Ana Finel Honigman, What the Structure Defines: An Interview with Kutlug Ataman

This interview first appeared in Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp 79-86, and is available on Ataman’s website. As always, I prefer to read the artist’s own words since they generally give greater insight into what their work is about rather than reading critics and curators, who have a tendency for over-interpretation and hyperbole. In this interview, Ataman discusses several of his films, as well as his overall approach and motivation. Finel Honigman begins with a very accurate description of what Ataman’s films embody:

“Kutlug Ataman’s hybrid films set oral tradition in opposition to history. They are neither fiction nor documentary proper. They embody the postmodern interpretation of history as a popular consensus on facts instead of a “hard science.” History is founded on fragile variables, and Ataman’s films reinforce the powerful influence and impact of individual subjectivity on our notion of collective history… The people Ataman films are largely disenfranchised and disempowered, but by claiming the protected authority of historians or biographers, they rewrite their conditions through poetic expression.” (p 79)

Since their stories are their own take on events, biographical or otherwise, they are purely subjective accounts, but they are lent this myth of objectivity by being presented in documentary fashion. The idea that history is not made up of hard facts, but of mini narratives that are lived moments, which is something that I discovered in the work of Ra’ad and the Atlas Group. Avoiding the grand narratives, but still managing to make a point about contemporary society in Turkey: “Without any encyclopedic description of Turkey, you get an idea of Turkey through its imprint on these people’s stories.”

Although the broader issues are never articulated by Ataman’s subjects – he steers clear of making clear political statements – they are inherent in the narratives of what the subjects talk about or chose to avoid:

“They do not talk about gay rights, human rights, or women’s rights. They never articulate these big issues. Instead, they talk about personal, everyday, little stories. These stories are ultimately stronger than lessons and speeches.” (p 81)

Ataman likens his work to that of Rachel Whiteread, in the sense that by showing what the structure (in his case contemporary Turkish society) defines, he is revealing the structure’s form: “… the structure is implied by what it is notthe empty spaces point to its existence“. The mini narratives themselves speak volumes since they are personal accounts of lived events and circumstances rather than dry facts presented as an objective historical record. In this sense, Ataman is also interested in the lies his subjects tell:

“Lies are more real to me because they are immediate… The facts are not interesting. Recounting facts is like creating systems of documentary. It is creating catalogues. I am interested in a person’s lies because of the reasons they lie. Those are far richer and more compelling than the reasons they would have to recite the facts.” (p 84)

In this sense we have very different goals. Although essentially my work and Ataman’s work is about reclaiming identity, his has more to do with the manipulation of people’s perception, a kind of mythologizing of the self through identity, whereas mine (at the moment) is about re-enfranchisement.

Finel Honigman describes Never My Soul! (2001) as Ataman’s greatest work. The subject of the film is Ceyhan Firat, a preop transgender who has adopted the name of legendary Turkish film star Turkan Soray. “Never my soul” is a phrase taken from the cliché sentence the good-Turkish-girl character says to her rapist in many old Turkish movies – “You can have my body but never my soul!”

“The very structure of Never My Soul! features another kind of artifice. Ataman first filmed Soray telling her story; her words were then transcribed so that she could relearn them and perform them a second time for the camera. Edited together, the two versions create a discontinuous narrative that Ataman calls a “parallax view” of his subject.” (p 80)

So does this mean you never really know if you are watching the original interview or the re-enacted version? I cannot find the video anywhere online. This idea of parallax is something that comes from the work of Slavoj Žižek, which I need to look at to fully understand.

“Talking is the only meaningful activity we have. Once we are no longer willing or allowed to tell our stories, we collapse into conformity. I like to look at my subjects in this way. My interest in recording them is not a service or anything like that. I am interested in their stories and how the telling functions in the context of their lives.” (p 82)

An extension of an earlier quotation, here Ataman explains that he is not so much interested in broadcasting these stories in order to help or support the subjects (which would be pure documentary) he is interested in how the telling of the story helps these people to construct their identity, to give essence to their lives, as well as a way of resisting conformity. All of Ataman’s subjects are in some way eccentric or idiosyncratic, but this is really just a metaphor for the individuality that we all experience and assert when we adopt an identity, but as he points out, identity is not fixed:

“[My characters] insist on telling their stories, but they are practical and will change if necessary in order to survive. They will lie. Semiha mythologizes herself. Even within the film her story is unstable. She changes herself as if she is changing her clothes. Ceyhan, a transvestite, does the same. I am interested in transition.” (p 83)

Once again, this idea of wearing an identity as one might adorn a costume or makeup (both essential parts of the theatre performer and transvestite). This also means that one is afforded the ability to change or alter that identity, just as lying allows the rewriting of one’s biography. Ataman has an interesting take on why in Turkey there is a focus on the former glory of the Ottoman Empire:

“…unfortunately the educational system and the present ideology focus on yesterday and never today. Because history is myth, people refer to the past as a method of deflecting their own attention from the fact that they don’t have much to be proud of in their present lives. In Turkey, creativity is curtailed by the military, and social repression exists on all levels. So there is very little happening today to advance the culture or national identity. Without much to be proud of today, you resort to looking at a myth of a past in order to find your ”identity.”” (p 84)

I think this is a phenomenon that occurs in many parts of the world, especially in a time when national identities are being reinstated due to external pressures and perceived threats from within nation-states.

Ataman talks about the difficulty a viewer may experience in watching his films – not only because of the subject matter, which may be off-putting at times, but also because of the way they are constructed. Semiha B. is impossible to watch in its entirety owing to its sheer length (it is 8 hours long), while it is never clear whether the central character in Never My Soul! is a man or a woman, if it is ‘real’ or acted, whether Ataman’s role is that of director or journalist, and this creates an unease in the audience:

“…we are no longer placated by the pleasure of watching a Hollywood flick in which we are lost in illusion; instead we are constantly forced to remain unsettled. This process is a Brechtian concern because it requires an intellectual, inquisitive engagement with the artwork.” (p 85)

Brechtian in the sense that Ataman includes himself in the performance (his voice, or reflection in a mirror), thus revealing the actual machinery behind the filmmaking process. Ultimately, Ataman’s goal is to make the viewer question the idea of assumed identities, since at the end of the day, we all assume or create our own identities:

“…this artifice makes you realize how reality is created and how lies can be no less true than what is understood as truth. Truths are also fabricated. People like to describe themselves as “very real,” but we create our identities.” (p 86)

And just as the characters in Ataman’s films, we are all guilty to a certain extent of adorning different identities at different times and of rewriting our own histories to suit a particular occasion.

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