Transnational Archival Practice as a Necessity in Cinema Practice: The Film Series The Invitees at Sinema Transtopia and the Rediscovery of Kara Kafa
Munich Central Station. The train to Belgrade is leaving soon. Leaning out of the windows, the passengers wave at the camera. A farewell to Germany. Some are only temporarily ending their time working here, others forever [Fig. 1]. Abschied (eng. Farewell) is also the title of this film, whose last images fade into the credits. The Yugoslavian filmmaker Želimir Žilnik shot this 9-minute film in 1975 as one of eight films made during his stay in West Germany. Until only recently, however, even he didn’t know anything about the fate of his film, which, to his knowledge, was considered lost.
We unexpectedly came across Abschied and Unter Denkmalschutz (Under Heritage Protection)—two short films shot by Želimir Žilnik in 1975 during his stay in Munich—in the archive of the Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD) while doing research for the film series Die Eingeladenen (The Invitees), initiated by Sinema Transtopia. Both films could be scanned and subtitled and finally shown with other films in this eight-part program that ran between November 30, 2021, and October 8, 2021.
Before I go into the specifics of this film series, I would like to present Sinema Transtopia, the artistic direction of which I share with Malve Lippmann. Sinema Transtopia started in 2020 at the Haus der Statistik at Berlin Alexanderplatz as a transnational cinema experiment to forge a bridge between urban space and film as a cultural practice. After a temporary two-year use of this space in the midst of the pandemic, it found a more long-term home in its new location in Berlin-Wedding. Here Sinema Transtopia establishes itself as a transnational space for film culture, art, knowledge, and community, thus creating a place that takes urban and transnational living for granted, that creates access, stimulates discussion, educates, moves, provokes, and encourages. Sinema Transtopia thus stands for a cinema that sees itself as a social place simultaneously committed to local and international communities, one that regards film-historical work as the work of cultural remembrance and that is dedicated to a diversity of film culture and film art. “Transtopia” is a term used by migration researcher Erol Yıldız to describe spaces “where transnational ties and connections converge, are reinterpreted, and condense into everyday contexts.” (2013, 9, translation from German) Following on from this we link geographies both near and far, taking into consideration their narratives, pasts, presents and futures. Cinema here becomes a meeting place where people come together not only to witness film, but to experience a space of lively discourse, of living, working and learning together. We are convinced that the narratives and memories of a transnational city must also be informed by “migrant knowledge” (Ayşe Güleç). Güleç indicates here a knowledge that has always already been there, but that has usually gone overlooked and unheard, and that contains a critical knowledge about social contexts and connections marked by the experiences of marginalization. Archival practice is thus self-evident, even considered necessary in this cinema practice. Projects based on transitional archive research are therefore the focus of our programming. We see the cinema as a site where archives are activated, made accessible and visible.
The film series The Invitees was also such a film series at Sinema Transtopia, one focused on archival research. The series was initiated in cooperation with the non-profit organization DOMiD on the occasion of the 60 years since the recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey, with an initial goal of newly viewing and contextualizing the film prints held at the DOMiD archive. With little known films from Germany, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia, round table talks, and lectures, the series looked at the neglected histories of labor migration to Germany. It also analyzed stereotypical narratives and existing visual politics, encouraging new ways to view the history of migration while advocating for a transnational culture of remebrance. What this means here is a transnational remembering that does justice to the significance of interwoven cultures of memory and can point out indentificatory references beyond the nation-state.
The project’s starting point were archival holdings that had not yet been completely categorized and sorted. As a condition of this collaboration, a service was promised in return, namely, not only to view these holdings, but also to catalog them appropriately. There was therefore a strong wish for this collection to be not only the object of a one-off project, but also to be made accessible to other interested parties who wished to engage with these films in other contexts. For what seemed relevant to us was not only the question of what is or becomes part of an archive, but also of who gets access to these archives.
The central question of the film series was: How can we establish new approaches to working with archives and film heritage that would be independent of a definition of the “national film heritage” and that would not exclusively be based on the limited self-image of a nation-state? In order to find possible answers, we followed the traces of films that were made under the direction of non-German filmmakers or German filmmakers of color, that were shot with partly non-German teams in Germany and in non-German languages, but that explicitly dealt with life in this country. Due to the nation-state based definition of German film funding laws, these films had not been recognized as part of the so-called “German film canon” or were not considered part of “German film history.” They therefore shared a sad fate, namely that they had either insufficient opportunities to be shown and seen in German cinemas or none at all, and ultimately to be preserved in German archives. These films had thus fallen victim to the nation-state definitions of possible film funding or of non-classification as German film heritage, although they were shot in Germany and told by people living in Germany.
These films take up the stories of migrants, pose questions about German society, were usually produced with limited means, and in some cases could not be publicly shown due to censorship in their countries of production—and they also were not shown in German cinemas or in festivals due to lack of funds, networks, or other unfortunate circumstances. Neither in Germany nor in their original countries of production were they able to reach a wider audience; as cinematic outsiders they were often only accessible to diaspora or repatriate communities and special interests. Alongside the two films by Želimir Žilnik, already mentioned above, there was a program of short films from the former Yugoslavia including Na Objedu (eng. At Lunch) by Vefik Hadžismajlović (1972), Halo München by Krsto Papić (1967), and Dernek (eng. Party) by Zoran Tadić (1975)—all films that deal with the societal aspects of labor migration to Germany and that tell micro-stories of longing, separation, and return. Another film in the program was Gastarbeiter (eng. Guest Worker) by Bogdan Žižić (1977), which is constructed from illustrations by Dragutin Trumbetaš. Trumbetaš himself came to Frankfurt am Main as a so-called “guest worker” and worked there as a painter and graphic artist. As part of the film series The Invitees we, in cooperation with the film scholar Ömer Alkın, were also able to unearth the Turkish television series Bağrıyanık Ömer ve Güzel Zeynep (1978) by Yücel Çakmaklı from the Turkish state television archive (TRT), which was in part shot in Munich. Çakmaklı, whose films continued to be popular in Muslim cultural circles in Germany and are considered almost extended educational material, had dealt with questions of assimilation and migrant identity in this television film, just as he had previously in his feature films Oğlum Osman (eng. My Son Osman) (1973) and Memleketim (eng. My Homeland) (1974). Another discovery from the TRT archive, Geyikler, Annem ve Almanya (eng. The Deer, My Mother, and Germany) by Tuncer Baytok (1987) tells the painful story of a girl that has to prepare to say goodbye to her mother, who will soon go to Germany to be with the father. Both films, which come from the archives of the Turkish TRT, had their first public cinema screenings in this program.
“Toxic Films” in Political Educational Work and Dealing With Racist Narratives
As part of our research in the archive of our cooperation partner DOMiD, we also came across films that were commissioned by German cultural and educational institutions such as the Institut für Film und Bild in Wissenschaft und Unterricht (FWU), the Goethe-Institut, and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, which distributed primarily by local state film distribution centers. For example, the lavishly produced language course Guten Tag by the Goethe-Institut was created in collaboration with radio and television broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, and has the goal, in its 26 episodes, not only of teaching basic language skills, but also of familiarizing newly arrived young students with everyday life in West Germany. This incidentally includes conveying what the commissioning bodies define as “German culture.” Over the course of this series one can learn to correctly and clearly pronounce sentences like “I am a stranger here,” “I am a foreigner,” or “I don’t speak German,” which are then supposed to be used in ordinary everyday practice. The elaborate, artistic sets of the studio recordings sometimes have a surreal effect, the humorous staging intentionally trying to raise the fun factor of learning. On the other hand, the series Viel Glück in Deutschland (eng. Good Luck in Germany), commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Labor, prepared workers for everyday life on the job with vocabulary like “time card,” “personnel office,” and “The foreman is waiting.” In Tipps für den Alltag (eng. Everyday Tips) there is a comedic element to presenting what is characterized as “typically German” and what is conveyed as the standard to aim for. In the various language versions the “Gastarbeiter” protagonist here is called Ali or Yannis according to the version, and always plays the clueless, even hare-brained worker that still has a bit to learn in Germany. Similar patterns can be found in the educational film Zu Gast in unserem Land (eng. A Guest in our Country), produced by the Federal Agency for Civic Education and broadcast by ZDF. Here the offspring of the majority society is prepared for the confrontation with the “guests.” The fictional action is commented on with graphic elements and interviews on the street, thus attempting to underscore the stories with facts and figures, but also with “the voice of the people.”
These film products influenced a certain media understanding of the migrant population in West Germany starting in the 1960s, generating an immense amount of stereotypes. These stereotypes and the images that go with them have formed a sediment in the consciousness of large swaths of the German majority society and form the starting point for an ordinary, everyday racism that remains largely uncritical to this day and that it projects on later generations with stories of immigration. The necessity of positioning ourselves against these recurring images and narratives obviously demands that we confront these “toxic films,” even if that can sometimes be unpleasant or even painful.
The team and the audience of Sinema Transtopia consists largely of people of color, who themselves have experiences of migration or who have a history of migration in the family. Confronting these images as part of the film series The Invitees therefore seemed immensely important to us, and we attempted, in discussions following the screenings, to shed light on these films by contextualizing them critically with the guests. We would like to do a thorough critical examination of these films in the future with the participation of the institutions responsible for them, the commissioning bodies of these productions, if they are prepared to confront their own institutional histories. For we believe that a self-critical reflection by German institutions, viewing these images and stories through an analysis critical of racism, could make a constructive contribution to more awareness when shaping the production of images today. Ultimately, a great deal has also been achieved in recent years as concerns non-discriminatory communication—thanks to the engaged work and demands of initiatives from civil society.
Kara Kafa: A Belated Rediscovery With a “Happy End”
I would like to end my essay with positive, hopeful thoughts, and so I mention a recently completed restoration project carried out by the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in cooperation with Sinema Transtopia. The reflections that deal with the central question of the film series The Invitees, namely how to establish new approaches to dealing with archives and film heritage that would exist independent of a definition of the “national film heritage” have developed in this project into a successful result. About ten years ago while reading a text, I ran across the title Kara Kafa (eng. Black Head), a film that was shot in 1979 by the Turkish filmmaker Korhan Yurtsever. I was able to get in contact with the filmmaker and to get a viewing copy. There was no acceptable screening print, since this was a film that had never be brought to premiere at all, and had been banned for 32 years. Kara Kafa was shot in 1979 with an exclusively Turkish team, mostly in in Duisburg, Cologne, and Berlin, and then finished in Turkey. Above all due to its leftist political viewpoint on migration the film stands out from the other examples of German-Turkish cinema, and deals primarily with questions of labor law, feminist perspectives, and racism in German society. After it was finished the censorship board in Turkey at the time banned the film. They claimed it wounded “the honor or our friend Germany, our fellow nation.” The filmmaker Yurtsever was indicted for the film, he fled to Berlin, where he lived in exile for years. Relatively quickly we decided to show the film in Germany to bring attention to this film, which until then had hardly been mentioned at all in German-Turkish film history. The lack of a screening print did not discourage us—after all the fact that there is only a poor digital copy already says a lot about this neglect. Through the support of our team we were able to make English subtitles for the film and in 2016 we showed Kara Kafa with the filmmaker present in our former project space, for the first time in Berlin. It was clear to us, however, that the film could reach a wider audience by being restored, facilitating a new look at a largely hidden chapter of German history. We started looking for a better source material and in the end we were lucky. The original negative, which had not been confiscated by the Turkish authorities, surprisingly turned up last year, and served as the basis for the restoration initiated by the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in cooperation with Sinema Transtopia. In the restoration, which was completed in 2022, Kara Kafa finally received its belated German premiere as part of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), and then had its Turkish premiere at the 42nd Istanbul Film Festival. I view this restoration project as a successful example that can encourage a rethinking of the term “national film heritage.” It is hoped that this will facilitate further restorations of such transnational films, which stand for a new understanding of archival work beyond boundaries.
bi’bak. n.d. “Die Eingeladenen.” Accessed May 30, 2023. https://bi-bak.de/bi-bakino/die-eingeladenen.
Lobato, Ramon. 2012. Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution. London: BFI Publishing.
Yıldız, Erol. 2013. Die weltoffene Stadt. Wie Migration Globalisierung zum urbanen Alltag macht. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.