’s Wedding, 1975) or Hark Bohm (Yasemin, 1988). (This might be a good time to introduce the term Biodeutsch referring to Germans without migration backgrounds. Made famous by Cem Özdemir’s ironic use, it also hints at the recent obsession with organic food culture.)

Going back home

Yüksel Yavuz, another pioneer from the second generation, who was also born in Turkey supposes that her 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. Close-up Kurdistan (2007) is a documentary built around encounters with prominent figures in North Kurdistan-Turkey recording the pains and achievements of the Kurdish movement, Sehnsucht nach Istanbul (2010) offers a look at the music scene of Istanbul with a particular curiosity on the practices of religious minorities and Hevi (Hoffnung, 2014) follows female figures within the Kurdish political and guerilla movements. In each, there is an actual journey undertaken from Germany to Turkey and Kurdistan (sometimes also to other European countries of Kurdish diaspora) 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), Crossing the Bridge (2005), and İlker Çatak’s very recent Stambul Garden (2020) and I Was, I Am I Will Be (2019), this is epitomized in the journey of the Biodeutschen curious about where those immigrants come from.

I remember a joke from one of the standup performances of Turkish-German comedian Kaya Yanar where he talks about his childhood when holidays meant one thing: going in die Türkei. According to him, what changed in the last thirty years is that now “you Germans tag along after us”.

When I talk to İlker Çatak, who was born in 1984, he doesn’t hesitate to say that he experienced his own background as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Like all the other filmmakers that I talked to, he considers himself part of the German film industry but adds that he sees himself also as part of Turkish cinema.

Nurhan Şekerci

For a prominent second-generation name from the industry, Nurhan Sekerci, who is completing her seventeenth year in the German film industry working as a producer for Fatih Akın, it was never her background but always her own individuality that shaped her career. She notes that the question of identity was complicated already at home when the parents disagreed on details about their own Kurdish, Turkish and Alevi belongings.

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 found refuge in Germany and the experience of a second-generation child of migrant workers. She believes she was already 17-18 years old when she felt like she had arrived. When I ask whether these were also the years when she started to develop an interest in cinema, she indeed points to the power of art to create a place of belonging by bringing together “misfits” from different backgrounds. Her feature debut, Home Without Roof (2016) is another example of the transformative journey back, starting in Stuttgart and ending in Iraqi Kurdistan. Soleen stresses that, from her early days on, when she was an apprentice in Mitos Film, she felt connected to a web of filmmakers and artists not only from Kurdistan or Turkey but a wide geography including countries like Lebanon or Iran.

Soleen Yusef, photo by Leo Lokai

When I ask Yüksel Yavuz whether he sees himself as part of German film industry, his answer is a quick yes, but 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 the prestigious Quinzaine des Réalisateurs. Christina Weiss, the Minister of Culture at the time who hosted a reception celebrating German cinema at the festival had complained in her welcoming speech that the French kept ignoring German cinema as there was no German production in the main competition that year – again – while she forgot to mention the only German production which actually was at the festival. “You may need to ask this question to Germans,” he says to me.  

One might question whether from the viewpoint of policymakers, any international success of the migrant cinema was as valuable as the accomplishments of the original New German filmmakers.

Migrant workers as workers

Ceylan Ataman-Checa, photo by Jannis Keil

Born in Hannover in 1986 to second-generation Spanish and Turkish parents, Ceylan Ataman-Checa stresses out that his experience was connected to two traditional Gastarbeiter countries and that this is a vital angle: “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. I believe that one should approach migration through its nuances, but classes are relatively more homogenous.” As for Ataman-Checa’s identity, the fact that he feels as part of the German film industry but not as a German citizen (he in fact still has a Spanish passport) might seem paradoxical but I believe it is very revealing of the beautifully complicated nature of our issue.  His debut, Sebastian Jumping Fences (2020) follows three episodes in its young protagonist’s life, who is a blond, German-looking boy. The choice to cast the mother as a Spanish actress isn’t emphasized further by the filmmaker, in accord with his conscious attention to class identities. I joke about one of the opening scenes where the young mother who is employed as a caretaker visits an old woman with dementia that results in Turkey infiltrating the film through a demented lens, to learn that it was in fact a semi-natural performance by the filmmaker’s own grandmother who is fighting dementia. 

In the casual response of the director explaining his own inclinations, a central point of the debate is echoed: Naiboglu points to the fact that work was always a central motive and motivation in the early examples of Turkish-German films that many times remained unnoticed by identity-oriented theories. The emphasis on integration in the scholarly debates (integration, entrapment, female victimization) has been simultaneous with the elimination of a central topic: the issue of work and labor. Naiboglu’s insistence on labor as a central motive is further connected to her identification of the focus by hermeneutic approaches on national, ethnic, gender identities and her search for a view of “films as active constituents of reality” rather than “mere discursive reconstructions of it”. 8

Who makes the films?

These films were indeed produced within a very material environment that was always shaped by the heavy political context. As someone who doesn’t shy away from calling himself a political filmmaker, Yüksel Yavuz is outspoken in his recognition that the long-established diplomatic-political relations between Turkey and Germany always affected the practice of filmmakers who dealt with these topics in Germany. It was indeed less complicated in 2002, the year his fiction film A Little Bit of Freedom was made than it is today and Yavuz points out that to gain higher positions in television and cinema a certain level of governmental thinking is required, and these are the people who authorize budgets granted to films.

When we go back and ask the filmmakers to what extent was their experience a collective one, Yavuz focuses on the inevitable solitude in searching for funding for a certain project but also adds that through his wife’s company Newa Film, which produced his last films, they have been trying to help young filmmakers whose work they cherish. Ayşe 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 and rightfully on TV.

“I always felt that Turkish and Kurdish filmmakers should have been standing closer together, something I believe is happening now,” says Nurhan Sekerci. “Right now, in the whole world, we are saying that people should come closer together, to understand each other better. This is for me what me too is also about. The problem is that one easily talks about equal rights, but I believe one should also talk about responsibilities. I believe we should bring back the consciousness of responsibility into the conversation, for all parts. Because we all live in our bubbles and we forget sometimes that consciousness of responsibility for each other should be on the first line.”

Who do the films make?

A question about what the films themselves are capable of will bring us to a discussion concerning the audience. When I ask them about their ideas of an imaginary viewer that their films aim at, I get different answers (although none of them seems to be particularly interested in the question.) For Ayşe Polat, there is an arthouse viewer that is rather universal. İlker Çatak admits that it is commercially unwise of him that he never really cared about who his viewer is. Yavuz has observed that to a large extent it consists of German viewers in addition to the Kurdish community with no particular connection to the active Kurdish political structures in the diaspora – the Turkish audience is negligible.

İlker Çatak by Johannes Kreuser

Part of the mechanisms that may be helping the films overcome an ever-growing problem that haunts the film production anywhere in the world – namely the changing habits of the viewer – are the festivals that not only showcase films but also create an agora with the accompanying discussions and events. The 11th edition of the Kurdish Film Festival in Berlin and the 10th edition of the Kurdish Film Festival in Hamburg underline the prevailing importance of the two cities in terms of “migrant cinema” and The Turkish Film Festival in Nurnberg is ready for its 26th edition in March 2022.

One field that one cannot but hope for an intervention by the transformative power of films concerns the perspective on the Kurdish struggle, also because especially in Turkey cinema has been traditionally weaponized by the warmongering party. In fact, one thing that cinema can do is to shape the discourse and stance of active parties as well as the international public on the war in Kurdistan and there are anecdotes pointing to the fact that screenings of films particularly from the Kurdish part 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.

One city, two Barans, two approaches

It is not surprising that films from Kurdish filmmakers have shown more interest in the conflict but even in the absence of a direct reference, many times the “trouble at home” was there as a haunting ghost that pulls people back to an ambiguous homeland. In an early example, Thomas Arslan’s Brothers and Sisters (1997), the German mother is distressed that her son – a Turkish citizen might go to “war zones” for his military service, at a time when a Turkish production would most likely go for a politically imposed euphemism rather than calling the war zone like it was.

For Ayşe Polat, the potential of films made and shown in Germany isn’t negligible: “Maybe because people on site cannot speak as openly and sometimes you see better from afar. It can be freeing indeed but, in the end, we must admit it is still just a film and in films there are other factors at play than mere political intentions.”

The protagonists of two filmmakers standing on the opposite sides of the spectrum serve as an interesting point of comparison. In Yuksel Yavuz’s A Little Bit of Freedom, young Baran is a sans-papier in the midst of a quite universal struggle for survival when he comes across a village guard (korucu) from Turkey, who collaborated with the state, which led to his parents’ slaughter. In İlker Çatak’s film I Was, I Am I Will Be, the young gigolo Baran meets Marion in an Aegean holiday resort and follows her to Germany to start a new life. While the story in both cases is set in Hamburg, in the first case, the city is in continuity with Baran’s homeland and everything that shaped his existence until that point, which results in a claustrophobic hybrid-space situated as much in Kurdistan as it is in Germany that will allow a very little bit of freedom. For Özgür Çiçek, what such representation of Kurdish migrants does is to “stitch Kurdistan to Europe or Europe to Kurdistan” 9. The intentional tone of a modern fairy tale and lack of any political reference (or any reference to Baran’s life before the holiday resort) in the second film results in the city being restructured as an empty site waiting to be filled with this intercultural encounter.

Yavuz’s topography is in line with Hito Steyerl’s realization in her essay film November (2004) when she finds the filmmaker that interviewed her childhood friend who joined the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) a couple of blocks away from her own apartment in Berlin. One function of films as circulating images is indeed to create these hybrid topographies where Kurdistan or Turkey is not only there but here as well. (She doesn’t reveal the identity of the filmmaker who is only present as a voice but with a little attention, we can spot the same voice again in Yavuz’s Close-up Kurdistan, this time with face and name within the frame.)

The problem created by the many identities and roots attached to each film in a transnational paradigm is one of definition. How do we sort these filmmakers, within which scopes will we study them?  The contrasts and contradictions that make up their identity is indeed difficult to describe through a theoretical framework that is not unequivocal. Çiçek’s analysis particularly contrasts between Thomas Elsaesser’s notion of “pluralistic European cinema” that aims at escaping the limitations of any nation-oriented theory and Luisa Rivi’s “weakened national cinema” that aims at an understanding of a heterogeneous nationality and a more “encompassing, transnational, and supranational realm”. 10 I believe the terminology that connects the different inquiries that make up our journal is also useful at this point: One way or another, the films that made up these historical categories of Turkish- and Kurdish-German cinemas were made by moving people that incorporated the movements of the past and present into their work. 11 I have observed that the specifics of the theoretical mechanisms that try to deal with the problem were as good as unimportant for the filmmakers themselves, it only mattered insofar as it affected their actual production.

In Turkish one says that “one’s soul is there where it hurts”. Hence the belonging felt by the particular filmmaker is also many times connected to where they face a hindrance either to the conditions for their existence or for their activity as a filmmaker.  It rises from the very material problems, working conditions, and most importantly discriminations they face. On the aesthetic outcomes of this simple fact, what seems to be the thing that complicates the debate is nothing but the films themselves, which ontologically speaking, consist of an otherwise impossible reorganization of time and space. 

From this framework, I tried to draw a picture, in which 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-intellectual 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, where the failures and achievements of different members affect all and through that shape the national and transnational cinemas historically.

One note: Although I tried not to include only the filmmakers with a political or intellectual claim, I had to limit myself to – let us call it – festival circles and didn’t reach out to those who had very successful commercial careers, mostly unknown outside of Germany. That is an interesting task that someone, some other time, should pursue. And I won’t deny any bias that my own background as someone who has actively worked many years as a film critic in Turkey might have brought.

It is safe to speak of a web of mobilities that make Kurdish-German and Turkish-German (and in many cases Kurdish-Turkish-German) Cinema and that web is growing, particularly with one stratum we need to mention before we pause the discussion here, for the current article: The recent years also saw that many professionals who had just started or who already had accomplished careers in Turkey are coming to Germany, with Berlin and Hamburg as the main destinations. The hybrids and paradoxes this movement will create in terms of topographies, times, themes, and languages will be seen in due time.

Evrim Kaya is a film critic and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hamburg. 

Kaya’s photo by Dilşad Şirvan

  1. Diese Erweiterung der Filmgeschichte geschieht unbewußt-kollektiv durch Autoren, die sich als individuelle Erfinder fühlen, aber in Wirklichkeit zusammenarbeiten. In einem Punkt stimmt das auch wirtschaftlich. Die Arbeit eines jeden ist Voraussetzung dafür, daß es eine solche Produktionsform von Gegenkino überhaupt gibt.” 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. (My translation.)
  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
  3. In their subsequent chapters Projektive Übermalungen: Zum Bild des Ausländers im deutschen Film and Zwischen Abwehr und Umarmung: Die Konstruktion des anderen in Filmen Stefan Reinecke and Knut Hickethier provide a good guide for understanding the early and more recent depictions of the foreigner in German film. Ernst Karpf et al (Hrsg.) Getürkte Bilder: Zur Inszenierung von Fremden in Film. Marburg,  1995, Schüren Presseverlag GmbH.
  4. Another film screened in 1999, Ich Chef Du Turnschuh, directed by the Hussi Kutlucan, told the story of an Armenian asylum seeker.
  5. Özgür Çiçek’s chapter “Weakened Nationalism and Thickened Time: Interrogating the position of Kurdish cinema within European cinema discussions” in the upcoming  The Routledge Companion to European Cinema  explores the transnational character of Kurdish cinema, with a particular focus on its potential for opening European cinema beyond Europe.  
  6. Malik, S. (1996). Beyond ‘The cinema of duty’? The pleasures of hybridity: Black British film of the 1980s and 1990s. In A. Higson (Ed.), Dissolving views (pp. 202-215). London: Cassell.
  7. Naiboglu, Gozde (2018) Post-Unification Turkish German Cinema: Work, Globalisation and Politics Beyond Representation. London, Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Çiçek, ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The terms mobile/moving people and mobile/moving filmmakers were suggested by the filmmaker Erol Mintaş when he founded the Academy of Moving People and Images, a platform in Helsinki for mobile/moving people – those who have arrived in Finland for different reasons; be they displaced people, forced immigrants, students, asylum seekers, or employees. 

This article was commissioned by  Goethe-Institut Finnland for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal)