We are in Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty, a state-run teaching hospital in Istanbul. A court ruling from 2015 has ordered its demolition. The building stands morosely. Behind the camera of Deniz Tortum we enter the intimate space of dimly-lit corridors and the weary movements of surgeons, nurses, janitors, dieners, students, patients, night-watchmen. Dogs nap in the garden. In his documentary Phases of Matter [Maddenin Halleri] (2020) Tortum explores medicine and the institutional space of the hospital as a practice of seeing.
We follow the perfunctory strides of a nurse as she walks down white stairwells, passing patients and cleaners in glassy corridors and greeting technicians. She enters the sick room of an elderly lady and prescribes her a cocktail of drugs (tramadol, rivotril, ecopirin, ulcuran, nexium, neurontin, gabapentin) before brusquely reading out a love poem from ‘Güneş Aşka Doğdukça’ [As the Sun Gets Born into Love]. Their interaction is stuttered like the lines of quoted poetry (‘write my name forever like a rapidograph on this page of life’), a form of intimacy without emotion. The camera focuses on the nurse’s hands as they clasp the patient’s in an embrace—touches for regulation, not love.
A group of medics have a conversation over lunch which slips from the upcoming Ramazan fast, to a patient’s test results, to their personal relationships. One doctor tells the others he wouldn’t trust anyone to perform major surgery on his wife. They poke fun at him but we later understand why, when one of them sneeringly humiliates a female colleague while exchanging patient’s notes and thrusting grubby hands into boxes of baklava. His gluttony for small-time status is as sticky as the carelessness with which the lives of patients are discussed. The body here is grotesque in its consumptions—of sugar, statistics, fragile dignities and power.
Sick human bodies are the backdrop for petty struggles within the structures that hold us and the banal routinisation of life. Two nurses casually ponder if it’s a needle they can see on the scan of a young girl’s stomach while discussing their plans to attend an evening concert; an elderly professor puffing on a cigarette watches a recorded thyroidectomy operation to an upbeat dancehall soundtrack; surgeons engage in cheap gossip while cutting into human flesh; another surgeon starts major hiatal hernia surgery with a group of unprepared assistants, missing equipment and faulty connections, leaving us momentarily with the scene of a bloody tube sticking out of the anaesthetised man’s torso. These may be instances of disregard for other bodies, or the necessary boundaries which healthcare workers must erect in their labours for their own preservation—perhaps one is necessary for the survival of the other. The health of our mounds of human flesh is jarringly precarious. As the director describes in an interview, ‘medicine is a profession about accepting uncertainties.’
A Year in Exile (2020) opens with shots of Istanbul city passing like shadows of light, too quick for the mind to register. The experience of urban life is intangible and unstable. Multiple faces, closing doors, escalators, graffiti, street dogs, street sellers, small trades, roads, tunnels, train-tracks, the fizzing dissolution of a drug in water, a knife cutting through lime, a package arriving from elsewhere, a plastic seagull hanging for sale next to a bird in flight, waves crashing against the city edge. Everywhere is movement, commodification, words without conversations, struggles, ‘a huge disorder of people’ in the words of the narrator and director Malaz Usta. They leave an imprint on the mind, the trace of a memory or feeling.
Usta is documenting his first year in the city, having fled there from Damascus. His short film captures the series of becomings and displacements whereby the threshold of ‘becoming’ is uncertain. These are ambiguous boundaries, mediated by the shifting parameters of a city in thrall to the dynamics of capitalism, systems of production and flows of people. Istanbul is dizzying and multiplying. Through his eyes we can trace the cadences of disruption. Alienation becomes tangible in the encounters he is not having and the vulnerability of his imaginations—his existence in rhythms between movement and stasis, between simultaneous places, times, desires, in his detachment from the street. He is an outsider in a city full of outsiders. But as a Syrian he has a particularly fraught relationship with these peculiar urban boundaries. He describes how his exclusion by others is continually repositioned in relation to different points of reference—‘people look down on you, sometimes with anger, sometimes with pity, sometimes with hate. It is all the same.’ His camera catches an eye at a pedestrian crossing. The expression staring back is wary and alert.
His Istanbul takes in cigarettes by the Bosphorus. Lines of police. Protests of a worker’s party and the Saturday Mother’s vigil. National flags strung from ancient viaducts. Ferry crossings. Street musicians and street cats. Politician’s faces engorged on building sides. Concrete and corrugated metal. Cheap plastic goods, online deliveries and bureaucracies. Bus drivers, train drivers, weary commuters. Silhouettes of exhausted old faces. Graveyards. Corn sellers, rug sellers, flag sellers, jewellery sellers. Waste collectors. Coiffeurs and wigs. The expanse of water. The expanse of leather crowds. Freshly baked bread. Prayer beads. The incessant crossing and re-crossing of transport routes. The taut and restless gait of passersby. The proliferation of men. The waiting for something unknown.
These images, which form a kind of stream-of-consciousness collage, hint at the flows of circulations of money, goods and people and the brief pleasures or respite snatched between. But images don’t add up to a whole. Instead, Usta shows us what is at stake—the dissolving boundary between hope and despair and the unresolved process of transforming his own selfhood in relation to the city. French philosopher Balibar reminds us that these things go hand-in-hand—‘the subjectivation of the individual by rules and the construction of the “relation of self to self”… are not opposed to one another, but are two sides of the same reality.’ The imposition of limits and their transgression are co-constitutive relations.
Both the hospital space and the city as a space of exile speak to the mutual production of intimacy and alienation, whereby the relationship between the self and others is in uneasy negotiation. These are boundaries of precarity and impermanence on the one hand, caught within vast flows and relations of production, but pushing at their own limits. They ask the question, among others, of what it means to have the self formed in relations to others within particular spaces.
Usta’s Istanbul feels forever out of reach, moving too fast, diverting, twisting, subverting, crashing around him and within him. He has one personal relationship but otherwise seems estranged from his fellow city-dwellers, a voyeur of their movements and realities, his own reality constantly fragmenting and detached. And yet he is marked by their bodies and these spaces, in between various modes of being and belonging. Through the course of the year he creates unstable intimacies without fixing any one identity in place, constantly negotiating the boundaries between imagination and becoming, memory and future, the multiple selves and others within himself.
In Phases of Matter the raw ugliness of human survival is matched by the exertions of multiple labours invested in it within the hospital space. Wires, cables, electronic devices, heavy machinery, co-exist with the dull materiality of the body. The relationship between patient and healthcare worker, between workers, between worker and machine is caught within a matrix of other structures. These are intimate relationships mediated by public concerns—the exhaustion of the workers, the material resources of the institution, the availability (or absence) of time. The material reality of sickness and death is textured by existential, relational and ambivalent intimacies between different subjects. Red bags of undisclosed waste (the material of medical equipment or anatomical excess) are thrown into basement waste bins, the detritus of human care dispossessed of like industrial waste. The womb and the tomb coexist, alongside the plastic reconstructions of anatomies and body parts which may-or-may-not-be real.
Intimacy is personal—it is therefore also political. If Phases of Matter is partly about sickness and mortality, and A Year in Exile about alienation, they are also both about what comes in its wake. ‘Meaning continues to unfold beyond the arbitrary closure which makes it, at any moment, possible,’ writes Stuart Hall. ‘There is always something “left over”.’
Invisible to the eye [Ah Gözel İstanbul] (2020), directed by Zeynep Dadak, is a testament to the unstoppable reproduction of the city and the spatial configurations of these things ‘left over’. It reads together the travelogue of 17th century Armenian intellectual Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan with images of contemporary Istanbul. The accumulated historical layers clash in their occupation of the same space. Colossal building projects, industrial in scale, devour the coastline and skyline, concrete blocks collide with precarious venerable structures and rust collects on indistinct forms. As much as the city expands rapaciously, its own insides revolt and ferment.
Dadak is interested in the unstable boundary between history and the present, and the traces and cracks that remain. These are not peripheral to the city but fundamental to its constitution and present day social formations. We start in Kumkapı district located just inside the Bosphorus sea walls—the family home of our 17th century guide who lived then among fellow Armenians and Greeks and newly arrived migrants and refugees. Today the neighbourhood continues to be the first landing point for many from elsewhere. The camera moves through washing-lined streets, close to the burgundy meyhane tables selling to absent customers and the azure Bosphorus with its steamers loaded with heavy trade. We move pass the Migration Coordination Centre with its Arabic signs outside, past the staring men and the queuing families and the back of the three hundred year old public baths. Into Surp Asvadzadzin, the neighborhood’s historic Armenian church, where an Ethiopian Orthodox community are continuing to worship—the present day iteration of a long tradition of squeezed collectives. As the camera’s careful eye observes, it is these fissures in space and society which reveal the nature of the city, not as a complete totality but a continual moving assembly of differences and disruptions.
This is a majestic view. We are following waterways and the ancient city walls, sometimes viewing from the water, sometimes from the street, the language of the camera in conversation with our guide’s voice from the past. The dialectic scratches at the discordant textures, the ruptures and continuities. We learn about the sultan who saw the coffee roasters ‘as a nest of trouble and banned them’ and those who were incarcerated by the Byzantines in what is now known as ‘Baba Cafer Dungeon’—the criminalisations of particular individuals within particular configurations of society illustrating how our positions are constructed in relation to specific socio-political moments [the prison was also used by the Ottomans to incarcerate women accused of prostitution and debtors].
But our understanding of time is also constructed, the way we see and understand ourselves in constant dialogue with an open-ended history. Buildings show signs of decay, apartments are sealed and evacuated by public authorities; men sit vacantly in the open square parking lots (dead spaces which conceal acts of destruction) alongside ever-present municipality signs advertising projects of construction or restoration. Life and community is continually produced in the skeletons of past shelters. The edges of stagnation and despair feed an incomplete cycle of reproduction.
From the hospital space to the streets of exile to the pages of a historical document, these three documentaries provide different portraits of working the boundaries—between the intimate and the public, the past and present, the individual and the collective, destruction and creation. The contours of these boundaries are shaped by our present socio-political conditions—but what they produce, and how they are negotiated, remains unresolved.
Helen Mackreath is a writer of reportage, cultural criticism and short stories based in Istanbul. She is working towards a PhD in sociology studying racism, capitalism and post-colonialism in relation to migrants in Istanbul.