Notes from the LFF: Taşkafa: Stories from the Street (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Turkey, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Taşkafa: Stories from the Street is ostensibly a film about street dogs in Istanbul. It consists of interviews with residents of the city – who talk about the role and meaning that the street dogs play in their lives – as well as the reading by John Berger of extracts from his novel, King, which, in Zimmerman’s own words, is ‘a story of hope, dreams, love and resistance, told from the perspective of a dog belonging to a community facing disappearance, even erasure.’

Made for a tiny budget, Taşkafa is a wonderful example of what we might call democratic filmmaking. That is, the film seeks to explore the ways in which human society – in this case the city of Istanbul – often seeks to exclude from its reality – here, dogs – that in fact are a core part of that society’s ecosystem.

That the dogs form a core part of Istanbul’s ecosystem is made clear by the testimonies of many of the city’s dwellers. And yet, as we hear from numerous Istanbulites, we get the impression that these humans, too, might be on the verge of exclusion. In other words, what is true of dogs and other animals – that some humans seek to exclude them from their lives for the sake of a ‘sanitised’ (bourgeois?) existence – seems also to be true of people.

In other words, while ostensibly about street dogs, then, Taşkafa is really about the drive to exclude certain ‘undesired’ aspects of society from our spaces – and all in the name of ‘progress’.

As such, the film is a passionate defence of what we might term ‘the people’ – but with people here extended into the realm of people and their confederate animals, with whom we share our existence.

Given its emphasis on people and a desire to include that which is otherwise excluded, it is important that Zimmerman’s film gives voice to people – and gives screen time to dogs – who can tell their own story or show their existence.

Zimmerman has written about how films should be collaborative and communal – a perspective I tend to share. This means that her work is not far from Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of ‘modern political cinema’ – a cinema comprised of ‘intercessors’ – people who come in and tell their own story, with or without embellishment and/or exaggeration, and who thus shape the film with, perhaps even instead of, the so-called auteur.

And thus, since time is the focus of Deleuze’s study of modern political and other ‘time-image’ cinemas, we can understand that Taşkafa is also really about time. It is about the need for the world to allow people to live at their own pace, and not to be coerced into leading their lives following the beat of a particular (for want of a better generalisation, capitalist) drum.

A film made under the dictates of profit and production value is always already taking part in this ‘capitalist’ process of homogeneising time, of making all humans march to the same rhythm (this militaristic image is intentional). And so it is also important that Zimmerman is working outside of the confines of the film industry qua industry.

There are nonetheless some issues. These centre around the question of ‘where do we stop?’ By which I mean to say: one of the Istanbulites in the film says that we should do no harm to plants or ants – in addition to dogs. Or rather (for my memory is not exact), if we cannot but occasionally do harm to plants and ants, then we should at least recognise their part in our ecosystem, the importance that even these overlooked elements play in our lives.

And yet Taşkafa seems to stop at dogs (and cats) – and we are not asked (not specifically, at least) to reflect on the provenance of the meat that we see some people offer to the dogs. Is to eat meat to be harmful? Or is it that – beyond good and evil – we can eat meat, but we should be respectful of where it comes from? That is, we should give thanks to life – in all of its forms – meaning that we are now on ground similar, in the smallest type of film, to the ‘lesson’ offered in James Cameron’s Avatar (USA, 2009), the biggest type of film.

(Perhaps it is okay to like Avatar, but the issue is whether you can get beyond its insistent fast pace and its high production values and learn also to love Taşkafa, for the latter forms an equally important part of the mental, cinematic and perhaps material ecosystem that is our world. And if you cannot love Taşkafa, too, then you are potentially lost.)

And if we opened up our inclusive love for the world to ants and plants, then surely we must also to air, that which helps sustain and constitute us, and also then to mere matter for it is that from which we are composed, and thus also to antimatter, for antimatter is also real, simply it ‘exists’ at a different rhythm to matter itself. We need to push as far as we can go – this is my argument in Supercinema – in order to lead an ethical existence based on what we might call ‘withness.’

Finally, given his own views on the cruelty and indifference of nature, I wonder what Werner Herzog, to whom Zimmerman makes reference in her essay on Open Democracy, would make of Taşkafa? Does it romanticise its canine brethren (too much)? I’d like to think not, but I am interested nonetheless.

Taşkafa is a beautiful film – about much more than street dogs, as this blog post has hoped to suggest (and this is without going into the specificities of its being a film made and set in Istanbul, for which oversight on my part, apologies). It is wonderful that the LFF chose to programme it. It would be great to see more films like it…

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