Monday, September 24, 2007

Lola and Bilidikid (1999 ) Kutlug Ataman

Lola and Bilidikid

Dir: E. Kutlug Ataman, Germany, 1999

A Review by Filiz Cicek, Indiana University, USA

Scholars often describe the guest worker/Turkish immigrant in Germany as a mute man/woman, who is unable or not allowed to integrate. I propose that his/her muteness in some cases preceded their Diasporic journey and has been accentuated since he/she became an immigrant. Further, I will argue that until recently, contemporary Turkish-German Cinema has perpetuated this muteness rather than giving a voice to the realities of the immigrant men and women.

This representation of muteness has its roots in the Kemalist reforms started in 1923, whereby the government tried to force the filmmakers to create films that would reflect the idea of a "new Turk" which was supposed to end the image of the "backward Ottoman". This concept ignored the actual realities of the average both male and female Turkish citizen, who remained basically unchanged. It was this population that made up the majority of the immigrants who went to Germany. I will argue that in Germany, the government policy of "affirmative action", which sought to give voice to the mute immigrant, instead "produced well-meaning projects encouraging multi-culturalism that, however often result in the construction of binary opposition between Turkish Culture and German Culture." Thus the immigrant, who was struck mute in his/her homeland, was further silenced by the good intentions of his/her host country. The films, produced with money from the German government, overemphasized the immigrant's victim status and were unable to go beyond the existing stereotype of the "Muslim Turk from the East" complete with the image of the oppressing male and the oppressed female. Lost was the depiction of the immigrant as a modern worker who attempts to adapt to the exigencies of a modern capitalist society and becomes integral part of German culture and economy in the process.

Kevin Robins and Asu Aksoy argue that the western modernity that was introduced after WWI by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the new Turkish Republic, created a distance between the average Turkish citizen and the State. The new Turkish Republic defined its model "new Turk" by their difference from the Ottoman culture because the Ottoman experience was regarded as non-Turkish and backwards. Therefore the Kemalist reforms abolished the caliphate, religious brotherhoods, attire, language, calendar and so on. Thus began the "tradition of discontinuity with the past which culminated in a state of amnesia imbued in the psyche of the 'new Turks'" Instead, they looked towards the West, which represented modernity. Yet most of the Turks, especially those who lived in countryside, continued to live according to their folk Islamic traditions as they did for centuries. Even the six centuries of Ottoman rule, which was heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic cultures and languages, was not enough to change that reality. The Kemalist reform did not either.

But what Kemalist reforms did was to effectively create a gap between its average citizen and the elitist state. The state-run radio, television and later cinema, all promoted the ideal New Turkish citizen as a reality, creating an ongoing conflict between what he/she should be and what he/she is. In a sense, the entire country was forced to play a game of pretending to be western and modern. In doing so, they silenced any elements that did not go along with that image and ideal, thus creating a whole new mute population alongside the elite Republicans.

The majority of those immigrants, who journeyed to Germany for better life, were the mute citizens of Turkey coming from the countryside to escape their economic hardship. When in Germany, they came face to face with the same silencing dilemma that they experienced in Turkey, but in a much larger scale. If they were not able to or willing to adapt to the new Turkish citizen image in their homeland, how and why were they going to adapt to their new German identity?

In Turkey, the government by implementing various censorship rules tried to force the filmmakers to create films that reflected the idea of "new Turk" as a reality, not giving voice to actual realities of its average Turkish citizen. In Germany a government policy, an American type of affirmative action, sought to give voice to the mute immigrant. This policy as Deniz Gokturk describes "produced well-meaning projects encouraging multi-culturalism that, however often result in the construction of binary opposition between Turkish Culture and German Culture." She also states: "the postulate of cultural difference, though it purports to be liberating, has obstructed the perception of the cross-cultural exchanges that in fact already exist, and often hindered dialogue instead of facilitating it."

It is hard to disagree with Gokturk: most of the Turkish-German films from Germany 40squaremeters to Almanya Aci Vatan that were produced over three decades followed the blueprint of Turkish stereotypes regarding such subjects as rape, violence, revenge, prison, hospital, virtue, honour, honour killings, women in domestic space, masculinity in crisis and so on. While such issues do exist in Turkish-German daily life as in other cultures, continual portrayal of pitiful noble victim in these films did little to better the image of the mute Turkish immigrant. On the contrary, it cemented that image and in the process gave the average German audience an outlet to temporarily feel sympathy for him/her but nothing further. In fact it silenced him/her in much the same way Turkish modernism did, portraying his/her traditional values backwards, putting him in an inescapable negative cultural box, without reflecting the greys in between the binary cultural experiences which exist on a daily basis.

But does cinema have such responsibility? Since it is one of the most powerful and influential media outlets in global popular culture, one could argue that cinema has a responsibility to be honest about the reality of the time, people and places they attempt to portray. Cinema could help create a space, perhaps that third space, as Homi Babaha would put it, where an immigrant exists daily, not as a two-dimensional cartoon character of him/herself but as real individual. In this regard, Kutlug Ataman's film Lola and Bilikid (1999) serves as the first Turkish-German film that embodies that honesty, reality, exposing the daily life of Turkish-German's immigrant in Berlin in a groundbreaking way. The irony of the film is that it mobilizes the marginal immigrants in Germany through the voices of most marginal of them all -- Turkish transvestites in Berlin -- to expose the reality of the Turkish-German community at large.

Starting with Kutlug Ataman's Lola and Bilidikid, muteness of the Turkish immigrant was complicated. Such attempts were repeated in films like Short Sharp Shocked and Head-On by Fatih Akin, which are distinctly different then earlier films, such as Berlin Berlin by Sinan Cetin. However, Akin's work has competing ideals that further complicate the situation. For example, Akin's Head-On which won the Golden Bear award in Germany in 2004, is a film about two Turkish-German characters' quest for visibility, quest for third space to exist. Turkish German characters in this film are portrayed rather "raw" as some film critics put it, which is a progress considering other Turkish German films glorification of the sympathetic noble victim characters. The film is more entertaining to the general audience than Lola and Bilidikid. It has all the usual Turkish film themes of rape, murder, jealousy, and virtue, honour, hospital, jail and so on but the way in which Akin presents these themes doesn't quite deconstruct the stereotypes. Rather, he makes them grander. Also, the epilogues that are built in between scenes further accentuate Turkish culture and Turkey as the promised land. In an interview Akin sates that he wanted to create an imaginary space where his two loveable loser Turkish-German characters could escape. However, that imaginary space ends up being homeland Turkey. This idea of "Homeland-Turkey" comes to serve as a space of resistance to German subordination. The option of being able to go back to homeland is a survival skill to most Turkish Immigrants in Europe. It provides the immigrant in identity struggle with an imaginary space where he/she can negotiate his/her identity: namely identifying themselves as Germans to Turks in Turkey and as Turkish to Germans in Germany. However, that journey back to homeland-Turkey usually doesn't happen. This is problematic, since it creates a vicious cycle of a catch-22 without hope of upward mobility in either of the countries. Unlike Lola and Bilidikid, Akin's ending in Head On says to us that there is no chance of visibility for his characters in Germany other than being victims and/or criminals and offers no realistic alternative for third space of existence. This feeds into the German-media's focus on the "hyphenated" identity of the Turks, which stresses the national and religious identities at the expense of other forms of identification.

Similarly in his earlier film, In July, Akin takes his four characters, both German and Turkish, to Turkey, away from the boring summer in Hamburg. But once in Turkey, they end up with partners of their own race: German girl with German boy, Turkish Girl with a Turkish boy. It is ironic that Fatih Akin, who was born and raised in Germany, and who has achieved success and visibility in Germany, sees Turkey as the Promised Land for his seemingly hopeless (victim-criminals) characters. The international success of Akin's two films, along with German media attention to "Muslim-Turkish" born actress Sibel Kekilli's past as a porn star, to a certain degree testifies to the enduring effects of Orientalism, this time internalized by Turks and aided by empathetic Germans.

On the other hand, Lola and Bilikid is a drama that takes place in the streets, nightclubs, toilets, abandoned buildings and the Turkish ghetto neighbourhood. It tells the tale of Turkish transvestites in Berlin, a group of ultra marginalized people both as immigrants and homosexuals who experience alienation from Germans, from their fellow Turks and, at worst, from each other. Director Kutlug Ataman portrays the homosexual community as confused and ambiguous. Lola's lover Bilidikid, who sees himself as a man since he is the one who penetrates, mimics the homophobic behaviours of his fellow Turks. Not knowing he is Lola's baby brother, he advises Murat to never admit that he is gay and never let himself be penetrated. He states, "living as a fag is no way to live". He insists that Lola should have the operation the get rid of his "dick", and become a woman so they can move to Turkey and live like normal people do. When Lola asks "why not you why me" he answers laughingly, "because I am a man."

Lola works as an oriental belly dancer at a Turkish nightclub. He is happy with being in love with Bilidikid and want things to remain the same. He is realistic enough to know that what Bilidikid wants from him and for them, which is to live like "normal" people, will eventually destroy them, because he recognizes that becoming a woman would only make Bilidikid leave him at the end because he won't be the same person that he fell in love with. In reality what Bilidikid wants is to be able to live without being discriminated against and he thinks the way to achieve that is to become like everyone else, not realizing that such self-inflicted imitation would only further contribute to his own oppression. Events take a turn for the worse when Lola confronts his older brother Osman and discovers that he has a younger brother Murat. Lola's attempts to befriend his new brother Murat prove to be fatal, as Osman, who acts as the Turkish patriarch of the family, kills Lola.

Murat, the younger son, who is introduced in the dark streets of Berlin, against the backdrop of the statue of an angel, represents the redemption and hope in the film. After exploring his own homosexuality with a German boy from his school, he discovers that he has an estranged homosexual brother -- Lola. After being beaten by the neo-Nazis, he questions his mother about Lola. The mother, who is ignorant of her older son Osman's actions, explains how the whole family disowned Lola after he "came out." She advises Murat that "in these foreign lands they must stick together and obey Osman as the head of the family as his intentions and deeds are essentially good and well intended."

Murat helps Bilidikid to avenge Lola's death. He pretends to be Lola to lure the Neo-Nazi group into an abandon building. There we see the two radical characters of both cultures, Bilidikid, who embodies the machismo of the Turkish male, and the Hitler-inspired neo-Nazi leader, attack and kill each other. After the self-destruction of the extreme elements of both cultures, director Ataman places Murat and one of the neo-Nazi youth at a corner in the building, abandoned both physically and metaphorically. There, in a state of panic, beaten and bloodied, the two are stripped of their cultural differences, they become human, and they become the same.

It is after the deaths of Bilidikid and the Neo-Nazi leader that Murat learns from his German love interest that it was not the neo-Nazis who killed Lola. Murat next confronts his older brother Osman about Lola's death and in the process both he and his mother realize that it was Osman who killed Lola in order to hide his own homosexual inclinations, and to hide the truth that he raped Lola repeatedly in the past. The mother, who saw herself as an uneducated woman, with unquestioning obeisance to patriarchy, recognizes her own failure and strikes the patriarch Osman in the face. She leaves her domestic space, and blends into the German streets as she tears off her headscarf. She transforms and delivers herself and becomes her own other.

Osman is left in the Ghetto crying. Murat now follows his mother. The mother's appropriation of space is repeated by the transvestites as they pass by Tiergarten and the Victory Column, the same column that Murat walked by at night in the beginning of the film. But now, in the daylight, the two transvestites declare to the Turkish cab driver their identity openly: one of them says, "I am a woman with balls, don't say I didn't tell you!"

On a secondary level, the film explores an upper-class rich German mother and son relationship with each other and with the son's Turkish lover Iskender. The son, Frederick, is very gentle and understanding with Iskender but his mother is distrustful of him, thinking he is only after their money. Iskender is equally distrustful of both of them. However, after Lola's death, he decides to give love a try with Frederick. Also, after a bickering car ride together to her house they come to an understanding on a mutual space of existence. The film ends with a Turkish female's transformation from domestic to public space, second generation Murat's rejection of patriarchy that is oppressive to his identity, transvestites becoming open with their identity, and middle aged Turkish and German men putting their differences aside to become lovers.

What is the significance of Ataman's characters in this film? Ataman tackles the certain stereotypes of German and Turkish cultures. But he does it in a way that complicates the stereotypes without perpetuating them. For example, the orientalist scene where Murat walks into a nightclub is quickly problematized when Bilidikid beats up a German customer who wants to have some oriental sexual delight. The examination of the internal struggles of the transvestite characters, as they interact with each other and the Turkish German society, displays a more nuanced approach than most other Turkish films. Turks struggle to survive daily, yet they mimic the very elements that discriminate against them—the same elements to which they aspire. Such complicit behaviours come from the desire to become visible, as opposed to being invisible if they were openly homosexual men. In the process, they silence themselves in much the same way that the mother is silenced by the patriarchy. As for the patriarchy, there is triple articulation of the silence: first of all, Osman is silenced by his traditional idea of male identity that does not allow him to explore his hidden homosexual desires. Secondly, he comes from a country where his traditional Turkish identity is already silenced: the elitist Turkish government only provides him space to exist as a "new Turk," which requires him to deny his Traditional Islamic identity. Last, German culture silences Osman by keeping him in the ghetto and in the cultural ethnic box, not providing him with the tools and resources to integrate into the society.

It is through the three-dimensional depictions of the individuals in Lola and Bilidikid that we get a glimpse of a more realistic look at the daily lives of mute immigrants, without displacing the problem to one or the other culture. Going back to Turkey is an option for the characters in Lola and Bilidikid, but there also exists a space in Germany where Turks and Germans can co-exist. There is a space where, at the end of the film, transvestites can come out of the oriental nightclub into the daylight and be visible as who they are.

How realistic is Ataman's realistic portrayals of such characters? Ataman, a native of Turkey who attended UCLA film school and currently lives in London, spent two years in Berlin with the homosexual community before shooting the film. His latest project, which depicts the people of Cuba, a shantytown near Istanbul, won the Tate Museums Turner prize. Critics praised his focus on the individual in this project in many of the same terms that I use for Lola and Bilidikid. This attentiveness to individuals is a true breakthrough in Turkish cinema, as this cinema generally operates from the collective's point of view. It is the focus on the individual that enables Ataman to get away from the binary depiction of Turkish-German Cultures. It is through the individual that we get to see a more three-dimensional picture of the collective, and that collective in Lola and Bilidikid at the end consists of German and Turks, not one against the other.

Perhaps then it is Ataman's distance to Turkish-German experience that enables him to reflect them in a more fully realized way. And to his credit, he does it through exploring the most marginal segment of that society without being condescending, claiming authority, and most importantly without perpetuating the victim-criminal stereotypes. Akin focuses on east-west conflict, much in the same way the German media portrays the immigrant Turks daily, yet Ataman is able to portray the same subject as a human conflict.

Films such as these help redefine national and gender identities and the identity of Germany. More study has to be done in the area of immigrant films not only in Germany but elsewhere in the continent in order to further understand and contribute to the ever-changing culture of Europe as an immigrant society.

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