KISMET: A Transnational Documentary from Greece
I had the chance to see the Greek documentary KISMET (Nina Maria Paschalidou, 2013) courtesy of the professional platform FestivalScope.com, and found it of great interest for a wider community, so I thought to say a few things about it here.
On visits to my native country of Bulgaria in recent years I could not help noticing that a new cultural import, Turkish soap operas, has been changing the pattern of female viewing. My mother, an intellectual in her 80s, has made a series called FATMAGUL (Fatmagül'ün Suçu Ne?, 2010/2011) a staple in her daily routines — for a woman who would normally only watch concert performances of classical music, this was quite a change of habit. Then, going to visit friends in their village houses I observed that at certain times the streets go completely empty, and life comes to a standstill — the schedule of meals is adjusted around the schedule of the networks showing the Turkish soaps. When women get together the developments of the most recent episodes are a major topic for conversation. Last summer, in 2013, I crossed into neighbouring Serbia to learn during the visit to Novi Sad that the wife of my friend is also irretrievably addicted to a Turkish soap, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY in this instance. I can only compare this situation to the airing of the British TV series FORSYTE SAGA (1967) during my childhood — back then the streets would also go empty and mealtimes would be rearranged to fit the TV schedule.
Apparently, as we learn from KISMET, the Turkish soaps are equally popular in a range of other territories across the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. The film is made in a truly transnational fashion in that it visits a number of countries and interviews women-viewers — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, Bulgaria, Greece — who talk about how the Turkish soaps went far beyond entertainment in that they informed their thinking on gender relations and even encouraged and empowered them toward a variety of emancipatory moves. Some women talk of finding the courage to ask for divorce, a young woman in Egypt testifies how she went public about the appalling practice of 'virginity tests' by paramilitaries and the police. In general, all the testimonies confirm a pattern of increased assertiveness and an improved ability to handle difficult relationship situations. The film is also testimony of the need of romance narratives, an important and often under acknowledged need that was explored by Sudha Rajagopalan in her fascinating study on the popularity of Indian films in the former Soviet Union (Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas, 2009). (1)
KISMET is interspersed with interviews with the creators of the soaps in Istanbul — the occasional male director, but mainly female actresses, writers, editors. The impression of these interviews is that the teams behind these series mainly comprise of emancipated, carrying, and liberal-minded mature women who enjoy what they are doing and believe in it. In certain respects, this part of the film reminded me of the (now classical) Yugoslav film IN THE JAWS OF LIFE (Rajko Grlic, 1984), based on the novel Stefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life by feminist author from Croatia and now in emigration in the Netherlands, Dubravka Ugresic. In that film we also have a protagonist who is a feminist director of television soaps — many of the things the protagonist in the Yugoslav film says on the matter of representing women and what women-viewers actually care for in films I heard now in this documentary from the Turkish creative team.
An aspect that I found of particular interest but that, unfortunately, remains underdeveloped (as it could be a topic of a whole other documentary) is the footage featuring protests in Athens in front of the headquarter of the network that screens THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY (Muhteşem Yüzyıl, 2011-2013). (2) This lavishly staged series evolves around events from the period of Suleiman the Magnificent and presents the Ottoman Empire in a romanticised light that one would not expect to go down well in Turkey's adjacent territories which, for the most part, emancipated from the Ottoman Empire through the 19th and 20th centuries. Even ten-twenty years ago it would be unthinkable for me, as Bulgarian, that any Turkish TV soap would air on Bulgarian television (I have written something on these matters in the newspaper KULTURA in the 1990s, just before emigrating from Bulgaria) – the indoctrination against Turkey and against Bulgaria's ethnic Turks in the 1980s was extremely strong and it lasted well into the 1990s. A film by Romanian director Mircea Daneliuc from that period, PATUL CONJUGAL / THE CONJUGAL BED (1993), features a woman who threatens that she would become a prostitute in Istanbul — suggesting that anything that would imply a move down in a South-Eastern direction would be an unthinkably lowly move, as Turkey and Turkish men (read 'Oriental') in the mind of a 'white' Romanian woman would most likely be associated with unacceptable downfall… How much things have changed since!
KISMET has screened at IDFA in Amsterdam last year, but beyond that I am not sure if it has been seen widely. I think it should be seen. It is a very convenient format for use in teaching — about 53 minutes. It is not a documentary that sets any new standards of expression and it is made quite conventionally, yet I believe it is a very interesting film in that it delineates a dynamic transnational sphere of influence and spread of television work. There is a Facebook site for it, a trailer from IDFA is available on YouTube, and an Al Jazeera site features a discussion of the film's background by the director (who talks of Balkan melting pot and asks, quite rightly, about the similarities of female experiences across South East Europe and the Middle East), as well as a 47 minute-long version of the film.
The film ends with a short interview — a transnational couple, a Turkish man and a Greek woman, have fallen in love and are about to marry. Neither one of them expected that it would be possible — after all, aren't they each, respectively, indoctrinated against the other in their home countries? And yet, as this documentary reveals, the power of TV soaps proves conducive even to finding true love and partners for life. This ending reminded me of a visit to Izmir exactly a year ago, in May 2013. My friends, a Turkish couple, took me to the nearby beauty spot of Alacati (Alatsata/Argilia). In the shops there one could buy the white mastic sweet, imported from nearby Chios — it was in each and every shop. Like the mixed couple at the end of KISMET whose love transcends entrenched animosities, the white sweet had also crossed above borders and divisions.
(Editor’s note: Dina Iordanova has written extensively on matters related to Balkan cinema, film and history. Notes on matters related to Turkish cinema can be found at DinaView. Her text on “Hushed Histories: Female Directors from South Eastern Europe” was recently published in the anthology Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (eds. Gabrielle Kelly and Cheryl Robinson, Supernova Books, 2014).
(1) Rajagopalan S. (2009), Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas: The Culture of Movie-going after Stalin, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
(2) Protests were organized by neoNazi party Golden Dawn.