The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

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DEC 14-JAN 15 Issue
Field Notes In Conversation


Since 2011, Brandon Jourdan and Marianne Maeckebergh have been making a series of videos available on the web under the name Global Uprisings. Their latest production, “After Gezi: Erdogan and Political Struggle in Turkey,” was made available in late October. On a recent visit to Brooklyn, Brandon Jourdan made time for an interview with Field Notes Editor Paul Mattick.

After Gezi: Erdogan and Political Struggle in Turkey

Paul Mattick (Rail): Your latest film, the 24th in the Global Uprisings series, follows events in Turkey over the past year. Why did you choose Turkey as the focus for a film at this particular time?

Brandon Jourdan: Marianne Maeckebergh, the co-founder of Global Uprisings, and I wanted to visit Turkey and follow up on our film Taksim Commune: Gezi Park and the Uprising in Turkey, which we completed in 2013. Taksim Commune told the story of the Gezi Park uprising from the perspective of those fighting within the Taksim area of Istanbul, where the protests started. These protests spread throughout Turkey to over 80 cities. While there have been large-scale conflicts in Kurdish areas and Alevi neighborhoods, the Gezi uprising was one of the first times in recent history that many people in Turkey participated in protests. So this was a pretty major event in Turkey and the uprising has changed the political landscape of that country.

We wanted to go back and make a follow-up film that further explored the political and economic situation in Turkey. We wanted to show the fragility of Turkey’s economic policies and how they relate to the West’s economic crisis and quantitative-easing policies. We also wanted to look more into why many people still support Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president and former Prime Minister of Turkey. We wanted to show what happened in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests and how the political composition of protests included more than middle-class Turks fighting for a secular republic (as the media often portrays the situation in Turkey), but also groups like Alevis, Kurds, and others facing displacement by Erdoğan’s urban
development projects.

It also seemed important to touch on Erdoğan’s support of Salafi jihadists in Syria and how this was disrupting the peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). The peace process was a major achievement for Erdoğan, since the conflict between Turkey and the P.K.K. has resulted in over 40,000 deaths. The current situation in Turkey is very dangerous.

It was pretty difficult to tie all of that together into a 20-minute film, but it somehow worked out.

Rail: How is the social and political situation in Turkey different from, and how is it similar to, the state of affairs in other parts of the world?

Jourdan: I should start by saying that I am not an expert on Turkey, but I’ll do my best to summarize what I consider to be important differences and similarities between Turkey and other countries that we have covered.

Turkey has a history that makes it unique. Before Erdoğan, things were not exactly rosy. Under the secular Kemalist governments, there was extreme political repression, including the persecution of the Sunni Muslim population, military coups, the war against the Kurds, the displacement of the Roma, and other forms of brutality that made it no more desirable than what Erdoğan has offered. Recent events have to be framed within this history.

More recently, Turkey’s economic history differed from other places where there were uprisings. After a brief recession in 2009, Turkey experienced significant economic growth during the crisis, with eight percent growth in 2010. This made it different from Greece or Spain, where people were battling against austerity policies. In Turkey, austerity was not so necessary, due to the trade-liberalization policies and the privatizations that occurred after Turkey’s economic crisis in 2001. According to Aslı Odman, who we interviewed in the film, one factor allowing growth has been the privatization of state-owned lands, mainly under Erdoğan’s A.K. Party.

At same time the economic growth has not brought an increase in jobs and the jobs that do exist are precarious labor. The official unemployment rate has stayed around 10 percent, which was where the U.S. was at the height of the crisis. The real numbers may be as high as 20 percent, according to the economist Mustafa Sönmez, who we interviewed for the film. Also youth unemployment is high, so there are similarities with countries that are in crisis.

Also, I think that there are similarities between Turkey and other developing economies like Brazil as well. In both situations, you have economic growth and surplus capital being reinvested into large-scale urbanization, with populations aggravated and displaced by these massive development projects. Parts of the population do not feel that they are gaining from this development. Gezi Park was just part of the complete transformation of urban spaces throughout Turkey. They are building the largest airport in the world near Istanbul, something which is completely unnecessary, because there are already two airports. They are also building a third bridge across the Bosphorus, which will only lead to more traffic in Istanbul, already a sprawling megalopolis with approximately 15 million people. There has also been a huge investment in construction projects and housing, led by the Housing Development Administration, known as Toki. Toki was a relatively obscure agency that pushed for affordable housing until Erdoğan changed its bylaws in 2004 and assumed direct control over it. Under his leadership, Toki has grabbed properties at little or no cost, auctioned them off to developers, and kept the profits.

It is also interesting to look at how these mega-projects are funded. Large amounts of funding come from foreign sources in Europe and the U.S. Developing economies like Turkey have benefited from the way that the West dealt with the financial crisis. In fact, funds from the U.S. Fed’s quantitative easing program were invested into the Turkish economy, prompting growth and paying for these enormous projects. So there is a direct connection between the crisis in the West and growth in Turkey. One also has to question whether this is sustainable economic growth or a bubble waiting to burst. The Turkish economy has already slowed down to the point of stagnation; Turkish G.D.P. actually contracted in the second quarter of 2014. When we did most of our interviews, in May and June, people like Mustafa Sönmez and Aslı Odman were saying that the economy wasn’t sustainable, and I think that is being proven correct at this moment.

Along with Turkey’s similarities to other developing economies there are important differences. These massive construction projects are tied to a cultural identity composed of Sunni conservatism and neo-Ottomanism. In place of Gezi Park, Erdoğan wanted to build a shopping mall that was a replica of Ottoman military barracks. The third bridge will be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, who was responsible for the death of thousands of Alevis. This identity is also tied to legislation, such as banning the sale of alcohol near mosques, advocating for separate swimming pools for men and women, banning smoking in cafes, banning alcohol advertisements, and other laws that many feel directly affect the way people live.

Also, even though Erdoğan is quite authoritarian, he has been democratically elected. Some analysts point out that this makes him different from a dictator like Mubarak or Qaddafi. At the same time, this feature still relates to struggles elsewhere, because there is actually a sort of global legitimization crisis in process, one that affects both dictatorships and representative democracies. People feel increasingly upset, and while this has subsided somewhat in the West, these rebellions keep popping up.

Unfortunately, this has only led the majority of people in these movements to feel that their leaders are corrupt and has not led many to question the form of the state and the social relationships governed by capital. The movements of the last few years have not gone far enough, and states have been able to crush them, which is unfortunate. Still the fringes have grown significantly as well and while still a minority, I think there are increasing numbers of people who think that it is not purely a matter of political corruption or greedy bankers, but actually a systemic issue.

Rail: Are there particular lessons—or questions—that you draw from the Turkish experience?

Jourdan: Over the last years, a lot of interesting things have emerged in Turkey, including occupied factories, squatted buildings that have been converted into social centers, neighborhood forums, and resistance in the presence of an increasingly authoritarian state. The movements in Turkey have not been able to defeat Erdoğan, but they have at least offered
the public a different form of politics than what existed beforehand.

While there was a political left before Gezi, it was more or less traditional in that it was in the form of traditional labor unions, nationalist, and Leninist organizations. Now the situation is quite different. This is not purely because of Gezi, but it definitely changed things.

Another interesting development is that the Kurdish Workers’ Party has, at least rhetorically, rejected Leninism. This has little or nothing to do with Gezi, but more with the fact that their leader Abdullah Öcalan was exposed to the writings of Murray Bookchin while in prison. In Northern Syria, or Rojava, as it’s called by Kurds, the P.K.K.-allied Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) has created three autonomous cantons and claims to be forming councils, cooperatives, and communes; it says it is no longer fighting for a nation-state. There have been reports that within these areas there is greater gender equality and religious pluralism. The Internet now is all abuzz on whether this is true or not. I have not seen much empirical data either way. Only a minority of people have written with first-hand knowledge. Most arguments are more or less launched by people who have not been there and are purely relying on information they have found online or from people critiquing the history of the P.K.K. I would love to see more interviews with people actually living there. If there is a way to find funding and a safe entry-point, I would be interested in visiting and seeing what is actually occurring on the ground.

Rail: How did you get started on the whole Global Uprisings project?

Jourdan: In early 2011, Marianne and I were both following the Arab Spring and responses to the economic crisis. We had both spent over a decade writing and making films about political movements. We felt that the media were not adequately contextualizing the protests and giving enough information about their similarities and differences. Both of us were already working on similar projects separately and were talking about working together on a project.

In late February, 2011, we learned that there was going to be a large general strike in Athens, Greece, the first general strike following the downfall of Mubarak in Egypt. Marianne and I were curious to see whether the types of protest in North Africa would spread to Europe, so it seemed like a good idea to visit. Also, I was freelancing at the time and thought that the strike in Greece might make an interesting story for Democracy Now, whom I work for from time to time. I went, filmed the strike, and also interviewed people about other types of organizing happening in Greece. There was a lot more happening there than what appeared on the surface. There was an ongoing movement that refused to pay for public transit and highway tolls, wildcat strikes, and a large-scale immigrant hunger strike. When I got back, Marianne and I went through the footage, edited the interviews together and wrote the script for our first collaborative film.

Then there was a big anti-austerity protest in London on March 26, 2011 and we decided to film there as well. It was the second largest protest in London’s history—some reports stating that 500,000 people protested against austerity, and at the end there were clashes between protesters and police in central London. There was also a failed attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square.

After the protests in Athens and London, the movement of the squares that had originated in North Africa spread to Spain and Greece. We continued covering responses to authoritarianism and the economic crisis. We made a film about an eviction defense action in Brooklyn, the M15 movement and building occupations in Barcelona, the underlying economic reasons behind the Egyptian revolution, and a film about Occupy Oakland. We realized that while there were local people covering actions in their locations, we were one of the only groups that travelled and were connecting this global wave of protests. We decided to do a Kickstarter campaign, since we were completely broke. We then needed a name and chose Global Uprisings. That’s pretty much how it started.

Since then, we have gotten some small grants and made extremely low-budget films covering movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the U.S., and the U.K. In just three years, we have made 24 short documentaries, and organized various events including a large Global Uprisings conference in Amsterdam, which brought together people involved in movements from
five continents.

Rail: How has your conception of what you are doing changed in the process of doing it?

Jourdan: All of our films have a similar tone. We have done a few without voiceover just to switch around the aesthetics. We also have done a few that are less about action and more about political content. The main thing is that we try to work constantly and want to provide people with something useful. One powerful thing about video is that you can actually view things rather than rely on a person’s description. Of course, sometimes images can be just as misleading or even more so than the written word.

As for our political conception, we have grown a little more cynical. We do not think of political transformation as an event. We’ve been at around seven general strikes, countless riots, occupations, and protests, but very little has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. It will take a lot more than protests to change things.

The occupation of public squares and buildings was impressive, but easy for authorities to crush. The large general strikes were interesting, but too short-lasting to have real effects on the economy. The riots that lasted for weeks were spectacular, but unsustainable. I am just a filmmaker and not really qualified to prescribe solutions, so I am not sure what will be necessary to drastically alter the state of the world.

States have shown they will unleash unbelievable amounts of violence on people pushing for simple demands. These uprisings have provided us with a taste of something different, but the stakes are quite high.

Rail: What formal problems have emerged for you in the making of political films—how do you maintain a productive relationship between imagery and ideas? I remember Godard, very long ago, criticizing The Battle of Algiers for being a “Hollywood” film, sacrificing the exploration of problems to the visual excitement of mass action, clashes with cops, etc., so that a critique of vanguardism worked as a glorification of it. Do you see this as a problem for your kind of film? If so, how do you deal with it?

Jourdan: Our general formula mixes together documentary film with journalism. We try not to just focus on riots or events. We always include interviews with people involved in organizing and try to find analysts who understand the political and economic factors that push people onto the streets. We put a great deal of research into these short films and try to produce films that are factually accurate.

As for Godard’s idea, I think there’s truth to it, and of course the clashes in our films might seem sensational, but they have actually happened over the last few years and it would not make much sense to leave them out. In fact, it is important that people understand the intensity of these moments and I think when people see others putting their bodies on the line that is very inspiring, but we try to keep it in balance.

However, sometimes I get a little depressed that our films are a little too obvious and journalistic. I watch a lot of Chris Marker and Johan van der Keuken films and feel that sometimes we are limiting our work, but we make a lot of films and I am planning on working on some films that are a bit more experimental.

At the same time, we want to produce something useful that people can understand. All of our films are free online and readily accessible. We do not want to just make pretty images for galleries or art house films for film critics to pontificate over. We make films for angry people looking for a way to take action and for those that feel alienated in their everyday life. We want people to learn about what people are doing in other places and why they are doing what they are doing. For the most part, the mainstream media are unable or unwilling to do that. We want people to understand the political and economic factors behind riots, strikes, uprisings, and revolutions. We want people to feel that they can do something besides sitting alienated in front of computer screens.

Of course, people will only react to their own material conditions and films do not create waves of resistance. We certainly cannot expect our films alone to push people over the edge, but we would like to take them one step closer or to at least know that they are not alone.

Rail: Where do you see yourself going next with the Global Uprisings project?

Jourdan: We want to make a feature-length film that is more critical than the short films have been. For the most part, our films are little slices of movements with bits of information about the political economies of the different countries that we have visited. We would like to make a reflective film about the wave of uprisings that have occurred over the last few years, their significance, their limitations, and their gains. We would also try to find a way to place them in the context of the crisis of both capitalism and representative democracy.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

All Issues