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Conflict and Controversy in Small Cinemas


Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska

This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.

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10. To be or not to be yourself: Turkish diaspora and the foreign land – stereotypes, nation and (hetero)norms (Bartłomiej Nowak)

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Bartłomiej Nowak

Uniwersytet Jagielloński

10. To be or not to be yourself: Turkish diaspora and the foreign land – stereotypes, nation and (hetero)norms

Abstract: The author analyses a few films of the German-Turkish and Austrian-Turkish cinema directed by Fatih Akın, Kutluğ Ataman and Umut Dag. He’s interested in the functioning of the Turkish diaspora in the German-language societies of the West, and in topics of cultural differences, gender, sexual identity and changes of the forms of traditional Turkish family.

Discussing such problems as honour killings, patriarchalism and homophobia of Muslim diasporas, he tries to answer the question if diasporic cinema is able to change stereotypical perception of the ethnic minorities. Can it play with the meaning of such concepts as “family” and “nation”?

Keywords: German-Turkish, Austrian-Turkish cinema, gender, sexual orientation, stereotypes, identity

In this short chapter, I will analyse a few films directed by Fatih Akın, Kutluğ Ataman and Umut Dag dealing with the functioning of the Turkish diaspora in the German-language societies of the West. I’ll try to answer the question if diasporic cinema can change stereotypical perception of the ethnic minorities and redefine categories of “family” and “nation.”

Films such as Akın’s The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite, 2007), Ataman’s Lola + Bilidikid (Lola and Billy the Kid, 1999) and Dag’s Kuma (2012) show that “clash of civilisations” should not be perceived in the categories derived from the classical theoretical work of Samuel P. Huntington who treated these words quite literally, foreseeing real face-offs of cultures built on different foundations, beliefs and meanings, but the ones closer to the current cross-cultural dialogue that takes place in a more private space. I’ll try to check if heteronormativity and gender norms of the Turkish diaspora play the significant role in the life of the films’ protagonists or if the Western context changes significantly the way in which they perceive themselves.

Let me begin with Kuma. The main protagonist of this film, Ayse (Begüm Akkaya), is a young woman who in the first scenes of the film (which take place in Turkey) is wed to the young and handsome Hasan (Murathan Muslu) with ← 141 | 142 → whom she later moves to Vienna. Though the title of the film (which literally means “concubine” or “second wife”) doesn’t hide the true role of Ayse in the Hasan’s family, the first scenes of the film do not explain if Ayse is aware of this role and whether she knows that her marriage to Hasan is just a guise to bring her to Austria as the concubine of Hasan’s father whose first wife, Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas), supposedly terminally ill, wants to be sure that her children won’t be motherless after her death.

For quite some time, Dag doesn’t reveal Hasan’s motives to agree to such a marriage. The viewers are confronted with the truth when Ayse, who falls in love with Hasan, is informed by him that he is not interested in women. However, it is unclear till the end of the film if his parents were aware of his homosexuality when they decided to arrange his marriage and if this marriage was planned to hide his true sexual leanings from the local Turkish community.

When, quite unexpectedly, Hasan’s father passes away, Ayse’s position in the family changes and she has to start working in the local store. There she starts an affair with a young Turkish man. She spends her time off with Hasan’s mother, Fatma, looking after her, even sleeping with her in the same bed. Their relation is full of kindness, mutual respect, even intimacy. It changes when Ayse is caught in the store in flagrante with her young lover. The feeling of betrayal overwhelms Fatma, who turns against Ayse, beats her with fury and wants to chase her away from their apartment. One of the reasons of her anger is the fact that her daughter-in-law’s adultery was witnessed by the store’s owner so there’s a whiff of scandal in the story which may dishonour her son. Honour of the family is very important for the Muslim diasporas all over the world, the topic I will come back to later.

Ultimately, it is Hasan who helps his wife to stay in the family and probably – it is uncertain due to the open ending in the final scene – alleviates the crisis. This stabilisation is connected, though, with the need to continually lie about Hasan’s and Ayse’s marriage. This lie is from the beginning present in her relationship with her lover: she may consider herself a widow (after Hasan’s father’s death) but for her diaspora she’s a woman betraying her husband.

Films about young Turkish women and their situation in the patriarchal surroundings of their families have been made by the German-language cinema for years. Ewa Fiuk in her Polish text about German-Turkish cinema cites Forty Square Meters of Germany (40 Quadratmeter Deutschland, 1985), directed by Tevfik Baser, about a wife kept by her husband in their apartment to – as he claims – guard her from the allegedly demoralising influence of the German reality. The same topic is present in Head-On (Gegen die Wand, 2004), directed by Fatih Akin, which probably is still the most widely known film of the German-Turkish ← 142 | 143 → cinema. The main female protagonist of the film, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) meets Cahit (Birol Ünel) and marries him to escape the patriarchalism of her family. After some time, it becomes clear that Cahit, allegedly as rebellious as his wife against their diaspora’s norms, is as patriarchal as (we may assume) Sibel’s father. His patriarchal jealousy is one of the reasons why he kills one of his wife’s lovers.

In Kuma, this topic is treated differently, mainly because of Hasan’s homosexuality, which interferes with the codified family’s relations and at the same time (especially in the final scenes of the film) is the guarantor that lets the family keep its status quo. Hasan does not want to reveal his sexual orientation (to “come out of the closet”) so he does not strive to defend the family’s honour by banishing Ayse from his family. The wives’ adulteries in the Muslim communities of the West are very often punished by the so-called “honour killings.” They are notorious among the members of the Turkish diaspora in the German-language countries. Between 1996 and 2005, there were as many as fifty-five honour killings in Austria and their number does not change from year to year. They take place as often in Turkey as in the Turkish communities all over the world. Monika Lisiewicz (2012) in Polish text Społeczności LGBT w Turcji: między kemalizmem a westernizacją (LGBT communities in Turkey: between Kemalism and westernisation) claims:

The last research commissioned by the Turkish government showed that there are on average one thousand victims of the honour killings every year – compare it with sixty-six people murdered in 2002 [data from 2011]. Usually the victims are young women murdered by their male relatives for having extramarital relations, talking with strangers or being rape victims1.

Homosexuality is another important reason for “honour killings”; therefore, it might be said that Hasan’s situation in the community of Austrian Turkish diaspora is very similar to Ayse’s situation. This might explain why Hasan defended Ayse when Fatma became aware of her extramarital affair.

The “honour killing” of the homosexual young man is one of the subjects of the film Lola + Bilidikid. This film about homosexual and transgender Turkish Germans tells a story of three brothers and their attitude to their sexual orientation. When writing about the sexuality of the Turks, Lisiewicz writes: “As the results of research of the Turkish society’s sexuality suggest, 25% of the people under the age of 30 felt or still feel sexual attraction to the person of the same sex”2 and ← 143 | 144 → there is no reason, I suppose, to think that this percent is lower for members of the Turkish diaspora living outside Turkey. Additionally, it is worth remembering that honour killings of the homosexual men are very often committed by men who – as Lisiewicz writes – “had sexual intercourse with their victims”3. Attitude to homosexuality is quite different in Turkey than in the West and these differences might explain why we’ve read here about percentage as high as 25% (when most of the research in the West claim that only around 5% of people are gay). I’ll come back to this topic once again later.

The youngest of three brothers portrayed in Lola + Bilidikid, Murat (Baki Davrak), has just started his adolescence and seeks his first erotic experiences. The oldest one, Osman (Hasan Ali Mete), gives the impression of the heterosexual macho and the homophobe. Suspecting that Murat is gay, Osman tries to force him to have sex with a prostitute. However, it is later revealed that Osman, when informed about homosexuality of his second brother, Lola (Gandi Mukli), raped him. Later in the film, when Lola, previously banished from the family, meets and befriends Murat, Osman murders her, presumably to hide his own homosexual tendencies, which might have been revealed if Lola told his family about being raped by her brother. As I’ve written before (citing Lisiewicz), such murders are very often committed as attempts to hide the murderer’s sexual experiences.

When Murat meets Lola, she performs as a drag queen in gay clubs and lives with Bilidikid (Erdal Yildiz) who sells himself to other men for Deutschmarks. “Selling himself” means here that he lets other men perform fellatio on his penis but does not do anything else. His treatment of his own sexuality is another subject. He clearly loves Lola but at the same time is ashamed of living with a man. He tries to convince Lola to move to Turkey and pursue sex reassignment surgery (and marry him later). This clearly contradicts with her wishes: despite being transgender, Lola does not want to change her sex surgically. She even foresees that if she decided for such a step, Bilidikid would leave her for not being built like a man anymore.

An attitude to homosexuality in Turkey (and therefore in Turkish diaspora) was formed not only by Islam but also by Atatürk’s cultural revolution and the influence of the modern Western discourse about gender and sexual identity. Obviously, the Western context and Western customs cannot be forgotten when someone tries to talk about the subject of life and identity of German-Turkish men having sex with other men. Lisiewicz writes: ← 144 | 145 →

In the Muslim world … there was … a wide margin of freedom for crossing borders of heteronormativity. It had its roots in the legacy of the classical Islam which sanctioned roles for transgender persons and also in the influence of the local customs and cults present on these lands before Islam4.

It might be suggested5 that changes introduced in Turkey after Atatürk’s cultural revolution, which tried to incorporate Western customs into Turkish society, were among the reasons behind the change in the attitude of Turks toward gender, masculinity and femininity. All departures from gender or sexual norms (and by “norms” I mean, among others, borders between masculinity and femininity that allegedly should not be transgressed) were seen as “part of the past”6. Non-heteronormative sexuality is defined in Turkish language in various terms but for us the most interesting information should be this: long are traditions of different perceptions of passive and active partners in sex. Only passive ones were perceived as “unmanly”7, and this asymmetrical perception results from the cultural belief that man is the one who, during sexual intercourse, penetrates the body of his lover and woman is the one who is penetrated (so the act of being penetrated is always feminine and therefore unmanly).

This belief might explain why Bilidikid does not perceive himself as homosexual. We cannot be sure but his “macho” style and the fact that he wants to convince Lola to sex reassignment surgery suggest that he might be an active partner in sex and therefore in his own eyes (and as a result of the aforementioned perception of male homosexuality in Turkey and Turkish diaspora) he isn’t “unmanly.” Hetero-norms of the Turkish diaspora, not necessarily identical as hetero-norms of the Western world, connect with his identity and let him perceive himself as the “real man,” even if he’s in love with another man.

Homosexuality (but this time lesbian) and the situation of women in the Muslim communities are two of many subjects of The Edge of Heaven. The female protagonist from Turkey, Ayten (Nurgül Yeşilçay), is Kurdish. When she escapes from Turkey and seeks asylum in Germany, she meets Lotte (Patrycja Ziółkowska). The women fall in love with each other. When Ayten is expelled from Germany, Lotte travels after her to Turkey. This is one of many subplots of Akin’s film but the one representative for its themes of cultural identity and Eastern/Western dichotomy. When writing about the film, Ewa Fiuk draws our attention to the fact that Akin shows both sociological and political problems of Turkey and does ← 145 | 146 → not forget about exclusions still existing in the Western societies. Despite the fact that Ayten is in love with a German female citizen, she can’t receive German citizenship through marriage with her beloved because gay marriages aren’t legally established yet8. Paradoxically, the victim of this social injustice is German: Lotte travels to Istanbul after Ayten and she is killed there mainly because Ayten could not stay in Lotte’s homeland.

There’s also another story told in The Edge of Heaven: the one of Yeter (Nursel Köse), Ayten’s mother, a prostitute who abandons her profession to live with Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz), an older man who is aware of her past and seems to accept it but later is jealous of her alleged (but non-existing) relationship with his son, Nejat (Baki Davrak). Yeter dies in an accident, which happens during a quarrel with Ali. His rage is unsubstantiated and irrational but is undoubtedly connected with his patriarchal upbringing. Her profession of sex worker was good enough for him as long as her sexual experience could be tamed and used only for his own pleasure. When his “ownership” of woman’s body is called into question, rules of patriarchy prevail. The situation of women in Turkish family is treated here in a similar way to the one in Kuma and many other films dealing with the identity of Muslim diasporas all over the world: Akın shows that traditional ways of living of the Muslim communities might change in the Western context but the Turkish identity is still the result of a dialogue between two cultures and two types of thinking about gender, sex, family etc. It is almost impossible (or at least very difficult) to forget about one’s upbringing, religion, and a way of thinking, and assimilate with the Western society in a way that would eliminate all differences. People belonging to Muslim diasporas create their identity as a bridge between two river banks of two different cultural worlds.

The “marginalisation” of the films’ protagonists mentioned in this chapter is the result of their ethnic roots, their gender or their sexual orientation. An American female theoretician, bell hooks, claims that marginality is not “a site of deprivation”9 but it can be “the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance”10 and from this “site” people of margins can talk about their life, their world and their experiences: marginality may be “a central location for the production of ← 146 | 147 → a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives”11. We should ask if the aforementioned films try to be “the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance”, if they let margins to find their own voice, to show how they see and understand the world.

Homi K. Bhabha adds to these hooks’ observations that the space of nation, though it is seemingly formed in opposition to other nations and in a way, tries to overlook marginal groups that live in this space, cannot (even if it wants) ignore those that step in its borders: The Others. The cultural otherness has to be an issue when the subject of nation is analysed and nation itself is defined12. Films about national “otherness” very often (as we’ve seen already in this chapter) have protagonists that are “other” in many ways: their gender or sexual identity is usually an issue that can put their cultural, ethnic and national identity into question, that can show cultural inadequacies and the enslaving nature of cultural norms.

The narrative of the nation is very often one-sided – and it does not matter if this sentence is used for the nation of diaspora or for the one of the country in which it settles. It’s true in both cases. Diasporic films show “scratches” existing on the surfaces of these narratives and show that national discourse (very often connected with the gender discourse), enforcing its authority, its power, is at the same time condemned to failure in its pursuance to create one image of nation. In Kuma, the rules of “typical” Muslim family are supposedly followed or at least it should look like this to the accidental people. Dag lets us peep into Fatma’s and Ayse’s family, to stalk their privacy and because of this the viewer is informed that behind the veil of norms that they supposedly follow is another reality of lies and suppressed desires. The same accumulation of lies and conflicts is shown in Lola + Bilidikid and a result of the ferocious fight between personal needs and the cultural norms is there even more dreadful than in Kuma: Lola is murdered by her brother. We’ve also analysed the relation between Yeter and Ali Aksu in The Edge of Heaven and I’ve mentioned a few other examples (such as Head-On or Forty Square Meters of Germany) that show the same fight between traditional patriarchy and the authenticity of the gender and sexual needs.

Another topic very often touched upon by the diasporic cinema are generational differences. The older generation is (or at least should be) the bulwark of tradition. Mother of three brothers, main protagonists of Lola + Bilidikid, and Fatma in Kuma are such bulwarks. The younger generations are very often more ← 147 | 148 → willing to find compromise between their needs, the realities of living in the West and the traditions of their diaspora. Lola from Ataman’s film cuts herself off (or rather is cut off) from her family and her diaspora’s traditional way of life. In Kuma, this discussion between the Western realities and the Eastern traditions is constantly ongoing (and – mainly because of the fact that Eastern norms are still respected and celebrated by the people of diaspora – needed to survive in the context in which the chains of norms are part of everyday life). This “discussion” takes place on someone’s body, in the realm of gender and sexuality. Judith Butler (2010) in her well-known book Gender Trouble claimed that gender is “performed.” I think that this statement should be enough for us here and I don’t want to go any further into summarising her theory. Let me just say that functioning of gender and sexuality in the aforementioned films very often shows validity of Butler’s views. Kuma’s protagonists deceive people who do not belong to their family by performing (sic!) their gender roles for the outside world. It is also clear from the stories told in those films that gender roles are created (and written on someone’s body) as heterosexual. Therefore, homosexuality of Hasan is hidden behind the costume of heterosexual role of Ayse’s husband: his true nature is non-normative and therefore Hasan has to play someone else to be able to find himself in the “right” position in his diaspora. Lola, one of the title characters of Lola + Bilidikid, works on stage as a drag queen, literally performing in the costume of the female gender and at the same time showing that gender is only a costume. Films mentioned here show that playing parts is the everyday reality of the people belonging to different generations of the German Turks. Women have to play roles of wives, daughters and mothers, men of husbands, sons and fathers, but first and foremost all of them have to play their gender – even when their real selves remonstrate. Younger generation may treat norms that define gender and sexuality more liberally than the older one but even they cannot escape from them – they need to debate with them and create themselves in the realm of their power. When they rebel – they are victims of their culture, which leaves its marks on them. Fight between culture and identity is part of life of every human being who does not subordinate to the norms that captivate his true self – so this sentence may be used to describe the situation of people in Poland as well as in Germany, Austria or everywhere else – but the more conservative the culture, the greater is the need to pursue one’s identity in a way that would let keep up oppressive appearances of the traditional gender and family roles.

All films mentioned in this chapter try to crack down stereotypes. But do they succeed? They show small, private “clashes of civilisations” happening in the everyday life of their protagonists and at the same time teach that one-sided perception ← 148 | 149 → of people belonging to “civilisation” is false, even impossible, and therefore that stereotypes are false, distorted visions of far more complicated human beings. The need to redefine themselves, their identity, is part of everyday life of main and supporting characters of Kuma, Lola + Bilidikid and The Edge of Heaven. Their identity is created at the point of contact of two different cultures. This need, even necessity is the site of such clashes that happen in the private space which at the same time coexists with the space of nation.


Bhabha, Homi K. Miejsca kultury. Trans. Tomasz Dobrogoszcz. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2010.

Fiuk, Ewa. “Kobieta – Inna, Obca. Bohaterki i autorki współczesnego niemieckiego kina migracyjnego.” In: Między filmem a teatrem II. Napięcie i poznanie. O inter-, multi- i transkulturowej komunikacji w sztukach audiowizualnych, eds. Sławomir Bobowski and Piotr Rudzki. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2014, pp. 155–169.

hooks, bell. “Marginality as site of resistance.” In: Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson and others. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 341–343.

Lisiewicz, Monika. “Społeczności LGBT w Turcji: między kemalizmem a westernizacją.” In: Queer a islam. Alternatywna seksualność w kulturach muzułmańskich, ed. Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska. Sopot: Smak Słowa, 2012, pp. 183–196. ← 149 | 150 →

1 Monika Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT w Turcji: między kemalizmem a westernizacją,” in: Queer a islam. Alternatywna seksualność w kulturach muzułmańskich, ed. Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska (Sopot: Smak Słowa, 2012), p. 189.

2 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 195.

3 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 190.

4 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 184.

5 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 185.

6 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 185.

7 Lisiewicz, “Społeczności LGBT,” p. 186.

8 Ewa Fiuk, “Kobieta – Inna, Obca. Bohaterki i autorki współczesnego niemieckiego kina migracyjnego,” in: Między filmem a teatrem II. Napięcie i poznanie. O inter-, multi- i transkulturowej komunikacji w sztukach audiowizualnych, eds. Sławomir Bobowski and Piotr Rudzki (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2014), pp. 159–160.

9 bell hooks, “Marginality as site of resistance,” in: Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson and others (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), p. 341.

10 hooks, “Marginality,” p. 341.

11 hooks, “Marginality,” p. 341.

12 Homi K. Bhabha, Miejsca kultury, trans. Tomasz Dobrogoszcz (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2010), p. 158.