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Viewing Film Viewing Memory in the Cinema of Ömer Kavur

Viewing Film Viewing Memory in the Cinema of Ömer Kavur

Ayla Kanbur

Yeditepe University, Faculty of Communication,
Department of Radio, Television and Cinema
akanbur@yeditepe.edu.tr

The practice of film viewing is connected with our senses and therefore with our memory which also works pictorially. This is because the screen itself is a space and the contents of scenes are constituted by spaces that we can correlate with memory. This paper will be constructed from the way that the memory of the spectator is stimulated during a film viewing experience. 

In this context, the films of Omer Kavur, in particular, require the audience to remember the social and cultural history of Turkey in order to empathize with the characters’ lives, make meaning from the films or to understand the story and structure of the films. The films, in one sense, go beyond mainstream patterns of storytelling, which are strongly based on causal connections between characters and events, the smooth flow of the plot and continuity. Although the films don’t deal with history, the stories pass through significant periods in Turkey in an ambiguous way. The social history appears and leaks into the lives of the individuals around which the narrative is constructed. In other words, the personal histories of the characters are intertwined with social and national history, which determines the personal stories in the narration. 

This paper will explore the following points.

1. The stories are based on characters who have a ‘conversion’ stored in their memory. In other words, because Turkey’s history has not been daringly interrogated, in personal histories this relation with national history comes out as a kind of transfer to a different channel, because it is lived in another form. In these films the protagonists always have  problems with the past and with remembrance. The process of recollection generates a journey through an “unresolved present time”. This is like, after a particular trauma, being stuck in a frozen moment or twilight zone that in turn creates the ambiguity of the narrative. A journey to that point seems unavoidable, in order to resolve the suppressed, lost moment, to activate the long-standing stopped time, to make flow it again, or to put it into ongoing time, rather than simply remembering the past. Until time starts flowing from the stopped moment, for the character this particular frozen time must be lived again but in a different dimension. It is a kind of challenge to face up to a trauma-like experience. 

For the sake of the long-waited confrontation itself and to gain the courage for their next step, whatever it brings, the characters have to undertake this journey, to catch their own flow of time, in order to form an identity. 

2- (Conversion) In the above context, Kavur’s films show that the memory of individuals is strongly connected to socially constructed space and time. Therefore, social history may signify personal memory and therefore collective memory. The conversion constructed through the connections between the space, time and memory of individuals indicates that it has two dimensions. One is that in which characters live trauma-like events, and these fissures are referred to the fissures, cracks and splits of Turkish social history. To put it in another way, individuals are lost because of these fissures, common history can’t continue in its own time and time doesn’t flow because of these individuals. The confrontation with their own history has been delayed or rather they have not been in connection with history in the way one would need to be in life for both personal and cultural identity.

To explain the above points, firstly I will apply Robert Culberton’s research on how the people who are exposed to a traumatic period remember and recount it.  This research particularly supports the use of the term “conversion” in the first statement. Violence is about “the system of power in which one has not even the power to stay alive except by disappearing into the event by becoming the extension of the oppressor.”(4) It means that surviving at the moment of being exposed to oppression is only achieved at the cost of losing one’s own self. 

Culberton observes the silent moments of those who tell their story.  “The silence is an internal one in which the victim attempts to suppress what is recalled or finds it repressed by some part of oneself which functions as stranger, hiding the self from the self’s experience. …. Yet despite this silence, the momentous nature of threats and harm to body dictates that trauma leaves the survivor preoccupied with the memory of it, which itself seems both absent and entirely too present.. ….The bits of memory flash like clipped pieces of film held to the light, as if possessed by a life independent of will or consciousness. ….. This presence though presenting themselves as clearly past, real, and fully embodied,  [m]emories appear in non-narrative forms that seem to meet no standard test for truth or comprehensibility.”  Culberton’s analysis points out that “the survivor lives with the paradox of silence and the present but unreachable force of memory and a concomitant need to tell what seems untellable. …. It is the paradox of a known and felt truth that unfortunately obeys the logic of dreams, so seems as difficult to communicate and interpret even to oneself. It is a paradox of the distance of one’s own experience.”

In the same sense, Kavur reflects his own remembrance or reconciliation by loading the specific dates and lost images from Turkish history onto the characters by means of fragmentary images, fissures and discontinuities of time and space. 

Culberton then relates his work with society. “The demands of narrative for their part operate in fact as cultural silencers to this sort of memory, descending immediately on an experience to shape a notion of ‘legitimate memory’, and silencing the sort of proto-memory described.” Thus, the body’s own recollection of its response to threat and pain is not perceived because “wordless language is not intelligible to one whose body is not similarly affected, because without words the experience has a certain shadowy quality, a paradoxical unreality. The narrated story which is ordered, rational and clear, must not be confused with ‘deep memory’, the persistence of the past in its own perpetual present.” In other words a narrative of traumatic experience is possible within legitimating memory but it covers over the remembrance of the pain and threat inscribed on the body which retians the traces of the experienced moment. 

The concept of legitimate memory also marks the narrative structure of the films. It is as if the historical turning points are legitimated by the director through the personal stories of the characters. The cultural and social history of Turkey is implied in the plot throughout the spaces, bodies and faces which the characters explore on their journey. Because the turning points are not presented with an exact image, they appear as silent moments which signify another reading rather than finding legitimated narration.

The characters are in search for their cultural identity, their own story and they try to set free their own lost images. This search inevitably forces them to deal with common history. It is history itself that has generated the black holes and gaps in the mind of people, resulting in them not living their own time and space. The spaces, faces, people, and stories that they meet on the journey show that there could be another time to be lived. It is this time in which they could belong and feel at home. These spaces also cause them to imagine this particular time with their body and soul.

The way the characters relate to the past also reveals the concept of collective memory in Jan Assmann’s sense of the term. As he said, we need the concept of cultural memory as a functional frame for the foundation of tradition, for relation with the past, political identity or imagination. Although it is artificial, it is still a memory, because its relation to social communication is similar to the relation between human memories and consciousness. Individuals are the subject of the memory and recollection but in a relation of dependence on the modifying frame of cultural memory. This statement of Assmann is related to the concept of legitimate memory mentioned above. For Assmann, if a human and/or a society recount the past within this modifying frame, some points are necessarily left out of the frame to be forgotten. However, if forgetting occurs it is just because memory is alive. Memory maintains its existence in constant communication. When the frame of this communication or the reality surrounding it changes or is lost, forgetting occurs. Just because they have been forgotten, the forgotten points have the power to interrupt both continuity and communication. If memory is alive, the body that is inscribed, recorded by past moments lays itself open to the possibilities of recollection. Therefore, as in traumatic experience, they must be remembered. Because the forgotten ones or those left out of the frame are still contained in spaces as they are in the body. When someone happens to be in those spaces, one realises that the previous recollection within the legitimate frame, the frame which has been constructed in the past, does not belong to one’s own self. As Marcel Proust said, forgotten things are remembered more intensely. (1997; 196) The moments which are forgotten, only because they have been forgotten, keep their entire strength.  

The relation of the characters’ memory to spaces in Kavur’s films is overtly emphasized. The characters during their inner journeys make connections with spaces which evoke the suppressed memory. They feel the pain of being suspended between past and future. However, the legitimate frame of memory has already been destroyed.  In their attempts to release themselves from this liminal position they begin a search. In this search they confront the reality of their lost identity and image and try to re-construct it; although they reach a destination it turns out to be quiet different from the one which had been planned. The first aim has been changed within the duration of the road or the time of the space. The journey reveals the defect of the previous recollection, and therefore reveals the reconciliation that is necessary for identity construction. The reminder of being imprisoned or the stimuli of the mind of the characters is that the spaces, and characters also search the reminders of lost images for their memory within the spaces. However, the blurred frame, the pain of not recalling, scatters them to several places. Spaces, bodies and faces are used as reminders of things hidden in the mind. 

This search can not be fulfilled without innervation in Benjamin’s sense. Miriam Hansen traces the concept in detail in her article “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One Way Street” “There is no imagination without innervation, exact pictorial imagination is essential to the vitality of the will in contrast with mere words…” In the context of innervation, when we look at the characters and their journey, we observe that the former frame of legitimate memory is destroyed by spaces and faces.  Instead, for an exact imagination of the vitality of the will, an inner/internal journey seems necessary, and it must follow a trajectory and pass through spaces with innervation.  

Having not an exact connection with Turkish history (silent moments) is the mark of Kavur’s films. They imply the relation of individuals in Turkey to their social and cultural history. To briefly remember the historical moments, which may be called ruptures, is necessary before I go through the films: 1923 is the foundation date of Turkish Republic, which also points to cut off all institutional and cultural ties between Ottoman Empire. 1950’s are the date when Turkey started multiparty system which was also in a way of change from Atatürk’s principles. 1960’s started with a military intervention with the claim to stop deviation from the foundation principles of Turkey. Throughout 60’s it can be said that Turkey was in the same wave with the world regarding the revolutionary ideas. The period was a kind of liberation of the society and individuals having hopes for the future. 1970’s also started with military intervention which led to 1980’s coup d’état. 1970’s were still sustaining relatively similar hope to 60’s. 1980’s coup d’état was much more brutal than had been ever seen. This was the most traumatic moment of the history that every one forgot by the end of 1980’s and no one was willing to talk about this. 

I will start with the film called Secret Face which contains less history but most themes of Kavur’s film. It is more abstractly constructed on the spaces, faces and relation between people.

A young photographer is hired by a woman to take picture for herself. The woman looks for a face having meaningful story. Woman wants to find the story which the wrinkles tell as in pictures. In fact, she looks for her story. The face the photographer finds is that a clock repairman has got. The man’s motto is that the peace is not in the shop but inside the clocks. “People do not know how frightening and dark the springs, gears and curves of clocks are. Just because of that, they may be grieved and even they can not tell their own story.” When the woman meets with the man she remembers being abandoned by her father. The photographer’s story resembles to woman’s. He goes back his town when he hears his father has died. He starts a journey back to find the woman again or a search for his inner self, he spends time in different towns in different time pace. He starts waiting for the woman and he assumes she will stop off in this town.. He is now in his story and the story is in the different track of temporality, beyond the actual flowing time. Everything surrounded him is transformed into different place during the expectancy. Finally, he finds the woman in a town where the clock tower can be seen from every point of view. In a scene, while everyone tells their story, the clock repairman says that “We can find the meaning lost in our face, only if we remember, finding the time having flown, remembering and telling the pain, looking for the gears of the clock concealed in our souls. Clocks remind us.”

Secret Face clearly reveals the places and faces are the spaces where memory is stimulated. The film also implies that fatherhood is a reference metaphorically to the collective history which shapes one’s own identity. 

Motherland Hotel begins with a claim that the film will tell a story of Zebercet, the protagonist. He tells that he was born 1950, before him, his mother got four miscarriages before his birth, and his birth was earlier than expected. Mother died in 1960 in the same summer when he was circumcised. He took his discharge from army duty in 1971. He has been running the hotel since the death his father in 1981. The hotel has been converted from mansion. Zebercet is stuck on this space, in historical sense it is between mansion from Ottoman Empire and the hotel of contemporary Turkey. He goes out the hotel very rarely as the place needs the responsibility to be taken. Hitler style moustache which he imagines from time to time is a symbol inscribed in his body. The customers bring in the rhythm of outside while an old man and a house keeper lady keep asking if some one brings any news for them. House keeper doesn’t accept the reality of the death of her uncle and her mind is obsessed in that point. The old man is wanted by police because of the murder of his daughter. Zebercet doesn’t leave the hotel because of the imagination of a lady who stayed at that hotel for while. The symbolic position of the place drives him to be loneliness and if some one asks his name and the place he replies with different name and the place as mansion. Neither inside nor outside is his own space. The only thing he remembers in this place is the face of the lady. Zebercet never touches any object in her room, keeps everything as same as she left. The left of the lady drags him into the search for his own time in another dimension. The time which has never belonged to him since he has run the Hotel is 1980’s. He feels guilty, however, this feeling enhance his cowardice. The lady who resembles his mother died in 1960’s will not come back, that time will not be lived again and Zebercet will suicide because of the dead-end here in the hotel since 1980. As he has not solved the crisis in his own history, the changes in and of time and space can not be lived, while time flows outside.

In “Night Journey” we watch similar story of  Zebercet: Social history/time interrupts the personal time and the individuals can not interfere it. The protagonist goes to a journey for a search for his film. However, this journey through spaces turns in to face up with him, and it is symbolically become to settle up his inner guiltiness in an abandoned village. In this space we watch his own story written by himself. This ghostly, dangling village is a place of history that was abandoned in 1923 during the commutation between Turkish Greeks and Greek Turks. The place will be converted to touristic place but an old man, who lives in the place of his own memory, counters against it; because the change would destroy the history, both social and people’s own history. The place of ruins reminds the director of another history, the time when his brother dies. That is the time as if wreckage of a war when people were taken from their home by police. Two rupture in the flow of the history collide with one another in the space of screen. This abandoned place will be re-lived if it is remembered, and its time must reflux. The similar kind of historical ruptures are exposed in the church with the voice over of Kenan Evren who was in charge for the coup d’état in 1980. These periods are the history of Turkey and their after effects had been lived by people. It can not be the history primed by school teacher and told by heart. The trauma-like dates stop the time flowing in its channel. To flow the time, people must remember it and confront with it. As in the monolog of the director in the film; “You can not solve something by running away, you are not alone, it is the time settle the reality, you must feel what you lived, all emotions and memory”, then he answer to himself, “I wish I had overcome the fear surrounded me”. Why is he afraid of and does feel guilty? It is the facing up to his story but he can not also erase it from his mind. However, he knows well that without facing up he can not sustain. He has got personal disaccord and interval with the history which he would position his identity. The situation pushes him out of the time, to a way in the curves of his memory. He can not be the one who are imposed to live the story which doesn’t belong to him. One of the themes in Kavur’s films is the clock workmanship that we see in Night Journey again. A village school teacher whose appearance is peaceful as he lives his own body’s time and he mends clocks patiently. 

Encounter’s story is set in the present concealing the past. It starts with the question of “what is happiness?” Sinan the architecture (also the name of famous architecture in Ottoman period), answer: “something which comes out of blue for some people.” It is a dialog between two people whose lives overlap during cancer therapy in a hospital. Both are fathers. The architecture has lost his son and other one, Mahmut, who runs gambling club, has abandoned his son. The time of Sinan has stopped since the death of his son in a motorbike accident after an argument with him, where as Mahmut is in the time of an emptiness. Mahmut gives his pocket watch, which he describes it lie detector, to Sinan While Sinan cannot express the death of his son, Mahmut interprets it as guiltiness and continues: “there is no therapy to cure the cells of feeling guilty.” After Mahmut has died Sinan goes to an island mentioned by Mahmut before. The episode starts with the title of the place in opposition to previous episode which indicates the passing time. As soon as Sinan arrives at the island he crashes to a motorbike driven by Osman, Mahmut’s son and the pocket watch of given by Mahmut stops. After Sinan gets it mended he starts living another time passage. It is as if a De ja Vu time. Both become close and feel as father and son. But this friendship is troubled by the fact that Osman has killed his father. Osman kills a police who annoys his mother. The reason why Osman has killed them is the word “bastards” told by both his father and the policeman. Sinan gives the watch to Osman and it means starting the time of Osman. When young boy points the gun to Sinan in the setting of wind mills, explain his feelings: For Osman, his own father cut off his own time, he is gambler, the police is oppressor, authoritative and having no personality and Sinan is a father who has not been able to protect his own son, own future. Osman doesn’t kill Sinan but Sinan has already in pain of guiltiness and lives in a deja vu time, without any direction.

These all films require the audience to innervate an exact imagination to understand the signification of how collective and personal memory overlap. To grasp the journey of characters audience must leave themselves to their inner self which everyone in different countries would live the same experience of conflict with the official, national written or forgotten history which does not incorporate with personal and experienced level.  

 “Intrusion of a forgotten past that disrupts the fictitious progress of chronological time  

Fracture, fissure, split, crack

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