Through the Looking Glass: Women Tell Stories

in 15th Documentarist – Istanbul Documentary Days

by Övgü Gökçe

The 15th edition of Documentarist presented a rich program with diverse works from emerging and established documentary filmmakers. The festival is a great and unique opportunity for young filmmakers and audiences in Turkey, to access a good selection of documentary films, as well as discussions on issues that relate to the international documentary circuit. The heart of this year’s discussions reflected a deliberate interest on the use of archival material in documentary filmmaking that has been a major trait in the program. Overlapping issues in different sections of the program were also reflected in the FIPRESCI selection, which consisted of archival documentaries, and films that narrate stories told or retold by women. The ways in which female voices have been inscribed into different kinds of documentaries, creates a strong impression and presents various opportunities for significant channels of storytelling.

Among the FIPRESCI award nominees, challenging aspects of motherhood and its societal relations stood out as one of the tracks with two documentaries by women filmmakers. Aslı Akdağ’s Expecting a Grain of Sand (Bekleyis, 2021), focuses on the challenges a single mother faces while carrying and bringing up a baby in Istanbul’s modern, urban setting, and comments on how the social class or the profession of the protagonist as a lawyer does not prevent the conservative approaches adopted by most of the society in Turkey. Akdağ’s first-person film that centers around her own experiences, presents a visual diary reflecting on the social network starting from nuclear family and extending to professional life, and criticizes the way these structures perceive a single mother. Following the autobiographical track, in her film Menschenskind!, filmmaker Marina Belobrovaja, on the other hand, interprets the issue of being a single mother from a different perspective, problematizing the contested necessity of parenthood and nuclear family in general. Discussing different implications of the increasing number of experiences that bring women with sperm donors, the film questions the idea of family and its future through different perspectives. Although both films strive to portray motherhood in its relation with the modern day society and to discuss the potential, as well as the obstacles, they are facing the threat of archetypal representations concerning societal roles.

The second strong track of female voice in the selection manifested itself in different ways through dialogue with the archive. Aliona van der Horst’s Turn Your Body to the Sun, takes on a challenging route by searching for the traces of the filmmaker’s silent father within the images of millions of Soviet soldiers, whose lives became invisible under the regimes of two dictators, Hitler and Stalin. Here, the female voice strives to find a balance between the objective researcher going through classified and unclassified documents from the past, and the first person narrator who is trying to carve out a personal history with her absent father through a distanced analysis of an unattended historical issue. The dialogue with the archive through familial history takes on a different and quite powerful path in Magnus Gertten’s Nelly and Nadine. Here, the collective history of war and Holocaust in particular is the setting of a love relationship, which went beyond this given period of time and geography, traveling to different continents. Gertten’s take on digging the archive is different from that of van der Horst, who brought her first person engagement to the telling of the film. Here, instead, Gertten follows Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie, uncovering the diaries and photographs of her grandmother. The curiosity of the film mirrors the curiosity of this elderly woman who is going after an unrevealed family secret. The changing context of the lesbian love story of Nelly and Nadine shades light on the collective history of a certain generation; and in that sense, is empowering in terms of the way Gertten’s film inscribed this exceptional story in the collection of uncovered stories about women. Starting in the grim background of Nazi camps and culminating in Caracas’ gay community with joy, Nelly and Nadine is exceptional in opening multiple layers of understanding toward the resilience of these women who have lived in rigorous times.

Last, but not least, Ultraviolette and the Blood-Spitters Gang is a gem in the entire program in so many levels that combine experimentation with the archive with another family (hi)story. It all starts with the filmmaker Robin Hunzinger’s discovery of her grandmother’s letters, which he does together with his mother. The letters, written by a young woman, Marcelle, to Hunzinger’s grandmother Emma in the 1920s when the two met at school in Dijon, function as the secret key that opens the love story of the two. Yet, Hunzinger does not restrain the film to the material that surfaces within Emma’s personal archive. While Marcelle’s words and her world comes through the voice over following the narrative in the letters, the film’s visual style plays with numerous archival images that belong to different contexts, and create an anonymous surface next to the ‘actual’ landscape Marcelle presents at the sanatorium she was taken to for her tuberculosis. The film delicately holds on to Marcelle’s memory, the so-called ‘Ultraviolette’ and other young women with whom she shared her pain and desires while presenting a much vaster inventory of young women from decades ago. Hunzinger invites us on an exciting voyage with women who had fun together, danced, swam, opened up their bodies to nature or caught up in the necessities of culture where they dwelled in diverse moments of daily life. The images of women looking back at us striving for life and demanding remembrance is what remains from this year’s Documentarist.

Övgü Gökçe
Edited by Savina Petkova