"And Yet My Heart is Still Turkish" - Arabesk in Head-On1
Melodrama, in the traditional sense, means a drama accompanied by music, which allows an audience to see characters' emotions voiced in their speech or through gestures (Brooks 1995: 4). According to renowned film director Douglas Sirk, melodrama is a powerful expression of the human condition. The genre has received critical attention in film studies because of its appeal to mass audiences (Brooks 1995: ix). At the same time, its ability to provide an audience with a commentary on the world carries significance for this discussion. Various scholars have suggested that the conventional structure of the melodrama requires a reading beneath the surface to unmask the hidden ideological tensions and contradictions in society (Gledhill 1987; Klinger 1994; Sirk and Halliday 1972: 119; Toteberg and Lensing 1992; Willemen 1994: 87-98). Laura Mulvey, for instance, suggests that a slowing down of film speed is necessary for a detailed analysis of a single cinematic image and its hidden denotation (2005: 22843). Mulvey's argument that "mise-en-scene 'fills in' meaning at the point where speech fails" is significant for this discussion (2005: 231).
In the Sirkian melodrama, emotion remains, according to Mulvey, displaced and inscribed into the cinematic language. Hence objects become metaphors and the dispersed net of signifiers surface in a specific cinematic style. A particular framing, music, and editing represent added meaning, which the spectator becomes aware of and begins to decipher (2005: 232). Mulvey explains the audience's act of decoding as a moment that "marks the gap between the unselfconscious 'I see' and the self-consciousness of 'I see!'" (2005: 232). The act of including what Mulvey calls a visual trope into the mise en scene asks the viewer to see this image detached from its ordinary place as it preserves an autonomous meaning within the story world. This distinct feature, as proposed by Mulvey, also becomes visible in the particular scene in Akin's melodrama, with which I opened this essay and which I will discuss extensively below. Head-On portrays the lives of two marginal characters and is, according to one critic, a "hardcore love story" (Suner 2005: 18). Once again, it is fate that brings Akin's two protagonists together; both have attempted suicide, meet in a psychiatric institution, and belong to the second generation of Turkish immigrants in Germany. Cahit is a middle-aged, disillusioned alcoholic who works collecting empty bottles from the floor of a music club. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that the reason for Cahit's excessive alcohol and drug consumption is his late German wife's death. Sibel, on the other hand, wants to escape from the restraints imposed on her by her conservative Turkish family. By marrying Cahit, she desires to liberate herself from her parents' authority to become promiscuous. Cahit, who initially refuses this marriage proposal, eventually gives in. Ironically this decision forces him to reconnect with his Turkish roots that he had disavowed when assimilating into German culture. The leitmotif in Head-On of returning to one's roots leads to Cahit's return to his Heimat (homeland) at the film's conclusion but is also key to the sequence that opens with the closeup of the compact disc.
In this scene, the song "Agla Sevdam" (Cry My Love), written by Turkish lyricist and actress Aysel Gurel and performed by Yusuf Taskin, becomes part of the narrative space and echoes the heroine's inner world. The lyrics for this song, with its arabesk quality (a term to be defined below), emphasize passion but also the tragic fate of two lovers in the image of the imprisoned soul. The words as well as the diegetic sound parallel Sibel's situation, and by presenting her in tears, the film conveys her emotions of separation, powerlessness, pain, and sadness (see image 13.2). Crosscutting adds another dimension to the story by showing Sibel's family members burning photographs, which signals the heroine's permanent separation from her family. The catharsis, which occurs in Sibel's character, is also meant to happen for the viewer.
Figure 13.2 Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) in Head-On, DVD capture
"Adding emotions to a film," argues Tejaswini Ganti within the context of the Bombay film industry, "involves placing a character in a web of social relations of which kin are the most significant and common in Hindi films" (2002: 291). A lack of kinship-related conflicts in Hollywood films, as Ganti notes, are a reason why Hindi audiences feel distant to these narratives as they interpret American films as less emotional. At the same time, this addition in Hindi films, she further argues, signals a greater concern with morality as "being connected to others means that one's actions have consequences greater than oneself" (2002: 292). In order to "Indianize" a film, in this sense, emotions need to be added.
Head-On reconstructs this kind of emotionally loaded domestic world and questions the social forms and conventions based on kinship. The image of the burning photographs that functions like a flashback allows for a particular mode of self-representation. Moreover, the use of diegetic sound with an arabesk quality implies the theme of movement and displacement, and manipulates the text in widening its historical and cultural scope. It also adds emotions to construct a reference to the psychological dimension of the diaspora.
Ganti's argument offers a way to read Head-On in terms of its aural intertextualities. The image of the CD references Mustafa Altioklar's Agir Roman (Cholera Street, 1997), a film that alludes to the 1950s and Turkey's transition from a rural to an urban-based economy. Internal population shifts resulted in the formation of gecekondu districts or houses "built overnight." In The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey (1992), musicologist and historian Martin Stokes points out that arabesk songs gained popularity through the "Dolmus" (shared taxis) culture. The transportation of laborers from the peripheries to the urban centers contributed to the dissemination of this music among the city population (1992: 126).2 Labor migrants identified with arabesk lyrics because they describe the social reality of the urban experience, a vast fusion of facts and intense emotions. This music, according to Stokes, enabled a mode of selfrepresentation of the marginalized subject similar to other popular music forms, such as rebetika, flamenco, tango, or rai. This language of emotions, or, as Stokes puts it, "discourse of sentiment," also found its way into film (1992: 12). In the arabesk image, the protagonists struggle against social boundaries. Themes such as loneliness, sadness, oppression, and fate and questions regarding gender, masculinity, and sexuality surface in these low-budget films that began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s in Turkey. The stories present a portrayal of life as is, in which non-professional actors used their real names and performed roles that were closely related to their own biographies. Turkish sociologists have regarded arabesk as a counterculture that maps not only social change but, in Stokes's words, also "an aura of chaos and confusion surrounding every aspect of urban existence, from traffic to language, from politics to kitsch" (1992: 1; see also Gole 1996).
In Head-On the prop of the CD surfaces in a scene that takes place in Germany. Through visual and aural presentation it not only dramatizes the story of the heroine and her family but also alludes to a particular historic precondition that shapes the characters' collective identity and individual subjectivities. When Akin contrasts the closeup shots of Sibel with the image of the mass-manufactured CD, this not only claims belonging (expressed in the Turkish song) but also implies how the digital era requires a new understanding of deterritorialized populations. The CD signifies the dissemination of digital media and the role this new media form plays in the expansion of identities beyond national borders. The act of playing the disc demonstrates the easy access to global culture and the transformation of national subjects into "hyperlinked" individuals.
Through global communication "invisible" relationships are formed simultaneously in transnational networks, while digital media satisfies individuals' changing needs and pleasures. Read in this context, Head- On is more than a response to the dominant paradigm of "failed" ethnic integration. Instead the film calls for a new understanding of transnational migrant identities to overcome the politicized discussion of minority- majority relations. Akin leaves it up to viewers to answer the question of how we should perceive the self, others, time, and space in our technology- saturated world.