Five excellent new documentaries about refugees screened at the 2018 Berlinale: Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017), Jakob Preuss’s When Paul Came Over the Sea (2017), Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement, Karim Aïnouz’s Zentralflughafen THF (2018), and Markus Imhoof’s Eldorado (2018). These politically engaged films – produced wholly or partly with German financing, some of which were made by German nationals and some of which were not, some of which were filmed wholly or partially within Germany and some of which were not 1 – document the human costs of the current global migration crisis that has forced 70.8 million people, almost twenty-six million of whom are refugees, from their homes. 2 Premiering in Competition at the same Berlinale was Transit (2018), Berlin School filmmaker Christian Petzold’s third feature film to explore the subordinated social position of migrants and refugees within intimate relationships with ethnic Germans, and his first to center explicitly the issue of refugees’ political precarity.
By protesting injustice against asylum seekers, all of these films enact a cinematic vision of what philosopher Kelly Oliver, in Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention, calls “radical hospitality and responsibility…to those in need,” “mov(ing) beyond rescue politics and carceral humanitarianism” toward an “ethics wherein our obligations are based on our common planetary home rather than on our national or individual homes.” 3 In so doing, all of these films mobilize a political reimagination and radical generosity that are the precise opposite of the politics of exclusion that drove, as Johannes von Moltke observes, many versions of Heimatfilm, repudiating the “binary construction(s)” of “a moral universe that defines Heimat by expelling its various others” 4. All these films work valiantly to make legible the lives and stories of people who would otherwise remain invisible within mainstream cultural awareness.
Yet – leaving Petzold’s feature film aside for the moment – given that “roughly half” of the world’s displaced people “are women and girls” 5, the absence of women’s voices, stories, and directorial visions in this current crop of documentaries is troubling, as I have argued elsewhere. 6 It’s in this context that I’d like to discuss five documentaries by Aysun Bademsoy, who, perhaps because of her own experience and identity, has gained unusual levels of access to Turkish German women in Gastarbeiter (guest worker) migrant communities, which began after the labor agreement of 1961. Bademsoy, who was born in Mersin, Turkey and has lived in Berlin since the age of nine, explores in her films the ways in which macropolitical attitudes toward migration, power, and the concept of Heimat play out in the micropolitical arenas of the home, the family, and intimate-partner relationships. She probes concerns of space, borders, movement, belonging, and power, foregrounding issues of space and its occupation in even the titles of her films, such as Ein Mädchen im Ring (A Girl in the Ring, 1996) about Turkish German boxer Fikriye Selen, and Am Rand der Städte (On the Outskirts, 2006). Indeed, Bademsoy’s focus, as Gozde Naiboglu observes in Post-Unification Turkish German Cinema, is on the “the very locations where…knowledges and practices…are produced.” 7 In a 2015 interview, Bademsoy describes how she was introduced to the discipline of maintaining the borders of her own body as inflected by ethnicity and gender: “when I was old enough to go out at night,” she says, “my father started having certain talks with me, explaining that, as a Turkish woman, I had to protect my virginity.” 8 Bademsoy links this intimate form of border patrol/defense to her fascination with documenting how Turkish German women – patrolled and monitored even within their own communities – must constantly navigate, negotiate, and claim space, as in the trilogy of films about five Turkish German female soccer players in Kreuzberg who find freedom on the pitch. Similarly, of boxer Fikriye Selen, Bademsoy says, Selen “created a space where she could be free – by boxing,” and in On the Outskirts she films Turkish women “sitting on their balconies” “self-confident and independent,” having “carved out spaces for themselves.” Her work consistently evinces an interest in space, in “creat(ing)a space,” in “carv(ing) out spaces,” necessitated because Turkish-German women haven’t traditionally been given space to pursue their own desires. 9 Bademsoy also documents the tragic failures of these attempts. In Ehre (Honor, 2011), she films the empty Berlin streets at sites where women were murdered by family members or estranged partners in so-called “honor killings”.
In preparation for the argument to follow, I’d like to note the ways in which Bademsoy’s work formally resembles that of the feature filmmakers of the Berlin School. Indeed, all of the markers that Marco Abel identifies, in an oft-quoted formulation, as key characteristics of Berlin School filmmaking – “long takes, long shots, clinically precise framing, a certain deliberateness of pacing, sparse usage of extradiegetic music, poetic use of diegetic sound, and, frequently, the reliance on unknown or even unprofessional actors who appear to be chosen for who they are rather than for whom they could be” – are integral to Bademsoy’s documentaries, and the last element obviously so. 10 In terms of this “struggle over visibility,” I would also keep in mind the distinction that Gilles Deleuze, in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, draws between classical political cinema, such as Soviet cinema, in which “the people are there, even though they are oppressed, tricked, subject,” and a truly modern political cinema, in which “the people no longer exist, or not yet . . . the people are missing”. 11 For Deleuze, then, politically revolutionary cinema calls into being a new people, a future people, an audience that can comprehend, envision, and enact a future yet to be. In this regard, I’d like to ponder Bademsoy’s deployment of two odd and striking filmic techniques – the 360-degree pan and the tableau vivant family portrait – and the new political possibilities they have the potential to evoke.
While all of Bademsoy’s documentaries include long takes and long shots, Honor is the only one of these five to use 360-degree pans. It does so thrice, on the streets of Berlin, and it does so without introduction. Suddenly we find ourselves looking at streets, sidewalks, buildings, cars, dumpsters, trees, as the camera pans clockwise or counterclockwise – so slowly, that we begin to wonder what it is we’re really looking at, and why. Why are we turning around? Why are we trapped, fixed, pinned to one point? Only after the camera has come full circle does the film silently reveal, in onscreen captions, that we’ve been witness to the site of a femicide, where a Turkish German woman was killed by her male partner or her brother in an instance of what are termed honor killings.
These long moments of nearly silent contemplation of space are juxtaposed with and overwhelmed throughout the rest of the film by Turkish German and white ethnic German boys and men talking about the meaning of honor, defending their honor, and how their sisters and girlfriends must be monitored and controlled in order to preserve it. The defensive throb of male voices dominates. For the entirety of the film, no women speak. No women are interviewed. The emptiness of the street-space stands in for their missing bodies and voices. The camera silently gazes, slowly searching in all directions, looking and listening for what can no longer be found.
In several of her documentaries – perhaps most notably in On the Outskirts and the football trilogy – Bademsoy has her subjects pose in family groupings within their homes and hold their positions for strangely long periods. These tableaux vivants initially appear to the viewer to be snapshots, but then someone’s hand quivers, or a microexpression flickers across someone’s face, or a man shifts his weight in his chair, or a girl nervously laughs. What is the point of this odd innovation? What is Bademsoy seeking to produce with these prolonged moments of forced stillness? What kind of crucible is she creating in order to push something, like a forced bulb, into visibility?
Photographic family portraits in and of themselves are nothing new, but typically they capture only a split second of time: This family looked like this, for one moment only, on a particular day. Yet in Bademsoy’s intervention, the duration of the pose is prolonged, as in Victorian tableaux vivants, in which people dressed up in costumes and arranged themselves and then held still for the spectatorship and amusement of others. They didn’t act out a plot, as in a play; their very immobility was the point. But their clothing and postures evoked a story, generally something immediately recognisable from history or myth, a noteworthy moment or scene that would have been interpretable by viewers, who enjoyed judging the quality and originality of the presentation. Why would Bademsoy repurpose this old-fashioned form of entertainment, which seems quaint to us now, in her exploratory and avant-garde documentaries? What are we supposed to look for? We scan the mise-en-scène, glimpsing various bits of information: a houseplant, a stuffed bear, a half-smile, a flicker of sadness. There is no narrative, no handy Hollywood close-up of a particular object, face, or figure to indicate what or who is important. Bademsoy’s refusal to direct attention, to denote or determine meaning, diffuses significance to each object, each person in the frame, and is as unfamiliar – and potentially disconcerting – to the viewer of classical Hollywood cinema and its imitators as Mughal painting, filled to the borders with meaningful imagery, is different from traditional representational Western art, in which the important figures or objects are handily arranged in the center of the canvas. Bademsoy’s information-filled tableaux vivants are portraits, but in motion, unfixed and unfixable, representing in real time the fluidity of human experience, its resistance to fixed identities or roles. Why are we staring at this family? What do we hope to learn, to see? And why, further, are we being asked to gaze at them?
At the simplest of levels, I’d posit that, as with the 360-degree pans in Honor, the long and silent tableaux vivants provoke an awareness of ourselves looking, to confront the question of what we choose to look at when our gaze is not (as in Hollywood cinema) guided toward a specific target, and encouraging us to interrogate our own motives for doing so. Yet why, in turn, are the subjects being asked – through the mediating layers of the director, the crew, the camera – to gaze directly at us, their imagined future viewers? The camera as time tunnel. Bademsoy turns the tables. Here we’d thought we were the real owners of subjectivity, of the gaze, peering backwards into history to see people who are not-us, of whom we have the luxury of thinking about in representative ways: This is a Turkish German family, returned to a coastal resort town in Turkey. This is a Turkish German girl who plays football, and this is her family in their home. But the prolongation of the shot, its very duration – which reveals not only its mutability but also the fact that they are so clearly looking back at us, looking forward to us: to us at the imagined moment of spectatorship when we will look back and see them, when they will finally be seen, be centered in our attention – may produce in the viewer an unsettled feeling, as if we are just placeholders for their imagining. Bademsoy evokes (in Deleuze’s formulation) a people yet-to-come, a people capable of seeing the Turkish Germans as they desire to be seen. We are the imagined creatures, ephemeral, vague, summed up. Just as scanning the frame for a focus point can give rise to an uneasy, unmoored feeling – Tell me what I’m supposed to be noticing: will this be on the test? – so, too, can the realization that one intention of the film is that we, too, are being seen, or at least imagined. We are the Other, gazed at, guessed at, hoped for, envisioned and constructed by someone else, surely partially and inaccurately. One must be slow and stubborn indeed to miss the point.
Bademsoy’s strategy with these 360-degree pans and tableaux vivants, then, seems to be to unmoor us, in one way or another, from our sense of security, stability, certainty, and power, in favor of (in Deleuze’s words) “putting everything into a trance, the people and its masters, and the camera itself, pushing everything into a state of aberration, in order to communicate violences as well as to make private business pass into the political.” 12 To be thus unsettled opens us, makes us willing to consider new paradigms or hypotheses or a sudden flipping of the traditional power dynamics instantiated in standard-format documentaries. Maybe the apparently safe, mundane streets of Berlin are not what we think they are. Maybe Turkish girls in Germany are not who we think they are. Maybe we are not who we think we are. That one wedge, driven into the bulwark of our certainty, opens space for us to see anew.
I’d like to close by returning briefly to the feature film Transit, because Bademsoy’s long-time spouse is also a filmmaker: Christian Petzold, the most prominent, both internationally and within Germany, among the filmmakers of the Berlin School. Yet despite Bademsoy’s and Petzold’s decades together, and despite the fact that his feature films Jerichow (2008), Dreileben: Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Dreileben: Something Better than Death, 2011), and Transit all question the ways in which issues of migration, foreignness, and gendered power intersect within intimate relationships between ethnic Germans and migrants or refugees, no scholars of Petzold or of the Berlin School have, to date, even mentioned, much less explored, Bademsoy’s influence upon his work, and I’d like to suggest that this possibility could be fruitfully pursued. Particularly given Bademsoy’s claim that she may have been denied admission to the dffb, the German Film and Television Academy of Berlin, because school officials believed – in a gendered assessment of women’s artistic and intellectual capacities not atypical for the late ’80s/early ’90s – that her application portfolio had been prepared by Petzold, 13 it’s surprising and illuminating to observe the ways in which Petzold’s own oeuvre may have been influenced both by Bademsoy’s innovative cinematic work and vision as well as by the daily and intimate political education of long marriage to a Turkish German immigrant. Petzold’s repeated investigations of issues of romance and racial logic in love triangles among ethnic Germans and racialized Others, together with various stylistic elements of his work that resemble aspects of her earlier films, suggest that Bademsoy, with her exploratory focus on Turkish Germans and her inventive cinematic strategies, may be a vital, overlooked influence upon the work of her more famous spouse.
Just as I would call for scholars of cinema to draw attention, when discussing the recent spate of refugee documentaries, to the erasure of gendered difference, I would also call for scholars to avoid the gendered erasure of aesthetic and intellectual influence, as appears to have happened in studies of Petzold’s work. Bademsoy merits our attention, both in her own right as an aesthetically groundbreaking political filmmaker addressing gender, race, and nation and as quite possibly a crucial, salutary influence upon the development of Petzold, the most prominent of the Berlin School filmmakers.
- In mobilizing this expansive, inclusive version of contemporary “German” cinema, I follow Malte Hagener’s observation that “(t)he supra-and trans-national logic of (film) production (now) corresponds to the flows of capital and flows of media that have intensified over the past twenty-five years” and his comment—regarding “new (transnational) ways of financing and distribution”—that “migration is not just a topic to be shown in the films, but it is a reality that traverses the whole film, from the biographies of the makers to the distribution routines and possibilities of access.” Malte Hagener, “Migration and Refugees in German Cinema: Transnational Entanglements” Studies in European Cinema 15 (2018) www.tandfonlinecom.libproxy.unl.edu/doi/full/10.1080/17411548.2018.1453772. ↩
- UNHCR. “Figures at a Glance.” www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html. With applied ethicist Arianne Shahvisi, I reject the bifurcation between “‘genuine’ refugees” and “merely economic” migrants, noting that the poverty and environmental destruction that many migrants flee are as politically caused as governmental persecution (emphasis original). Arianne Shahvisi, “Moral Bankruptcy in the Mediterranean,” The Region, 27 Aug. 2018, https://theregion.org/article/13031-moral-bankruptcy-mediterranean ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2016), p. 77. ↩
- Johannes Von Moltke, No Place Like Home: Locations of Heimat in German Cinema (U of California, 2005), p. 5. ↩
- Oliver, p. 17 ↩
- Joy Castro, “‘The People Are Missing’: New Refugee Documentaries and Carceral Humanitarianism,” Senses of Cinema 90 (Mar. 2019), http://sensesofcinema.com/2019/feature-articles/the-people-are-missing-new-refugee-documentaries-and-carceral-humanitarianism/ ↩
- Gozde Naiboglu, Post-Unification Turkish German Cinema: Work, Globalisation and Politics Beyond Representation (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 130, emphasis mine. ↩
- Julia Ludewig and Tessa Wegener, “Documentary along the Outskirts of Society: An Interview with the Filmmaker Aysun Bademsoy,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture 31 (2015): p. 179. ↩
- Ludewig and Wegener, p. 180 ↩
- Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013, p. 15). Perhaps more importantly, her films share with those of the Berlin School directors a “political attitude” that Abel observes in that larger body of work: “the desire to engender. . .a redistribution of the sensible – and to participate in the struggle over visibility”. [11. Abel, p. 36, emphasis original ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1989), p. 216, emphasis original ↩
- Deleuze, p. 219, emphasis original. ↩
- Gerd Gemunden, “Re: quick small question,” received by Joy Castro, 23 July 2018 ↩