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Global Dispatches: Spring 2022

Global cultural moments, as captured by the ORB team.

The Soldiers of Myanmar

It is hard to miss the sound of a car crash, especially on a quiet night. In the small, sleepy Southern Myanmar town we were visiting for research, we had just sat down to a late supper at one of the few restaurants still open. That’s when we heard an almighty crash from the restaurant’s parking lot. We looked over and saw our parked office van shaking: a white sedan had crashed into it while backing out. Of course, we ran outside but all I could think was, ‘Not the day before we start our fieldwork!’

A passer-by called us over and said, ‘By the way, the man driving the sedan is the colonel of a nearby battalion.’ A woman got out of the sedan’s front passenger’s seat, greeted us, and asked, ‘Is this your van?’ Only then did I see the driver: he was smoking with his arm resting on the front door. I thought he must be drunk. Finally, the colonel got out of his car and said, ‘Who are you guys?’

We spent the next few days communicating with the colonel’s office, asking him to pay for our van’s damages. He only wasted our time with foot-dragging and intimidations. On one occasion when he was supposed to meet with us, his office informed us that he no longer could — he was golfing. As we were walking back to our damaged van, all I could think of was how many years it will take for Myanmar to get to a better place. The colonel had 15 years left in service, and he was just one among many soldiers of Myanmar. In our final meeting with him, he again insisted on knowing who we were. When we reluctantly informed him that we worked for the President, he swore and asked, ‘Is my promotion in peril?’

— Anonymous

Feeling the Heat in Los Montes de María

It’s election season in Colombia. I’m in El Carmen de Bolívar, at an assembly for a congressional candidate, who’s here to meet with women community leaders. And I’m burning. My cheeks flushed. In trying to find a seat, I’ve knocked over a coffee table. My seat choice matters because, as an outsider, I wish to avoid attention and any perceived association with politics. But I also wish to avoid the equatorial sun. In my fretting, I trip … and flip the table. My hopes of being a wallflower — dashed.

Luckily, my host doesn’t care. Yirley Velazco is a community leader who supports survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She has survived both sexual assault and a massacre, and thus wears the identity of survivor proudly. As I attempt to sweep up after my spill, her laugh bellows the loudest.

The meeting has a certain tension. The candidate begins with conventional issues: roads, education, healthcare. Although the women nod, I sense their reserve. The candidate, from a conservative party, is running for a seat reserved for members of the Afro-descendent community.

Once he finishes, the women say their piece. They challenge his party’s absence. They tell a familiar story: of governmental neglect and corruption. A young woman introduces herself as Naura. Then she says something devastating: ‘I’m here to represent the trans community, but I don’t have anything to add because I know you and your party won’t care.’

The people of the region — Montes de María — are famed for their activism. In the ‘80s, this reputation put a target on their back. Pro-government militias massacred the population, which they deemed sympathetic to guerrillas. During the unrest, narcos moved in; Yirley and other leaders receive threats routinely. Yet these women stay, demanding a better future for their community. They attended the assembly that day to speak truth to power — and even in the blazing sun, they didn’t break a sweat.

— Samuel Ritholtz

We Don't Talk About Franco

It was a rainy Sunday evening, and my girlfriend and I went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Parallel Mothers. When the opening scene filled the screen, I felt my stomach tighten. The red tiled roofs, pastel buildings, and winding cobblestone streets — I was transported back to my Madrid.

The film, set in present-day Spain, takes us through the domestic struggles and romantic strife of Janis, a new mother and proudly independent Madrileña (inhabitant of Madrid). The film delivers on all the classic Almodóvarismos — surprising revelations, dry humor, and unbridled emotion, all told through saturated cinematography and hyperbolic caricatures of Spanish charm.

But Parallel Mothers adds a new element that Almodovar’s previous films have never addressed so directly — the collective memory of the Spanish Civil War, and the 40 years of dictatorship that ensued. During Franco’s reign, political opponents were often buried in mass graves; the film takes us through Janis’ journey as she enlists help from an archeologist to investigate the one belonging to her great-grandfather.

As a Madrileña, witnessing Janis bring justice to her family felt deeply personal. It reminded me of my own abuelos, who were children of the Civil War. Even though my abuela helped raise me, we never had a single conversation about Franco or that time. Today, the tidbits I get from my family are rare, and feel uncharacteristically vulnerable.

The streets of Madrid are named after the generals who displaced and killed thousands. Meanwhile, the generation that lived the Civil War first-hand is aging and leaving us. Most, like my abuelos, are already gone. And their stories, stubborn and silent, are disappearing with them.

We do not speak about Franco. But Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers has given me a glimpse of hope that things might be changing. If popular culture is any reflection of reality, then Spaniards may still have a chance of preserving the memories of our past.

— Isabel Tejera

Berlin beneath the branches of the Yeşilçam

‘Do you think there will be an interval?’ asks my friend, as he passes me the popcorn.

‘Why would there be an interval at the cinema?’ I say, to which he shrugs.

‘In Turkey there’s always an interval.’

Berlin is a post-migrant society. If we consider the diversity of its inhabitants’ personal histories — the traces of their collective memories laid atop Berlin’s own history, layering upon one another like hundreds of clear glass panes — it becomes necessary to think of Erinnerungskultur (Germany’s ‘memory culture’) on a transnational scale. Berlin as a mirror of the global histories that came before, and window for all that are still to come.

And many of these histories have roots in the East. Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community in the world outside of Turkey itself, and it was not just people who began migrating as 1960s Gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’), it was also films. The arrival of Turkish cinema in Germany started with the Gastarbeiter passengers from İstanbul bringing rolls of film in their pockets to put on at German cinemas, and transformed into a culture of Turkish-German cinema so huge that by the late ‘80s, there were occasionally stampedes to see the latest Turkish films at Kreuzberg’s Sinema Kent.

‘It was like a gift from home,’ said Özlem Ayaydınlı, describing how the world of Turkish cinema patched up an inner yearning for what she sees as her country, though she was not born there. The imaginary space those films created — the imagined Turkey, ‘my Turkey,’ said Özlem — was a space in which the Turkish community could congregate, metaphorically and physically, despite being far from home. Before each film, the trailer from the film distribution company Kalkavan ended with the words, ‘I wish you all a wonderful time, despite these sorrowful evenings alone in a foreign land’. And it also created a third space, in which the notion of being ‘trapped between two cultures’ — often impressed upon the Germans born to Turkish parents — was abandoned to instead play out more culturally hybrid notions of identity, in the films of Fatih Akın, Neco Çelik, and Özgür Yıldırım.

But it was a phenomenon that remains almost completely absent from German cultural studies, that is skipped over in German cinematic history. How can you find meaning in dead time? There is no archive of Turkish cinema, in Turkey or in Germany. Bi’bak (in Turkish: ‘take a look!’) is a Turkish-German cultural organisation in Berlin dedicated to giving voice to these forgotten perspectives in art and film, by drawing upon the cultural memory of migration, rather than the archive. Their cinema ‘experiment’ SİNEMA TRANSTOPIA has been running since 2020, presenting a different transnational perspective in each film series. The cinema shows each film only once. ‘You have to value what you have in your hands,’ says Ergin Kasetçilik, the owner of the last remaining Turkish VHS store in Berlin — still open six days a week despite the fact, as she says, most people only come in to take photos.

— Kitty Blain

Art by Alice Penrose


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