The Iconography of Witness
The mythic form of Aladag's film is nourished, and troubled, by an iconographic peculiarity that has persisted in Turkish German film since the 1990s and found its most crystalline expression in Fatih Akin's 2009 film Soul Kitchen, namely the performative blending of actors with their roles (a point also explored by Berna Gueneli in this collection). Elsewhere I have argued that the actors in Soul Kitchen are playing themselves: the main character Adam Bousdoukos (who had played Costa in Short Sharp Shock twelve years prior) suffers back pain throughout the movie, indexing how the tropes and personnel of Turkish German film are themselves aging (Gramling 2010). This productive matrix of iconic Turkish German film stars tactically or unwittingly blending their own public personae into the narrative world of the film takes a fascinating turn in When We Leave, a film in which no fewer than four primary roles are occupied by actors whose signifying valence in other films overdetermine, and at points subsume, their current roles. Simultaneously, however, those actors' (and their previous roles') iconic presence stand in critical witness to When We Leave's narrative legitimacy. Sibel Kekilli (Umay) and Nursel Kose (Gul Hanim, Umay's boss at the catering company) have both played major roles in the canon of German Turkish film—Kekilli as Sibel in Head-On
and Kose as Jessie/Yeter in Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, 2007). Meanwhile Settar Tanriogen (Kader, Umay's father) and Derya Alabora (Halyme, Umay's mother) have taken major film roles in Turkey as well. The way in which this cast is constructed, and particularly the way each of the actors appears visually before the camera, produces a collective signature of witness beneath the mythic narrative of the film.
This is however a semiotic rather than ideological signature. Kekilli's choice to take the role of Umay has met with rancorous, perplexed responses. In lieu of evaluating whether it is appropriate for her to pursue the right to "criticize Muslims" (Helmcke 2010), I consider Kekilli's (and especially Kose's) presence in this film from a purely iconographic point of view, regardless of their stated feelings about the role or the film as a whole. The surplus value of Kekilli's media presence—from her tactical inversion of wedlock for the sake of polyamory and hedonism in Head- On to her public vilification for having acted in pornographic films— implicitly intrude on the hermetic fable of When We Leave. The HUrriyet newspaper, for instance, hailed the arrival of the film in Turkey on 21 March 2010 with the derisive headline "Sibel Kekilli turbana girdi!" (Sibel Kekilli puts on a turban!)4
Similarly Nursel Kose's sudden materteral appearance in When We Leave resurrects the slain prostitute Jessie/Yeter from The Edge of Heaven in an iconographic bid to redress the fatal domestic violence that her character in that film suffered, and consequentially to chaperone and vouchsafe the cinematic representation of Hatun Surucu's life. Clearly to pursue critically this ongoing, iconographic problem of personal signature in Turkish German film is not the same as asking: "Why would these artists want to be involved in such a film?" Rather, it is again a question of the mythical, second-order signification that those artists bear when they are situated within a particular arrangement of signifiers.
Figure 2.2 Gul (Nursel Kose) and Umay (Sibel Kekilli) in When We Leave, DVD capture
Perhaps Kekilli's most poignant gesture toward the tactical inversion of myth occurs when her blond male German coworker Stipe invites her to a certain spot in Berlin-Friedrichshain, on the Oberbaumbrucke. Stipe, the unassuming, gentle, accidental savior of this Turkish German woman- in-crisis (see Ewing 2006), had wanted to share with Umay one particular panoramic view of Berlin that he holds dear. When they arrive at the spot, Umay asks Stipe, "What did you want to show me?" to which he answers, "This here." Umay makes no further response, nor seeks further clarification, I propose, because she is the iconic Turkish German actor Sibel Kekilli and has seen it all before.
As noted above, Aladag reports that she encouraged her actors to improvise broadly upon their dialogue scripts (Jenkins 2011), and this particular moment, as the two lovers gaze (or do not gaze, as it were) upon the mythic ciphers of the city, offers a laconic, yet crucial instance of the unwitting critique of myth in the film. The composite persona(e) of Umay Aslan and Sibel Kekilli, together, ask the prototype liberal middle-class ethnic German interlocutor, what exactly it was that he sought to show her. What he wants to show, particularly to her, and from a standpoint literally bridging East and West, is the diorama of reunified Berlin—an historiographic myth-unity that compulsorily signifies the struggle for emancipation—from monarchy, fascism, American hegemony, Soviet rule, and by extension any other forms of self-imposed immaturity or entrapment. And yet, Kekilli/Aslan registers perplexity at having been shown it; they already know it, they do not need it to be shown. This is perhaps one of the few moments that express incredulity toward the surface grammar of the film's myth.
This leads to a broader question: what mood or political temporality has made such a film as When We Leave possible or compulsory, such that an impressive showing from among the small cadre of celebrated Turkish German (and Turkish) film stars both gravitate toward and tacitly, tactically resist it? One may wonder whether something fundamental has shifted since the moment of Ataman's Lola and Billy the Kid, Hussi Kutlucan's Ich Chef, Du Turnschuh (Me Boss, You Sneakers!, 1998), or even Fatih Akin's Im Juli (In July, 2000), such that self-referentiality, anti-essentialism, and speaking-back have been defrocked of their critical viability. To a great extent, many of the same actors, though older and suffering back pain as in Soul Kitchen, are both critiquing and partaking in this transformation from anti-identarian rupture to neo-baroque cultural fetishism. And yet in Soul Kitchen it was the monolingual Turkish naturopath, Bone Cruncher Kemal who solved the problems of the aging cast of German migration film by wrenching its momentary ringleader's spine back into place, in a way that no neoliberal German health care institution would have permitted. Such a mood of renunciation and correctivity seems to be currently holding sway over this arena of filmmaking. One wants to undo the ideological entanglements of previous decades; one wants to seek a sober alternative.
Of course, this mood corresponds very well to a broader disciplinary ritual—and here I mean disciplinary in the Foucauldian sense—of issuing judgment on the stylistic, rhetorical, and ideological excesses of the 1990s, an endeavor I think of as a "very new sobriety". This mood, or stance, seems to have made its way quite potently into film production, where both Michael Haneke and Turkish German filmmakers (here represented by Feo Aladag) have made an aggressive, peripetetic break with their predecessor films, in a bid to render a newly sober, newly authentic portrayal of social phenomena that had previously been fodder for shrill dispute and deconstructive reinscription (see also Daniela Berghahn in this volume).
The ambient discursive field surrounding When We Leave, as well as the academic reception and public discourse poised to greet it, exhibit the aesthetics of a postironic mood, one which soberly delights in taming the (ludic or tropic) negativity of preceding decades' filmic and literary interventions. Whether this moment might enter the critical history of Turkish German film as a labor of strategic essentialism—or, perhaps, as strategic mythology—is not yet clear. What When We Leave demonstrates most profoundly is that the pleasures and displeasures of hybridity (Gokturk 2001; Malik 1996; Ewing 2006) are just as susceptible to mythological expropriation as any other semiotic domain. The current decade of Turkish German filmmaking will be a crucial proving ground for this struggle between hybridities and mythologies, a struggle in which When We Leave has staked an unequivocal claim.
I am particularly grateful to Jessica Nicholl, Sabine Kohler-Curry, Hikmet Kocamaner, and Patrick Carlson for sharing their insights on the film.