On 13 December, INCLINATIONS Film Club will feature the UK premiere of the documentary Those Roads of Fatsa (2021) by Nurşen Bakır. It is a vast tapestry woven from archive footage which Bakır uncovered, together with interviews she shot with those who lived through the years of hope and revolutionary turmoil in the Turkish district of Fatsa in the 1970s. You can purchase a ticket for the premier here.
In the 1970s, bosses and moneylenders dominated the local hazelnut production in Fatsa in northern Turkey, keeping people close to starvation. Socialists helped to organise the growers and mount a challenge that led to victory and the formation of a hazelnut cooperative. But in Fatsa and elsewhere, organised fascists attacked these progressive movements. In response, resistance committees sprung up across Turkey. Fatsa’s resistance committee not only succeeded in driving out the fascists, but also sought to improve women’s rights, mediated in conflicts and organised communal work. As the confidence of the people increased, Fatsa entered a path of direct participatory city administration, organising the distribution of food for those in need, a fair distribution of fuel for heating in winter, and fixing roads, bridges and canals in dire need of repair. It all came to an end with the military coup of 1980.
Nurşen Bakır was a philosophy student in Ankara before moving to the USA where she studied cinema. Over the years, she has completed a number of experimental and documentary films. In Turkey she was one of the founders of the filmmaking collective Sine-Yol. She has taught cinema at various universities in Turkey. Nurşen brings her distinctive filmmaking and political involvement to uncover the erased history of Fatsa. In advance of her visit to Glasgow on 13th December, we met to discuss how the film came about and the history of progressive Turkish movements.
Rastko Novaković: How is the history of these socialist and self-organised movements of the 70s remembered in Turkey? Historically, in popular culture, on the street, in films?
Nurşen Bakır: The reason I wanted to make the film is that I didn’t think the way this period is remembered was fair. The 60s are mainly remembered for two armed struggle groups, The People’s Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO) and The People’s Liberation Party-Front of Turkey (THKP-C). But there were other organisations who weren’t armed guerrillas, like the Communist or Worker’s Parties. There was always this discussion as to how the struggle should be: in the cities or in the rural areas. Those people involved in armed struggle, like Mahir Çayan, Ulaş Bardakçı or Deniz Gezmiş — they became revolutionary idols, like Che Guevara. Their names still appear as such. And the memories are more identified with their personas and actions.
A number of leftist organisations see them all as their idol leaders in the struggle. But this period is always presented by the state and the right wing as being violent and the state had to interfere because people were killing each other, whereas they were the ones who were actually behind the killing. For the young generation nowadays, there are always those who admire them and their struggle.
While I was teaching at the university there was a TV series called Hatırla Sevgili (Remember Darling, 2006–2008), which became very popular. It covered the ’68 generation and the guerrilla actions of the THKO and THKP-C: the kidnappings, bombings robberies and shootings. Young people learned about this period from this TV series. It was very significant but I was very critical of it at the time. What these young revolutionaries were fighting for remained unclear. These silly conversations they dramatised, two or three romantic storylines, this is how it will be remembered. Everything else will be forgotten and this will become the reference, and unfortunately, it has.
My students of those years always refer to this serial nowadays. Many political films were made about that period, but they were either like that TV series or they focussed on repression: the mistreatment and torture of leftists.
The 70s are remembered more for Devrimci Yol and a number of other socialist movements. Devrimci Yol was the most populous of these and Oğuzhan Müftüoğlu and his generation learned from the experience of the 60s in developing the movement. Collective organisations and resistances, like those in Fatsa, are remembered from this period more than individual struggles.
In terms of how we remember, I don’t always want to talk about how we were victimised, but what we wanted to do and why we couldn’t do it, or what we actually accomplished. Let’s also mention that. State television is not going to do that, some film company is not going to do that, so we have to tell our own history and struggles. But in this history there are no big characters, there is no romantic plot or whatever. People also get nervous talking about this period. Our country has deep roots in fascist ideologies, so it’s not easy to try to tell this history.
RN: What were your memories of that time? When you think about those years, what memories flash up for you personally?
NB: I became political at a very young age; I think I was already a leftist when I was 14. There was a small political organisation in my home town, there was a place we all frequented as high school students. The generation before us was very conservative, so in a way for us to be leftists, particularly for women, was a way to break away from this old generation, their conservativism and fascism. So it was not always very conscious, but to us being a leftist meant being in opposition to their views. When I was in high school I had teachers several years older than us who were leftists, but the administration was very right wing. As soon as there was some connection built between the teachers and us they would be sent away. I remember we organised a school strike with a number of high school friends when our teachers were sent into exile. I was 16. In a way, we were rising up against the establishment, the right wing which was embedded in this society.
Another very important thing for both men and women was having our own spaces. Growing up in a Muslim culture, being leftist gave us a chance to get together. It was OK, for men and women to be together and have intellectual conversations and socialise with each other. There was no room for that in this society. It was very important for us, not to be scared of each other, being able to talk to each other comfortably. More for women, but I think for men also. In such a society you always feel you are being treated as inferior as a woman, but there you feel equal because your comrades don’t treat you that way. We come from an educational system where you couldn’t freely get up and say what you needed to say. People didn’t know how to express themselves, so we got the chance to do that among ourselves. Unfortunately, some leftist people when they look back they forget this. Nevertheless, we came from a strict society, so our revolutionaries were also a bit strict!
Of course, you also see all the economic inequality and how people struggle and you start understanding that everything you’ve been told is not true. Once you start questioning everything then you start developing ideas. Even at school, I had a girl friend whose parents did not allow her to attend high school; she was kept at home after finishing primary school. This is a society where most people’s parents didn’t know how to read and write. So you start opposing this, you come up with ideas, how can we change this. You become creative when you start thinking together. I think this is true for many things; artists who isolate themselves, I think we just end up copying each other. But if you look at art history, people became more creative when they got together. It could take many forms: criticising, agreeing, but being together, doing things together does something to your brain, it triggers things.
RN: You’ve spoken about the people in your film as ‘a community whose visual memory has been destroyed’.
NB: Firstly, in the West, photographs, films and home-made movies were more common than in Turkey. But after the coup of 1980, when these movements were made illegal, people didn’t want to keep any evidence, so people destroyed most of their own archives. Also, their families destroyed these images and photographs. Many books were burned. Even my father burned many books of mine.
RN: What kinds of books?
NB: Mainly literature. I don’t think I had many heavy-duty ideological books in my home town. Novels, it could even be writers like Dostoyevsky. Or And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov. And we had all these books of Yugoslav partisan guerrillas. And of course, there were Marxist books. But back to the images, they were also confiscated in house raids and from publishers, community associations and revolutionary trade unions. When I was filming these people, I asked if they had any kind of photographs from their youth and they said no, everything is destroyed. If they had any left they were afraid to share them.
So I realised I would not be able to get photographs, but I was lucky enough to meet someone who was part of a group of filmmakers who were assigned by Devrimci Yol at the time to go and film their events across the country. He had been able to keep some of this material for all these years. Some people who emigrated from Turkey had also kept some images. It’s important who is holding the camera, people who are in sympathy with these rallies and the people who are protesting. I think it does change the feeling of the filming.
RN: How did you prepare the film and the people you interviewed? You didn’t want their memories to be overshadowed by the repression?
NB: It’s always difficult. They went through hard times, prison and torture. It wasn’t for that many years, two to three years they were in the struggle, but then some of them spent ten years in prison. And it’s natural they want to talk about bad memories. So I had to press them: How did you feel then? How did it touch you to be part of such a struggle? That wasn’t easy. Sometimes I would do a three-hour interview and there were ten minutes that I was able to use. It’s not that what they went through is meaningless, but this history is not told, let’s also talk about that. It was very difficult for them to remember because it was really buried and not many people asked them about it. Partly because of oppression and partly because neo–liberal economies created a new atmosphere where capitalism and its values were praised more than ever. In order to evoke memories I started asking about details: what did you eat, how did you cook? It was not easy. But most of them now – they might have different positions in life, some with lots of money–still I see a different expression on their face, a different way of behaving when they remember these years of struggle. To them it’s still a special time in their life; maybe this collective consciousness gets stored somewhere else in your memory.
RN: Few people outside of Turkey know about the Resistance Committees. Can you explain what they were, how they were organised and what they faced as a challenge?
NB: They differed from region to region, depending on what were the more prominent problems. For instance, in the village of Büyük Kayalı, there was a family who was dominating the village and harassing the villagers. One day, they killed three villagers. After that, with the help of revolutionaries, all the villagers got together and kicked them out of the village. And then the villagers tried to create a safe space, a safe area where they could have their communal activities. This was true for a small village, or in the slums of the big cities like Ankara and Istanbul. The attacks didn’t always come from the fascists, it was landowners, or factory owners and their armed men. In order for these people to have their own communal life or communal production system, they needed to first get the people who dominated them out. Usually that’s how it worked.
Now, what do we do next, how do we manage our life and of course how to protect this area? So, armed men and women were taking shifts, day and night, to protect the area. Sometimes this protection was done by people from outside, from a neighbouring area, by people who were not known locally. Sometimes other people were brought in to teach them what to do, how to build things, or protect themselves. In Fatsa, with the loan sharks, people got together and raided their offices and gave them an ultimatum. This led to them writing off the debt.
There was always some kind of unfair order that needed to be broken. And once this happened, people overcame their fear of these people who dominated them. Then they started discussing: what could we do? People organised work shifts. Today we work on your field and tomorrow we work on theirs. And all of a sudden people who were burdened, now ten people come and take care of their field and it gives an incredible energy and joy of working together. And so they created this communal way of working, in Fatsa, and a number of other places. And if they needed to build a small bridge or road, whatever, it was done. Students and engineers who had the skills were also brought in or sent to give advice. The Resistance Committees were mainly the idea of Devrimci Yol.
In Fatsa people broke away early on, so they had lots of chances to talk and do things together. That’s why it became a prominent example in the country. And then they elected their own mayor. And it was not a small village, it was a large town: 19,000 people. But this was done all over the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, all the slums, that’s how they were surviving. In those days there was no water there, no paved roads. Now these former slums are full of apartments worth a million dollars. This is what people say now: we fought so hard for these people to gain their right to live there, because they all came in this major immigration from the villages. All the hills of Istanbul were slums. Now most of them are millionaires! This is what the revolutionaries helped them to become.
RN: We meet under this heavy cloud of the massacre in Gaza and the pogroms in the West Bank. The brutality is unchecked, even encouraged by Nato governments, especially the US. The distance between them and the peoples of the world is striking. James Kelman, a local Glaswegian writer, recently said this which I think describes this distance between us and them. It resonates with what you were saying about acting collectively and I wanted to share it with you:
Acting in solidarity is not to act charitably. In life or death struggle there is no surplus. Everything is on the line. Support is welcome but not necessary. Charity exists through the commodification of empathy. The State transforms it into a property, into a thing. Empathy isn’t a thing, it is a relationship. Empathy describes primary relationships between human beings; rational, psychological and emotional. Empathy is a danger to State authority. Solidarity derives from empathy.
I saw the mass protests in Turkey. Can you tell us more about what the response in Turkey has been and how you see the present historical moment?
NB: The massacre in Gaza hurts us very much. In many respects, but most of all, our objections will not be taken into consideration. The invalidity of our thoughts is systematically imposed on us. A highly gloomy atmosphere is created by the sense of helplessness. I believe this is how we are pressured to feel. The way the regime in Turkey is using these protests deepens Islamic fascism in the country. Rather than solidarity, this is a trump card that the regime can use for its interests in domestic and international politics. At the same time, it creates a control mechanism over those who sincerely protest these massacres.