HA VU reviews Andrea Zimmerman’s ‘Taskafa: Stories of the Street’, an essay film that looks at cultural intolerance through the dogs of Istanbul’s streets.
Consisting largely of interviews and interspersed with readings by John Berger of his book King: A Street Story, Andrea Zimmerman’s essay film looks at the economic and political state of Turkey through the stories of Istanbul’s street dogs and the community that fosters them. Zimmerman’s editing effortlessly blends the real and surreal to demonstrate people’s harmonious co-existence with dogs, cats and birds. Her collage of testimonials illustrates the inexplicable bond between people and animals: they are as much part of the city as the streets’ cobblestones, or the bricks that make up buildings.
Taşkafa: Stories of the Street is a subtle reminder that we cannot be separated from nature, despite the efforts of politicians and city planners to create increasingly sterile environments. “They came here before us”, utters an interviewee. “I know the history. People came after. Humans, we kill people; animals, we destroy. Is there anything more savage than that?”.
The importance of street animals is made clear from the very first interviews. Following different dogs on the street at eye-level, Zimmerman shows the dogs are not only treated as part of the community but also as neighbourhood protection. They are in a way the owners of this place; they challenge traditional concepts of animals belonging to people. Humorous tales are told of dogs playing dead in the day and chasing thieves away from the shops at night. “He is so psychologically disturbed it’s like having a great grandfather!” laughs a young child as he feeds the dog someone had named “Forlorn”.
Yet poignant tales are not few and far between. The Beyoğlu municipality’s scheme to get rid of street animals with poisoned meatballs leads to an uproar in the community. An inhumane plan exiling tens of thousands of dogs to a deserted island, where they were left to starve and eat each other, is still referred to as the 1910 massacre. Separation between the rich and poor in Istanbul is thus made blatant: a capitalist environment has been created that suits the youthful and proactive, but provides euthanasia for everything else.
John Berger’s readings are paired with smudged and almost indiscernible images, sometimes of a flowing river, or of autumn leaves and cobbled streets. They add a layer that asks questions about dreams and violence on a greater level. Fitting for the documentary, King: A Street Story is told through the perspective of a street dog. It describes a system in which people are not allowed to exist when they are considered unprofitable.
Though Zimmerman’s documentary mainly focuses on street dogs, it consistently raises issues of cultural intolerance and social segregation. People’s generosity towards non-human beings in their community contrasts with eradication attempts of Istanbul’s rulers and politicians. The move towards urbanism in the 1950s saw gates erected to keep the ‘good’ in and the ‘bad’ out. “It’s so obvious the sour relations between rich people and the street animals”, says an old man defiantly, “it’s like a caste system”.
Struck by an announcement reminding people to feed the birds, Zimmerman began exploring subjects to film when she was stranded in Istanbul. Having read King at around the same time, she soon drew inspiration from the book and walked all over the city to find people who told, if not the straightforward stories, then at least the important ones. The imagination and the idea of creating a better world are concepts pervasive in her work. “Finding things that are common between people, and not their differences, is so important in order for us to move forward”, expresses Zimmerman during the interview.
Freedom is normally seen as desirable, yet not everyone realises it comes with a heavy price tag: “you may be hungry or thirsty, but you have no collar”, Zimmerman says, “so which do you choose? Envy their freedom, don’t pity their plight”. In Taskafa, Zimmerman has created a unique documentary that juxtaposes war and dreams, and memory and belonging, by using the tales of street dogs as microcosms for the multifaceted Istanbul in which they live.
‘Taskafa: Stories of the Street’ was screened as part of the DocHouse’s ‘Filmmakers Showcase’, a new season of innovative documentaries introduced by their directors. You can find out more here.