Film director and daughter of a guerrilla leader

The author is viewed as one of Turkey’s most exciting young filmmakers. In the below, she describes her encounter with the limits of freedom of speech and what happened when she wanted to make a movie about her father, whom she hardly met but who was an active Kurdish guerrilla. The result was the much-acclaimed documentary, “I flew, you stayed” (2012)—and some time spent in jail.

January 8 2013 Text: Anonymous Translation from Turkish: Alev Yaman

The morning silence was disturbed by the sound of footsteps filling the apartment. It was 5am; I remember the time well because even after I got out I couldn’t get to sleep before 5 for a long time. They came to a halt in front of the door, and knocked on it hard. I was listening to the door in bed with my eyes open. Someone in the house asked, “Who is it”. They replied, “Open the door, police”. They came inside and said my name, which they had come to take me away. I was listening to everything as I was lying in bed but I wasn’t getting up. I had seen myself arrested many times in my dreams previously. My mum came to my room door and said, “don’t be afraid, they’ve come to take you”. This time I sat up in bed, and told them that they could come in. A couple of police came in one after the other; I saw my mum’s jaundiced face. I was still calm. I had been waiting for them to come for two years. They started searching through the furniture, looking for anything incriminating, like a bomb or a gun. One of them held a photo in front of my eyes as if to say, “Gotcha”, with such joy that it suggested that they had indeed come to find a photograph of a man in a guerrilla uniform. The “guerrilla” in the photograph was my father.

The reason why the police raided my house that day was that I had gone to the Mahmur Refugee Camp in Iraq to shoot a film about my father. The journey to Mahmur began when I went to Armenia from Istanbul. When I went to Yerevan for the Armenian Filmmakers of Turkey Platform, I met a girl there. When I learnt by chance that she stayed in a refugee camp in Iraq I asked, “do you know Red Kemal?” She said, “I know him, he’s my father”. My father, who I had never seen, had been a father to these other kids growing up in refugee camps. I was very jealous, this meeting was the breaking point for the silence that had built up inside me for years; I couldn’t go back to how I was before. I had to go there. I had to hear about him from these children, to confront him, to make up with him. For a year after I got back, I looked for ways of going. Because I was afraid of going on my own I decided to go with a camera, the reason for the police raid that day was this journey and the film that was born as a result of it.

Everything they presented me during questioning was material from the film; for them the film was proof of my guilt, for me it was proof of my innocence. The film’s cameraman Özay Şahin—the entire crew was composed of us two—had also been taken into custody. The first person to watch our film, “I Flew, You Stayed”, ended up being the prosecutor; that’s how we were released. At the same time, in some sense, this was the last scene of the documentary. It was the price of making a film in Turkey. No matter how much cinema in Turkey is supported by the state, it still confines you within certain red borders. For example, when making a family about the Armenian Issue or the Kurdish Issue, you need to know where the film will end up; this will be made clear to you personally by the committee members who provide you with support.

I grew up hearing about my father, who joined the guerrillas a few months after I was born, as a fairytale hero from my grandmother. During my childhood he sent a cassette; I first met his voice, not him. One day, I wanted to prove he existed somewhere, understand why he went, know whether he loved me or not, thought about me or not. In that cassette he sent us, after engaging in propaganda, he gave his regards to everyone and, finally, by saying “to my daughter” too, he made do with an empty greeting to me. It was heartbreaking for me; I expected him to say something special to me, at least to use my name.

The journey I made for this film took place in November 2009, during the “democratic initiative” period in Turkey, as a return journey immediately after the first group from Mahmur’s arrival. I naively thought that if I made this film I would contribute to peace, soften hearts, tell the story of a guerrilla to certain nationalist Turks, and accentuate that story with the emotions of a father and daughter’s reunion; I couldn’t predict that the climate would harden even more.

When I was in custody, classic films that I owned important to global cinematic history were also taken into custody, as were my cassettes, notes and diaries; upon my release they gave me 182 DVDs, including the films of Bela Tarr and Bergman, or, more correctly, what had been suspected as evidence of criminality.

When I returned from Mahmur, I wanted to make a feature film rather than a documentary; in fiction you always have a way out. In a documentary, you’re left face to face with harsh realities. I wrote a script but the fictional idea started to seem ‘fake’. We returned to the original raw footage, and started scripting the documentary with the footage of my original experiences, where I confronted and struggled with things for the first time. The film’s name was the tongue-twister my father always used to say when he was little which my grandmother had made him remember: “Ez firiyam tu mayîlicih” (I flew, you stayed). Just as in the tongue-twister he had flown away, we had stayed.

The day I was arrested, we had just found out that the film had been accepted to the national competition at the Istanbul Film Festival alongside fictional feature films. When I was in custody, the thing that scared me the most was the prospect of not being in the movie theatre at the premiere. The film was screened two months after I was released from custody in Istanbul’s oldest movie theatre (the Atlas Cinema) in front of a very nice crowd.

Before being taken into custody I was working on a new film project. After I was released from custody I started to question myself, the work I did and the country I live in. In this script, which was inspired by a true story, a group of kids accidentally drop a bust of Atatürk in a design and technology class while working on making a new one. Because Atatürk is such a taboo topic in Turkey, this situation lands them in trouble; they are questioned but somehow cannot communicate that they broke the bust by accident. Now I understand better than before, that making this film in Turkey is and always will be difficult. Why don’t we only make romance, family, kid’s or comedy films? Why do identity checks, the corpses of soldiers and guerrillas, and the sound of warplanes always make their way into our films?

Being taken into custody because of your work has the side effect of emphasising the importance of your work; it emphasises that you are taken seriously, that the work you do is feared, that you can topple or build regimes, that spoken and written words are the most powerful of weapons…