Music as Part of Identity

in 15th Documentarist – Istanbul Documentary Days

by Teresa Vena

At this year’s anniversary 15th edition of Documentarist the Fipresci jury awarded its prize to Love, D-Marks and Death by German director Cem Kaya. The film emerged as one of the strongest positions at the documentary film festival in Istanbul.

The German director with Turkish roots Cem Kaya has been dealing with Turkish pop culture for years. Music and films – often the two cannot be separated – play an essential role in a person’s socialisation. Music and film can become one of the most important means for the cohesion of a diaspora. In them, one can find comfort and they can serve to confirm one’s own identity, which can falter in a foreign environment. Kaya shows all this in his very dense documentary. At the same time, he has achieved a mammoth task when it comes to represent history, here specifically, that of Turkish pop music.

Aşk, Mark ve Ölüm (Love, D-Mark and Death) shows that Turkish pop music is inseparably linked to the history of Turkish migration to Germany. Even though the instruments that the musicians and singers brought with them from Turkey in the late 1950s and early 1960s came from an old tradition, the sounds began to change in the new homeland, adapting to the melancholy mood that overtook many. The lyrics of the songs of a singer like Yüksel Özkasap (born in 1945) sang about life in Germany, the difficulties of living among people who were insensitive of one’s desire for one’s own flat or simply for fairer working conditions in the factories. Özkasap is symbolic of 500 to 600 other artists who experienced a remarkable career from the 1960s onwards.

The music was distributed through the medium of the cassette. Several record companies, one of the biggest being Türküola, based in Cologne, produced them non-stop. They were more popular than, say, classical records, for a number of reasons. One of the most important is the fact that they could be listened to in the car. They were therefore in constant use on the long journeys home to Turkey. They were also heat resistant and offered far more storage space for the songs. What emerges from Kaya’s film as an interesting phenomenon is that these cassettes, literally millions sold to Turks resident in Germany, completely bypassed the rest of the German population – and the Turks still living in Turkey, as well. The size of this industry found no counterpart in either political or social consciousness.

As the director explains in a personal conversation, it was a difficult task for him to even find documents in the archives of newspapers or television for the interest in immigrant culture. One concentrated – and today it has not become much better –on the political level when describing the “Turks”, when reporting about them. They were not shown in their leisure time, which of course decisively shaped the public image of the Turkish workers. Even so, it would actually have been easy to attend their concerts or to look around in the widespread cafés, or “gazinos”. Kaya now makes up for this with his film and opens up, probably to most outsiders, a completely new view of the once colourful everyday life of the Turkish fellow citizens. The images of the Bülowstraße underground station in Berlin, which was shut down before the fall of the Wall and was still filled with life as a dance hall in the evenings in the 1970s, are particularly impressive.

Densely montaged archive footage, a pop aesthetic reminiscent of the covers of music cassettes and the appearance of numerous male and female singers of different generations make the film an entertaining experience, but with its sometimes subliminal, sometimes obvious bitter aftertaste, when it comes to the narrated reality of people of Turkish origin, also of different generations, it also makes one think. Kaya has created an important contemporary document and done true pioneering work with his diligent documentary. This longing for a respectful cohabitation and social affiliation, which can be found in the music, as becomes clear in the film, has not yet come true, by the way, unfortunately. This is shown in the lyrics of today’s representatives of Turkish hip hop and rap. One thing that has changed is that people are more likely to listen to them today, partly because of the introduction of the German language into music. For the rest, the film is an admonition to approach other population groups with more interest in what distinguishes them, moves them, and drives them culturally.

Teresa Vena
Edited by Savina Petkova