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[1] This is the designation for the Turkish film industry into the 1990s. The center of the film industry was located on Yeşilçam Street in Istanbul at the time.

Labour migration to Germany exists not only as a repeated theme in German (or German-Turkish) cinema, it has also inspired many films that arose in or around the Turkish Yeşilçam industry[1] and was an important material for Turkish filmmakers with or without biographical ties to Germany. These include Korhan Yurtsever. In 1979, Yurtsever presented his debut film FıRAT’ıN CINLERI (The Bad Spirits of the Euphrates) at the Berlinale Forum. During that year, he also filmed KARA KAFA (Black Head) in Duisburg and Cologne with an exclusively Turkish team. The Duisburg Head of Cultural Affairs Konrad Schilling and Berlin Mayor Dietrich Stobbe provided financial support for the film. KARA KAFA tells of the increasingly hopeless situation of Turkish metalworker Cafer, who has brought his family to Germany from a village in Anatolia. Numerous difficulties for the family arise with their new life in Germany: the elder son is lonely and doesn’t want to go to school; the daughter has to stay at home and take care of her newborn brother; the mother participates in the women’s movement and is altered both externally and internally through the influence of her newly found feminist comrades. The film portrays the life of so-called guest workers from a socio-critical perspective, focusing on social justice, class consciousness, women’s emancipation and the living conditions of guest workers’ children. KARA KAFA is distinguished from other examples of German-Turkish migration cinema in particular through its leftist political perspective on relocation, as well as its open critique of German society. For these reasons the film holds a special significance in film history, and is an important contribution to the reappraisal of migration narratives in Germany.

[2] In 2010, the film was unexpectedly invited to the Antalya Film Festival, where it celebrated its premiere. In 2016, there were two screenings of the film with English subtitles in the presence of the director at bi’bak (Berlin). A DVD produced from a Betacam was shown.

KARA KAFA was completed in Turkey and then immediately banned by the domestic censorship committee on the grounds that it violated the honour of Germany, the befriended nation. It was not allowed to be shown for thirty-two years, and thus could not be entered at film festivals.[2] The director was forced to leave Turkey because of the court trial against the film and he fled to Germany, where he lived in exile for several years. He took with him on his flight the lone copy of the film that Turkish authorities had not been able to confiscate. In Hamburg he produced a scan of it, maximizing the technological possibilities available at the time; its whereabouts today are unknown. Many years later Yurtsever was able obtain one of the confiscated copies of KARA KAFA from the military prison through a bribe. The rescued film reels, however, were in very poor condition, as they had been stored in a damp basement and thrown together with many other films from the time. The reels were also incomplete. As a “black sheep” of Turkish cinema, KARA KAFA shared the same sorrowful fate as many other work of 1970s political cinema, which were banned, confiscated and whenever possible destroyed.

[3] bi’bak (“have a look” in Turkish) is a project space based in Berlin with a focus on transnational narratives, migration, global mobility and their aesthetic dimensions. The international program examines diverse disciplines in art, academia, and community development, including film screenings, exhibitions and workshops, as well as music events and culinary excursions.

Between the stools

KARA KAFA however, also shared a fate with films that found themselves caught between the stools, namely, films that were shot in Germany by non-German filmmakers in a non-German language, and with in part non-German teams, yet which were nevertheless explicitly concerned with life in Germany.

These films narrate stories of (im)migrants, raise questions about German society, were produced for the most part with very little money and often could never be screened publicly in the country of production due to censorship — nor did they circulate in German movie theatres or at film festivals due to that same lack of funds, insufficient networks or other unforeseen circumstances. They were never seen by a larger public. As cinematic outsiders, they were often only accessible to and seen by diaspora or returnee communities, or audiences with specialialized interests.

Here I can name two films by Şerif Gören as further examples, ALMANYA ACı VATAN (Germany, Bitter Homeland, 1979) and POLIZEI (Police, 1989), both of which narrate (im)migrant life stories from the Kreuzberg district of Berlin and have fortunately been shown occasionally in movie theatres over the past years, even if they are yet to be adequately restored and made available. Other films include GURBET (Foreign, 1984) by Yücel Uçanoğlu, which depicts the dramatic disintegration of a Turkish family in southern Germany as it battles with the Italian mafia that has settled around Lake Constance. Nosratollah Vahdat’s comedy YEK ESFAHANI DAR SARZAMINE HITLER (An Isfahanian in the Land of Hitler, 1977) is based on absurd encounters within the Iranian community in Munich and culminates in an amusing Oktoberfest dance scene set to Persian music. Lefteris Xanthopoulos made ELLINIKI KOINOTITA HAIDELVERGIS (Greek Community in Heidelberg, 1976) and O YORGOS APO TA SOTIRIANIKA (Giorgos from Sotirianika, 1978) in Heidelberg; the two films were documentaries about Greek (im)migrants’ concerns and expectations, including the children’s school situation. In NE NAGINJI SE VAN (Don’t Lean Out the Window, 1977), director Bogdan Žižić structures the cinematic action around the adventures of a Yugoslavian recently arrived in Frankfurt. While researching a current project at the archive of the Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD) this year, we at bi’bak [3]  unexpectedly came across ABSCHIED (Farewell) and UNTER DENKMALSCHUTZ (Under the Protection of the State), two short films that Serbian filmmaker Želimir Žilnik made in 1975, while living in Munich. Surprises like these are joyful occurrences, but also always leave a bitter aftertaste. It is in fact depressing and even aggravating that these films have been forgotten and could not be seen for so many years. In our work at bi’bak and for our own SİNEMA TRANSTOPIA, we regularly deal with a number of archives and seek to bring to light the often ignored or overlooked knowledge that lies buried within them. We want to make it accessible and to analyze it in film programs, workshops and discursive events. This work is impossible without cooperation and support. Thus, as a programmer I ask: How can KARA KAFA and similar films, and the narratives connected to them, be introduced again into public discourse? We need a transnational culture of memory and a contemporary understanding of “German film heritage” that includes these perspectives. Who can and should finance the digitalization or restoration of these films?

What is funded as “German film heritage”?

The German Film Heritage Funding Program (FFE) was inaugurated in January 2019, for an initial ten years. The program was launched and financed by the German Federal Film Board (FFA) together with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) and the federal states. The funding program annually allocates up to 10 million euros for the digitalization of motion pictures selected according to conservational, curatorial and economic criteria. An application can be submitted if one is able to demonstrate a distribution interest (that the film will be made accessible again in cinemas, at festivals, as video-on-demand, or via DVD/Blu-ray), and that a conservational need (the film material is endangered or must be safeguarded) or a curatorial interest exists.

The FFE website states the following about the latter:[4] “The issue here is a demand from the perspective of film history, for example, based on inquiries from film festivals or film museums, or the preservation of the variety of significant film-historical forms. With an application, a curatorial distribution plan must be submitted that identifies the goal of making the film publicly accessible as well as the film’s significance for national film heritage. The Curatorial Interest Committee makes decisions about funding.”

[5] For an update on the German Cinematic Association’s position on the Film Heritage Funding Program (2020), see: www.filmportal.de/nachrichten/digitalisierung-des-filmerbes-update-zur-position-des-kinematheksverbunds-zum

[6] The German Film Funding Law (2017): www.ffa.de/ffg-2017.html

[7] The German Film Funding Law (1967) and other versions: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filmf%C3%B6rderungsgesetz_(Deutschland)

[8] That is, in paragraphs 41, 42 and 46.

We should certainly welcome the Film Heritage Funding Program. The many projects that have been funded (as well as the numerous applications) indicate that the program has been well received. From the list of projects that have been funded to date, it is also clear that the Film Heritage Funding Program has displayed a certain openness regarding the notion of “national film heritage.”

The digitalization of several films by Sohrab Shahid Saless, Ayşe Polat, Mehrangis Montazami-Dabui and Serap Berrakkarasu as well as films by former students of the German Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg such as Gautam Bora and Hashim Said have been funded in this way. While this has been important for the visibility of German and non-German filmmakers of colour, all of these films are considered unambiguously German film productions.

However, I had hoped that the Film Heritage Funding Program, as a funding instrument, would also embrace the possibility of having aforementioned films such as KARA KAFA – that is, films that are not strictly German productions – digitalized and restored. For these films as well there exists, in my opinion, a “demand from the perspective of film history” and a need to preserve the “variety of significant film-historical forms.” They, too, are films that are “significant for the national film heritage,” as demanded by the FFE. Can they also be counted as “national film heritage”? How is the term “national film heritage” actually defined in Germany – a country of immigration?

I have not been able to obtain clear information about this through my own research and a telephone inquiry with the Film Heritage Funding Program. There is, however, yet another way to become eligible to apply for the FFE, namely, if the film has been included in the “German Cinematic Association’s list of films that are historically valuable and worthy of funding.” An independent jury, appointed by the German Cinematic Association, determines which films are included in the so-called “list of 500.” Examining the current list and the association’s position paper,[5] however, I was unable to determine whether more flexible and inclusive criteria had in fact been employed to make decisions.

The guidelines of the Film Heritage Funding Program also contain a further formal criterion that I would like to examine here: The funding of a digitalization is earmarked only for German productions, that is, films that can demonstrate that they are “German films” through a certificate of the German Federal Office for Economics and Export Control or a “certificate of origin of equivalent type.” Without such certification, it must be demonstrated that in the film “a significant German participation, a significant German contribution or a significant importance for national film heritage is recognizable artistically, for example through a corresponding list of cast and crew.”[6]

Which film can be considered a “German film” is stipulated in the German Film Funding Law, which was last revised in 2017. The definition here is not significantly different than the one contained in first version of this law in 1967.[7] According to the Film Funding Law, support can be provided (and this also pertains to the Film Heritage Funding Program) only if the film falls under any of the above mentioned categories.[8] While I do not want to examine the Film Funding Law in too much detail here, I do find it remarkable that these criteria, which were established in post-war Germany, have survived in this form for more than fifty years.

[9] The sentence was later adapted to EU law and supplemented with the following: “or possesses the citizenship of another European Union member state or of another state that is party to the Agreement on European Economic Area or Switzerland”

[10] See § 41

“German film”, “German cultural sector”

The German Film Funding Law contains formulations such as the following: “Funding assistance can be provided if the director is German in the sense of Paragraph 116 of the Basic Law or belongs to the German cultural sector.”[9] It notes further eligibility if the film “has been made or synchronized in the German language” or “has its world premiere in the German language in Germany or as a German candidate in the main competition or in the special screenings of a film festival.”[10] Further prerequisites regarding the lists of cast and crew are also formulated in detail and are based on the “German” descent of the participants.

I find the expression “belongs to the German cultural sector” peculiar. What is the “German cultural sector”? Who is allowed to belong to it and who is not? These terms and formulations in the German Film Funding Law are, in my opinion, in need of urgent revision. Could one define “German film” more flexibly or even do away with the definition entirely?

I argue that neither the descent of the participants nor the language of the film should be decisive for a digitalization and restoration. Currently, films that were made in a language other than German or that have primarily non-Germans participants are directly excluded on the basis of formal criteria and cannot even be submitted to an expert committee for evaluation. As such, many films that are significant for the understanding of (post)migrant and transnational German society are largely unseen and are therefore unable to have an impact on public discourse; they remain in danger of being lost forever as artistic and cultural-historical documents. These bureaucratic mechanisms and limitations discriminate against the narratives, lived realities and cultural practices of (im)migrants and Germans of colour – two already vulnerable groups.

Transnational archival work

How can we establish new approaches for dealing with archives and film heritage that are independent of a definition of “national film heritage” and not based exclusively on the limited self-understanding of a nation-state? Several projects that have arisen over the past decade show that much is possible in this regard.

Archive außer sich, a project of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in cooperation with diverse partner organizations, begins with the idea of a “living archive” and understands the archive as a site of production, thereby connecting to Arsenal’s previous Living Archive project. In various formats – research, events and exhibitions – Archive außer sich addresses cultural heritage beyond national or other ordering criteria, postulating that: “The investigation, digitalization and/or restoration of archival materials are part of a participatory artistic and curatorial practice of the present.”

The re-selected project, led by Tobias Hering, also critically examines the nature of the archive and proposes treating film history as a history of copies. Film prints are understood as the bearers of history and “portable sites of remembrance” (Sylvie Lindeperg): “The project looks at film history as a history of the reception of film prints whose itineraries are unique and have marked their material presence.”

A project planned by bi’bak for 2021 in cooperation with DOMiD takes the sixtieth anniversary of the recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey as an opportunity to reconsider and recontextualize the film prints held in the DOMiD archive. The series, taking place at SİNEMA TRANSTOPIA, will include little known films from Turkey, Greece and the former Yugoslavia alongside discussion groups and lectures, and will focus on the stories of so-called guest workers. It will dismantle stereotypical narratives and existing pictorial politics, offer new perspectives on the history of labour migration and argue for a transnational memory culture.

What is or what becomes part of an archive is not the only relevant question for the cultural memory and narrative of a society; how archival holdings are maintained and whether they are accessible also play a decisive role.

The book Please Rewind, which was published last year by Archive Books, contains the results of an artistic research project of the same name that I oversaw. The project and publication focused on the rediscovery of German-Turkish film and video culture in Berlin – a chapter that deserves much more attention in this country’s film and media history.

In Berlin a large German-Turkish population has become an established part of the city’s cultural life, and within this community over the years a Turkish film culture has emerged. It began with screenings of Turkish films in Berlin movie theatres; in the 1980s, Turkish-language videotapes became popular as a welcome alternative to the exclusively German television broadcasts. The numerous video shops in which these films could be obtained as well as the Turkish Bazaar at the Bülowstraße subway station played a central role in this. For families, video evenings became important social events, to which neighbours and friends were also invited. Besides the entire range of Yeşilçam productions that included comedies, melodramas and action films, Turkish films produced in Germany were also popular, thematizing the migration experience and feelings of alienation, raising questions of identity, religion and family. These films and their aesthetics influenced an entire generation of well-known German filmmakers, including Thomas Arslan, Fatih Akin and Ayşe Polat. Their history, however, has been almost entirely absent in the discourses about post-migrant film.

These films and their transnational narratives as well as the associated locations and actors are an important dimension of German film history and German cultural history, which should be remembered and perceived as such. With this goal in mind, I conducted interviews with contemporary witnesses, including the owners of video shops, and did research in municipal archives. The knowledge of other experts was also included in the book project and the program in the form of conversations, texts and film series.

As part of this project, film scholar Ömer Alkın conceived the film series Ideology in Turkish Cinema: The Figure of the Migrant and examined the films (that remain largely unknown in Germany) of Yücel Çakmaklı, Halit Refiğ and Yılmaz Güney, representatives of three ideologically conflicting positions. The migrant protagonists function as the bearers of these films’ ideological imports and in this way tell us much about migration history in Germany. With screenings supplemented by introductions and conversations, as well as English-language subtites, the film series provided a broader public with access to a crucial depository for migration-cultural memory. Filmmaker Cem Kaya, who grew up in Germany with films from Turkish video shops, participated in the program with a screening of his documentary film REMAKE, REMIX, RIP-OFF (2014) and an ensuing discussion. Kaya’s film traces the copy culture of Turkish filmmakers from the beginnings of Turkish cinema through to contemporary television series. Despite the diversity of contributions that arose as part of Please Rewind, at the end of such a project we find ourselves in fact at the beginning of a research journey that must be quickly continued. Contemporary research is always a race against time, and in this particular context all the more so, as not only the films, the videos and the pictorial material, but also the sites, the contemporary witnesses and their narratives are in the process of disappearing. One reason for this is that archives in Germany have researched and collected too little of the everyday practices of marginalized groups in society. This could have been different if public interest priorities had been set differently. Here it becomes clear that archival work – the work by and with archives – is also a political practice.

Perspectives on Germany

The special program Fiktionsbescheinigung: 16 Cinematic Perspectives on Germany, which is taking place as part of the 2021 Berlinale Forum, includes several important films that have been stored in archives for years and publicly screened all too infrequently.

Rahim Shirmahd’s 18 MINUTEN ZIVILCOURAGE (1991), which documents racist violence, finally returns to the screen after many years. The film examines the violent death of asylum seeker Kiomar Javadi, who was choked for 18 minutes by a supermarket employee in 1987 after being accused of shoplifting. At the time, Shirmahd was a university student in Tübingen and had witnessed the protests in the city following Javadi’s death. The film itself was produced without federal film subsidies. Shirmahd was able to obtain the film material and an old Krasnogorsk camera thanks to a small grant from the city. For post-production, he was allowed to use the university’s media department, although the editor initially received no pay for her work. Money was so tight that Shirmahd only had a few boiled potatoes to eat on the day of the premiere. After a few screenings at film festivals, the Protestant Center for Films Focusing on Development (EZEF) expressed interest in the film and subsequently acquired the screening rights, included it in its catalogue and handling distribution. In this way, copies were sent, for example, to state media centres and state offices for political education in Germany as well as to trade unions and schools. Very few of these 16mm copies have been preserved. The last of these were sent back to the director when they could no longer be stored. A preview copy does exist today on DVD, but an up-to-date digitalization or restoration is not currently planned.

Filmmaker and actress Sema Poyraz has two films in the program: GÖLGE (1980) is her graduation film for the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) that she made with her fellow student Sofoklis Adamidis, originally from Greece. The feature film tells the story of Gölge, a young woman who lives with her younger sister and her Turkish-born parents in a cramped two-room apartment in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and who wants to become an actress. GÖLGE was co-produced by the Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) and was first broadcast on television in August 1980 as part of the series “Projektionen” with the title of ZUKUNFT DER LIEBE (Future of Love). The film also played at several festivals. Poyraz told me that she still recalls a comment from the audience after one of the screenings: “The mother wasn’t even wearing a headscarf.” This gives some insight into the preconceptions and expectations that a German-Turkish woman filmmaker had deal with at the time.

Poyraz continued to make films, but increasingly chose the documentary form. She was repeatedly advised to focus thematically on (Turkish) (im)migrant life in Berlin. Although she was happy to do these films, she still regrets today that all the other projects, with which she attempted to move beyond this issue either received no funding or were rejected by editorial departments.

The second film by Poyraz in the program is the short documentary DIE TÜRHÜTER (The Gatekeepers, 1987), which was also produced by SFB. In brief interviews, German-Turkish women speak about the Berlin Wall in their everyday lives, but also about the invisible walls – the cultural and linguistic boundaries – that are difficult to transcend. The offstage voiceover reading Franz Kafka’s text “Before the Law” confused the German editor. “What made you think of Kafka?” was the comment that Poyraz heard this time, and its subliminal racist prejudice, she says, hurt her. DIE TÜRHÜTER is an early documentary work on the Berlin Wall from an immigrant perspective and it anticipated the eruption of massive right-wing violence after reunification. It is a film that has unfortunately remained quite unknown, despite the relevance of its subject.

Another film that the program has awakened from a long archival sleep is Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s BLACK IN THE WESTERN WORLD(1992). Kinyanjui’s film uses interviews to develop a sharp critique of the racist structures that black people face in Germany. The film, which was made during Kinyanjui’s studies at the DFFB, is a coolly detached analysis of German everyday culture, showing how much that culture is based on racist ideologies and exists tied to capitalist structures. The film not only continues to be relevant today; it is absolutely necessary that it be seen. Again one asks oneself with a sense of regret why an anti-racist film like this is not accessible to a broader public.

Opening archives

The valuable efforts of the past years that have made the films of foreign students at German film academies more visible are certainly welcome. Madeleine Bernstorff’s extensive text on the German Film and Television Academy Berlin uses archival research to show how transnational learning at film academies could have looked. Films by student at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg such as Ibrahim Shaddad, Kais Al-Zubaidi and Emile Itolo – all of which were made in the German Democratic Republic – have been publicly screened over the past years in various programs.[11] The film series “In deutscher Gesellschaft” (In German Society, 2018) at the Zeughauskino and “Temporary Friendships” (2019) at bi’bak were not only opportunities to discover the films of former foreign film students such as Irena Vrkljan, King Ampaw and Chetna Vora, but also hidden gems from the archive of the German public-law broadcasters.

I would like to emphasize here that all film programs that focus in one way or another on German television archives really deserve special attention. Access to the archives of the public-law broadcasters is impeded by enormous hurdles that directly impair the curating and programming of film series, and even at times make them entirely impossible (on this, see the symposium “The Right to a Public”). Access to many archives is difficult to obtain, with disproportionately high processing fees and opaque procedures. In most cases, the complex legal situation blocks the path to public screenings.

We need archives that are living

We have to re-think public archives, funding systems and film institutions. We have to adapt them to the transnational and (post)migrant society in which we live. In order do this, institutions need to move out of their comfort zones. They have to have the courage to (truly) change their structures. We urgently need more diversity that is implemented seriously and not based on quotas; we need more accessibility, publicity and co-determination that actually takes into account the interests of different social groups. This requires more flexibility, more transparency and flattened hierarchies, in which we are able to act constructively and productively. This includes the readiness to decolonize holdings and collections and to disrupt exclusively Eurocentric (white) perspectives. Film culture will benefit when films are not seen as commodities, when cinemas are not seen as product showrooms, and when both are not evaluated according to their economic profitability. We need more spaces for film culture that are funded by the public sector. We have to create more spaces where research can be conducted about films and with films, where films can be seen, discussed and made. We need archives that are living. We have to continue to see and discover films in order to share them with other people.

In this text I have perhaps only been able to broach the tip of the iceberg. There are still a multitude of films by filmmakers of colour and non-German filmmakers in Germany that are waiting to be rediscovered and that need adequate digitalization and restoration, some quite urgently. Of course, it is not possible to rehabilitate and release all of these titles at once, as this work requires time, energy and funding, and not infrequently also a bit of luck. What is most important, however, is the readiness and the openness of people and institutions. For fictions require no certification.

I would like to thank Madeleine Bernstorff, Malve Lippmann, Sema Poyraz and Rahim Shirmahd.

Can Sungu is a freelance artist, curator and researcher. He has given lectures on film and video production and curated several programmes on film and migration. He has also taken part in various exhibitions, including at Künstlerhaus Wien and REDCAT Los Angeles. In 2014, he co-founded bi'bak in Berlin, where he works as artistic director. Since 2020, he has been running the cinema experiment SİNEMA TRANSTOPIA at the Haus der Statistik in Berlin.

Translated from the German by Thomas Lampert


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