Guest post by Noah Arjomand.
In an age in which political and cultural boundaries are both being constantly crossed and fiercely policed, an age of polarization into seemingly unreconcilable camps, the idea of living or moving between worlds can seem at once utopian and essential. The “between worlds” idea seems to have captured imaginations—my own included—to such an extent that IU Cinema has elected to feature two film series on the general theme in as many years. In 2018, IU Cinema’s Mira Nair: Living Between Worlds presented her work spanning India, America, and Uganda. Now, I am helping to organize an IU Cinema Creative Collaboration that we are calling Between Worlds: Cultural Hybridity in Turkish Film.
Each of our series’ three films depicts its subjects crossing boundaries, whether between countries or between cultures inside Turkey, and shows that being in-between is not easy. When Nesrin, the protagonist of Ana Yurdu (Motherland) leaves the big city for the village of her deceased grandmother, she finds herself caught between conflicting values. As a divorcée who asserts an urbanite independence, Nesrin clashes with her conservative mother, and other women treat her as a threat to the moral community. In searching for her own way forward without abandoning family, Nesrin risks her very sense of self and her sanity.
Crossing between worlds is not always a matter of individual choice or private circumstances. İki Dil, Bir Bavul (literally Two Languages, One Suitcase, but titled On the Way to School in its English-language release) shows what happens when the state compels freshly-graduated Turkish public school teachers to cross into new worlds by assigning them to remote posts in the Kurdish-populated southeast. The documentary follows Emre, a young schoolteacher from urban western Turkey, for a full academic year as he struggles to teach and even establish basic communication with the Kurdish-speaking students of his one-room schoolhouse in a remote village. Although the Turkish state may deny the existence of linguistic and cultural differences or attempt to erase them through a monolingual education complete with daily chants of “What happiness to the one who says, ‘I am a Turk,’” Emre is confronted with the realities of rural Kurdish life.
Not everyone likes the “between worlds” trope. The danger, critics charge, is that by thinking in terms of distinct worlds between which people and art exist, we reinforce stereotypes about the incompatibility of different ways of being, different nations and peoples. We fail to imagine people creating new worlds when we conceptualize them as in between old ones. As Leslie A. Adelson writes of Turco-German literature in “Against Between: A Manifesto”:
The imaginary bridge ‘between two worlds’ is designed to keep discrete worlds apart as much as it pretends to bring them together. Migrants are at best imagined as suspended on this bridge in perpetuity; critics do not seem to have enough imagination to picture them actually crossing the bridge and landing anywhere new.
In Auf der Anderen Seite (the original translates as “on the other side” but the English title is The Edge of Heaven), we see the creation of new cultural forms but also how established boundaries do exercise power over hybrid lives. Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s characters find themselves stranded in dangerous states of suspension – as rejects of their communities, as undocumented immigrants or deportees — by the political and cultural lines drawn around them. Within these liminal and precarious spaces, though, Akin’s protagonists create new connections that cross boundaries of age, gender, and nationality — that land somewhere new, for better and for worse.
The film series Between Worlds: Cultural Hybridity in Turkish Film begins at the IU Cinema on September 15 with Ana Yurdu (Motherland), followed by İki Dil, Bir Bavul (On the Way to School) on October 26. It then concludes on November 18 with Auf der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven).
The Center for the Study of the Middle East, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Center for Documentary Research and Practice, Turkish Flagship Program, Directed by Women, and Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology are sponsors of this series.
Noah Arjomand is Mark Helmke Postdoctoral Scholar in Global Media, Development, and Democracy at the Center for International Media Assistance and Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. He is a sociologist whose research focuses on cross-cultural communication and its mediators, particularly in the Turkish- and Persian-speaking world.