‘Istanbul United’: Resisting football and fury

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- The 33rd Istanbul Film Festival hosted a very unique documentary this past Saturday. Directed by Olli Waldhauer and Farid Eslam, “Istanbul United” played to a very eager audience which left the screening with mixed feelings part frustration, part confusion and part with a seed of hope.

At its very simplest, the documentary embarks on a journey following the fans of Istanbul’s three football clubs, namely Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and BeIiktaI, initially trying to pin down the idea of group polarization, identity, fanaticism and the hatred between the clubs before moving on to show how these three rival fan groups unexpectedly joined forces in camaraderie under the title Istanbul United in order to protest against the government during the Gezi protests.

The idea is that, putting all differences aside, it is not impossible for very disparate groups to come together in union since our similarities are greater than our differences. On this note, this is a fantastic idea and one of the founding values of the millions of individuals who protested arm-in-arm last summer. Yet, unfortunately, there are some details and specificities which the filmmakers could not, or chose not to, provide, which does not give this documentary the full documentation value for history but is rather an initial draft example for how miracles can happen if hatred is put aside.

As someone who is not much of a football fan, the first 40 minutes of the documentary were quite educational for me. The main focus is on three bleacher leaders of the different fan clubs and through their interviews and behavior in stadiums, we understand how their teams comprise such a huge part of their lives as it defines their lifestyle, their friends and most importantly their sense of belonging to a group. Indeed the rush of the game provides a huge high for fan groups, mainly men, who also see no qualms in profane and sexist language in their slogans against other football clubs (nothing new obviously).

We’re thinking at this point that the story is going to head into a direction in which rivalry will transform into a violent battle between these fans since we already know in our heads that this has happened before. But suddenly, out of nowhere, the Gezi protests footage finds its way into the story. We are shown various excerpts from the infamous stock footage on social media documenting Gezi, put together like a neat collage briefly giving us an idea of what the protests were about (briefly is the key word here chronology is also forsaken for effect).

What is important here is that we realize the filmmakers could not shoot their own footage during the protests. We cut to footage of anonymous members of the three fan groups — not our three leading characters — working together at the barricades as they resist police crackdowns. The main problem here is that we are never shown in adequate narrative or narrative detail how these enemy groups actually decided to unite. Where’s the joy in watching the antithesis of enmity if you don’t see how it came about? We are left craving to watch this process.

But more importantly, the role of BeIiktaI fan group ÇarII in the formation of Istanbul United is not exactly specified. ÇarII’s initial reaction to the police crackdown was to join the protests, literally protect and teach clueless individuals the art of resistance and cajole individuals into provocation by making them resist violence. It was ÇarII’s actions that ignited the seeds of Istanbul United.

Despite all the good intentions, the documentary suffers from a coherency and a structural and conceptual problem. Unfortunately the relevancy of two of the three leading characters in terms of the Gezi protests and the effect of Gezi on their lives are not convincingly illustrated. Nevertheless, there is a grain of hope in all of their words during their final interviews in which they state that the enmity between the fans of football clubs can be subdued if efforts are made. It was done before so why can’t it be done again? The metaphor of this segregation and the possibility of it being eradicated can be applied to the tense social and economic environment of Turkey today but it seems like there’s a long way to go on both counts.

(CihanToday’s Zaman)