Pirated Lubunca Films: Lambdaistanbul’s Counter-archival Practices
Watching queer films, for example about a love story, a real love story … gave us the feeling that actually we are everywhere and there are so many stories … we are not alone.
Okan, volunteer at LambdaIstanbul
Queer archives are one of the most precarious, especially in hostile environments. In this contribution I will try to speak about films as archive and to outline the shaping of the activist audiovisual archive of Lambdaistanbul, the first LGBTI+ rights organization in Turkey, founded in 1993, with special regard to its own film archive. With the help of interviews I conducted with two Lambdaistanbul members, I reflect theoretically on queer counter-archives and activist archiving practices at the margins of society and legality.
In my interview with Lambdaistanbul volunteer Okan on October 28, 2021, he told me about the legend around the film Gece, Melek ve Bizim Çocuklar/The Night, Melek and Our Gang (1993) by the infamous Atıf Yılmaz. Depicting the lives of a sex worker, her lover-pimp, and her flat mate, a young trans* woman and fellow sex worker, the film has one scene that shows a police raid in a bar. It is said that an actual raid happened during the shooting of the film. The director just continued the take and used the documentary footage afterwards for the fictional film. Thus, the film uses fictional and documentary footage and shows the dark alleys of Beyoğlu, Istanbul’s central neighborhood for sex work and an emblematic living space for queer people until gentrification drove them out. Moreover, for the first time in Turkish cinema Lubunca expressions would appear on screen, the slang of queers in Turkey, that is, the Lubunyas. So, even if the legend turns out to be untrue, the film is a testimony, an archive of the thriving queer subcultural scene and the sex work milieu of the ‘90s in this area. It embodies an accidental archive of police repression, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic violence, and the everlasting class issues in Turkish society paired with the double standards of patriarchy. Or to use Ann Cvetkovich’s words, “film and video extend the material and conceptual reach of the traditional archive, collating and making accessible documents that might otherwise remain obscure … [producing] the unusual emotional archive necessary to record the often traumatic history of gay and lesbian culture” (2008, 244). For subaltern groups like queer communities, films become means to counter their invisibilities and erasures by institutionalized central archives representing the powerful with their hegemonic and heteronormative narratives of history (Brunow 2015, 10). Now, if we follow Paula Amad’s thinking, film functions here as a counter-archive: “Rather than emphasizing the deficiencies of the film-as-archive equation, I have thus chosen to explore the unique capacities—which I term counter-archival—of film’s relation to memory, the past, and history.” (2010, 22)
As a counter-archive of trauma, as queer audiovisual archives so often are, Gece, Melek ve Bizim Çocuklar represents, for Lubunyas and the LGBTI+ activism in Turkey, one of the first identity-affirming experiences through local film and thus occupies an important role in the collective memory of the movement. Lambdaistanbul grasped very early on the role that moving images could play for political activism, community-building, and activist archiving. My interviewee Okan participated in and co-organized several film screenings that took place regularly at Lambdaistanbul, including this film. He explains how valuable and important it was for the self-esteem of Lubunyas to see queer depictions in film at a time when they were simply non-existent, and to talk about them collectively:
Okan: It was very interesting for us to see Lubunya/queer representations in films. I mean, seeing that representation, regardless of what kind it was, made us go wild. And most of them were phobic that don’t mean anything to me today, like, garbage stuff. Still, it felt so good to see even those representations, just to be represented. (2021, translation by the author)
Cvetkovitch argues that stereotypes in films and videos of the “sad, lonely, or dead [lesbians] have become part of the archive of lesbian culture … inventing an archival and documentary aesthetic that is more interested in preserving affect than in collecting positive images” (Cvetkovich 2008, 253). Okan’s remembering of the film screenings, even of the homophobic stereotypes, as a pleasing moment of identity-affirmation and community building makes them a part of the queer archive of Lubunyas, which is not only about positive images. Even problematic narratives and hostile depictions can evoke positive affects when the alternative is non-representation, social erasure, and isolation. As Rogerson argues with Heather Love, affects of abjection, violence, and exclusion, which represent basic experiences of the social damage of queer identities, are crucial when examining queer histories (2018, 85):
Queer archives provide sites of exile, refusal, and failure as well as persistence and survival. The significance of archival knowledge and queer history beyond the borders of the twentieth century exhume the unknowable into tangible evidence of difference, protest, conflict, and perseverance. (Rogerson 2018, 85)
In an activist context, however, archival practices might sound contradictory at first. Activist practices are embedded in the present and oriented towards changing the future. Thus, dealing with the past via activist archiving “may cause a tension, or ‘beautiful contradiction’” (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 11), a tension for activism itself. However, like Rogerson here, queer temporalities and queer-activist counter-archival practices cannot be examined linearly. By embracing the traumatic past of abjection new futurities of solidarity and agency can be envisioned.
Thus, Gece, Melek ve Bizim Çocuklar depicts for the very first time in Turkish cinema the lives of trans* sex workers with all the violence they experience without being judgmental or moralistic, showing an audiovisual archive of Lubunya affects and spaces of Istanbul. Lambdaistanbul’s regular film screenings, bringing hundreds of queer films like this to its community, thus initiated the circulation and archiving of queer affects, shaped the LGBTI+ social movement in Turkey, and enabled identity-affirming experiences for Lubunyas on a political as well as personal level. Consequently, Lambdaistanbul’s film screenings and the subsequent accidental film archive that grew out of them can be thought of as “socially motivated archival practices” (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 11), serving not only for memory but for identity construction and political mobilization (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 5). According to Niyaz, another Lambdaistanbul member whom I interviewed on 8 July 2021, Lambdaistanbul’s counter-archive is an assemblage of the personal collections of community members comprising diverse materials as well as approximately 150 films. The lack of professionalism, the arbitrariness of materials, and the mobility of the archive, as is often the case in precarious contexts like anti-hegemonic social movements, thus presents an excellent example of an accidental archive and classifies it, maybe obviously, as activist archival practice:
activist archiving describes the processes in which those who self-identify primarily as activists engage in archival activity, not as a supplement to their activism but as an integral part of their social movement activism. (Flinn and Alexander 2015, 331–32)
In the following I want to take a closer look at the activist archival practices of Lambdaistanbul, to examine how piracy became the only means for building its counter-archive within a restricted geography, thus creating an informal film culture that goes against hegemonic canon and taste.
Activist Archives, Piracy, and Care
When Okan first told me about Lambdaistanbul’s film archive, it was a happy proof of my hypothesis that films played a crucial role for community building and identity construction in the young LGBTI+ movement. In addition to the film screenings, which are ephemeral events, archiving them positions queer films as an important part of queer memory, affect, and history since putting something into an archive, deeming it worthy and necessary for preservation, accrues value on the specific objects. This also means that these films contributed to the individual history of this organization, its community, and to the overall history of the LGBTI+ social movement in Turkey. Moreover, Lambdaistanbul’s film archive had also a rental function. As another Lambdaistanbul member explained to Niyaz, they rented these films to community members and at some point also asked for a little fee that would go into the financing of the grassroots organization, which is until today funded solely by membership fees.
Like for many community-driven counter-archives, Lambdaistanbul’s “audiovisual collection [served] as community resource” (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 10) to make queer films accessible to Lubunyas for the political and personal needs of representation. In this sense, these films and film screenings that were always complemented by extensive discussions were also used by Lambdaistanbul as pedagogical tools to learn more about queer existences, traumas, and activism around the globe. Lambdaistanbul is considered by many of its members as a “school” where closeted, isolated, and discriminated against Lubunyas could come into contact with each other for the first time and learn about the diversity of sexuality, queer politics, the mechanisms of power and oppression, and consequently overcome isolation and self-shame. By creating a safe space and providing a repository of otherwise inaccessible queer films, among other things, the “school of Lambdaistanbul” aimed at strengthening the self-confidence regarding the non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities of its members.
Nevertheless, showing queer films was a complicated matter in the ‘90s and beginning of ‘00s. Okan explains that access to queer films was extremely restricted. Turkish films depicting non-heteronormative identities like Gece, Melek ve Bizim Çocuklar or shot by queer filmmakers were a rarity, and it was nearly impossible to find international films with Turkish subtitles, let alone global queer films being distributed in Turkish cinemas. Most of the films could only be made accessible via piracy. They had to be downloaded from the internet and be subtitled by Lambdaistanbul members themselves who spoke English well enough (films from non-English speaking countries were therefore impossible, according to Okan). On the other side, this enabled the organizers to use their own subcultural language Lubunca, a significant political identity marker of the LGBTI+ movement, for the translations of subtitles and film titles and thus appropriate these works for their own cause and community. So Lambdaistanbul’s practices around films were not only curatorial organizations of screenings (members of the event-planning committee were free to decide which films they would like to show) but showed an active involvement in the shaping of a queer film subculture in the country.
Thinking with Abigail De Kosnik and her concept of “pirate-archivists,” the pirated versions of films that would have been otherwise unavailable for the Lubunyas enabled not only the viewing of the films but an archival practice too. De Kosnik speculates that in a possible future “Collapse” of society and digital infrastructures pirate-archives could save media heritage because, most probably, the official archives would be destroyed. Although she speaks of digital archives connected to server issues this can be conceptually adapted to former versions of media piracy like the pirated DVDs and CDs in Lambdaistanbul’s collection:
In the case of a pirate archive, which is not one site [like centralized official archives] but consists of many individual archives networked together, Collapse conditions may adversely affect thousands or millions of users’ servers, but some privately owned servers and drives will likely survive … they will survive as cultural archives. (De Kosnik 2020, 66)
Consequently, only through piracy was Lambdaistanbul able to obtain these films to organize screenings and secure an archive of queer films for members to draw upon. Anti-hegemonic counter-archives require sometimes unorthodox methods, especially within marginalized and precarious communities that have no other opportunity to access these kinds of cultural resources. This seems to fit neatly into the following conceptualization of a counter-archive:
Counter-archives are ‘an incomplete and unstable repository, an entity to be contested and expanded through clandestine acts, a space of impermanence and play,’ … Counter-archives can be political, ingenious, resistant, and community-based. They are embodied differently and have explicit intention to historicize differently, to disrupt conventional national narratives, and to write difference into public accounts. (Chew, Lord, and Marchessault 2018, 9)
In this context the “clandestine act” of piracy turns into an enabler of identity-affirmation that breaks with the invisibility or misrepresentation of the subaltern in official archives and can therefore be read as an act of care.
Using informal methods Lambdaistanbul offers us a counter-archive containing a counter-public film culture, and by extension, an alternative film distribution network of an activist community. In Shadow Economies of Cinema, Lobato argues that for a holistic view of global film circulation, informal systems, including pirate networks, must be thought of in conjunction with traditional industry networks. For him, official film production as well as distribution has long cooperated with and depended on these (black) markets in various ways. Of particular importance in the context of my research on the activist use of film and the potential of their archives to provoke social change is Lobato’s observation on how film circulation affects this potential for change in the first place:
to be of social consequence, a film must first reach an audience. In other words, it must be distributed. Distribution plays a crucial role in film culture—it determines what films we see, and when and how we see them; and it also determines what films we do not see. (Lobato 2012, 2)
Strictly speaking Lambdaistanbul’s film practice cannot be considered a shadow economy, as there are no commercial purposes. However, the access to these films provided by the organization and its members, which was not available through legal channels at the time, and the autonomous translation and appropriation work, allows us to regard the organization as an “informal community distribution” or even an “informal counter-public distribution.” In this context, these informal film practices of a community of care, the screening, archiving, and distribution of queer films, turns piracy and the resulting pirated film archive into activist counter-archival methods against state repression, which embodies “countercultural, political, and community-based archival practices” (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 5).
Archival Crisis, Activist Chances
Today, however, gentrification as well as discriminatory landladies*lords have forced financially precarious Lambdaistanbul to change its location several times, which served not only as office space but also as event venue and storage room for the archive. Thus, when Lambdaistanbul lost its space in 2016 the archive needed to be relocated once again. After being stored for some time under poor conditions in the private homes of members it was given to Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi/The Women’s Library and Information Center (KEK). This was necessary to prevent the physical archive from further material damage until Lambdaistanbul could generate funds for a new venue as well as for the systematization and digitization of the archive to ensure its future survival and accessibility (Uslu 2021, 327–330). This measure though, has made the archive inaccessible for now, and given the fact that not only the archive is at risk of obsolescence but the organization itself, the archive is not the top-priority for the time being. When survival is at stake, dealing with the past seems to become secondary. But as with Rogerson’s inquiry above, queer pasts are necessary for the agency of today with horizons of queer futures in mind. If we think about archives as surviving in posterity, as “proof that a life truly existed, that something actually happened” (Mbembe 2002, 21), then having no archive or losing it becomes synonymous with death.
Lambdaistanbul must find ways to ensure the continuation of its counter-archive for its political struggle of legal protection and equal rights since queer archives have the potential to counter “systemic cisheteropatriarchal knowledge … [and function as] a method of resistance to state narratives that limit queerness to criminality and coding” (Hosfeld 2018, 11–12). Both interviewed volunteers emphasized the importance of the preservation of and the accessibility to Lambdaistanbul’s archive for LGBTI+ activism and Okan explained that the project of digitization is still very important even if they do not have the financial means yet. Digitization, as so often in debates about the longevity of archives, seems to hold the promise of long-term preservation and accessibility (Paalman, Fossati, Masson 2021, 2). De Kosnik, however, complicates this conception and does not consider official digitization of archives as a guarantee of preservation. In the case of Lambdaistanbul that is currently “homeless,” it seems to be the only possibility for now.
So how can we think further about such a precarious archive that is inaccessible and under constant threat of obliteration due to hostile politics and socio-economic factors? What will become of the pirated and Lubunca-subtitled films that embody an accidental archive of the first encounters of Lubunyas with queer audiovisual representations and document the subcultural language of the local queer community?
In anticipation of the future access to its counter-archive, Lambdaistanbul’s website, the Facebook page, and YouTube channel served me as a substitute digital archive for the time being and entry point to retrieve some information on the film screenings that were organized until COVID-19 hit. In addition, the website, which recently changed its interface, offers the oral history YouTube video mentioned above. Besides digitized archives, digital platforms also have the potential to function as archives, even if they are not originally intended to do so. Although the internet and social media are predominantly thought of within the framework of ephemerality, they can still be considered as accidental archives, as “proof of existence.” YouTube, for instance, “enables a ‘vernacular memory,’ dissolving ‘boundaries between material, official memory and the more ephemeral cultural expressions of memory’” (Paalman, Fossati, Masson 2021, 13). Lambdaistanbul’s precarious material archive oriented me towards these alternatives, and finally, the indispensability of social media and internet usage for political activism today, makes this argument of “platforms-as-archive” and “platforms-as-memory” not too far-fetched. Notably in the function of queer archives to “reclaim their representations and narratives in public memory” (Hosfeld 2018, 9-12) the role of digital practices for the cultural memory of social movements should not be underestimated. To claim non-existence or death because of the lack of an “official” archive would disregard other forms of preservation like for instance oral history and digital traces. Damiens points out that archives of marginalized and/or activist groups can only convey a small part of their cultural history anyway (Damiens 2014, 44). The inaccessibility of Lambdaistanbul’s archive is thus nonetheless not too great an obstacle in examining the organization.
Until now Lambdaistanbul’s counter-archive, like most queer archives, which are collected and assembled by volunteers without professional archiving skills, or as my second informant Niyaz calls them, the “collecting activists” (Uslu 2021, 313, translation by author), comprises something more like an accumulation of heterogeneous, unclassified, and subjective materials. Cvetkovich and others have argued that queer community archives follow a different logic than institutionalized state archives as being more concerned with the personal, individual, with affect and intimacy, where community members are more involved in archiving processes (Hosfeld 2018, 13; Uslu 2021, 4; Cvetkovich 2008, 243–44). Thus, “community-based archives oftentimes resist the urge to classify and order their collections, thereby not necessarily prioritizing already legitimated events” (Damiens 2014, 48). Moreover, Cvetkovich sees in community archives an emotional need for history that will not disappear even when archives become institutionalized, or state-archives start their own queer collections (Cvetkovich 2008, 251). Lambdaistanbul’s archive and the organization itself will survive not only because of its material and its future digitized archive but because of the place it holds in the collective memory of its queer community as a “school” and its role as initiator of the Turkish LGBTI+ movement of today. By providing an audiovisual repository for non-represented queer subjects Lambdaistanbul epitomizes a space for memory, care, and identity-affirmation. Those at “the margins of authoritative power are poised precariously between being written out of history or declared as criminals, mentally unfit or dangerous through state dominance” (Rogerson 2018, 83). The use of informal methods by its activist archivists, considered unethical in hegemonic society, as the only means of access, becomes necessary to fight discrimination and historical erasure, and enhance agency to break out from the hostile stereotypical narratives or erasures of official archives.
I want to thank Okan and Niyaz for sharing with me their memories and materials for my project.
Amad, Paula. 2010. Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète. New York: Columbia University Press.
Brunow, Dagmar. 2015. “Remediating Transcultural Memory: Documentary Filmmaking as Archival Intervention.” In Media and Cultural Memory Volume 23, edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, 1–147. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Chew, May, Susan Lord, and Janine Marchessault, eds. 2018. “Introduction.” Public: Archive/Counter-Archives 57: 5–9.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2008. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Damien, Antoine. 2014. LGBTQ Film Festivals: Curating Queerness. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
De Kosnik, Abigail. 2020. “Piracy Is the Future of Culture: Speculating about Media Preservation after Collapse.” Third Text 34 (1): 62-70. DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2019.1663687.
Flinn, Andre, and Ben Alexander. 2015. “‘Humanizing an inevitability political craft’: Introduction to the special issue on archiving activism and activist archiving.” Archival Science 15(4): 329–35.
Hosfeld, Brooks. 2018. “Archival of the Fittest: The Role of Archives in Constructing Public Memory of Queer History.” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/2960.
Lambdaistanbul Facebook Page. n.d. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.facebook.com/lambdaistanbul.lgbti?locale=de_DE.
Lambdaistanbul Website. n.d. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://lambdaistanbul.org
Lambdaistanbul YouTube Channel. 2020. “Lambda ile Zaman Tüneli.” YouTube, streamed live on April 25, 2020. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJc-JkwRsCM.
Mbembe, Achille. 2002. “The Power of the Archive and its Limits.” In Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton and Verne Harris, 19–26. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Paalman, Floris, Giovanna Fossati, and Eef Masson, eds. 2021. “Introduction: Activating the Archive in The Moving Image.” The Moving Image 21(1&2): 1–25.
Rogerson, Steph Schem. 2018. “I, Mabel Hampton, Political Power and the Archive.” Public: Archive/Counter-Archives 57: 80–86.
Uslu, Niyaz. 2021. “LGBTİ+ Aktivizmi ve Arşivcilik: Lambdaistanbul Arşivinin izini sürmek.” In Türkiye’de Arşivciliğin Bugünü ve Yarını, Kadınların Arşivlerdeki Yeri Sempozyumu, edited by Aslı Davaz, Birsen Talay Keşoğlu, Seval Ünlü, and Tuba Demirci, 308–340. Istanbul: Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi & Beykoz Üniversitesi. http://kadineserleri.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Türkiye’de-Arşivciliğin-Bugünü-ve-Yarını.pdf.
 I am using LGBTI+ because in Turkey predominantly this version of the LGBTQI+ label is used. The letter Q does not exist in the Turkish alphabet and queer was turned into kuir taking on the Turkish pronunciation. I take this as an act of local “appropriation” of the “Western” terminologies.
 Lubunya is used like the term “queer” in Turkey and comprises all sexual orientations and gender identities that defy heteronormativity. Lubunca is a mix of linguistic expressions from different marginalized groups in Turkey like Roma, Greek, and so on.
 I use his first name since we got on a personal level very quickly with Okan. Moreover, in the Turkish language formal address also uses the first name, so this feels more natural.
 Lambda ile zaman tüneli/Time warp with Lambda is a zoom recording of conversations of members published by Lambdaistanbul on YouTube and provides an oral history of the organization. Throughout, this analogy of Lambdaistanbul as a school is repeatedly highlighted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJc-JkwRsCM (last accessed May 20, 2023).
 For instance, Stonewall (1995) was translated into Lubunca.