This DVD from Second Run features two wonderfully satisfying and symbiotic documentary features from filmmaker and creative artist Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Taskafa, Stories of the Street from 2013, and Estate, a Reverie from 2015.
On initial inspection you may think there is very little thematically in common between Taskafa, an illuminating documentary concerning the street dogs of Istanbul that uses excerpts from John Berger’s novel King for narration, and Estate, a film about the filmmaker’s own community; the Haggerston Estate in Hackney, in the years leading up to its foreclosure and subsequent demolition. But after watching both productions side by side the common theme of community, often in the face of prejudice, outright dismissal and stages of harsh transition from the greater society around it, is overwhelmingly clear.
In Taskafa, Stories of the Street, the stray canines of Istanbul serve as profound symbols of community living throughout the cities history. No less a figure than Mark Twain, on his visit to the city, was taken by the passivity of the hounds in sharp contrast to his experience with their Western counterparts who had fully adapted to and embraced the more modern way of life and recorded that he had never seen such “doleful and broken hearted stray dogs”. Via Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s talking heads with the many human residents who share their neighbourhood with these assorted four-legged wanderers, we learn a little about their history and how, in 1910, the government initiated a purge on the cities stray dogs, taking them to the deserted island of Sivraida where they were exterminated. One woman recounts the story she grew up with of how this move was at the behest of the British Ambassador who, appalled to learn that one of his visiting fellow countrymen had suffered a fatal heart attack as a result of being chased through the town by several dogs one night, demanded the cull. A cursory search online came up lacking regarding the authenticity of this story, pointing me instead to Sultan Mehmed V, the 35th and penultimate Ottoman Sultan, whose attempts to Westernise Istanbul saw him give the order for the inhumane policy. Whatever the real reason, it was felt that Istanbul suffered for this decision as if they had been cursed for their part in this mass incident of canine cleansing, and an uneasy alliance was subsequently formed with those left amongst them.
Nowadays it is estimated that some 100,000 to 150,000 streets dogs reside in Istanbul, to say nothing of the stray cats who coexist alongside them. Like Blanche DuBois, they each seem to rely on the kindness of strangers and Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film captures the many Good Samaritans of Istanbul who simply refuse to walk on by. From the religious, Quran quoting man who spends his wages feeding as many strays as he can, to the old woman who can’t get her washing done because a cat choose to give birth to its litter in her machine, Andrea Luka Zimmerman takes testimonies that suggest that, for many in the city, these strays are accorded the unofficial role of neighbourhood ambassadors. Everyone knows them, and everyone knows they are each as unique and characteristic as the streets they choose to call home, even if they can’t quite be sure of their age or other such details.
However, the action taken in 1910 continues to loom large over Istanbul; the program of care is extremely short funded and dogs are routinely rounded up to be shipped to outlying forests where survival rates are low. Taking with many residents, Andrea Luka Zimmerman discovers contempt for such an agenda and point to the economic appropriation of public spaces as the reason, suggesting that Sultan Mehmed V’s desires for Westernisation are never far away from the minds of Istanbul’s government.
For now, though, these street dogs are as much a part of Istanbul as the human residents themselves who keenly defend their rights to coexistence. Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s shots of these hounds, idly crossing the street or lolling on their backs in the sun is never less than captivating. As Berger’s wistful narration puts it, “Me, if I want to look at the sky I have to do one of two things; either I put my head back, far far back, into the howling position, or I lie with my legs in the air in the position of surrender. And from either of these two positions, I can watch the stars and name the clouds” Reminding us all that whilst some of us may be in the gutter, they are nevertheless, looking at the stars.
Like Taskafa, the second film on the DVD, captures a similar essence of communal resilience when confronted by an uncaring world’s plans for modernisation. Andrea Luka Zimmerman was born in Munich and lived on a forward thinking council estate. Her move to London saw her located on Hackney’s Haggerston estate and the lines of how different parts of Europe view communal living are clearly drawn. Built on the grounds once owned by Sir Edmond Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) with street and housing names taken from Samuel Richardson’s classic works of the mid 1700s, Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded and Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady, the Haggerston estate was built between 1935 and 1948 as a slum-clearance project, heralding the dawn of the new social housing projects that were becoming the norm across the country. It proved to be a false dawn. Considered a problem sink estate in the 1970s, essential services such as caretakers and maintenance were slowly withdrawn as surely as the plans for further communal living were also consigned to oblivion. Fast forward to the 1990s, and the Haggerston was derided as a ‘heroin capital’ populated by ‘benefit scroungers’ by the media in the 1990s, the Haggerston’s days were numbered and the death knell for yesterday’s dreams of social utopia was keenly sounded. Given that Estate, a Reverie is essentially the filmmaker capturing her own neighbourhood and neighbours for prosperity, it understandably refuses to explore the Haggerston estate in the same lurid and sensationalist terms of the newspapers. Instead, it offers instead a more truthful and relatable account of a genuine community; a scarce commodity in the UK of this day and age thanks to years of harsh, right-wing policies that saw such neighbourhoods eradicated, slandered and ostracised along with other working class communal aspects of our society that were considered a threat to the establishment, like trade unions.
It is a film that shows the residents as they are, and as they were. The talking heads are a diverse bunch, some have lived on the estate for a handful of years, others for thirty-plus years. Their lives are here, and they are both shaped by their neighbourhood and responsible for shaping their neighbourhood, which makes the tabloid slander all the more contemptible and wholly ignorant. Abandoned by the council, these residents are given a new lease of life, free to decorate however they wish, they effectively created their own mini-utopia that would have no doubt gladdened the hearts of the original architects. As each flat was sealed up by Hackney council with a garish orange board to signify another tenant’s departure, Zimmerman (and fellow artists Lasse Johanssen and Tristan Fennell) began to replace them with photographic portraits of the residents who still dwelt there. In the face of tasteless hipster tours that put me in mind of the craze amongst the toffs of the 1920s for ‘slumming it’ and blithely ignorant planners, housing managers and officials, the message was simple but effective; we’re still here, we’re real and ordinary people just like you.
What strikes you most about Estate, a Reverie is how these residents refused to get angry or succumb to the expectations of those who sneered and looked down upon them. Neglected by society and refused vital repairs and assistance, they were on the losing side and the loss was their very homes, but they didn’t resort to tribalism and lawlessness, they didn’t run riot or destroy their neighbourhood. What they did was the exact opposite. They showed the pride they had in where they came from. You may consign it to oblivion as a problem estate and a relic of a well-intentioned but in practice unsuccessful social housing project, but this is their home. They came together as a collective to paint the walls with non-regulation colours, and made white spots on the floors of communal stairs and walkways to hide the marks and chewing gum. They potted plants and vegetables and watched them bloom and grow, made seating areas, and goal posts for children who wanted to play football. They read Richardson’s works, put on Regency dress and acted scenes out. They held barbeques and, around a fire pit, they congregated, young and old, to play music, sing songs and share stories…just like the media tells you no one does any more. They made the winners look stupid, petty and ignorant.
They were a community.