By N. Buket Cengiz.
I began to explore how the guestworker phenomenon was represented in literature, cinema, and music…. As one of the latest representatives of the new generation migrant artists, I wanted to follow the footsteps of the artists before me and join them by including this kind of expression in the film.”
At this year’s Documentarist – Istanbul Documentary Days, held on 3-11 July 2021, Pınar Öğrenci’s Gurbet is a Home Now (2021) received the Special Jury Award. Öğrenci is an artist and filmmaker from Turkey who currently lives in Berlin. Öğrenci, whose video-based work and installations have been exhibited widely in Germany and Turkey, as well as other countries such as Austria and Italy, has a background in architecture. In Gurbet is a Home Now she masterfully incorporates her perspectives as a filmmaker, artist, and architect as well as her deeply rooted interest in poetry and prose fiction as she unfolds the layers of the guestworker experience in Berlin, particularly through the female point of view.
Let us start with the relationship between Esra Akcan’s book, published in 2018, Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA – 1984–87 and your film: how would you describe your film as regards the book? Would you describe your film as an extension of the book, as a supplement to the book, as based on the book, or something else?
Esra Akcan’s book Open Architecture is the main inspiration and source of the film; everything started with this book. This book which I came across in the first days of my migration from Istanbul to Berlin in 2018 was almost like a Berlin guide for me. As I read the book, I began to recognize the profile of Turkish migrants in Kreuzberg, and as I learned the reasons why generations before me migrated here, I felt like I was reading Turkey’s political history. Migration of the guestworkers triggered by the economic crisis after the 1960 military coup, political migrants of the human rights crisis before and after the 1980 military coup, Kurds and Alevis fleeing the attacks in Eastern Turkey in the 1990s: all painted a picture of Turkey.
And the Berlin of those years: Kreuzberg, at the edge of the Berlin Wall, in ruins after the Second World War, the transformation of the neighbourhood into a tourism and commercial area in the 70s and the Senate decisions approving the demolition of old buildings, the occupation movement that developed as a reaction against these decisions, and the long resistance. Then there was the Berlin Senate’s presentation of the IBA project which rejected demolition and advocated for the restoration of old buildings as a solution. There were various groups involved in this project, and the discrimination in daily life was once again implemented through urban policies. I discovered all these as I read the book and wanted to discuss them. Before starting the film, I asked Esra Akcan’s permission to benefit from her research and offered to collaborate on the film. Esra shared her work with me with great generosity.
Can you explain us a little bit how you conceptualised this film based on photographs? What sort of an aesthetics did you aim for; what were the challenges? Literary production, particularly poetry, has a strong presence in your film: how did you tie this to your aesthetic objectives in the film?
I learned that the photographs taken during the IBA process by project participant Heide Moldenhauer were in the Landes Archive in Berlin. Photographs, taken by a Western woman in a rundown and poor environment, of people from a culture she meets for the first time could easily turn into exotic landscapes. Heide does not fall into this trap. Rather like a photojournalist or a documentary filmmaker, Heide shoots photographs that have documentary value without aestheticizing them, approaches people and photographs them without objectifying them. The fact that the photos were shot in a swift manner, free of notions such as perspective, light and so on, influenced my decision to make a film based on photographs. Poetry is a defining character of my video works, I think this epic attitude has been taken a step further in the film.
I began to explore how the guestworker phenomenon was represented in literature, cinema, and music. The long poems, in the manner of storytelling, by the poet and actor Aras Ören depict the daily life of the Turkish guestworker in Kreuzberg in the language of the proletariat: their problems at the factory, their internal troubles, their loves, their dreams for the future, their homesickness, their relations with their German neighbours… It felt as if the landscape Ören painted in his poetry was written for the photographs, or it was the translation of the photographs into the language of poetry… On the other hand, Emine Sevgi Özdamar tells the stories of migrant women, along with her own migration story, in a playful and sarcastic manner, sometimes making fun of herself. Her utterly original and smooth narration influenced me in creating the feminist vein of the film. Both writers told about Berlin in flashbacks while they told about Istanbul and Turkey’s political history. At a time I constantly thought of Istanbul, as a recently-migrated person, this soothed my loneliness. As one of the latest representatives of the new generation migrant artists, I wanted to follow the footsteps of the artists before me and join them by including this kind of expression in the film.
On the other hand, I benefited from the photography and film archives at the Kreuzberg Friedrichshain Museum and the private archives of Cihan Arın and Esra Akcan. At first it seemed difficult to cope with the variety of the material at hand: some of the photographs were of low and others medium resolution, some colour others black and white, some horizontal others vertical, rectangular or close to square, in different proportions. Some of them were damaged, and had small notes, or scratches on them. While I was trying to decide how to combine all these materials with different qualities, I started making simple collages by putting them side by side, or on top of each other, and this approach gave the photos the feeling of movement. Over time, the disadvantages I faced at first began to turn into advantages. In addition to that, I wanted to animate some objects in the photographs’ background such as dust, leaves, laundry on ropes and so on by making animations with very simple touches. I can say that the animations spatialized the photographs and contributed to the poetic expression. The dust of the buildings we constantly see in the photographs’ background appeared as a smokescreen symbolising the migrant life’s uncertainty.
At the heart of your film you have the migrant woman, rather than the migrant man. Can you talk a little bit about this dimension of the film? Migrant woman’s integration is usually a much more complicated process than man’s since she spends less time out of home, and also since there are all sorts of power dynamics over the female body and identity in the patriarchal context. What was your strategy in approaching these facts in your film?
I created the conceptual language of the film by looking at the photographs for a long time, reading them and even listening to them. It was as if they were talking to me: It felt like I could hear the voices of women and children… Women coming from a village or a small city, trying to exist in a country whose language they did not speak, struggling with poverty in homes with narrow kitchens, and outdoor toilets, some of them without bathrooms… Finding wooden pieces from the rubble of dilapidated buildings to heat their cold homes. Women who cook, wash dishes, clean the house, take care of children, sit by the stove with their neighbours or friends if they have the opportunity and share their troubles, while having a cup of tea together, as they rest their body and soul… Photographs were repeating the silent rebellion of the female body who while constantly moving in the house almost identified with the house, and sometimes faced her tired image on the mirror. It is always the woman who builds the house, heats it, takes care of it and makes it a home. Additionally, there are many women working, but since male labour is always at the front of the guestworker migration narrative, women’s labour in the factory is ignored like their domestic labour. Another significant perspective of the film is its objection to the Sunni-Turkish identity being brought to the fore in the narrative of migration. That’s why I wanted to add the stories of Kurdish and Alevi migrant women from Turkey to the film.
I can say that while I was constructing this whole narrative, I also faced my own story when I came to Istanbul from a small city like Van at the age of seventeen to study architecture: the great shock I experienced, the bewilderment, the timidity, the loneliness, the poverty, so to speak ‘strangeness’, the feeling of freedom, the struggle for life, the solidarity I received from the women around me, the dreams of my future. When I look back, I can see that all these shaped my perspective of the female characters in the movie. About thirty years later, just when I made Istanbul a home, I had to leave home once again and migrate to Berlin. Although I no longer had the energy of my younger years, through perseverance I struggled to survive, with a strength whose origin I still do not know. Gurbet Is a Home Now has been an occasion for me to be rooted here, and turn my gurbet* into home.
What do you think about today’s Kreuzberg, with all its historical baggage and its current gentrification process: is it a success story for the migrants? What are the challenges it faces today?
Kreuzberg means Berlin, even Germany itself, for a recently-migrated Turkish citizen. It is a rebellious district where you feel a little bit of belonging and where you don’t feel lonely among all those foreigners. Today it is a place where migrants from all over the world reside, along with generations of former guestworkers. However, it is almost impossible to find a place to live, and rents have skyrocketed in Kreuzberg as elsewhere in Berlin.
How do you relate Turkish migrant’s story as regards today’s migrants in Berlin? What lessons and inspirations can be taken from the Turkish experience in the integration process of Syrian refugees and other migrants whose presence stirs heated debates in Germany?
The sentence “workers were called, but people came” by the Swiss writer and architect Max Frisch, quoted in Cem Karaca’s song which we hear in the film, puts the concept of the guestworker in a nutshell. The genuine acceptance of the guestworkers by the German society cost a lifetime for the first-generation migrants, due to poor working conditions and struggle for survival they lost their health rather early and departed this life. Today, people fleeing the war and searching for a home are stereotyped under the word ‘refugee’ and their humane needs are ignored. For these people to integrate into society and continue their lives in an appropriate way, their residence status must first be secured so that they can look at the future with confidence.
* The word does not have a direct equivalent in English. It means the place away from home where one feels homesickness.
** Öğrenci’s answers are translated from Turkish to English by the interviewer.
N. Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and arts, focusing on music and cinema. She holds a PhD in Turkish Studies from Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as a lecturer.