I am talking with Turkish filmmaker and video artist Köken Ergun at the International Film Festival Rotterdam about a documentary that all Australian and New Zealand audiences should see. Şehitler (Heroes), commissioned by the Australian War Museum, is about the mythologising of trauma, of the First World War campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula (or Çanakkale). Ergun includes interviews at the monuments with the April 25 pilgrims and tourists that reveal shared moments and differences. He follows the tour coaches where tour guides deliver their spiel. One side has John Simpson and his donkey, the other Corporal Seyit that turned back the British Fleet. A spectrum of emotions are played out here, from Nationalism to familial loss. The ANZAC fallen are respected as brothers, while other locals ruminate on why these tourist intruders are here; let them go back to where they came from. These opinions have an uncannily familiar ring to those that follow contemporary immigration debates in Australia.
How did this project originate?
Well apparently, in 2015 the Australian War Memorial intended to commission a Turkish artist to make a project on Gallipoli/Çanakkale to coincide with the centenary of Gallipoli landing. They approached Artspace in Sydney and Protocinema in Istanbul who knew more about contemporary artists. Together they decided on my name and offered me a new commission, even though they knew that I normally don’t take commissions. I like to be independent. I start projects myself, then a couple of years later I ask people to step in, if they are interested. This way of working secures my independence. But when this offer came to me at the eve of elections in Turkey, nationalism was on the rise once again, this time “choreographed” by Erdoğan who made an alliance with the far right party and aimed at gaining all nationalists votes in the country. So I accepted the offer and used this project as a tool to understand – for myself – the roots of nationalism in Turkey. This was the original push behind the work.
What projects had you done previously?
I make films which are mostly presented as installations within the contemporary art world; in biennials and museums. One of my works had been previously exhibited in Australia, at the Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane in 2015. This was Ashura, a three-channel installation. Its single channel version was shown at several film festivals and won a special mention at Berlinale. It is about the religious rituals of the Shiite Muslim minority in Istanbul, a little known community. I also participated at the Rotterdam Film Festival with a short film in 2007. That was The Flag, about national ceremonies in Turkey. Then I made a very popular film [Binibining Promised Land] that I shot in Tel Aviv about beauty pageants organised by Filipino guest workers inside the city’s infamous central bus station. That is another perspective to nationalism and racism because both Israel’s state and its society are quite hostile to non-Jewish foreigners. Ironically, these so called “foreigners” are working there as caregivers, taking care of their grandmothers and grandfathers. So they are an integral part of the Israeli society.
These are all very sensitive political issues.
Yes and they are about rituals; that’s the common focus in all of them. I work like an ethnographer and I also collaborate with ethnographers while I make my films. You don’t see that in the work maybe but prior to the shooting, for two or sometimes three years, I carry on research on the topic with scholars. Then I go on the field. Since most rituals are repeated annually, I observe them the first year, without using a camera. The following year, I start shooting.
For example, in this case I camped with the Anzac tourists.
The year before.
Yes, and I didn’t use any camera. I think they were shooting more than me. Then I joined a lot of Turkish tours. Again no recording. Just absorbing, talking with the tour participants, understanding and discussing with myself which line I should take, how far I should be from the subject or how close I should be, etc. During the shooting, I didn’t have any intentions to conduct interviews, but people just kept coming to me like the Kiwi girl in the film. While I was holding my camera, observing their walk up to Chunuk Bair, she just started talking to me and I couldn’t say no. That changed the course of the work. I found that people really wanted to talk about the subject; on both sides. So I decided to include interviews in the film.
Well, I was interested in that because there are some shots of you roaming around crowded Australian groups and I was wondering why you hadn’t interviewed them in those spaces. You’re telling me you did the talking informally as part of research the year before. So what sort of things would you talk about then?
I was surprised how nationalist Australians were. More than patriotism I could say. I was surprised too when I heard about the two taboo subjects. Before working on this project, I didn’t know how prominent these taboos were in Australian and New Zealand societies. The first is the Anzac legacy. It’s hard to contest it. The second was the aboriginal past. That was a no-go area with all of the Anzac tourists I talked to in Çanakkale. So, I’m very glad to see that there are demonstrations in Australia now, mostly by younger people, who challenge the Australia Day and refer to it as Invasion Day. When I was working on Heroes, I used to wonder if there were any sort of challenge to the official state history at the time. It was interesting for me not to see any of that in Australia, a country with such a dark past. Now, will these current demonstrations help? Well, judging on our experiences in Turkey where there had been massive uprisings in 2013 but no immediate change to the status quo, I can say it will take time. But these demos, other acts of political activism or even small solidarity groups which might seem so intimate and fragile now, will eventually bring change in society. We are seeing that now, with the outcome of the recent local elections.
That’s interesting. There are people who talk about those taboos and the connections between them, that the indigenous wars provided the inter-generational training for Australia’s participation in the First World War.
That is interesting. Both in Turkey and in Australia & New Zealand I see a similar problem in terms of historical narratives and taboos which emerge from them. History is written by the state. To start with, there’s a certain “state history” narrative in national education, which is mandatory in both countries. As that Kiwi girl in the film says, you are indoctrinated by stories of John Simpson and his donkey, all the way through your education. In Turkey, you are indoctrinated by the legend of Corporal Seyit. So we could say he is the John Simpson of the Turkish side. Several historians are starting to come out in Turkey and contest these legends as well as the overall official narrative about the Çanakkale War, but they face a strong backlash. When I gave a talk with Marilyn Lake at Artspace Sydney, who is the editor of “What’s wrong with ANZAC?”,1 one of the few scholarly works going against the official historical narrative in Australia, she also talked about receiving plenty of dark and really nasty threats online, after the book came out.
Another thing that really comes across in the documentary are the silences from the Australians as they contemplate the graves and monuments, I really got a feeling that these young Anzac tourists are trying to process where they are and how it all fits together because they are such a long way from home. For me, their silent looking was about body-centred thinking, working things out.
They are there as guests. So when you’re a guest from a losing nation in the country of the winning nation and when you know that the host nation has a completely different myth than yours, which is so dominant in their culture and supported with mass tourism and you are only coming in a smaller groups, I think it is natural that you become discreet.
Yes, they are. But I can see other things in there as well. It’s a new space for the Anzac visitors. They are being confronted by the physicality of this myth. I think you’ve captured that. The other interesting thing is that there is an underlying ambiguity towards these Anzac visitors from some of the Turkish people that seeps through, especially in the end texts.
Yes, this is what I discovered after being in Çanakkale many times. The Anzacs – by the way the tourists from Australia and New Zealand are called Anzacs by the locals …
That’s what they want to be called. That’s how they think of themselves.
Interesting, that’s another dimension. What I first observed was that Anzacs were coming to Turkey with an open mind. In the beginning I hadn’t seen many ultra-nationalist people in their tour groups. But as I embedded myself in more Anzac groups, I saw the other side of the story. For example, I remember two big guys who were chatting with me all throughout the two days of our excursion. They seemed very liberal minded and looked like any other tourist with their bright yellow hoodies, written ANZAC DAY 2016. At the dawn ceremony though, they both suddenly took their hoodies off and you could see a lot of medals on their khaki shirts. I discreetly asked what they stood for. They said that they fought in Afghanistan, they were war veterans and these were their medals. From that moment on, they had a kind of a proud look in their eyes but also a bit fanatical and even hostile. Quite contrary to the contemplative environment of the dawn ceremony. Those two guys considered themselves contemporary Anzacs.
Most of the Anzac tourists are coming to Gallipoli/Çanakkale on package holidays. In the bus from Istanbul to Çanakkale, they watch films about the war, they sing along Anzac songs, etc. Just like how they had been indoctrinated from at school, they are also fed with heroic tales on the way to Gallipoli war sites. So they are already filled with emotions when they arrive. It is the same on the Turkish side. Turkish tourists also being subject to patriotic films and poetry in the bus trip to Çanakkale. They are also filled up with emotions when they arrive. On top of this, they are made to watch patriotic theater plays at each site they visit. They instantly start crying while watching them in a rush. These are all strategies by the tour companies, as well as the state, to maintain and increase patriotic feelings in the visitors; hence the nation at large.
They’re managing people’s emotions.
On both sides. Also the architecture of the memorials are designed according to this. The Australian memorial at Lone Pine for example is an architecture of memory as well as national identity. It also encourages you to behave there, to be discreet, to be silent.
And that’s what the Anzac tourists were doing within those spaces.
Exactly. It is not only because visitors are contemplative, but it’s also they’re directed to be that way in that environment. On the other side, the Turkish being home, being the victors and being bigger in numbers are naturally more confident.
Physically confident. They are crawling over the canon. That was a beautiful shot. You record a feeding frenzy of people walking over that sculpture.
It’s a valorisation of war. They’re climbing a gun. Not only a figure of war but also a phallic figure… Let me go back to the line we were talking about. Now, the Australians come to Turkey with emotions of empathy towards the Turks. But we also have to understand they’re coming for a holiday, because the package they buy for Çanakkale/Gallipoli is linked to other holiday destinations in Turkey or Greece. The first day, they make a tour of Istanbul; a lot of drinking that night. They wake up at five in the morning to get on the bus to Çanakkale. I joined them through the whole excursions, also in the bus. We went straight to the site for the dawn ceremony, bypassing the city of Çanakkale, interacting with almost no one from the Turkish public. We entered the secured site in the afternoon and we stayed there for the whole ceremony. After dawn, we walked up to Chunuk Bair. That’s where I met the Kiwi girl who talks in the film. There is one last ceremony there and that’s the end of their day in Gallipoli. Most people leave right away to other beaches in southern Turkey or to the nearest Greek Island, or they continue to Europe. This is the link that I want to show. In 1915, during the conscription, Anzac soldiers didn’t know what they were joining. They thought they were going to see the world. Now, many Anzac tourists are using the pilgrimage to Gallipoli as a tool to see the world.
Well, the same now with the people who went to Syria to fight, they have the same sort of problem. Young Australians usually go on an “overseas” trip after they finish their university degree. They take a year or two off to travel the world. That is like a coming of age to process.
That’s why we see so many young people in Gallipoli. There’s a big tourism economy behind all these war memorials and ceremonies. Therefore, we shouldn’t be so naïve to think that people are coming there to venerate their ancestors. Yes they are, but they’re also coming to have a good time. On top of this, the Turks are mostly bussed in, paid for by their municipalities. They’re basically having a free trip. For me this is the most complicated part about this whole Anzac/Çanakkale legacy. They are playing with people’s emotions. They’re staging these patriotic plays and they’re trying to hold the society together with these founding myths, with these national heroes. At the same time, they are generating capital from this. It is an industry. That’s what I call a “tourism of martyrdom”.
They’re using people who died in the war for their sovereignty. After watching the film, the designer of the poster was interested in the image of a single soldier lying dead on the floor during one of the theatre plays in the film. She then repeated this image on the poster. With her design, she wanted to emphasise the loss of an individual. She told me that the story of the individual is often forgotten amongst the big narratives of martyrdom. In Turkey, nobody really remembers personal stories, just their martyrdom is glorified. In Australia, there are education materials filled with Anzac soldiers, like colouring books about war for five year-old kids. People are dying in those books and kids are colouring them. They are portrayed as heroes but there is no information on their personal stories. I remember being shocked when I saw these colouring books.
There are some powerful documentaries about the effects of war. Peter Tammer made an interesting documentary about the survivor of the New Guinea campaign in the Second World War that does not glorify war: Journey to the End of Night (1982).
In Çanakkale, there’s almost a pornography of historical affect. Many people listen to the tour guides with open eyes. They don’t contest, they don’t ask any questions. It was similar on the Anzac side.
You capture that submissive reception in Heroes. There is a violence that comes through how the stories are changed by the state. There is also a violence in some of the emails and comments written in the visitors book at the end of the film. You know, it seems like most of that is by males, but it’s not clear.
No, there are also females who write nasty things.
That’s like the kind of blogging reactionary trolling commentary that is facilitated by the internet now. One of the things that’s happening now, isn’t it? I think public discourse is shifting more towards that kind of process. It’s nowhere near as understanding or historically sensitive or awareness of what really happened.
The end of the film is like the threat I got on Twitter while in Australia. ABC News covered the film’s exhibition at Art Space Sydney on prime time news, making two interviews with me, one at the exhibition space in Sydney and the other in Canberra at the War Memorial. They also made a news article on their website with the uncanny title: “The Australian War Memorial has up-ended 75 years of tradition and commissioned an exhibit for its collection from an artist from a former enemy nation”. When this was shared on social media with my photograph, one user retweeted it with the note: “We should send this guy back to his country and burn his film on Anzac dawn ceremony!” He obviously did not see the film. He was reacting to the title of the news article.
But you got that reaction after you made the film.
Yes, I got it after. But living in Turkey and being politically active, I am often subject to these online reactions. Many people like me get these kinds of nasty words on Twitter at some point of our lives. And when I saw those notebooks at the Lone Pine memorial for the first time, they reminded me of those troll reactions on social media. Many Turkish guests were writing curses in the notebooks – in Turkish of course – which the next Australian or New Zealander visitor to write in the same notebook did not understand. Theirs were usually following a recipe: the motto of “Lest We Forget” was repeated very often. No personal remarks and very few contesting remarks. You see some in the film, like “Can anybody tell me what they died for?”
These are the stories that brought them here that were first told in childhood. Here, for the first time they get to explore and for me the silences show me that they do. The way they moved the pen with the hand, which you captured. I think it was very emotionally powerful that you see them taking that step. I think a lot of the people that you’re talking about that probably are more ambivalent about the Anzac legend will never be standing there.
It’s true. My Australian friends never went to Gallipoli but they are also prejudiced against people who go. This is also the polarising effect of the Anzac on Australian society.
Well I think that gap reminds me of things like Brexit and Trump or between academics, people active in dissent and those who are not. How can you bridge those kind of gaps?
I’ll tell you one anecdote. I was emailing an Australian curator who’s head of an art institution in New Zealand. I wrote him a nice email saying, this is a film I did about the Anzacs and Çanakkale/Gallipoli. Here is the link. I will be very interested in showing this in New Zealand at some point. Would you be interested?, etc. Now, the film is 88 minutes long. 12 minutes after I sent the email, I got an obnoxious response from him. He just wrote: “Oh, I don’t deal with the Anzac thing, send it to the film festival, they like that”. Obviously he didn’t watch the film. So how is it different from the man who threatened me on Twitter? He also didn’t watch the film. So my point is, I’m not doing these films to find an answer but to ask more questions; to learn rather than to come to a conclusion. I try not to take sides. I wanted to understand how nationalism is growing in people. So I needed to talk with people who are nationalists and those who call themselves patriots or fascist, in order to understand where it is coming from. I cannot do this if I stayed in my own social circles, because most people around me they prefer to keep a distance from those people or they just don’t want to understand them.
Well that’s a big problem. I think that was the problem that Hillary Clinton stepped into, calling these people the deplorables, that had a big effect on her campaign.
Or the Republican Turks, the hard lined secularists who see any headscarf woman as backward, ignorant. I experience this in my society. And I don’t want to be in the same situation to think that anybody who goes to Gallipoli on this pilgrimage, whether it’s linked with tourism or not, is “something”. When we presented this film at Artspace as an installation, there were diverse reactions from the Australian art audience. Some said about the Anzac tourists in the film, “we can’t stand watching these people” or “they are stupid”. But some said “I didn’t know about these people, I never encountered them”, so the film encouraged them to learn about the other side of their polarised society.
The film’s very successful at that. It shows this cloud of denial, the cloud of a trauma that is not recognised or recognised in the wrong way. I shouldn’t say wrong because then I am making judgments. The thing that I got from the film personally, was about this rise of nationalism and how it does get expressed in these small moments, little comments. Even though you show both sides, you’re talking about bridging this gap, I think what you documented is the fact that there is such a gap.
To solve a problem, we have to face the problem first. That’s the most important thing. We can’t keep ignoring it. We can’t label people who support Trump as ignorant. You are going to the same market with that person. You can be on the same bus with that person. When the bus breaks down, you’re stuck with Trump supporters or with a fascist. What do you do?
There is a reason why they are angry.
Yes, we did that mistake when Erdoğan came to power in Turkey. Everybody said, his supporters are just ignorant, uneducated and even unworthy people. But we have to understand that the secular establishment in the Turkish Republic who replaced the Ottoman Empire with a series of revolutions and wars has ignored a large portion of the society, who continued to lead a religious and conservative lifestyle. With Erdoğan and his AKP party, a sort of counter revolution happened as a reaction to this long period of ignorance.
You have something to tell us. You do a lot of listening and a lot of witnessing of this myth-building. I think it’s important for people to understand that this film comes at the end of a long process of looking and listening. It’s not a reactionary piece of work. You’ve gone into these spaces after you have thought through them. When you started recording, did you go in with a cameraman or on your own?
On my own. There’s only one seat for me in the bus. Later on, I was sometimes joined by another cameraman and a sound recorder. But still most of the shooting I did on my own, not to distract the tour guides, their narration, also not to disturb their audience. I would just sit with a small hand held camera on the seat and follow them throughout the day. Sometimes it’s shaky, sometimes I’m trailing like two meters behind the group. So it is really like an embedded journalism in a way or it’s like ethnographic study. I started making this film to understand how nationalism is growing in my society. Then I realised that it’s not only growing in my society but also in Australia and New Zealand. So I learned a lot.
You’ve made this film two years after the hundred-year anniversary of the landing, which was probably a high point in terms of Australian consciousness about this event. There’s also a lot of Turks living in Australia. The migration issue has become more sensitive over time. This film also addresses issues in that debate.
Marilyn Lake said this film should be shown in every school in Australia. Maybe that is not possible but I would really like it to be seen by members of the general public, instead of just film festival people or a contemporary art audience. Hopefully in the future. I am in no rush and this subject is not going to go away. On the contrary, it’s going to intensify every time something happens in Australia about, for example “terrorism”. The Anzac legacy will grow. Just like in Turkey, when something goes wrong and the media feeds audiences films or legends about Çanakkale, in order to “maintain” national unity or to boost national identity. This could be the case in Australia if the right wing tendencies continue to grow. If there are more terrorist attacks, if there is a new immigration crisis or if there is a new economic crisis, the Anzac legacy can be used as a unifying force.
They have done that already.
But they can do it again. They can commission more films about this, which is more on the propaganda side. I mean, we are seeing a New Zealand(er) director, Peter Jackson, making films about the first World War. He also made exhibitions about Gallipoli.
But that film has a much more technological approach.
Yes, but there is still a repetition of war images. I never thought that the image of war would be still so relevant in Australia. When I saw the War Memorial for the first time, I thought it was a beautiful building of memory. It really is very touching. Its architecture just doesn’t fit anything I’ve seen in Australia. It was like the state and society at the time hoped that this would be the war that ends all the wars. They didn’t plan to go into other wars after the First World War experience. One of the curators told me that the city planning in Canberra was made in a way that the parliament faced the War Memorial. So MPs would always see it while making decisions for their country and (hopefully) they would remember not go into any more wars. But when I walked on the road from the War Memorial to the parliament, I witnessed a succession of memorials about other wars that the Australian state has participated after Gallipoli. There were many. This glorification of heroism, war and the myths behind them has surprised me. I didn’t think it would be that much in Australia.
In the ‘60s, Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war impacted my generation. I was listening to the radio as an 18 year-old boy to hear if my birthday came up for me to go to fight in Vietnam. That had a very powerful impact on a whole generation. The idea of being conscripted like that impacted my generation.
What is interesting for me, ANZAC was the short name for Australia New Zealand Army Corps in 1915. Now they’re calling all the soldiers who fought or even still fighting in other fronts, also as Anzacs. The narrative continues.
- Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2010. ↩