Essay Rowan El Shimi

Political Cinema: The Past as a Provocation for the Present
By Rowan El Shimi

rowan“History repeats itself” is as common a belief as vegetables are good for you. Many states find themselves in recurring patterns, a consistent swinging between right and left wing governments or a Coup d’etat every decade.
The more we dig into the past of any society, the more likely we are to find resonance with the bleak present. This is what makes history – whether it’s a story, an incident, a myth or a trend – these are used as powerful reflective tools by artists who can utilise it to bring current political or social issues to the fore of the conversation.

This approach was adopted by several filmmakers presenting films at the 67th edition of the Berlinale. The festival is often described as one of the most politically conscious, with much of the programming dedicated to these topics. Two films by female filmmakers have particularly stood out in their use of historical elements as entry points to comment on the troubled present in their respective societies Turkey’s INFLAME (KAYGI) by Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik and Poland’s SPOOR (POKOT) by veteran filmmaker Agniezka Holland.

The act of erasing history

Perhaps the one that best illustrates using a particular historical incident that resonates with the present day is Ozcelik’s debut feature INFLAME. It takes a look at one woman’s descent into paranoia as she deals with how to remember political events that were erased by history. Hasret, the protagonist, was moved from her job as a documentary film editor in a big news channel to a news editor. As a result of being part of the media machine, her paranoia grew and she started to question whether her parents had died in a car crash as she had been told, or she wonders if there was something far more horrific that happened to them.

Those familiar with Turkish modern history will quickly figure out that Ozcelik is referring to the 1993 Massacre of Sivas where radical Islamists burned down a hotel which housed artists and intellectuals mostly from the Alevi branch of Islam for a conference resulting in the death of 35 people.

Ozcelik’s choice to focus on this massacre to delve into memory politics was based on her own personal life: “When I started to think about memory and forgetting, I started to think about what are the limits of oblivion,” Ozcelik says. “This question led me to my oldest memory from my childhood from television and I remembered watching this massacre on TV. People were burning. It was a really strong image. Every massacre is traumatic, but Sivas was a symbol for all of the massacres,” she explains.

But the film goes beyond Sivas. Throughout the thriller, where Hasret is trapped in her own delusions and in her home, Ozcelik creates an atmosphere that resembles modern day Turkey’s political climate. Ozcelik utilises long takes to capture urban transformation to subtly hint at the shopping malls and mega construction projects that are transforming her city. Hasret’s own home, which appears to be in a historical building is bound for demolition. This signifies that all the political trauma is literally hitting close to home.

In one scene, Hasret is asked to remove oppositional figures’ names from the news. In another, she’s asked to put a propaganda headline in the news-report only to find it is the main headline on every newspaper later that evening. Ozcelik wanted to emphasise this relationship: “The most important thing for me in this film is for you to see how the media and government partnership can take a country to a total lack of memory,” Ozcelik says. “There is some saying that I read, that today our memories will only be found in the the media after so many years. So if the media is serving something else, in 50 years, how will people know the truth? The truth is already buried in the present.”

Tradition and location as history

While Ozcelik takes a specific incident from the past to bring to light issues of the present, Holland looks at a cultural tradition and questions what its continued popularity says about her society.
SPOOR, which she describes as an “anarchistic-feminist crime story with elements of black comedy” is set in a remote region in the south of Poland where hunting is the main hobby and her main character Duszejko is determined to bring an end to it.

Duszejko is a retired single woman, who lives with her two dogs in an unnamed town. When her dogs disappear she starts suspecting they might have been killed, given that hunting is a big hobby for many men in her town, including the city’s mayor (a palpable commentary on Polish government officials). The police largely ignore her letters of complaints against the hunters, and it’s expressed that everyone generally thinks she’s a bit crazy. However, as one hunter after another is mysteriously murdered, we begin to ask ourselves if it is the sweet Duszejko who is killing them? Or are the animals taking revenge?

Holland uses elements of suspense to build her narrative and divides the film’s chapters into a seasonal hunting calendar boldly creating a different colour grade for each of the film’s sections. Holland used an old Polish hunting calendar, in which each slide shows a large variety of animals that can be hunted per season. She used it to comment that while this seems over the top, it’s actually worse in the present with more liberal hunting laws that actually protect the hunters and not the animals or people who live in the surrounding areas.

SPOOR is not only about animal rights but rather animals are used as a metaphor for those in society who are silent, powerless and marginalised. In its inherent layers, the film’s location itself is a metaphor: “These are the foothills of a special region in the southern border of Poland. Earlier in history it was Czech and parts of it were German, its a quintessence of the heart of Europe,” Olga Tokarczuk, the film’s screenwriter and writer of the novel which the film is based on says. “The valley’s role is a metaphor for the meaning of Europe. The fact that this is such a forgotten place and the oblivion to which this region has fallen, demonstrates to us that to some extent the question of animals was forgotten. They are a metaphor for the weakest, the venerable, those who have no voice and on their behalf we speak of in this film.”

A distinctive tool for filmmakers

Creating stories by using history as a provocation for the present not only taps into the common belief that history repeats itself, making a clear point about current political issues, but it can also be an effective tool for filmmakers to create fantasies to offer an alternate reality to this history. For censorship stricken countries, such as Turkey, it can also be an ingenious way to get past barriers by burying the critical message of the film within a historical context rather than a present one.

“You can extend the border, can you take the challenges, you can explore very different things. Through the courage you have you can wake up the imagination and sensibility of the people,” says Holland, who inherently believes in the role of filmmakers to make a difference in society. She tells the young Berlinale Talents that, “This, for me personally, is the most interesting thing to do.”