German Filmmakers Document Istanbul’s New Culture

A shortened and translated version (Turkish) of this article appeared in Agos‘ paper edition (23/06/16). This is the original English article:

Turkey’s Syrian community is ‘an enrichment’ to Istanbul’s cultural scene, says Thomas Büsch. His partner Sabine Küper-Büsch agrees, noting the changes she has witnessed since she moved to Istanbul in the early 1990’s.

Then ‘the cultural scene was still very much oriented from the modernist, Kemalist point of view, and you didn’t have so much modern art or contemporary art. [There were] certain kind of ideologies ruling the cultural fields. While, especially in the 2000s… it changed in Istanbul a lot.’ With the influx of Syrian refugees, the two German filmmakers acknowledge in their film a sea change in Istanbul’s artistic scene.

“Regarding the Syrian community, I like that they contribute very much to diversity”

Screened for the first time at the Pera Museum in Istanbul on 15 June, ‘In the Dark Times’ documents the cultural productions of Syrian exiles in Turkey. Sabine Küper-Büsch and Thomas Büsch initiated a series of cultural workshops, including theatre, dance and film projects, in December 2014. In partnership with the Goethe Institute, they aimed to fulfil the needs of Syria’s young adult exiles, those that participated in the revolution, lost their university education and were left adrift in Turkey’s urban areas.

An estimated 80% of Syrian refugees live outside of refugee camps, and this was exactly the Büschs’ focus.  ‘It’s very important to do education programmes for kids,’ Sabine noted, ‘but we [did] not want to do occupational therapy for refugees.’ Opting instead to seek culture as a bridge of understanding, instead of programmes which ‘tend to infantilise refugees,’ they opened their workshops to Syrians, Turks and foreigners as well.

‘We want to work together with the people,’ she added. ‘It’s not about Europeans teaching people something.’ Instead, the workshops were designed to give people to give a ‘space [and] give them opportunities.’

“They see them as much more religious, much more uncool than they are”

The main focus of ‘In the Dark Times’ is the Büschs’ desire to give a platform for Syrian exiles in Turkey, exploring the cultural output they have produced and how this varies from traditional stereotypes about Syrian or Muslim refugees. In Europe, they say, ‘they’re overestimating the amount of traditionalism in the migrants,’ with German television producers asking the pair why their films don’t feature ‘typical religious Muslims.’

One of the main subjects of the film is Batool Mohammad, an actress who also produces electronic music. For the filmmakers, their friend Batool is a perfect contrast to such dangerous stereotypes about ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ refugees. Ziya Azazi, a dancer, also hosts a workshop in the film, incorporating the Sufi tradition of the whirling dervish with balance exercises.

Batool contributes to the film workshops by producing a short film, a tragi-comic satire named ‘I Love Death’ which reproduces the style of children’s television shows in Syria while mocking the rhetoric of both the Assad regime and ISIS. Batool’s electronic music is injected into ‘In the Dark Times,’ as is the music of fellow Syrian electronic producer Hello Psychaleppo, as well as other displaced artists. Such works, the Büschs’ insist, show the cultural diversity of Syria in exile.

“They choose Fatih and Balat… because it reminds them of Damascus, the old city”

The timely documentary, without much plot or structure, save for that of the workshops, shows the struggle with nostalgia for Syrians in Turkey. Taking its title from one of Bertolt Brecht’s Svendborg poems, where the author wrote “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times,” the film reminisces upon the nature of exile and the art produced within it. Brecht’s works, notably, have inspired both the German and Syrian artists involved in the film.

Among the short films produced during Küper-Büsch and Büsch’s filmmaking workshops is ‘Beyond the Station,’ directed by Bassil Halabi and Mohammad Fares. The film depicts a Syrian refugee who puts himself into a suitcase, and then drags this suitcase through the streets of Balat towards the seashore. The man drops himself, inside the suitcase, into a makeshift open grave. He disappears, then reemerges from the suitcase, and runs.

Maiss Mhd, a participant in one of Küper-Büsch and Büsch’s the workshops, explains in the film that Syrian refugees in Turkey are living a ‘compromise between the new society we are living in and our nostalgia.’ Mhd’s comment was reflected in a panel discussion, held after the screening, featuring some of the film’s subjects. Gulnar Hajo, co-owner of Pages Arabic bookstore and cafe with her husband Samer al-Kadri, and Batool Mohammad expressed gratitude towards Turkey and Istanbul as a second home.

“With the total explosion of conflicts in the Kurdish area, the whole situation in the cultural field got more tense”

Despite the workshops’ focus on Turkey’s Syrian population, the filmmakers note that, with many in Turkey’s Southeast forced to leave their homes by Turkish military operations, there is a new ‘pressure group’ that may want to participate in future workshops.

‘I’m quite glad that we produced the movie last year,’ says Sabine. Though, with a focus on Syrians, the pair didn’t face many troubles from the government’s increasing repression of journalists, activists and artists, they felt a pressure upon the production. ‘We waited for our accreditation as media people for two months and we also waited for the ikamet [residence permit] for nearly six months.’ The situation for the Syrian subjects, is, of course, much more difficult, with many struggling to again residence and work permits.

With tensions in Europe between locals and refugees growing, Thomas noted the necessity of such cultural collaborations in Europe as well. ‘I think it’s the only way,’ says Thomas. European authorities shouldn’t just ‘separate them and make some clown exercises’ only involving Syrians. Cultural exchange is the way forward for the Büschs, regardless of gender, nationality or location.

‘In the Dark Times’ is in the process of being submitted to several European festivals. The film will also be screened at the Çanakkale Biennial (September 24 to November 6 2016), the theme of which is ‘anavatan’ or ‘homeland’. Sabine and Thomas plan to screen the film again in Istanbul and Gaziantep, and are also planning a Syrian cultural festival in Germany.

The trailer for the film is available here.



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