Keeping one’s mouth shut in Turkey: rediscovering Tongue Twister

A lost gem of collective melancholy, Merlyn Solakhan’s 1985 snapshot of Istanbul under the shadow military oppression made its belated local premiere last month – in a city still not used to seeing its own past reflection.

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Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

“For the poet,” wrote Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, “melancholy is the smoky window between him and the world.” The Turkish term for this is hüzün, but the word – of Arabic origin – means much more than sadness as experienced by individuals. Often invoked in specific relation to the country’s biggest city, Istanbul, hüzün is instead a collective malaise: a gloom shared by many, a subtle miasma accumulated over centuries in this turbulently historic and teemingly gigantic conurbation – once Byzantium, later Constantinople – whose current population bubbles around the 15 million mark.

Pamuk has written about the concept and its multi-faceted consequences – not all of them entirely negative – on many occasions. Capturing hüzün on film, however, has generally proven much more elusive. Detect its traces in Istanbulite writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s international breakthrough Distant (Uzak) (2003), subtly colouring the central relationship between an intellectual photographer and his country-boy cousin. But the most pungent cinematic distillation of hüzün may well be a work which, until very recently, was considerably more obscure: Merlyn Solakhan’s Tongue Twister (Tekerleme), which staged an unheralded but quietly spectacular return from a three-decade limbo at February’s !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival.

Shot in late spring and early summer of 1985, Tongue Twister follows a thirtyish woman returning home to Istanbul from Germany. Her experiences draw directly upon those of Solakhan herself, who had never once left the city’s confines until she was 24, when she went to study at Berlin’s German Film and Television Academy (Dffb) in 1979. Her protagonist (played by Ayse Siir Öke) discovers a very different Istanbul from the one she left behind, Turkey having in 1980 undergone a coup d’état led by General Kenan Evren. Military dictatorship formally continued until general elections – of questionable freedom and fairness – were held in November 1983, resulting in victory for Turgut Özal’s neo-liberal, conservative Motherland Party.

But while the Turkey of 1985 may have officially been a democracy, the Istanbul of Tongue Twister is populated by individuals emerging very cautiously from the shadows of oppression, repression and suppression. Among Solakhan’s chosen milieu – the quasi-bohemian intelligentsia, many of them working in the lucrative but creatively unrewarding advertising industry – ‘freedom of speech’ is evidently still more of an aspiration than everyday reality.

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

The dialogue, written by prominent poet İzzet Yasar (who also plays a supporting role on screen), is often oblique and/or formulaic, to a stylised degree. Instead of discussing politics, current affairs or their own feelings, characters will often exchange slogans, newspaper headlines and tongue-twisters, or indulge in quasi-random word association. The headlines sequence is particularly fascinating: deadpan humour (“Chocolate Burglar Attempts Suicide!”) alternating with glimpses into the tragic realities of the geopolitical situation (“The Middle East Is Crumbling!”) and not-so-veiled criticisms of official incompetence/brutality (“Entire Neighbourhood Torched To Catch Four People!”).

A streak of droll self-awareness provides welcome shading amid the tenebrous manifestations of hüzün, via the discontented, ineffectual figure of Hakkı, a bespectacled grumbler who proclaims himself as being among “the last of the Istanbulites”. Hakkı dreams of making “a film about Istanbul, like Fellini’s Roma” which will “change Turkish cinema” and capture the city via the “reality of two-dimensional fragments”. Wandering along the shore of the Bosphorus, he muses: “It is a treasure. It has infinite resources for the film in my mind.”

While Solakhan (see interview below) doubts that such a city-portrait could ever do justice to Istanbul, she made a start on such a project with her 1983 documentary The City (Şehir) before embarking on her fictional debut, Tongue Twister (shot on black-and-white 16mm by German cinematographer Martin Manz, whose later collaborations with Werner Herzog would include Echoes from a Sombre Empire (1990)). Sound duties were partly handled by Manfred Blank, Solakhan’s partner then and now, who worked on several Straub/Huillet productions and also played Irish hitch-hiker Robinson in their 1983 Kafka adaptation Class Relations.

Solakhan studied under Straub at Dffb, the German Film and TV Academy, and a certain influence may perhaps be discerned in the stripped-down directness of the visuals and the more artificial aspects of the dialogue. Her emphasis since Tongue Twister, however, has been on documentaries – usually made in collaboration with Blank, generally dealing either directly or directly with Istanbul, although she has remained a German resident since Dffb days.

Films such as The Choir (1996), Exile on the Bosphorus (2002) and Ashes and Phoenix (2009) enjoyed limited play around the festival circuit, but Tongue Twister has already attracted more national and even international attention than she has experienced for decades. It debuted in February 1986 in Berlin, at the Forum festival running alongside (and in those days very much independent from) the red-carpet Berlinale – a Forum whose coverage was dominated by the first German screenings of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

Tongue Twister popped up a couple more times later that year, but then effectively disappeared from view – until researcher Burak Çevik heard about its existence from a friend and soon after obtained a samizdat, low-resolution copy online, via a VHS version which had been uploaded some years before. He then contacted Solakhan, who was able to provide the video used to prepare the version shown at Istanbul a belated Turkish premiere. Tongue Twister was received on one level as a time-capsule, a glimpse into a day-before-yesterday Istanbul when the population was barely three million. But it arrived at a time when an atmosphere of fear was thickening in the atmosphere in a manner not known since the 1980s, amid concerns over freedom of speech in the wake of the electoral success last October by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP Party.

The complexities of recent and current Turkish politics are too Byzantine (quite literally) to be properly examined here – though the role of the Islamist Hizmet movement (aka ‘Cemaat’) led by the US-exiled Fethullah Gülen is one that deserves particular attention. Even casual observers of world events, however, will be aware that the international spotlight has in recent months moved to Turkey – a country riven by internal divisions, seemingly edging towards potential war with its belligerent northern neighbour Russia – during negotiations on the European Union’s handling of the migration crisis.

Turkey is effectively engaged in a kind of civil war with representatives of its own Kurdish population in the far east, while the exact nature of its dealings with Islamic State remain clouded in controversy. The press’s investigations into such murky affairs have been hampered by official hostility: journalists (representing both domestic and overseas publications) have been arrested and charged with treason; two critically newspapers have been taken over and neutered by the government; the World Press Freedom index currently ranks Turkey at number 149 of 180 – five places below Myanmar (aka Burma).

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

Tongue Twister (Tekerleme, 1985)

For artists, especially of the elite bracket with international renown, speaking out is a much easier option than it is for members of the press – even if they happen to be journalists and reviewers attending foreign film-festivals. Just as Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Prize liberated his pen and tongue (mere months before the award he was infamously charged with “insulting Turkishness”), Palme d’Or laureate Ceylan can plough his chosen artistic furrow with relative impunity. Likewise 2010 Golden Bear winner Semih Kaplanoğlu; Turkey is, it’s worth remembering, the only country whose productions have won both the Bear and the Palme during the current decade.

And whatever the origins and realities of this lethally sharp-edged jigsaw puzzle, the consequences for Istanbul have been tragic and catastrophic. Ten people were killed by a suicide bomber in the tourist-magnet Sultanahment district in January. A month after the film festival opened at the Fitaş multiplex on İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) – and only a few minutes’ walk down Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare – another five lives were lost to a suicide bomber.

The next day the city’s legendary inter-continental Derby between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to ‘security concerns’; Istanbulites and visitors alike report a suffocating cloud of fear. Hüzün is, it seems, now ubiquitous and near-palpable, binding the city together in ever tighter coils of communal melancholy. Tongue Twister, a delicate and ruminative film, provides both historical parallels and salutary contrasts. Its final image, surveyed from the window of an upmarket city-centre hotel, is of a gaudily illuminated fairground wheel. Stasis, cunningly concealed as progress; a touch of giddy vertigo; revolutions without end.


“You sense what may or may not be spoken aloud”: Merlyn Solakhan interviewed at the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival

What do you recall of the social and political background of the early and middle 1980s, when you shot your films in Istanbul?

Merlyn Solakhan at the Istanbul Independent Film Festival

Merlyn Solakhan at the Istanbul Independent Film Festival

Turkey at that time was a country of the ‘third world’, or an ‘emerging’ country, as they say today. In 1982 I had shot my film The City there, a documentary about Istanbul and the notion of city in general. This was in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d’état – during which the army closed down the Istanbul Cinematheque, of which I had been a member – and a curfew was in operation, so I had to shoot in the company of police agents.

When I came back to shoot Tongue Twister in 1985, I found my friends totally devastated, depressed, disenchanted, scattered and worn out. Many of them had sought refuge in the field of advertising; as they were skilled writers and poets, they became copywriters or founded advertising agencies.

How did this affect the Istanbul you knew from your earliest days?

I think that the cosmopolitan character of the city at that moment largely disappeared, never to return. It was a process that had begun very much earlier, but in the years following the 1980 coup nationalistic elements were given more and more importance. Nearly everyone was in danger of being taken away – not only those declared to be left-wing or a threat to the nation. A huge amount of people had to emigrate abroad; others were taken under arrest and a lot of them were ‘disappeared’ and killed. Violence entered into nearly every facet of society. It can be compared with the military coups in Chile or Greece. It made us shudder.

And now, when you return to Istanbul?

Well, I now can mention all of this. In earlier times I would not have done this and I probably would not have had the courage to do it.

What was the nature of your collaboration with Izzet Yasar, who wrote the dialogue – much of it deliberately stylised and formulaic?

We worked very closely together; our preferences regarding films were similar, and we understood each other. The characters in Tongue Twister were all my friends, and they played themselves or themselves with slight variations.

We used a lot of quotations in the dialogue – partly as a way to be ‘cautious’ and partly as a nod to the nouvelle vague, which we were both fond of. At that time a form of self-censorship, similar to what Brecht termed ‘slave language’, seemed something natural. In a way, I was born into this kind of condition, as a child of Greek-Armenian parents I grew up with the idea of silence, of hiding oneself. Caution was very much the watch-word – a surrendering of identity.

Add a coup d’état to that, and everything gets worse. You always know precisely – you sense it – what may or may not be spoken aloud. Even today it is a bit like that, but not to the extent of the early 1980s. This kind of ‘keeping one’s mouth shut’ is obviously an element in Tongue Twister.

Why was the film so hard to see after 1986?

Tongue Twister was made under the auspices of the Dffb, which meant it obtained screenings in places like Frankfurt and Karlsruhe – a network of non-commercial cinemas. In those times the German image of Turkey and its inhabitants was based around the idea of gastarbeiter, the guest-workers who after 1960 had come to (West) Germany for manual employment. In Germany as a whole, very little was known about Turkey – it wasn’t yet a holiday destination. I think this was the main reason why the film obtained such limited exposure. For many years myself and others were held back by the fact that we did not want to make movies about gastarbeiter matters.

And in Turkey?

Merlyn Solakhan and crew in 1985

Merlyn Solakhan and crew in 1985

The film could not be shown there, for simple technical reasons. We used 16mm film, and apart from the one existing film school there were no 16mm projectors where a film could be shown in public – not even at the Istanbul International Film Festival. Turkish cinema was dominated by the mainstream industry (‘Yeşilçam’) and film could only be imagined as a 35mm medium. Direct sound was unknown – all films were post-synch dubbed, and ambient sound was almost always discarded. There was no alternative form of cinema in sight, even in big cities – this only really started to change with the advent of video, from 2000, which helped to democratise the field and open up a new era. A vivid independent cinema came to life, something totally new in film history.

How did it feel when the film was ‘rediscovered’ and finally shown to Turkish audiences?

I was very happy about it, of course, but I am not yet able to come up with a proper interpretation of what has happened, pleasant as it is to see the enthusiasm among young people and receive their praise. The young public longs to see their own experiences and history becoming part of true discourse in arts and society.

Turkey is a country at war with its own history, perhaps like no other country. There is no tradition of trying to learn from history, to pass on its lessons to the next generations – maybe because the part is so filled up with negative experiences. These are not embedded into daily life as they are in, for example, Germany. And the various coups d’état and similar upheavals are not mentioned in school textbooks – meaning that their memory is not kept alive, and they are not condemned.

The film offers a chance to glimpse a previous, relatively recent era…

For the audience to experience the ‘old’ city of Istanbul and its people in a near-documentary way is perhaps something unique. In 1985, Istanbul had less than five million inhabitants – and even this was seen as a great change in the development of the city, for in my childhood in the 1960s the population was less than a million.

Such immense transformations in population change, in an incredible way, the image of the place in which you live. As time passes, I will hopefully arrive at a concise interpretation of the film and the new interest which has grown up around it, and I shall understand it better.

What will happen to the film now? Are more screenings planned?

A 16mm copy of the film, the only one in existence, resides at the German Cinematheque in Berlin. However when I was contacted by Burak Çevik the only version I had was a U-matic given to me by the Dffb. We digitised this copy for the festival, but the result is not of good quality. A new digitisation from the original 16mm would be quite expensive: at least €2,500, and even €10,000 for a good copy. We hope to find some support – we can be reached at blankfilmprod [at] – but it seems to be difficult in Germany at the moment…

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