Editing and releasing COUP in America

I figured that if we were going to spend months in front of computers editing the film, we didn’t need an expensive apartment in New York City to do so. We drove up Interstate 87 until we found something we loved, and we ended up in the small village of Athens, NY, north of Woodstock, in a house on 7 acres. Editing took nine months, far longer than we expected. The biggest obstacle was our equipment. We had to edit over 120 hours of footage (on dozens of DVCAM tapes) using Adobe Premiere and a RAID of hard drives totalling 80 Gigabytes. Our powerhouse Mac G-3 running at 350MHz arrived DOA, unable to power up. It was maddening. Despite the claims of Promax, the turnkey reseller, neither Adobe Premiere nor our system were able to handle what we were trying to do. We’d import footage at high compression, catalogue them, create edit decision lists, reimport them at higher quality, output those to DVCAM, and so on. At one point the hard drive failed, wiping out a week of work plus the week it took the computer to go back and forth across the country. Our files were too large to fit onto ZIP disk. We had to work on the film in pieces, since the footage would start stuttering if we did more than 15 minutes at a time. Every time we would build a small section, we would have to render it, which would take a half-hour.

In addition to the technical challenge, we also had to present a complex history of four different military coups in a way that would be neither overly reductive nor as long as “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” After our speaker Kislali got murdered, we wanted to capture what the speakers were saying and form a coherent story without imposing voice-over narration or simulated footage onto their thoughts.

We ended up with a 158-minute cut in four parts, a beautiful work. Because its length and style made it the anti-Ken Burns film, it was difficult to program. We’ve turned down requests for distribution because of the sensitive nature of the work. We did accept a $500 payment from Boyut, who signed a contract to produce a VCD/book package and then literally chickened out. We met with Aydan Zenturk, a former TV news producer, but he wanted to “cheese it up,” saying Turkish people were like children – that their tastes and Iq’s were lower than their American counterparts. In the end, COUP played at some festivals to strong reviews and continues to sell well on the Internet. It’s a film true to our intention, true to our speakers, true to the story, and I’m proud to have created it with Elif, who did an incredible job filming and assembling it.

Besides the reviews of the film, a couple of interesting items of note:

1. Google’s cache of http://www.kurdishmedia.com/news/news11_07.htm.

AKIN Office Ransacked: The Police Does Not Rule Out Hate Crime
AKIN – July 11, 2000
For Immediate Release (# 48)

The American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), an advocacy office for Kurdish political rights in Washington, DC, was found ransacked this morning. Kani Xulam, the director of AKIN, who arrived at the scene of crime at 8:52 a.m., reported the break-in immediately. The Washington police who showed up at about 9:12 a.m. undertook a through investigation. After about an hour, the police officers questioned Kani Xulam about the possibility of a hate crime and wanted to know if he had ever been threatened…The police officers noted that the burglars usually go for the valuables, but here, there seems to be open hatred directed towards the property. He went on to say, “The broken door and destroyed book shelves certainly give one this impression. In addition, thrashing the place in this manner is not the way intruders who seek valuables operate.”…One of the missing items was a VCR with a copy of videotape called COUP. “Last night, I had watched it, a documentary about the Turkish military’s perennial take-over in Turkey by the Turkish filmmaker, Elif Savas. The film felt like a horror story. In the morning, to my utter dismay, I discovered that its horror had hit AKIN as well. It felt surreal.”

2. From the KOREA TIMES:
Sample TOEFIL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) question:

You can ((a) imply) from the biography of Elif Savas, the ((b) Turkish) soprano opera singer, that she ((c) is) a multi-talented person.

Brave leaders of the coup that failed

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the...
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Just before we left, we did a shoot with the people who participated in the 1962 failed coup attempt. We had already interviewed the head of TRT Radio, which had been taken over by the military that evening in 1962, and we wanted to talk with the junior officers who tried to overthrow the government. They have a society and meet every month for dinner and drinks, to wax nostalgic about the days gone by and their “forgotten coup.” We talked to the head of the group, and he told us to come down to film them at the next meeting, which would take place in a couple of days.

We showed up, and their leader wasn’t there. It was a bunch of sad-sacks hanging around, talking about the good old days and how terrible it was, as if they were Vietnam vets. Nobody knew about the filming or who we were. We had them sit in a semicircle and Elif interviewed them while I filmed. While I was filming, I noticed that people one at a time were getting up and leaving. Finally, I took my eye off the eyepiece and saw a man behind me, putting his finger to his lips, signalling some to shut up and motioning to others to get up and walk away. Elif finished interviewing the few people remaining. Finally, a man claiming to be a government consultant came up to her and asked, “Why are you doing this, who’s behind this?” and Elif told him, “I’m from the CIA.”

The shoot was fruitless. It was pathetic; major political and military figures had spoken with us on camera, risking their lives and telling their stories – yet, when these little people with their little Masonic club finally have their chance at their moment of glory, at being remembered and recorded for posterity, they clam up. The few that spoke offered little insight other than “We like Ataturk.” When we got home, Elif called the head of the organization and let him have it: “Why were you not there? You embarrassed me in front of my family who came to the shoot to help me. I did 45 interviews with famous people and have never been so insulted by a bunch of losers.” He said, “Talk like a lady; you don’t know what you are saying.” Elif answered with the most insulting thing you could say to a Turkish male: “Shame on you, being scared of a young woman with a camera. You are not a man.”

Within a week, we were off to America. It was time to edit the film.

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A military funeral

When we got back to Istanbul, Elif’s grandfather died. He was 86 and could remember in his youth, bowing to the Ottoman Pa?a. He fell down the spiral staircase leading to his apartment, not because he was old, but because that staircase is a deathtrap. He was taken to the military hospital, where he caught pneumonia, and two weeks later he was dead. Elif’s grandfather was a lifelong military man. He was a levazim, the “necessary guy.” When there’s a war, he’s the Hollywood producer: he brings food to the land, builds bridges, makes roads, organizes the event. He lived long enough to have lower soldiers as servants, a practice now made illegal. Like most other senior officers, he paid money into a funeral club to ensure a proper military burial.

We went to the mosque, where Dilek washed the body; there was a crowd of thousands in attendance. I knew that military men were revered, but I didn’t know he was so popular…until I found out that Turkish pop star Baris Manco was also being buried at the same mosque that morning. A woman I’d never met threw herself on the ground, crying in front of Elif’s grandfather’s coffin. His body was loaded onto a catafalque. A band marched behind it and played military music. He was taken to one of Istanbul’s oldest and most historic cemeteries. It was the greatest funeral I’d ever been to in my life. I loved it. When we arrived at the cemetery, the hole was already ready. They opened the coffin, and his body was wrapped in a sheet; they took the body out of the coffin and placed it into the hole. We all started to fill the hole back up with our shovels. After awhile I realized what hard work ditch-digging is. Every part of my body began to hurt. I was standing there on greasy, gooshy ground. I saw parts of skeletons become unearthed around me and fragments of bone pop up by my feet. I realized that space was at a premium in Istanbul and that Elif’s grandfather was literally being buried with his ancestors. As time went on, most members of Elif’s family began to drop out, exhausted, and eventually only two people remained: me, and this old guy wearing a vest, who I assumed was a great-uncle. I kept plugging away, determined not to be shown up by a 70-year-old man. Only after I finally had to quit from exhaustion did they inform me that he was the gravedigger.


I rejoined the crew for the rest of the Ankara shoot. We filmed Suphi Gursoytrak, former member of the National Unity Committee. He sounded generally sad and pessimistic about the future of the country; it was after the bombing of the Ataturk’s Thoughts Society, of which he was a member. We also interviewed Cehan Mumcu, the former Deputy Mayor of Ankara and the brother of the journalist and car-bomb victim Ugur Mumcu. At the end of the day, we filmed Ayvaz Gokdemir, a member of Parliament and former minister of state. Sundown came; he obsevered Ramazan, and he must have been hungry, but nothing on heaven or earth could interru

Necmettin Erbakan
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pt his 90-minute tirade against the 1997 military intervention that deposed Erbakan. He gave a no-holds-barred talk that could have easily gotten him a lengthy jail sentence, giving us great quotes about the “thieving politicians” and the army which “jumps right into the laps of big capital” and “herds the people like donkeys.” After the cameras stopped rolling, he discovered that I was Jewish and related the following story: “When I was a child, we would draw circles on the floor around Jewish children, because we heard that that was the way to trap them so they couldn’t escape.” Gokdemir was the perfect opposite of Donmezer, who was the first subject we had filmed in Istanbul – in this case, I found our subject to be a great guy, but his ideas to be abhorrent.

We got a phone call: meet us at this address at 11:30PM. The address turned out to be an empty parking lot. A car pulled up at 11:45 and flashed its lights. We followed the driver up a mountain and reached a building


It was time to get out of Ankara. We drove back to Istanbul the next morning, and the first thing we did when we got there was to mail the footage to the U.S. We labeled the tapes “Wedding tape,” wrapped them up in gift-wrap, included a pretty card, and sent them via DHL to my parents’ house in Connecticut. We were all getting a little paranoid. I wanted to set up some final shoots in Istanbul before moving back to the US to edit the film. We called some Members of Parliament and began hearing “We’ve been expecting your call.” Although only 30,000 Turks had email, I began writing letters only from my web-based account and telling the recipients not to include my text in their reply.

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Ahmet Taner Kislali’s last interview

The cameramen were starting to drive me crazy. At first their goofball routine was cute; although they fried the power supply, it was fun trying to feed them (they didn’t keep Ramazan and generally ordered half of a restaurant’s menu as an appetizer) and watch them immediately spend the money I’d pay them (they’d buy utility items such as the videodisc of the film Ghostbusters 2). When they’d get too scared about the shoot, I’d have fun playing with their heads; I’d tell them that Elif’s father’s a judge and says they’re going to be arrested! But I became weary of the fact that they only come equipped with the basic youthful goals of wanting basically to drink, eat, have fun, meet girls, be free of supervision, do an easy job and have a happy life, without working or thinking too hard. Baris had just purchased a watch with an alarm that went off twice every hour. I told him about a dozen times to turn the alarm off, to which he always responded by shrugging his shoulders and giggling. Finally, during the Isvan shoot, the alarm went off again and I yanked the watch from his wrist. Metehan suddenly had the bright idea of injecting some visual life into the film by panning and zooming on our interview subjects. I knew that later we’d be having to weave a story out of hundreds of hours of footage, and that it would be important for the shots to match. I communicated this to them, at which point they asked Elif if I liked and respected them. Elif said it’s not a matter of friendship, it’s a professional issue, and both trust and companionship from me would come after a job well done. Since Elif came from the same culture and language as the cameramen, and since she was doing a splendid job directing, I spent the next week orchestrating my symphony (which is why I came to Turkey in the first place) while she did the Ankara shoots.

The following week, Elif filmed Oral Calislar, editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper. Elif thought he was very well-rounded for an activist so involved with the Kurdish situation; he wasn’t so wrapped up in it to think that the whole political situation in Turkey existed just to ruin his “cause.” While she was there, he had a cute telephone conversation with his son, a university student in Germany. Although he himself was due to go to court the next day to be sentenced to prison for his writings, his only concern was whether his son was making enough friends in college. He asked his son, “How are you doing? I’m worried about you – why are you home? It’s almost New Year’s; go out with your friends, go socialize – you can’t only study!” Although Calislar was very helpful and gracious, the rest of the people at Cumhuriyet were not. They weren’t nearly as forthcoming with their archives as were the other newspapers. Ugur Mumcu, one of their principal writers, was killed by a car-bomb two years ago; one heavily-armed guard took Elif’s car and moved it! The head guard asked Elif what TV station she was from; she answered none, and he insisted, so she said PBS. On her way out, the guard angrily stopped her, and told her, “The other guards have been laughing at me for believing you. Don’t think I’m stupid. I know there’s no such thing as PBS.”

When she arrived at Istanbul University to film Zafer Uskul and Toktamis Ates later in the day, she found out that there had been a riot in the cafeteria earlier in the day, with communist students fighting fascist Ulkucu students. There were stabbings and arrests. Istanbul University traditionally has been a hotbed of student activism, and the seen-it-all guard at the gate asked Elif (with a half-smile) if Elif wanted the guard to provoke any trouble (violence) with the students that would look good on film. Elif said no thank you.

Next was the filming of Ishak Alaton, the head of Alarko Holding and one of the richest people in the world. He talked about the “taxes” that then-Prime Minister Menderes imposed on the Jewish community in the 1950’s. Also, Alaton’s partner got murdered under very mysterious circumstances; he was a “multireligious” person, a kind of Jewish Moslem. He was praying in front of a saint at a graveyard and was stabbed at the gravesite.

Elif also filmed Abdurrahman Dilipak, a far-right religious extremist writer. He was, as was most of the other speakers, very gracious; he wore baggy pants and a long beard and, although of course he couldn’t shake her hand, he welcomed her. Nothing he said ended up in the film; he mostly talked about how the Illuminati (the CIA, CEO’s, the military, and the Jews) were running Turkey behind the scenes. After filming, he showed Elif his illegal side business: he makes fake National Identity Cards for women who are too “modest” to remove their head-coverings for photos (which you have to do for passport photos and Turkish ID’s). He takes their pictures, then scans them into the computer, then uses Adobe Photoshop to add someone else’s forehead and hair (his most popular “model” is prime minister Yilmaz’s wife), and finally he prints a photo that they can submit for their passports and ID’s!

From there, we were all off to Ankara for an 11-day shoot. None of us were happy to go there, and my first experience with the city was hate at first sight. Ankara is a drab city, a landlocked valley that is home to pollution, government buildings, one great museum, and not much else. I stayed in the hotel composing my symphony on a cheap keyboard I bought in Istanbul, and the others went to film Anatkabir (Ataturk’s tomb) and Parliament; Metehan and Baris were chicken, as always. They’ve been looking antsy lately, since our interview subjects are talking about getting blown up. When they arrived at the entrance of Parliament, a soldier wanted them to open the trunk of the car. Metehan was so nervous that he answered, “We have a camera but aren’t planning to film, really we aren’t… we don’t have guns or something!” Baris elbowed him and told him to shut up. The soldier opened the trunk and informed them that you’re not allowed to film without a permit; Baris called one of our subjects on his cell phone and put him on with the guard, and the guard let them in.

Elif describes the Parliament as being filled with people hanging around, with few seeming to be doing everything at all. It was hard to figure out what everyone was there for – secretaries chatting, rooms full of smoke, tea trays being taken from person to person (despite Ramazan)- it was hard to see what anyone’s job was; it was more like a big fraternity gathering. Elif filmed Atila Kaya, the head of the Ulkucus. The fascist party MHP had started the Ulkucus years ago as a youth wing; now the branch serves as a sort of “underground police” against the Kurdish minority, as well as an armed militia group and as bodyguards for right-wing politicians; they continue to support and promote the MHP. Kaya was very sensitive when he talked with Elif and would giggle, smile, and appear shy in front of her. He tried his best to let her not be intimidated by his bodyguards and let her know that he’s a normal, regular guy who would do anything for his country. Tevfik Diker was a member of Parliment from Ciller’s party, more surprising for what was going on around him than his on-camera talk about the nation’s founding fathers. Our filming was right before the elections, and he was making campaign calls. His telephone pleas in front of Elif were really pathetic: he would say to people, “I don’t have another job – this is my livelihood and how I earn my bread, there’s nothing else I can do, I have to be reelected.” Elif was surprised that although he was from a centrist party, he had a posse of proud and loquacious Ulkucu thugs surrounding him. While Diker was getting ready to speak, a thin, small man sat down next to Elif; he had a long Turkic moustache, and a goatee with nothing on the chin. He asked, “So who are you? I know a lot about what was going on during the coups because I’m an Ulkucu myself. I’ll do anything necessary. Anything.” And you could see by his face that he would. The last person Elif filmed at Parliament was Oguzhan Asilturk, who was generous, kind, and softspoken, with the highpitched and husky voice that lots of religious people have for some reason. He broke his Ramazan fast with water, and continued filming without breaking to eat something.

The next day, Elif filmed Turkan Akyol, who was elegant, what Turks would call zarif. She was well-educated, well-dressed, and well-spoken, but very sensitive; when she would tell her stories, her eyes would tear up.

She then filmed Ahmet Taner Kislali, the former Minister of Culture who was now a newspaper columnist writing articles about the connection between religion and organized crime. He was less emotional, but equally nice, as he traced how the Ulkucus and fascists became a Mafia in Turkey. (At first, the government paid them for killing leftists, but once the leftist threat vanished, they found ways to get “favors” from the government. Ultimately, they began drug trafficking to raise money for the army to fight the PKK in the southeast; once that war began to die down, they’ve been making strange bedfellows with Islamic extremists.) Like Akyol, Kislali was extremely articulate but fortunately not a “pro” at interviewing – when his cuckoo clock went off mid-sentence, he gave it a cute, mock-angry look, but didn’t know to repeat his last sentence when the bird went back inside the clock. Later in the shoot, there was a power outage; after drinking Nescafe for awhile, they realized that the power wasn’t about to come back on, so they resumed shooting on battery power even though the color balance would be off. When Elif and Kislali parted ways, he was heading out to pick his daughter up at the airport.

A few weeks later, he found a coke bottle sitting on top of his car. When he went to remove it, his car exploded with such force that pieces of his watch were found in his skull, and bits of his brain were scattered all over the street.

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Cases of the missing Turks

Cumhuriyet An?t? midst of Taksim Square seen f...
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We interviewed the columnist Raif Ertem, who’d also spent time in prison, but for his pen and not for his sword. He told us tales of torture in jail – close encounters with electrified cattle prods; his teeth all being knocked out.

We then went to film Eren Keskin, the head of Istanbul’s Human Rights Organization, but our timing was very bad. Right before we had arrived, she was informed that her client, a Kurdish man whom the police were questioning, had accidentally slipped and fallen from the fifth floor of a police building. (He died the next day after filming.) We wanted her to talk about the human violations of the coup leaders, but she was distracted, keeping steering the conversation to the Kurdish problem, which may prove to be great for another film but not for this one. Keskin also does work with the Saturday Mothers, whose sons (mostly Kurdish, but many from arrests following the coups) have “disappeared” in the jails, never to be seen again. Every Saturday they show up to protest in Taksim (so that’s why we weren’t allowed to film in Taksim Square!), and every Saturday they get arrested.

I didn’t know that Turks were so klutzy; they always seem to be getting lost or getting hurt, falling against police batons. The cops try to do their best with these cloddish stumblebums, and they take brave risks in possibly torturing the wrong suspect in the hopes of improving the country. Although the newspapers are getting louder about these unfortunate accidents, just recently, there was a mini-scandal. An elementary school Principal saw a police chief’s wife taking a stroll around the school with her friends and had made the grave mistake of asking her for ID. He barely escaped from the police office; the official report is that he bumped his head pretty badly against the door frame on the way out.

The next shoot we did also was pretty much unusable. We filmed Ahmet and Reha Isvan. Ahmet was the mayor of Istanbul when the coup happened in 1980, and he found himself in prison shortly thereafter. He had some good stories to tell about the events leading up to the coup and his experiences during and after the military takeover; I’m certain he would have had more, had his wife let him get a word in edgewise. He’s a real Ataturkcu, while his wife is more liberal about tolerating religious expression; she prattled on and on while he became angrier and angrier, gritting his teeth and rolling his eyes on camera, shooting down everything she said. We left scratching our heads, wondering how two people could be married for so long with such completely divergent political viewpoints.

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Natural born killers

Secretary of State Haig speaks to the press af...
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The next speaker we filmed was Coskun Kirca, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. He had a cat, a pug dog, and a tasteful old house. He was extremely gracious, and I was sitting back on the couch eating some lovely food his wife made us when the cannon went off. After peeling my head off the ceiling, which caused them much merriment, he told me that someone in the next apartment got a heart attack and died from hearing the cannon, which was fired in the square facing his apartment. The cannon signalled sundown, the end of the Ramazan day, and time for the religious to break their fast.

We filmed Mehmet Ali Birand, a columnist for the newspaper Sabah. He wore a bright red sweater, which was difficult to film under fluorescent lighting. Birand was very happy to talk about the US involvement in the Turkish coups, especially the 1980 one, when Alexander Haig said, “Our boys in Ankara have done it!” Many Americans don’t realize that there are intricate forces at work collaborating to inspire events in outher countries – instead, they often say that a country just “turns Islamic” or “fascist.” Birand rued the clampdown on Islamic speech today, comparing it to the prohibition on socialist speech in the 80’s; of course, the speech which is not permitted is that which worries the administration at the time. He was loquacious, and the interview went well; the hardest part was getting into the Sabah media complex. We had to show IDs, get filmed, give blood, and pass through metal detector after metal detector in order to be able to see him. I thought that it was a little paranoid to protect some newspaper columnists.

That was a callow thought, as was proven to us in our very next interview. We filmed Ferit Ilsever, the publisher of the communist Aydinlik newspaper, located in the same building as the Ataturk Thoughts Society. Getting into the building was more paranoia: we had to walk through an alleyway on whose entire length video cameras were trained. I made faces into the cameras. We got inside the building, did the interview, went home, and turned on the news; right after we left, the Ankara branch of the same Ataturk Thoughts Society was blown to smithereens by a bomb, probably by a religious extremist. The metal detectors suddenly seemed appropriate.

But what a pleasure it was to film the Demir husband-and-wife team of extremists! This adorable middle-aged couple of former Dev Sol members had kidnapped and killed the Israeli Istanbul Consulate head, received the death penalty, served 8 years, and now live in a tiny little 6th floor apartment in the overdeveloped and ugly Yildiz area. Metehan and Baris were nervous as always, but the only thing that frightened me was their shabby elevator; I walked up the six flights to their apartment.

Once inside, I was shocked at how poor they were. It was quite a contrast to right-wing publisher Nazli Ilicak’s Gatsby pleasure palace with fancy cars, pool, and a Bosphorus view (her son, in the Refah party before he escaped to America for corruption and fraud, published Terciman, a conservative paper.) I realized that there’s no money in not being a professor or businessman or politician. Their prime earning years were spent on death row, they probably didn’t graduate college, and I think they got by by translating books. They told us stories about how they met each other at a protest; the kidnapping and how they got caught; how the army razed socialist communes near Trabzon in the 1970’s; how they spent time in jail and acted as mothers to children growing up in prison; and how the army armed the fascists against them as a pretext for the 1980 coup. They shared their distaste for the American government’s promoting terrorism abroad to support its foreign policy, but they share a great affinity with American blacks and anti-war protesters. They gave their thoughts about free speech: “They won’t let us protest America’s bombing of Iraq, and won’t allow protest of anything except Italy for not extraditing Apo! [leader of the PKK]”

We were there for over four hours. We asked them if they had any archival photos, and Necmi told his wife, “Tevfik, break out the family album!” And they opened a nice album of photos, which they let us film, and narrated them for the camera: here’s us getting sentenced to death, here’s us in jail, etc. I was amazed at how softspoken they were, how kind, how articulate, how intellectual, how dedicated, how committed to leading an activist life, even if that meant being poor, well into middle age. Tevfik brought out raki for us to drink and offered us mezes (appetizers). She pitched us a screenplay idea she had for a fiction film about a boy who grew up in jail with his mother, a murderer, but I thought that their own lives were far more interesting. After eight years apart in jail, they remain married and have worked together as activists for 30 years – a real love story!

We had to leave when they had to leave, to meet their new party head at the airport. They’ve started a new hard-left party after their old one had been closed down. They were planning a rally in a few days and didn’t think that they’d be allowed to gather. They’re still working hard, remaining active, risking arrest. I asked them if they still believe in violence for their cause. They said that they’re not against violence per se, but that they’re too old to participate directly themselves. Tevfik complained that when she was young, the Dev Sol wouldn’t let her take any real action because she was “just a woman.” Ah, those sexist socialists… We left the Demirs, convinced that they were the real deal; they’d been tortured, been imprisoned, killed and would get killed. Their ideas and methods may be objectionable, but it was obvious that they did what they did thinking it was the good of the country.

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Muhsin Batur, the meditating General

On December 18th, we filmed our first interview. The boom microphone immediately died, which meant that we had to rely solely on the lavalier clip mike, which meant that today’s two interview subjects recorded fine but Elif’s questions didn’t. (We weren’t going to use her questions anyway, but in case they answered a particularly telling question with a simple yes/no answer I wanted to have them on tape.) On a positive note, our tripod arrived from Bangkok, and a handy guy gerrymandered us a new power supply for our monitor.

Our first subject was Sulhi Donmezer, who wrote the 1960 constitution at the behest of the coup leaders. We were excited, because we had cake and tea in his house two weeks before, and because he’s well-spoken – which is why we were surprised when he turned out to be a bitch. He screamed at us about the quantity of equipment we brought and complained that our camera case was too large and that we’d likely destroy his house, and said when Turkish Radio and Television interviews him every week they just bring a camcorder. Elif, as always when faced with an obstacle, especially one involving the vicissitudes of human interaction, wanted to quit making the film then and there. We calmed Donmezer down by setting up quietly and cleanly; Metehan and Baris talked smoothly to his wife; Elif explained that we needed all the lights to make it look good for American TV and festivals, for which a camcorder would not do; and I praised his wonderful taste in furniture, which he claimed to be over 300 years old and to have been a Sultan’s. Elif told me in English that she wanted to smash their heads in with the light stand. It turned out the real reason for his ire was that our secretary Nese most likely forgot to confirm the filming with him yesterday, and he probably forgot about it, so he was taken by surprise when we showed up. He was very self-conscious about his appearance, by what tie he was wearing, and how he appeared on the monitor against the background. He proved to be a wonderful interview, however, answering our questions with long monologues that seemed to address everything we wanted to ask, and candidly, too. We learned our lesson, though: from now on, the big camera case marked SONY gets left in the car.

Our second interview of the day was with Muhsin Batur, the four-star general who led the 1971 coup by memorandum. He lived in a ordu evi, an army residential base for the higher ranks. It was top-security – multiple gates you had to pass through, armed guards keeping your ID – but, curiously, none inspecting my tripod case, which could hold a machine gun. Inside General Batur’s apartment, he had, in addition to a wife, 2 young lackeys with him 24/7: one, a chauffeur, and the other, an armed guard. They were both giggly boys, about my height and not looking a day over 18. Elif told me that high-ranking members of the police and army, as well as those who did antiterrorism work, have 24-hour bodyguards who live with them and follow them everywhere. I asked the General how he liked living with them on a permanent basis, and he said not at all, thank you.

The Baturs are much nicer to us than the Donmezers and said they were so glad to meet a girl like Elif, who is a real Daughter of Ataturk. It turned out that they have a family friend who’s a lawyer who knows Elif’s mother. The wife nicely asked us not to destroy her furniture. All seemed well. Suddenly there was a phone call, and it was bad news: one of the two lackeys’ fathers had been in a traffic accident, and the boy should go back to his village to be with his family. Batur’s wife was left to break the news, as it’s a woman’s job, not a General’s job, to talk about painful family matters. The boy was in tears, and both the boy and the General were afraid to tear up in front of us.

The man who brought down a government turns out to be camera-shy. Elif was amazing and got him to open up after he first gave only one-word answers. The cameramen were less impressive, and the amount of camera-fidgeting and adjusting they did during the interview makes me certain it’ll look like MTV’s The Real World or an AT&T commercial. We’ll watch the tape tonight, and if I’m correct, Elif will be the one to inform them to set up the camera and then leave the equipment alone. After Elif’s interview, I had Batur give an on-camera description of his awards, medals, photos, and knick-knacks, which were very impressive.

While the cameramen were breaking down the equipment, though, I had a long off-camera talk with the General that was even more interesting. We talked about meditation and Zazen (the General, at 78, has trouble with the discipline of clearing your thoughts and focusing on his breathing, and he can’t adopt the lotus position); we talked about the difference between the army and air-force (he thinks all air forces are less formal in the way subordinates address superiors); we discussed the spread of Islam (he criticized some parts of the Koran but was also careful to say that although Jesus was a prophet, it was ridiculous to say that was the son of God); and we talked about ancient Egypt (the more he reads, the more convinced he is that people from outer space built the pyramids – but he still can’t reconcile this view with the fact that you can’t travel faster than 186,000 miles per second). I wish I had that on camera.

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Adventures in Turkish freedom of speech

Today Elif and I went to the court of Dilek’s boyfriend Cos, who’s a judge. We got to sit in on one case, involving a guy who sold meat in a different district of Istanbul than he was supposed to; when a cop confiscated his meat and checked it and returned it, the man noticed some meat was missing and got into a fight with the cops, who arrested him.

Cos: “Do you have papers for the tax?”
Man: “Right now I’m going around, I’m not in my store.”
Cos: “What?”
The man had a barely intelligible Kurdish accent.

Taksim Square, Istanbul
Image via Wikipedia

Man: “Well, the meat was illegal to sell, but I had 100 kilos of it, and they took it.”
Cos: “Your son cursed at the council members.”
Man: “My son didn’t curse at them. I was with my son. My son wasn’t even there.”
Now it’s becoming clear – the man and his son are not in front of the judge because of the uninspected (and now missing) meat, but because they cursed at a government worker, which turns out to be a crime. The boy is talking.
Boy: “I wasn’t there at all. I heard that they took the meat away. I heard that they arrested my father. It was 200 kilograms.”
Man: “No it wasn’t that many kilograms.”
Cos: “That’s not what we’re here for. Tell me truthfully. Are you missing any meat?”
Man: “They’re not letting me know anything about it. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know how to get it back.”
Cos: “I don’t either!” (to himself:) “OK, he can go…I don’t believe the government worker; it’s not written what they said specifically, it just says ‘They cursed at us.'”

The man and his boy were released, and it made me think hard about freedom of speech here. If cursing at a government official is a crime, what would happen on-camera – and will we be able to film? We went to the house of Ayse Onal, reporter from Channel 7, who cooked us a homemade halvah with cheese; she told us her son would ask her, “What kind of reporter do you think you are, if you were never arrested?” Another of our potential subjects, Oral Calislar, columnist for Cumhuriyet Newspaper, had to go to court the day after we met with him, to be sentenced to prison for his interview with Apo, the leader of the PKK Kurdish revolutionary party.

In Turkey, “inappropriate” speech can get you jailed, or killed on the street with bombs or guns. But you can actually get your voice heard here. There are at least fifteen different newspapers, from socialist to religious to fascist. People watch the news and talk about it on the street. But In America, where there’s more freedom to say what you want, good luck getting heard, and good luck getting in a 30-second sound byte which flies in the face of the entire corporate system in which the program exists without sounding like a nut. Or to get past the TV reporter’s questions like “We know the Gulf War was a good thing, but did we make the right strategic decision to pull out so early?” Also, it’s all too easy to believe in free speech as an abstract, inalienable right if you live in a place where most outlier ideas and malicious memes can easily be marginalized, absorbed, or destroyed, as happened to David Koresh in Waco. Turkey, on the other hand, feels far closer to becoming a theocratic nation. Outside of Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, there’s a neon sign reading: “We love our Democracy, we love our Turkish Republic.” Of course, if there were consensus, such a sign would not be necessary. Istanbul’s current mayor, Tayyip Erdo?an, the self-proclaimed “Imam of Istanbul,” gave a speech in Diyarbikkir, where he said that the minarets were bayonets and that his people were Allah’s army who would forge a country of God. For this, he was found guilty of treason by the Supreme Court, which means that he has to serve 4 months and 12 days in jail, and he’s permanently barred from politics. He appealed his sentence yesterday and will go to jail if his appeals run out. What I’d like to happen to him I guess makes me a Marcusian, with no tolerance for intolerance.

All of this thought about free speech came home to roost when we tried to shoot preparatory footage of Taksim Square. We were filming the Ataturk sculpture, and a vanful of police pulled up to us. They asked, “Which TV station are you from?” Elif answered, “None.” They asked, “Why are you shooting it then?” and Elif answered, “I’m a tourist, and I want to bring the footage home.” The police did not believe her, and they kept asking what’s the film for, and Elif kept insisting that we were tourists, and we showed them our American passports, which we were lucky to have on us, and they told us we weren’t allowed to film on Taksim Square.

Elif’s mother freaked out when we got home and pleaded with Elif not to make the film, which led to a fight in which Elif threatened to move out and make the film anyway. Dilek was undeterred and pulled me aside, telling me that it was “very dangerous” and that I should tell Elif not to make the film, “very dangerous.” I told her to talk to Elif herself. Then, Dilek went to our secretary, who pulled me aside and told me to tell Elif not to make the film, that it was too dangerous, which led to another fight. It was too late for such considerations. By plunging right in, we’d forced ourselves to do it. We had the equipment, we had a secretary and two cameramen, we had our first interviews lined up. We were going to film.

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I’m going to be a pimp!

As much as I miss the island, living with Elif’s mother has its rewards. Although staying for two nights at my own parents’ house can bring me back to the dynamic of them treating me (and me acting) like I’m 14, Dilek treats me like a Sultan, which I tend to favor. She works from 8 in the morning to 9 at night, and I sometimes find her up at 5AM, ironing my underwear. One day I got into a big fight with her: I made my own juice in her juicer and wanted to clean it up, and she wouldn’t let me clean it because I am a man and I am her guest. I insisted, since she’d just come in from a long day at the office; Elif interfered, and there was lots of door-slamming and crying.

I ran up a large bill on Dilek’s telephone line, since her Internet charges by the hour. I emailed US camera stores and researched equipment reviews, as well as brushing up on articles about filmmaking techniques. I learned as much about modern Turkish history as I could. After doing the math, I realized that shooting on digital video would be the cheapest way to film dozens of interview subjects and let them tell their stories; I also realized that I would have to hire at least two cameramen, if only to drag our equipment all around Istanbul, what with its being in two continents, both having massive amounts of traffic.

We interviewed several candidates for cameraman, and most were disastrously wrong for the project. Many wanted us to spend the first three years researching the film; if we were to listen to their advice, some of our older subjects will be dead before we ever get a chance to shoot. The two cameramen we selected make typical documentary work in Turkey – pretty-looking, overly-edited, overly-romantic. A practice shoot revealed that they knew a thing or two about lighting. Above all, they want to have visual ideas but not political ones, which is perfect for us; it will be easier to ignore their visual ideas, which we could better control than if they’d try to steer our choice of interview questions or subjects.

One is named Metehan Aras, who’s 38 but looks 19, and the other is Baris Bidav, who was 28 but looks 19. Metehan just broke up with his girlfriend. Both of them are huge bears, over 6 feet tall, 230 pounds. This is helpful, because Dilek’s elevator is broken again, and she lives on the 5th floor, so every day they have to carry the equipment. They’re a couple of real goofballs – they giggle like schoolchildren and behave like K’s assistants in Kafka’s The Castle. Every day during the shoot, they repeat the same joke: They’d seen a sitcom, in which a boy with diminished faculties watches a cameraman do a fashion shoot of beautiful women and exclaims, “Ya baba ya, KAMERAMAN olacagim!” (“Yo dad, I’m going to be a CAMERAMAN!”) They would always ask me, “What are you going to be?” and wait for me to say, “Ya baba ya, PESEVENK olacagim!” (“Yo dad, I’m going to be a PIMP!”), at which point they would fall down laughing, even after the 37th repetition. Though they were strong and sometimes amusing, the first time they saw the monitor I brought from the US, they plugged it directly into the wall instead of into the step-down transformer

Camera operator setting up the video camera
Image by jsawkins via Flickr

, and it fried the power supply immediately. I was no longer amused.