ISSUE 3: CREATIVE RESISTANCE | NOVEMBER 2022 | SİBİL ÇEKMEN | Resistance through documentary, documenting resistance

Resistance through documentary, documenting resistance

We need a documentary cinema of resistance, and it needs an audience that will stand up for it. The question of which stories we tell, share and document today is directly related to the collective construction of our social memory.

Film still from Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, 1929 || Photo:

The practice of placing stones on top of one another to build cairns can be seen in the mountainous areas of many countries. These piles may mark a holy site, a place for making wishes, may be used to commemorate the dead, or to say, ‘We shall never forget!’ Sometimes the cairn indicates which path to follow, draws attention to a certain point in the road, or signals that danger lies ahead.[1]

It is possible to liken this practice to documentary filmmaking in Turkey, which has shown exponential growth since the beginning of the 2000s, and which is characterised by wide diversity in terms of topics, discourses, and aesthetics. The comparison is particularly apt with a ‘documentary cinema of resistance’: produced by collective effort, led by directors who reflect their beliefs in this society, nation and world, growing stronger with each new documentary, and threatened for breaching the official historical narrative and suggesting new perspectives on the present. And yet it remains standing, despite this slippery ground.

The term ‘documentary cinema of resistance’ quickly entered filmmakers’ lexicons following the censorship of Love Will Change the Earth (Reyan Tuvi, 2014) and Bakur (North) (Çayan Demirel, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, 2015) at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival and the International Istanbul Film Festival, respectively. The concept has since been used to refer to documentaries that challenge the censorship that has become normalised. Yet, a thousand and one forms of resistance could already be seen in the 2000s in the documentaries made by filmmakers whose practices and stories centred on interrogation, solidarity and resistance. Following documentaries from their stage of conception to the impact their stories continue to have, and examining the production, shooting and distribution processes (which tend to span several years) can help us clarify the contours of this category, which includes hundreds of diverse documentaries, without drawing absolute parameters. We are able to map the methods of a documentary cinema of resistance by looking at the choices of subject and characters, the ‘preferences’ in crews and equipment, the budgetary means, the relationships with characters, the cinematic language established by directors, their distribution strategies and the obstacles the documentaries face.

Love Will Change The Earth film poster || Photo:

1,001 forms of resistance

Documentary cinema of resistance puts people at the centre. So it shouldn’t be surprising that filmmakers turn their cameras and microphones to the people with first-hand experience more often than to the experts. We can speak of documentary filmmaking that opens up space for the existence, voices and stories of dispossessed people, deemed ‘disposable’ and pushed to the margins of society by patriarchy, heteronormativity, neoliberalism and nationalism. Documentary cinema of resistance not only reports human rights violations and directs the audience’s attention towards the blind spots of society, but also exposes the search for justice of people who are organised against the violence caused by these systems of oppression and who take action when they are victims. This documentary form stands with them, bringing their words, which will not find space in the mainstream media, into the public sphere. While looking at how various conflicts, tensions and crises, as well as interrogations, resistances and struggles, shape society, it also displays a critical approach to historical narratives. It proposes an alternative historiography, centred on the stories and testimonies that official history ignores, ‘brush[ing] history against the grain.’[2] In these documentaries, the past isn’t disconnected from the present; on the contrary, it is in interaction with it.

The resistance begins as soon as the idea for the film emerges in the director’s mind. A budget is created from friends, bank loans, advances from work, student allowances, unemployment benefits and sometimes token funds from various non-governmental organisations. Once, three documentaries were shot with the funds received for one project. Regardless of the size of the budget, it is almost impossible to find a film that comes out without the support and solidarity of friends, other filmmakers, the film’s subjects, or the local community. The huge gap between the actual budget and the ideal budget is one of the primary features of these documentaries. This fundamental problem means that directors often settle for the equipment that’s on hand, not what they need. Although it will affect the aesthetic language of the film, directors sometimes must shoot with a camera borrowed from friends or colleagues, a broken tripod, or an old collar microphone. Being a resilient director also means taking on many roles at once: sometimes producer, director, cinematographer, camera operator, sound technician and editor.

Resistance also means opening up space for alternative filmmaking practices, questioning the power dynamics between the director and the film’s subjects and saying, ‘Another cinema is possible!’ Turning over the camera to the documentary’s subjects, albeit momentarily; allowing them a say in their own representation; sharing the film with them at a certain stage of the editing for their feedback; highlighting collective working practices; blurring the lines between the activist, filmmaker and audience ... And the most important thing is to prioritise their trust before the film, at its every stage, whether during the process of shooting, editing or distribution.

After the editing is completed, often directors have to take on distribution singlehandedly. Although these documentaries are sometimes included in the programmes of large film festivals, depending on the period and the political conjuncture, their biggest supporters are usually independent festivals. The opportunity for documentaries to find an audience is largely thanks to these festivals, which refuse to contribute to state censorship, and refuse to impose a registration certificate on directors.[3] However, directors who adopt or invent different practices of resistance go beyond festivals, universities and associations to create new screening, meeting and discussion spaces by taking into account the priorities of the subject matter of their films. Grabbing a projector and a screen, they turn parks, bus stops and village squares into screening areas. They transform the distribution process into a shared experience by organising screenings in places where the struggles, like those depicted in documentaries, occur. And if these screenings also face censorship, they hand out DVDs of the documentary so that viewers can watch it in their homes and pass it on.

Solidarity with documentary cinema

Despite targeting, threats, physical attacks, detentions, dismissals, confiscation of archives, lawsuits, prison sentences and censorship by central and local governments, festivals or university administrations, documentary filmmakers offer us the opportunity to take untrodden paths. The stories we tell, share and document today are directly related to the collective construction of our social memory. These documentaries address our past and present, and they also help us define, expand and stretch the limits of our imagined future. We need a documentary cinema of resistance, and it needs an audience that will stand up. Now is the time to solidify the cairn, built by overcoming a thousand and one difficulties and through a thousand and one efforts.

Here are some suggestions for documentaries that you can watch on the directors’ official pages and share with your friends:

Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley

  1. This article is based on research conducted within the scope of the author’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Emergence and Evolution of Documentary Cinema of Resistance in Turkey (2003–2017)’, at Lumière University between 2016–2021.
  2. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 257.
  3. A registration certificate is a document issued by the Ministry of Culture confirming a movie’s copyright, which is crucial for commercial screenings; but since the mid-2000s, it has been used as a censorship tool to prevent the screenings of films with controversial subjects.