It is not the best week for a movie called Let’s Be Cops to open. 20th Century Fox didn’t know what the American media landscape would be like when they scheduled the film, obviously. Then again, what with the film’s absolutely dismal critical reception one could argue that they didn’t need to make the thing at all.
Still, the awkwardness of the release of Let’s Be Cops in the wake of the militarized disaster in Ferguson, MO affords us a bizarre moment of contemplation. Much of the anger over the last week has been directed at the major American news outlets, television in particular. The crisis after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer took a surprising amount of time to really arrive on 24 hour news networks. This raises all sorts of questions about the way that police brutality represented in news media and culture more broadly.
When it comes to the images of unrest and its suppression, we tend to think first of photojournalism and documentary. Nonfiction cinema is, technically speaking, the easiest to construct. Journalists, documentarians, and, since the advent of smart phones, entire communities show up at protests with their cameras. The actions of police can be documented immediately and disseminated onto YouTube, broadcast nationally and edited into feature films. Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery was able to upload the video of his arrest. Protests have been streamed live. Technology has given everyone the opportunity to share what they see with the world, instantly.
I’m not arguing that these incidents are easily filmed or edited, of course. Documenting a revolution or the violent response to a demonstration is always a dangerous undertaking, and editing that footage into a film requires a great deal of time and wisdom. The image itself, however, is captured with the touch of a button. This is in opposition to animation, the cinematic mode in which the image requires the most work and the longest amount of time to create. In this way animation is the polar opposite of documentary.
Yet while animators do not necessarily help us bear witness to current events, they can help us understand them. Moreover, they can address the very problems inherent in the way that we do or do not bear witness. Turkish filmmaker Ayce Kartal is one of these gifted, politically motivated animators. Last year, after a plan to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a shopping mall was made public, protesters decided to occupy the space and fight back. The immediate, brutal police response ignited protests all over the country and all over the world. 11 people were killed and thousands more were wounded. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in power.
Throughout this period of intense, widespread resistance, the mainstream Turkish news media essentially ignored or denied what was happening on the ground. The result was a surreal disconnect, one which Kartal tries to capture in Tornistan. Those tapped into social media were able to follow the protest movement, as well as those watching streams of foreign news. Older generations, still getting most of their news from regular television, completely missed much of what was happening. In an interview, Kartal related an incident of an elderly man asking a protester why so many people were in the street. Had Turkey been chosen to host the next World Cup?
And so Tornistan is something of a collage, combining the quiet and undisturbed perspective of couch potato Turks with the kinetic energy of the protests and the horror of their repression. Kartal presents a couple at home watching TV, taking in soaps and the 2013 Miss Turkey contest. Popcorn pops on the stove. The washing machine spins dispassionately, unfazed by the political whirlwind outside. An elderly man sits reading a newspaper, one which notably contains nothing about the protests. These scenes are solid, stationary and at rest. Kartal interrupts them with fast-paced, eye-grabbing scenes of enormous crowds marching through the streets, police firing at protesters and young people being chased and beaten.
He also uses sound as a particularly powerful tool to demonstrate the cleft in Turkish experience, abruptly shifting from the angry chants of the protesters to the passive popping of popcorn on the stove. His final blow finally transposes the audio of a harmless television documentary about penguins onto the survival strategy of those facing the police, running away from gas bombs. In the end Kartal censors himself, a commentary on both the more unspeakable images of the conflict and the government’s act of censorship. It’s the photonegative of the final moments of Waltz with Bashir, choosing to hide the culminating images of brutality behind the shriek of censorship rather than display them with all of the shock and awe of the photographic image.
In the end credits, Kartal includes a long list of YouTube urls as sources. This is a film inspired by and built up from the hastily captured and published videos taken by participants and observers of the 2013 Turkish protests. It is both lesser and greater than those initial clips in its ability to represent the events. On the one hand it does not have the speed of those news-making images, nor the visceral potency of photograph. On the other hand, it captures the essence of absence and social dissonance. The lack of media attention creates a rift in the way a society experiences a crisis like this, one that information technology (which Kartal also features) tries to bridge. Yet as it currently stands, that bridge is not yet complete in any society, not even that of the theoretically more open United States.
P.S.: If you like this short, check out Kartal’s DayDay series. The films are more broad, still interested in the politics of technology and media, and has a lot in common with the work of David O’Reilly and Don Hertzfeldt