Found or Lost? Turkey’s Vulnerable Film and Video Heritage
Archives cope with many challenges. Tangible archival material is threatened by vandalism due to social conflicts, economic shortfalls, theft, neglect and obsolescence of materials, and environmental factors. All archives, including well-organized and financially sustained institutional archives as well as those of the communities of dissent have to cope with these challenges and risks. They also have to deal with their archives’ ephemerality, impermanence, and evanescence due to a lack of sustainability plans and financial problems, together with the threat of political oppression, censorship, and confiscation. Archives that document human rights violations in conflict countries or territories like Turkey are especially under constant threat. There are many cases of confiscated archival documents, film and video material, computers, and hard drives; confinement; and the shutting down of organizations and their projects. This paper looks at the discussion on the vulnerable conditions of film and video archives of activism and dissent communities and several practices in Turkey. The discussion here focuses on the temporality of the archives in the context of time and ephemerality. I examine the temporal tensions and contradictions at play and elaborate on the reasons for ephemerality regarding the activist archives.
Temporality of Activist Archives
In theory, the archive is thought of in terms of consistency, maintenance, and transmission, but in practice, archives are vulnerable, contingent, and obsolete—and activist film and video archives are the most vulnerable. Alycia Sellie et al. (2015, 462) briefly address the temporal particularities of these archives, arguing that the shifting temporalities of activist spaces and various operational challenges, especially financial costs, permanently raise significant questions. Many archives are only able to accommodate short-term projects under these conditions (ibid.), a temporal characteristic that results in a loss of trust and solidarity among members. Archival records and outcomes, knowledge, and experiences easily vanish due to the ephemerality of the material, resources, and non-eligible, discontinuous organizational and environmental conditions.
Many collections of activist film and video archives are temporary, just like the collectives they belong to and the movements they document. This is another difference between traditional archiving as a practice of the everlasting and non-traditional archival practices as always temporary. The traditional archive institutionalizes the past, hence tending to fossilize it, whereas the activist archive is continuously being made, hence inevitably endangered. Essentially, activist film and video archives must cope with the difficulties of preserving low-budget and unstable material and formats. Thus, according to Alycia Sellie et al. (2015, 10), both the collections themselves and the movements they represent are associated with impermanence. The culture of social movements is often created in formats that are already difficult to preserve because the records are created using mass production and inexpensive analog or digital materials that are unstable (ibid.).
Paalman, Fossati, and Masson (2021, 8) highlight this topic in their introduction to a special issue on activating the archive of The Moving Image journal, asserting that “collecting such material for activist purposes often results in unstable archives” and claiming that most recent studies on the relationship between activism and social media focus on “access and re-use.” The archive is thus understood as a collection that serves the “present” rather than the past (as a record-keeping system) or the future (as a system for long-term preservation) (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021, 13). The instability of activist archival practices does not stem from a prioritization of access and re-use but from a variety of other reasons, such as lack of resources, political oppression, and a lack of knowledge and experience.
In fact, many factors combine to result in the instability of activist archives. Collection, acquisition, and selection require a lengthy time period, while sensitive and endangered political material is usually scattered to safeguard it from prosecution or simply because of disorganization. Considering the difficulties of archiving LGBTQI moving image archives, in 2007, Lynne Kirste (2007, 134) noted that the archival material “being ‘everywhere’ created both opportunities and challenges for preservation and access.” Since then, over the last 15 years, LGBTQI communities have made massive progress in assembling archival materials. However, many amateur and independent film and video productions of queer communities are still stored in unsuitable environments rather than in archives. Kirste (2007, 134) explains this as due to the limited distribution opportunities of amateur and independent productions and stresses the archives’ vulnerability, asserting that as long as their elements remain in filmmakers’ closets and basements, they will eventually deteriorate, suffer damage, or be discarded or lost. At this stage, in fact, only the filmmakers have access to the materials. Thus, Kirste stresses the importance of archival outreach in order to make the images viewable now as well as in the future.
The risk of losing historical film material of LGBTQI communities that Kirste addresses applies to many vulnerable communities. According to Kirste, avoiding the loss and deterioration, sustaining accessibility, and creating appropriate conditions for the preservation of moving image materials require “sufficient staff, climate-controlled storage, specialized equipment, expertise in film and tape handling and care, knowledge, and appreciation of moving image history and LGBT culture”—as well as money (Kirste 2007, 134). Scarce labor and financial resources are widespread problems for maintaining the archives. Housing and storage expenses are too high for many unfunded communities to cover. As Cifor (2017, 51) remarks, community archives, including LGBTQI archives, have often been and continue to be located in private homes because of systematic barriers, financial incapacities, and issues around reliability.
Regarding financial challenges, the costs of digitizing printed and analog audiovisual materials tend to be unaffordable for small, already alternative communities. Angela Aguayo (2020, 82–88) draws attention to the vulnerable preservation conditions of participatory community media in the United States. Many of the works from the 1960s and 70s are lost or disintegrating in the archive since they have been “disregarded as nonessential works of history” and thus reckoned as insufficiently important to be preserved. As Aguayo notes, in the last 50 years, microbudget community films followed the technological development from 16mm to half-inch Portapak to videocassette, from cable-access television shows to satellite transmission, and most recently to digital video, mobile phones, online networks, and drone photography (ibid.). Aguayo claims that recording and broadcast formats progress, but the ability to preserve participatory community media recedes. The recordings are continuously lost on deteriorating film and disintegrating tape and left to age in storage closets or nearly vanish on hard drives (ibid.). Indeed, the preservation problems are not limited to analog material. Digital material, also, is not stable. The high general expectations of the preservation capacities of digital formats are also over optimistic. In fact, digital(ized) materials are not a hundred percent stable and durable.
Jerome McDonough and Mona Jimenez (2007, 168) wrote that analog tapes require periodic reformatting, but the signal inevitably degrades during the transfer; thus, while “initial reformatting from analog to digital is certainly costly, future reformatting, properly executed, may prove less costly (as it is more amenable to automation) than continuing a tape-to-tape process.” Digital formats enable long-term preservation facilities with different budget options. This technology, however, has vulnerabilities concerning the uncertainty of maintenance due to limited resources, capacity problems concerning labor, space, and money, and (further, ongoing) technical developments. Digital preservation is not a sustainable solution, and the digitization of archival material does not guarantee an infinite lifetime. Many incidents have ended in the loss of archives, even in the largest institutions, let alone in the under-resourced, alternative world of the activist organizations.
The commonality of maintenance problems and the main reasons for the instability of activist archival material have attracted the attention of researchers and practitioners. Although not specifically focusing on the weaknesses of certain practices, this framework will help to present the general situation of archiving the moving image and the vulnerabilities of activist archival practices, including the ones in Turkey. As I have become an accidental archivist over the last ten years, I got involved in several archival endeavors in Turkey and took the initiative together to make their film and video collections accessible. These collections include militant film heritage of the 1960s and the 70s, found footage collections, analog and digital video collections of activists that I shortly review below.
Militant Film Heritage in Turkey
The militant cinema movement in Turkey brought film cameras to the streets at the end of the 1960s. Members of the Young Cinema Movement (Genç Sinema Harketi), which broke off from Turkish Cinémathèque (Sinematek), produced the first examples of the militant cinema movement in Istanbul (Kara 2013). Enis Rıza, one of the group members, describes it as a civic and collective movement whose members also traveled to different towns and cities, recording what they observed, making short films, and distributing them. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, they recorded rallies, workers’ marches, strikes, boycotts, occupations, and NGO activities, as well as street theater performances, and making documentaries until their office in Istanbul was shut down following the military coup on March 12, 1971, when some of their films were confiscated and many members were either arrested or fled abroad. According to Şirin Erensoy (2019, 53), one of the young filmmakers smuggled some of the films abroad and was later murdered. The rest of the collective did not know of the whereabouts of the smuggled films. On February 25, 1978, the Young Cinema Movement was finally closed down, and the films were handed over to the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (Türkiye Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu, DİSK) (Kara 2013).
Films salvaged from confiscation are still in storage and have yet to come to light. A film collector and media artist, Ege Berensel (personal communication 2019), discovered a pile of militant films made before the 1980s by several groups of filmmakers, such as Real Cinema (Gerçek Sinema). Several film collectives had gathered at political parties, such as the Turkey Labor Party (Türkiye İşçi Partisi) and Turkey Communist Party (Türkiye Komünist Partisi), and syndicates, such as the filmmakers’ and miners’ syndicates (Sine-Sen, Yeraltı Maden-İş), along with several university socialist groups and film clubs. Many films and street tapes from this period assumed to be ‘lost’ had either been seized by the military commissions or smuggled abroad. Berensel found others in flea markets, secondhand bazaars, and the depots of collectors, unions/syndicates, and private collections.
Berensel started to collect 8mm films in the beginning of the 2000s. He first found an 8mm film collection of the Marxist-Leninist political movement “Devrimci Yol” (Revolutionary Path, Dev-Yol) in a storehouse. He cleaned up the films and made a telecine transfer with his own means and found an 8-hour footage of a well-known rally of miners “Yeni Çeltek” and May 1st demonstrations, including the protests of Dev-Yol fugitives (Berensel 2016, 116). Over the years, Berensel became acquainted with the junk shops, flea markets, and warehouses in Turkey, where he discovered a pile of film collections considered “lost” and developed his restoration skills to rescue them. He says:
I have acquired all kinds of devices in order to digitize images, and to telecine films and restore them. I have pursued 8mm films sold by PTT (Postal Service of Turkey), exceeding 30 years old, as they could not be delivered to their addresses. A film related to the post-12th of September (military coup) period was one that appeared among the films stored by the PTT, as they could not be delivered to the address after having been shipped abroad for developing; the footage was shot from a curtain pitch on the top of a wall in Kabataş. (Berensel 2016, 116)
Although Berensel approaches private archives, personal collections, and family storages for his devotion to bringing the lost film heritage out, he still believes that the films that witnessed political movements specifically before the 1980s still remain hidden somewhere.
Many missing videotapes have also been brought to light by archival initiatives in the last few years. Several groups and individuals recorded political events and protests during the 1990s, such as human rights abuses, civil disobedience practices, precedent trials, fact-finding missions, press conferences, and interviews with lawyers, human rights advocates, and state officials. For example, artist and activist Şanar Yurdatapan collected such recordings related to human rights and freedom of expression. An archival initiative has been taking care of Yurdatapan’s collections from TV stations, local agencies, and human rights organizations. There are over one hundred video files consisting of approximately two hours of footage and more than a thousand video entries, some of which last two minutes and others up to fifty minutes. There are about 250 hours of video footage covering the years 1993-2006.
This collection specifically shows that the visual memory of the 1990s is shaped by the discovery of various mass graves, bones, and bodies in excavations in waste dumps and informal graveyards and associated trials and forensic reports. However, most of the files, forensic reports, shreds of evidence, and audiovisual recordings from those years were destroyed or remain undiscovered, and the remains are left to decay in storage or are waiting for expiration on hard drives. Doğan and Bayram (2020, 214), who have analyzed Yurdatapan’s collection, including the recordings of the court testimonies of victims of state violence who survived, note that most of the tapes were neither digitized nor preserved in appropriate conditions, so the short lifespan of VHS and other videotapes means that they remain undiscovered records.
I Want My Archive Back!
Independent, non-institutional archiving practice has been both informally and officially regarded as a criminal act in many conflict countries, including Turkey. Having a complex relationship with archiving, some governments forbid and ban any non-sanctioned archival attempts. For instance, state-led discrimination and oppression in countries like Turkey that have a history of military coups/regimes target dissident communities and have aimed to annihilate the political memory of leftist, autonomous, and liberation movements, often enough with considerable success. The present governmental regime in Turkey can easily classify any activist archiving initiative as an illegal activity.
An example that illustrates the archival fear in Turkey that pervades in the chilling air of state oppression is the confiscation of the archive of video activist and documentary filmmaker Oktay İnce in 2019. Police seized İnce’s digital archival material, which spans more than twenty years of work containing the recordings of human rights activism in Turkey (Bishara 2019). İnce’s case symbolizes and reveals the history of systematic confiscation and annihilation of radical and pro-democracy archives and film materials constituting the memory of media collectives, syndicates, journalists, artists, and filmmakers in Turkey since the beginning of the 1960s.
Following the confiscation of the archival material, İnce started a series of protests and called out: “I want my archive back!” Thereby the archive has been brought in the country’s political agenda as a cause of dissidence and a field of struggle and right (Doğan and Bayram 2020). This particular case and many others reveal the fact that it is void of a support and preservation mechanism for people’s right to the archive and their claim for safekeeping the common documents of history enables its violation. İnce continued to protest the confiscation by Turkish authorities within and outside the system of strict pyramidal control of state security agencies, juridical structures, and information organizations until he received his hard drives back at the end of 2021.
While his digital archival material consists of more up-to-date political events, the videotape collection that was disregarded during the raid extends to the end of the 1990s and the 2000s. Shortly after the raid, İnce and I transported his videotape collection to two institutions in Europe for restoration, preservation, and digitization. The collections consisting more than a thousand videotapes in different formats are comprised of all of İnce’s output in the last 20 years: footage of the LGBTQI struggle in Turkey, Kurdish displacement and the consequences of war in western Turkey, antimilitarist movement, Gezi resistance, movements of workers’ unions, syndicates, human rights organizations, and the radical left in Turkey. İnce also documented the hunger strikes of prisoners against isolation policies and F-type prisons at the end of the 1990s and during the mass layoffs in 2015-16.
Protecting the archival material from possible violation and destruction refers to the right to recordkeeping. As well as making visible the violation of rights and social struggles, these records ensure the formation of a basis for public debate. As Doğan and Bayram (2020, 214) argue, the visual records in the human rights archives contribute to creating public spaces beyond the juridical space, including not only those of academic institutions and human rights initiatives but also wider arts and cultural spaces. The emergence of accountability and the potential of judicial remedy depends on human agency and the publicity that comes together around these records. In the case of the non-existence of this kind of publicity and the continuation of unjust conditions, these records preserve and bring their tacit potential to the future. Thus, such archives are powerful mobilizers of knowledge and memory, which can create global accountability with an encompassing force not only for the past but for the present and future.
As asserted by Paalman, Fossati, and Masson “all kinds of films get neglected or endangered, but activist media especially run the risk of being lost,” the reason being that “they have usually been released outside of mainstream distribution channels and often under political threat” (2021, 11). Accordingly, activists in Turkey have often not been able to provide the necessary conditions to preserve their audiovisual records. Their images have been criminalized, destroyed, stolen—or just lost, literally. Remains are decaying in darkroom corners and expiring on old tapes and drives. As outlined in this paper, the difficult conditions experienced put archives and their actors in a fragile, weak, and vulnerable position prone to damage, disappearance, and loss and urgently impelling the identification and seeking of coping mechanisms. They have to tackle these challenges in their small, restricted environments, and strive to find forms of continuity and dissemination in the context of instability, precariousness, and discontinuity of specific agents. Yet, maintaining these practices would include nourishing relations within and outside the archives, attending to the archival material, and building connections among the archival initiatives and other agents.
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Berensel, Ege. 2016. “Archiving the Garbage: On 8mm Film Archiving.” Autonomous Archiving, edited by Özge Çelikaslan, Alper Şen, and Pelin Tan, 114–119. Barcelona: dpr-barcelona.
Bishara, Hakim. 2019. “Turkish Filmmaker Chains Himself to Culture Ministry to Protest Confiscation of His Archive.” Hyperallergic, June 3. Accessed June 3, 2023. https://hyperallergic.com/503222/turkish-filmmaker-protest/.
Cifor, Marika. 2017. ‘Your Nostalgia is Killing Me’: Activism, Affect and the Archives of HIV/AIDS. Los Angeles: University of California.
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 The experiences of the video collectives of the 1960s and the 70s who established underground video scenes, guerrilla televisions, and street tapes made a significant impact on the aesthetics of the political image; unfortunately, due to difficult labor and preservation conditions, these collectives were unable to maintain all the video recordings of the 1968 protests and civil rights movements of the 70s. As preservation has remained an issue at the institutional level—precisely because it has not been commoned—the accessibility of the preserved material has been rarely discussed by independent initiatives.
 For example, in addition to the 118,000 to 175,000 master audiotapes that belong to the Universal Music Group were destroyed in the fire at the Universal Studios in 2008, between 40,000 to 50,000 archived copies were also lost, including digital material as well as videos and films (Farber 2022).
 See Enis Rıza’s interview in Turkish (Görücü n.d.).
 Berensel managed to collect a total of over 500 found films that remain in his private storage, still awaiting digital preservation due to the high costs of digitizing 8mm and 16mm films.