New documentary asserts Turkish housekeepers ‘Ain’t No Cinderellas!’

The Istanbul Film Festival’s national and international feature film selections have always been the main attraction of the annual event; however, one must not forget that this festival has also served as a launchpad for some of the most thought-provoking local documentaries. One such title offered at this year’s festival, which wrapped up its 33rd edition on Sunday, was documentary filmmaker Emel Celebi’s newest effort, “Kulkedisi Degiliz” (Ain’t No Cinderellas!).

Emel Celebi

Celebi has for years been observing and filming the stories of strong female characters who find themselves in challenging situations brought on by a patriarchal society. Take for example her 2006 documentary “Gundelikci” (Housekeeper), which followed the physical and economic hardships of housekeepers in Turkey, and her 2008 effort “Lilith’in Kizkardesleri” (Sisters of Lilith), which followed three women in the Aegean mountains as they tried to lead a self-sustaining life in nature.

Celebi’s tender approach to her characters has never gotten in the way of her adamant feminist activism and her style is even more refined in her latest “Kulkedisi Degiliz,” which had its Turkish premiere on April 16 as part of the Istanbul festival.

In “Kulkedisi Degiliz,” much like in “Gundelikci,” Celebi again tackles the struggles of housekeepers in Turkey, but this time she focuses on their inspiring struggle to make their vocation accepted in Turkish labor law as a profession whose practitioners have a right to social security.

The opening sequence of the 55-minute film precisely describes the socioeconomic situation and sums up what it means to be a housekeeper in Turkey. We meet the middle-aged Yildiz Ay as she approaches on foot a huge building complex in the suburbs of a metropolitan city. This modern concrete complex is a gated community with its own special security gate at the entrance. It’s obvious that Ay has been coming to this place for years, but the security guard nevertheless asks her why on earth she’s there. She answers him: “Just call Ms. X’s apartment and tell her I’m here for cleaning.” The guard finally allows her inside the complex and then she enters the apartment.

The inhabitants of the flat have all left for their daily routines and the lady of the house has written down a very long, undoable list of chores for Ay to complete. Mind you, the language on the note is politely condescending. Ay looks at the camera with an ironic smile and then she starts her day. We watch her vacuuming, sweeping, washing the dishes and so on. She explains to the camera that she has a bad ache in her arm because of all the years of physical work, but none of her employers have agreed to sign her up for social security so she can get free health care or even a pension plan.

Her life is not easy at all, but what makes Ay such an interesting character to follow is her lust for life and the fact that she refuses to give into misery. She is actively striving to make her working conditions better: Together with her best friend and fellow colleague Serpil Kemalbay, she has set up an association to lobby for the social security rights of housekeeping women in Turkey. Kemalbay, much like Ay, is a very strong and capable woman. Throughout the film they talk to other housekeepers and try to enlist them in their association so the housekeepers can be organized and numerically strong when they submit their petition for their profession to be legally recognized to Parliament.

One of the most important cases that Ay and Kemalbay remind us of throughout their campaign and lobbying efforts is that of Fatma Aldal, a housekeeper who died in May 2011 when she fell from her employer’s fourth-floor flat while cleaning the windows. It took two years for the courts to accept Aldal’s death as work-related and to penalize her employer for negligence, even if only with a light punishment. However, this case is still a benchmark in the struggle for the legal recognition of housekeepers’ economic and social rights.

“Kulkedisi Degiliz” is not only an artistically successful documentary, but also, with its moral and political stances, a very useful tool for promoting women’s labor rights and for the empowerment of women.

“Kulkedisi Degiliz” will surely travel to international festivals but I sincerely hope that a national television channel in Turkey picks it up for broadcast and helps underline how hundreds of thousands of housekeeping women in this country are still struggling for their most basic labor rights.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN