"Min Dît – The Children of Diyarbakir"Fairytale and Social Utopia
A car bumps over a deserted road somewhere in remote south-eastern Anatolia. A Kurdish family of five is driving home from a wedding party. Suddenly policemen appear by the side of the road, stop the car, and shoot dead the driver and his wife.
They leave behind ten-year-old Gulîstan, her younger brother Firat, and a baby, all severely traumatized. Their childhood has come to an abrupt and shocking end. What follows is the children's struggle for survival on the margins of a merciless society.
The eyes of the girl, Gulîstan, hold the attention of the audience throughout, reflecting amazement, horror and despair.
Şenay Orak is not, however, a professional actor. Like the others, she was cast from among the street children of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurdish region. Her eyes speak more than a thousand words; in this film the children speak only when necessary.
"Min Dît" – "Before My Eyes" – is the title of Miraz Bezar's debut feature. It is set in the 1990s, at the height of the civil war between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels.
Portrayal of a lost future
At this time the Kurdish provinces of Turkey were under a state of emergency. Human rights organisations estimate that more than 18,000 political activists were kidnapped or murdered by Turkish paramilitaries.
Yet to this day there has been almost no discussion in Turkey of this brutal past. According to the press release, "Min Dît" is now trying to "shine a little light on this dark period".
The film by the 39-year-old Kurdish director, who studied at the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin, does not give us an analysis of the Kurdish conflict of the 1990s. Rather, it arranges pieces which, seen together, reflect the various social and political problems faced by Kurds, gradually building up a multi-layered picture of daily life in Diyarbakir.
Since the clashes between the Turkish military and the Kurds in the 1990s the city has become a destination for refugees, growing from 300,000 inhabitants to an estimated population of 1.5 million.
One of the refugees is Gulîstan's father, a journalist. He works for a newspaper that is critical of the regime. However, like many other things in this film, the audience only gathers this through hints and suggestions, for example when he gives an article the heading: "Four dead in Kurdish region – no suspects".
Similarly, it is only hinted at that he is shadowed by the person who later murders him. Some of the information in Miraz Bezar's film can only be understood if one is familiar with the domestic political situation in Turkey: for example, that Gulîstan's father's murderer is a member of "Jitem". This organization, known as a "state within a state", is considered to be a kind of secret police. There is, however, still debate as to whether it actually exists.
Parable for non-violent resistance
The director Miraz Bezar has enriched his neo-realistic film by weaving into it themes from fairytales, and these save it from sliding into hopelessness. One central motif is the Kurdish fairytale of the wolf with the bell, one that has been passed down by Yaşar Kemal, probably Turkey's best-known contemporary writer.
The fairytale tells of a wicked wolf who is menacing an entire village. Instead of killing the animal, an old man hangs a heavy bell around its neck. Its ringing warns people to keep away, and in the end the wolf dies of starvation.
The mother tells the children this fairytale in one of the first scenes of the film as she is putting them to bed. After her death, Gulîstan and her brother listen to it over and over again on a cassette tape. In the film the fairytale becomes a parable for non-violent resistance.
It stops Gulîstan from shooting the man who murdered her parents. Instead, she publicly denounces him. The fact that in doing so she finally succeeds in bringing the perpetrator to justice is the only ray of hope in the film, and also its most powerful moment.
This is the point at which the story is furthest from reality. The denunciation of the murderer at the height of the Kurdish conflict is hardly likely to have had such an effect. In this respect the film is depicting a little piece of social utopia: it stands for the hope that, in the end, justice will triumph, and that society will eventually recognize and overcome evil.
The film has already won numerous prizes at international festivals. At the biggest of its kind in Antalya, Turkey, "Min Dît" was awarded the Special Jury Award, while at the recent Istanbul Festival it won three trophies, including Best Director and Best Actress.
The fact that a film shot mostly in Kurdish has received such a positive response in Turkey is something new, and is an indication of how the country is gradually opening up to Kurdish culture and language.
It is just over a decade since it was first permitted to speak Kurdish in a Turkish film, in "Journey to the Sun" by Yesim Ustaoglu.
In 2002 the drama "Hejar" (Kurdish for "Oppression") marked another step forward. This film, by Handan Ipekçi, was Turkey's official entry for the Oscars. It tells the story of the relationship between an elderly Turkish man and an orphaned Kurdish girl he takes in and looks after. Its presentation of the Kurdish conflict proved too problematic for the Turkish Ministry of Culture; it banned the film after five weeks, and threatened its female director with several years' imprisonment.
Now, just a few years later, there is a Kurdish language channel on Turkish state television; and at the turn of 2008/2009 Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan wished the country a happy New Year in Kurdish. The process that has now been initiated gives hope that there may at last be an end to the violence and a future in which Turkish Kurds will not be subjected to discrimination.
End without illusions
Yet in the film the children of Diyarbakir are staring at a future without illusions. Gulîstan and her brother Firat join a group of street boys and travel with them to Istanbul in the hope of starting afresh.
Like thousands of other children, once they get there they too will keep their heads above water with begging and petty crime. They will have no one but each other to rely on. Turkish society has long since abandoned them.
The final sequence of the film shows street children in Istanbul posing with plastic machine guns. The pictures are accompanied by a song by the Kurdish singer Serhado that calls upon us not to close our eyes to reality. A sad portrayal of a future already lost.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de
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