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Do Not Compel Me to Sing

[Still image from [Still image from "I Left My Shoes in Istanbul"]

I Left My Shoes in Istanbul, directed by Nigol Bezjian. Lebanon/Turkey, 2013.

Nigol Bezjian’s I Left My Shoes in Istanbul begins with its protagonist protesting that he has no desire to go on the journey that lies at the heart of the film. It ends with the haunting voice of a singer, begging the listener, “Do not implore me, I will not sing.” Between these two attempts to escape from a story that nevertheless must be told, Bezjian presents us with a vision that is deeply personal, not always coherent, but remarkably unsparing in documenting the presence of an enforced Armenian absence in Istanbul. Bezjian, who has written, directed, and produced for film and television and is perhaps best known for the 1992 film Chickpeas, has made an experimental documentary whose form provides us with an insistently personal take on the effects of the traumatic history carried by Armenians into the diaspora.

In a sense, the film is the story of a double displacement and a double return. Bezjian is himself a member of the Armenian diaspora, and clearly his intention was to make a film about returning to Istanbul, a place of family history that he comes to as a stranger. But the protagonist of the film is not Bezjian himself—he never speaks or comes out from behind the camera—but the poet Sako Arian. Arian and Bezjian share similar biographies: both are descendants of Armenian families forced to become refugees by the genocide of 1915; both were born and raised in Beirut and are generally identified as Armenian-Lebanese artists. So Bezjian mediates his own return to Istanbul through the figure of Arian, who is on screen for nearly the entire film.

From the film’s opening, Arian proves to be an ambiguous figure. We first see him at home in Beirut, surrounded by maps and travel guides (some contemporary, some decades old), arguing with a friend over whether or not this trip is in fact a good idea. “In the last few years, Istanbul started to move frequently inside me,” he says plaintively, “but now, to go or not to go?” “If you’re not going, all this is useless,” his friend fires back. “You, being a diaspora Armenian, how can you not go?” But Arian remains unconvinced: “there is a wound inside preventing me at every step from deciding to go.” If there is anything that ultimately sways Arian towards making the trip, it is less the entreaties of his friend or a sense of his responsibility as a member of the diaspora, and more the desire to see the city he has read so much about, for example in the satirist Hagop Baronian’s book A Tour of the Neighborhoods of Istanbul. Baronian’s name, along with that of many other Armenian writers, reverberates throughout the film; at one point, when Arian is shown a church and told of an Armenian charitable organization founded there in 1880, he replies, a propos of nothing, that this was right at the time when Baronian wrote his book.

In the event, of course, Arian does go. The first shot of Istanbul is not an auspicious one: we see a cemetery, with a road running through it. It is raining, and the only figure in the shot is a stray dog that has wandered across the road. We will be visiting this cemetery again, but for now, the camera simply holds the shot for several seconds before fading to black. A title in the subsequent sequence reads, simply, “Istanbul,” and what follows is Arian’s tour, guided by a large cast of characters, none of whom are formally introduced. Part of what makes the film, on first viewing, a somewhat opaque experience has to do with the character of Arian himself; he is affable, given to quiet smiles, and clearly a fine listener, but his reactions provide little by way of access to the thoughts behind the smiles—until we reach the film’s stunning conclusion, when Arian’s own poetry finally gives us access to these thoughts and feelings.


[Still image from I Left My Shoes in Istanbul.]

For the greater part of the film, though, Bezjian leaves us with little by way of emotional guidance. We see what Arian sees, largely without comment. We watch, for example, as a competing film crew from the Turkish state television network films an Armenian woman performing a song for a show called “Living Memories”; Bezjian then invites in the Turkish correspondent to talk about her own goal in making a television special about the “thousand year old story of Armenians and Turks.” “They are telling a similar story with a different point of view,” she says, referring to Bezjian and his crew, although both have had to stop shooting, since the electricity has gone out. At other moments, we simply catch snippets of conversation (“He writes in Turkish, but he is not Turkish in his literature…”). We visit an Armenian school, where Arian stands awkwardly before a class talking about Armenian provincial literature, and are then addressed by a young student, speaking directly to the camera and addressing himself to “diaspora Armenians,” who declares that “Armenianism is not only about the genocide.” We visit the offices of Agos, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper founded by Hrant Dink, and listen to a journalist who declares, “Turkish identity is founded atop Armenian martyrs.” We meet Arian’s friend, the writer Sevan Deyirmenjian, and the two men lovingly make their way through Deyirmenjian’s extensive library of Armenian literature while Arian struggles to describe his feelings about Istanbul, only able to suggest, “Internally I’m all mixed up.”

In fact, Arian only seems to be at home in literature: wandering through bookstores, reciting poems and playing word games, talking books with fellow writers, visiting the tombs of his beloved poets. One of the most powerful scenes has Arian reading a passage from Baronian’s Tour of the Neighborhoods of Istanbul while we watch passers-by make their way through the busy streets of Taksim. The passage describes the very Armenian presence that has now all but been destroyed in the modern city, giving an account of a neighborhood containing more than five hundred Armenian households. But what is striking is that the scene from Baronian is a satirical one: he describes the fact that, when approached from the water, what is most notable about the neighborhood is the existence of six public urinals with their unmistakable odor, and points out that those with noses in good working order are thus at a disadvantage. Far from setting an elegiac tone, Bezjian and Arian seem to be following the lead of Baronian’s satirical muse in calling to mind the lost Armenian presence in the city.

When he is not involved in literary pursuits, Arian wears the dutiful but slightly weary face of the tourist intent upon checking off the necessary stops as set out by his travel itinerary. What is he feeling, for example, as he makes his way alone through his dinner in a touristy restaurant? He seems to eat and drink with relish, but Bejian does not linger over the food with the sort of rhapsodic shots that would suggest that some deeper communing is taking place; we simply watch a man pausing in his travels to eat dinner, slightly mechanically. The overall feeling is one of being adrift, with only a few sharp reminders of what has brought our protagonist to this city—when, for example, Bezjian cuts suddenly from an official dinner featuring a children’s chorus singing an anodyne pop song with the repeating phrase “you are getting closer to me” to a shot of Hrant Dink’s tomb, and then to Arian laying flowers before it.

 
[Still image from I Left My Shoes in Istanbul.]

In its most quiet and opaque moments, I Left My Shoes in Istanbul is reminiscent of another documentary about a poet’s return to a place that had been stripped away from him by history: Simone Bitton’s 1997 film Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land Is the Language. Bezjian’s film, like Bitton’s, takes pains to remind us that its representation of the return of the poet is mediated by the filmmaker’s own sense of return (in Bitton’s case, this is further complicated by her own identity as an Israeli filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in France). But what came back to me most strongly in watching I Left My Shoes in Istanbul was a moment from Bitton’s that was pointed out to me by my colleague Sinan Antoon. We see Darwish being carried along in a car, with the landscape passing by outside the window as he talks about his poetic connections to Palestine. At a certain point, Darwish pauses and looks out the window for several seconds. Finally, he murmurs, almost under his breath, “It’s beautiful, Palestine.” It is a quiet but heartbreaking moment, a moment when the poet who has been forced, by the heavy hand of history, to turn his homeland into a source of metaphor in his poetry is suddenly able to quietly commune with the place itself, rather than its metonymic substitution in words.

Bezjian’s film does something similar (though, it must be said, somewhat less artfully than Bitton’s). Istanbul has, for Arian the poet (and for Bezjian the filmmaker), a sort of brute reality that is separate from its symbolic meaning. The film represents a form of wandering through this reality without any real attempt to either aestheticize it or to turn it into a source of metaphor, or indeed into a coherent narrative about returning to (never mind reclaiming) the lost Bolis, as Istanbul is called by Armenians. If the viewer is sympathetic to this form of storytelling, then the experience of the film, in the form itself, doubles the sense of puzzlement and loss that we feel Arian himself experiencing.

When the film had its New York premiere recently, in front of a small audience at the City University of New York, there was a sense that many in the audience did not feel this sort of sympathy for the film’s approach.[1] Indeed, I was surprised by the strong reactions it provoked. Many of these tended towards the negative, voiced either hesitantly or in a full-throated manner. Some blasted the film for its aesthetic choices: if you wanted to make a beautiful film about the city of Istanbul, as one audience member noted, this would seem to be an easy thing to do; and yet Bezjian’s film cannot be called beautiful, in the usual sense of the word. We see the city largely as Arian sees it, through a series of quotidian moments, visits to houses and offices, and meals both home-cooked and restaurant-procured. Indeed, the overall effect is of watching scenes from a business trip.

Other members of the audience had a different complaint: that the film did little to provide a context for viewers unfamiliar with the Armenian Genocide, or with subsequent moments in Armenian-Turkish history.[2] There is no primer offered at the beginning, no voice-over or title sequence providing us with what might seem to be the necessary background information. Events are alluded to in the course of the film without being explained. For example, towards the end of the film, Arian stands before the grave of Sevag Balıkçı, an Armenian-Turkish soldier who was killed by a Turkish soldier on the remembrance day of the Armenian Genocide in 2011; many have seen this as an intentional hate crime, although the killer was acquitted and the death ruled accidental. However, none of this information is provided in the film. None of the figures with whom Arian converses are identified, neither his fellow writers, nor the elderly Turkish leftist who talks about the shame Turks feel towards their history, nor the elderly Armenian shopkeeper who makes dubious comments about the Kurds. This is true even when those onscreen might be familiar names for some viewers, such as the photographer Ara Güler—although this does not prevent Güler from gleefully stealing his scene with a full-throated monologue about the unparalleled status of Istanbul as a world city (“Imagine that this soil has been an empire three times. Three of them, what do you want? Tell me another land that had three empires? What’s New York? Not even a shit. Toothpicks stacked on top of each other and raised up.”)

It is certainly the case that I Left My Shoes in Istanbul is not a film interested in beguiling us with beautiful images of its titular city. There is an achievement in this, I think: it provides us with a powerful sense of how the city looks and sounds and feels to someone like Arian for whom it is a source of deep ambivalence and confusion. But it is equally the case, for audiences that might encounter the film in the United States (at film festivals, for example), that the film refuses to allow for quick and easy forms of connection to or empathy with Armenian suffering. The opacity of the film’s historical and political references leave the viewer on the outside, without access to a too-easy sense of sharing the pain being represented by Bezjian through the wanderings of Arian. There is something courageous in this refusal, and, I would add, something necessary—since, as Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out a few years ago, while Americans (and especially American politicians) have been quick to embrace from afar the Armenian narrative, the genocide committed against native peoples in the Americas puts an American audience in an uncomfortably similar place as that of the Turks in such a narrative.

 
[Still image from I Left My Shoes in Istanbul.]

This question of audience in fact comes to the fore in the film’s conclusion, which provides a bracing shock. Arian sits in a café, writing, we think, postcards; but it turns out that we are witnessing him transmuting the experience we have been watching into a poem whose anger and bitterness (and beauty) caused me to gasp. I won’t spoil it, as it deserves to be seen and heard, but the question raised by the poem (and, through it, by the film), addressed to Istanbul itself, is: What sort of a story do you expect me to tell you about the pain that you yourself have inflicted upon me? It is the question that faces all artistic attempts to represent a traumatic history: Does the artistic creation in some way transform or ameliorate the pain of history, or is it just a redoubling of that pain—and a source of entertainment for those who have inflicted the pain in the first place? And then comes the voice of the singer, bringing the film to its end:

Do not implore me, I will not sing
My sadness so enormous
From its voice…heartbroken
Your soul will be crushed…

But of course, this refusal to sing, and this warning about the effects of a song this sad, comes in the form of a song. Bezjian’s film is the song that he wishes he did not have to sing; in its stubborn refusal to be the film we might prefer it to be, he invites us to partake of, and thus acknowledge, the enormity of the sadness, so that perhaps different songs might someday follow.

NOTES

[1] My thanks to Anny Bakalian, Associate Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the CUNY Graduate Center, for obtaining a copy of the film and arranging the screening, which was in fact the New York premiere of the film.

[2] As Emrah Yildiz reminded me in his reading of this review, part of the larger history alluded to by the film, without being explicitly addressed, involves questions of mobility in the modern context of Armenia-Turkey, questions that can get lost in an exclusive focus upon the binary of diaspora/homeland. Among the larger points that underlie the film, in addition to the specific historical events of 1915, include the stalling of the border normalization process and the (soon to be) one hundredth year of official denial of recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Although the making of the film preceded the Gezi Protests, its emphasis on memorializing the loss of Armenian Istanbul (and its many shots of graveyards) echoes the claiming of Gezi Park by Armenian citizens of Turkey as the site of a double hijacking and a double destruction—since, long before the current attacks on the park, the park itself was founded on a destroyed Armenian cemetery, with the gravestones becoming the park’s marble steps. All this, and more, forms the field of allusion for the film, without ever being explicitly mentioned or addressed. I am grateful to Emrah for raising all these points, which I admit are beyond the bounds of this review (and of my capacity to address them with the full complexity they deserve) but are at the very heart of the challenge set out by the film.

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