The Minor Cinema of Thomas Arslan: A Prolegomenon
Whenever the work of Thomas Arslan is mentioned in a discussion of contemporary German cinema, it is almost always framed through the lens of identity—specifically the identity of people of Turkish descent living in Germany. The problem I have with this approach to his work is not that I think it is "wrong." Yet, this reduction (no matter how productive in some regards) of what his films do to what they are blocks investigations into his oeuvre that might open conversations about both his films and, possibly, those of other so-called Turkish German filmmakers to contexts that cannot readily be reduced to an identitarian, or representational, framework and its (un)stated assumptions about Germans as a people. To make my case for the need to reframe Arslan's work, however, I purposefully want to abstain from primarily focusing on those films that do not explicitly deal with characters of Turkish descent, such as Mach die Musik leiser (Turn Down the Music, 1994) or Ferien (Vacation, 2007). Merely to foreground that Arslan also made films—both before and after his so-called Berlin trilogy—that show no overt concern for the question of Turks in Germany would simply skirt the real issue at hand. My point is that even in Geschwister—Kardesler (Brothers and Sisters, 1997), Dealer (1999), and Der schone Tag (One Fine Day, 2001) Arslan's primary concern does not lie with the question of identity; or, rather, if it does then only insofar as he puts its underlying assumptions at stake. If we can agree that the political quality of films is frequently assessed in relation to how they represent identities, then I want to make the point that Arslan's cinema calls for a reconceptualization of this very understanding of the political.
In this sense I offer the following as a prolegomenon—remarks that seek to define a project and the conditions that make it both possible and necessary. A prolegomenon does, however, not try to be comprehensive and instead hopes to function as a provocation for others to help develop this project further. The aim, thus, is decidedly not to insist that what follows constitutes a better or more correct interpretation of Arslan's work; a prolegomenon is simply not in the business of engaging in hermeneutical questions and playing their attendant truth games. Rather, the goal is to proffer an experimental sensibility with which to revisit Arslan's oeuvre, "in order to make a picture for oneself (sich ein Bild zu machen)," to quote Arslan's rationale for making his filmic travelogue Aus der Ferne (From Far Away, 2006) about Turkey (Arslan 2004: 16). To make—rather than take—a picture: this formula not only encapsulates Arslan's cinematic attitude towards his parents' home country to which he had not returned since attending school there (1967-71) but arguably also serves as the creative algorithm at the heart of his films. With this formula the director articulates his cinematic attitude toward profilmic reality, which insists that the cinema's job is less to represent (to take a picture) than to construct it in singular fashion in order to effect what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls a "redistribution of the sensible"—that is, of "the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions with it" (2004: 12).