I am talking with Turkish filmmaker Köken Ergun at the Rotterdam International Film Festival about a documentary that all Australian and New Zealand audiences should see. Heroes is about the mythologizing of trauma, of the First World War campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula (or Çanakkale). Ergun includes interviews at the monuments with the April 25 pilgrims and tourists that reveal shared moments and differences.
He follows the tour coaches where tour guides deliver their spiel. One side has John Simpson and his donkey, the other Corporal Seyit that turned back the British Fleet. A spectrum of emotions are played out here, from Nationalism to familial loss. The ANZAC fallen are respected as brothers, while other locals ruminate on why these tourist intruders are here; let them go back to where they came from. These opinions have an uncannily familiar ring to those that follow contemporary immigration debates in Australia. Following are excerpts from a longer interview. .
Dirk de Bruyn: How did this project originate?
Köken Ergun: Well apparently, in 2015 the Australian War Memorial intended to commission a Turkish artist to make a project on Gallipoli/Çanakkale to coincide with the centenary of Gallipoli landing. They approached Artspace in Sydney and Protocinema in Istanbul who knew more about contemporary artists. Together they decided on my name and offered me a new commission, even though they knew that I normally don’t take commissions. I like to be independent. I start projects myself, then a couple of years later I ask people to step in; if they are interested. This way of working secures my independence. But when this offer came to me at the eve of elections in Turkey, nationalism was on the rise once again, this time ‘choreographed’ by Erdoğan who made an alliance with the far right party and aimed at gaining all nationalists votes in the country. So I accepted the offer and used this project as a tool to understand -for myself- the roots of nationalism in Turkey. This was the original push behind the work.
(Ergun discusses his ethnographic strategy of spending a year in the field without camera immersing himself in the activities of the Anzac and Turkish visitors around the memorial sites at Gallipoli/Çanakkale)
Köken Ergun: I was surprised how nationalist Australians were. More than patriotism I could say. I was surprised too when I heard about the two taboo subjects. Before working on this project, I didn’t know how prominent these taboos were in Australian and New Zealand societies. The first is the Anzac legacy. It’s hard to contest it. The second was the aboriginal past. That was a no-go area with all of the Anzac tourists I talked to in Çanakkale. So, I’m very glad to see that there are demonstrations in Australia now, mostly by younger people, who challenge the Australia Day and refer to it as Invasion Day. When I was working on Heroes, I used to wonder if there were any sort of challenge to the official state history at the time. It was interesting for me not to see any of that in Australia, a country with such a dark past. Now, will these current demonstrations help? Well, judging on our experiences in Turkey where there had been massive uprisings in 2013 but no immediate change to the status quo, I can say it will take time. But these demos, other acts of political activism or even small solidarity groups which might seem so intimate and fragile now, will eventually bring change in society. We are seeing that now, with the outcome of the recent local elections.
Dirk de Bruyn: There are people who talk about those taboos and the connections between them, that the indigenous wars provided the inter-generational training for Australia’s participation in the First World War.
Köken Ergun: That is interesting. Both in Turkey and in Australia & New Zealand I see a similar problem in terms of historical narratives and taboos which emerge from them. History is written by the state. To start with, there’s a certain ‘state history’ narrative in national education, which is mandatory in both countries. As that Kiwi girl in the film says, you are indoctrinated by stories of John Simpson and his donkey, all the way through your education. In Turkey, you are indoctrinated by the legend of Corporal Seyit. So we could say he is the John Simpson of the Turkish side. Several historians are starting to come out in Turkey and contest these legends as well as the overall official narrative about the Çanakkale War, but they face a strong backlash. When I gave a talk with Marilyn Lake at Artspace Sydney, who is the editor of “What’s wrong with ANZAC?” -one of the few scholarly works going against the official historical narrative in Australia, she also talked about receiving plenty of dark and really nasty threats online, after the book came out.
(Ergun talks further on this widening gap between those who support such nationalist narratives and those who contest these mythologies. There is a need to listen to both sides. He makes a prediction on the future use of such nationalist narratives)
Köken Ergun: Marilyn Lake said this film should be shown in every school in Australia. Maybe that is not possible but I would really like it to be seen by members of the general public, instead of just film festival people or a contemporary art audience. Hopefully in the future. I am in no rush and and this subject is not going to go away. On the contrary, it’s going to intensify every time something happens in Australia about, for example ‘terrorism’. The Anzac legacy will grow. Just like in Turkey, when something goes wrong and the media feeds audiences films or legends about Çanakkale, in order to ‘maintain’ national unity or to boost national identity. This could be the case in Australia if the right wing tendencies continue to grow. If there are more terrorist attacks, if there is a new immigration crisis or if there is a new economic crisis, the Anzac legacy can be used as a unifying force.
Dirk de Bruyn is Associate Professor in Screen and Design at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has made numerous documentary, experimental and animated films since 1973. His book ‘The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art’ was published in 2014.