"Escaping" from History? By Madhu Eravankara

in 9th Yamagata Documentary Film Festival

by Madhu Eravankara

History is truth. No one can escape from History. History teaches us lessons for the future. As a principle, “memory” has an important role to play in preserving history for the posterity. Supposing your memory is lost! You are in wilderness. This is exactly what has happened to a group of people in Turkish society, experiencing the melancholy of darkness, in the hands of the brutal and political system.

Keep the Change (Ustu Kalsin) is a documentary film produced by a group of graduate students – Ceren Bayar, Dilek Iyigün, Elif Karadenizli, Özge Kendirci, and Savas Ilhan of the Faculty of Communication, Ankara University, Turkey. The film powerfully portrays the present status of released political prisoners in Turkey and the shocking aberrations of a society that wants to forget the bitter realities of the past.

Political prisoners in the jails of Turkey were suddenly transferred to new “F-Type” isolation cells on December 19, 2000. This invited mass protest throughout the country, and the prisoners went on a hunger strike. The “Death Fast” continued for almost a month when suddenly armed security forces cracked down on the prisoners, under the pretext of a “rescue operation,” resulting in heavy casualties. Those who survived the “Death Fast” severely suffered from amnesia, too.

This happens to be the historical background of the film Keep the Change. The incident appears in the film in the form of archival footage of the crackdown, juxtaposed with governmental visual publicity over the television on the “special amenities” provided in the F-Type isolation cells.

We see a group of released political prisoners, both male and female, who suffered from memory loss and heavy torture and are now living together in a “Life House.” Some of them are seriously injured and are slowly brought back to normal life with the full support of the co-inhabitants of the house. They are supporting themselves by doing odd jobs and other collective enterprises. This group is the major focus of the film, as they are interviewed and as, slowly, with the poor memory they have, the whole story is revealed in fragments of shocking images.

Their dialogue is intercut with the facial expressions of the old political prisoners who were also victims of the prison tragedy. When they are asked about the military atrocities in prison, all of them give the same answer, “I don’t remember.” From the way they openly evade the question of the interviewer, and from the passive expressions on their faces, one can arrive at the conclusion that they are not sincere in their answers. It is evident that they want to forget their past and lead a pleasant life without any interference from the authorities.

The film may be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it may be inferred that the entire society is not remembering a past incident which had cast shadows upon them. Such a society can only perish as it is not taking advantage of the lessons taught by the past. On the other hand, it is the deliberate motive of the people to forget the past to lead a life quite acceptable to the authorities and fellow people. The second aspect is the major thrust of the film, which, in fact, reflects the present day Turkish society.

The archival shots of the military crackdown, interviews of the group members as well as the people in the street are beautifully woven into the fabric of a visual odyssey. Skillfully edited, the film is precise and cinematically effective.

It so happens that this type of documentaries, sometimes, lose objectivity and sincerity of approach. Keep the Change is a rare exception, and the treatment adopted perfectly matches the intention of the filmmakers. Undoubtedly the collective effort of the directorial group contributed much to the success of the film. It seems that the interviews are unconventional, very lively and in perfect tune with the narrative. The spectators are carried along with the burning issue without getting distracted, which should be an essential pre-requisite for an issue-based documentary.

The film raises many questions on the dilemma of Turkish society in the aftermath of a series of political oppressions. In fact, the film challenges even the meaning of history in the present context of the safe, undisturbed, practical stand of the Turkish people who wish to wipe away their nightmares forever.