The Cinema of Güliz Sağlam and Feryal Saygılıgil: Documentaries That Establish A Dialogue Between Women by Women
«Like a Bird in a Cage» (2009), «The Zone» (2009) and «Women on Strike» (2010) are directed by Güliz Sağlam and Feryal Saygılıgil who identify themselves as feminists. Güliz Sağlam is a documentary filmmaker; Feryal Saygılıgil is a film scholar. They are both involved in the women’s movement. The number of female filmmakers that direct documentaries is more than the number of female filmmakers who work in fiction. Even though the film industry embodies a male-dominant structure, it is possible to assert that documentary offers lower costs and allows for individual work. Female documentary filmmakers frequently recount women’s life experiences, and show «women are in solidarity, take positions not against but beside one another, and are not each other’s rivals» (Altun and Çelikcan, 2017, p. 190). Feryal Saygılıgil argues that in their films, they do not build a language that portrays female workers as victimized and oppressed, and that they aim to reveal that the female workers develop mechanisms of resistance among and within themselves (cited in Erdin, 2010, p. 180).
Representation of the Workers in Turkish Cinema and the Function of the Documentary
One can categorize the movies that feature working class in Turkish cinema into labor movies and the movies the hero of which is a worker (Maktav, 2014, p. 269). Accordingly, the distinctive characteristic of labor movies is that the worker has an awareness of the socio-economic order (Maktav, 2013, p. 274). A labor movie is a movie that builds its conflicts in its narrative structure completely on the working class, and is made to contextualize the working class (Kablamacı, 2011, p. 64). Labor movies often appeared in the 1960s and 1970s that are known as the socialist realist period of Turkish cinema. From 1980s onward, it is impossible to speak of labor movies. The workers, only from time to time, appear as the side characters of «the stories developed around other issues» (Maktav, 2013, p. 269). However, there is an increasing number of documentaries that focus on workers in contrast to the number of fiction movies. For Jeremy Gilbert, the cultural anti-capitalist criticism operates as documentaries; anti-capitalist film is and must be a documentary (cited in Maktav, 2013, p. 270 and 297). Anti-capitalist documentary lays bare «the incidents that bring about suffering and constitute a threat, through ‘showing’, ‘unveiling’, ‘publicizing’ them, and documents the resistance movements although any solid success and acquisition have not been obtained yet» (Maktav, 2013, p. 294). As one will see in the movies by Sağlam ve Saygılıgil, the anti-capitalist documentary does not tell stories based on outcomes and acquisitions. The primary theme is the transformative effect of union acitivities and solidarity on the workers. In «Like a Bird in a Cage», «The Zone» and «Women on Strike», the documentary functions as an asylum in which the invisible and excluded characters harbor, and speaks what the news is not able to tell (Yılmaz, 2016, p. 68). That the female workers address the problems, which arise from the feminine condition, at work, in the process of unionization, and in due course of strikes, is an attempt to write their own her-stories against the male-dominant history, and to give voice to what has not been spoken before.
Fresenius Medical Care is a multinational company that produce dialysis products and provide dialysis services. Novamed, affiliated to Fresenius Medical Care, is in Antalya Free Trade Zone. In September 2006, two male and eighty-one female Novamed workers went on a strike for an improvement in their working conditions. «There was a fifteen-minute break and a twenty-five-minute meal break once a day. It was forbidden for two women working side by side to talk to one another. This prohibition extended all the way to the employee shuttles. Although they worked with some dangerous chemicals, it was forbidden to wear masks to prevent them from talking to each other under the masks. They were told not to meet with each other after hours, accept guests in their houses, even speak with their husbands. They were told: ‘You are working the next day. Eat your dinner and go to bed.’ Their lives beyond the workplace were organized by the employers. They had to ask for permission to get married. There was a queue regarding the prospective pregnancies listed on a calendar. The women working in the same production line could take turns once in every two months. Going to the toilet used to be forbidden, then became minute-based. This posed a remarkable problem when women were on their periods». Were the female workers to get pregnant out of the scheduled pregnancy calendar, they would be dismissed without compensation. The strike lasted for four-hundred-forty-eight days. At the end of 2007, a collective labor contract was signed. Solidarity platforms for Novamed were created in various cities throughout Turkey, and the strike was supported by labor unions abroad.
Desa Deri (Desa Leather) is a national brand and factory which manufactures for international brands, and the employees of which are predominantly women. It has three factories in Istanbul and the vicinity. In 2008, forty-one workers from the Duzce factory were fired after they had become union members. The workers went on a strike in front of the Duzce factory to go back to work, and one year later, their strike effected gains for them. In Sefaköy factory of Desa, Emine Arslan, a union member, too, was fired on the pretext of «low performance» in 2008. Aslan went on a strike in front of the factory for one-hundred-seventy-eight days. At the end of 2008, she won the re-employment lawsuit. In support of the Desa strike, demonstrations were held in front of Prada stores in fifteen cities of Europe.
Representation of Women
«Women on Strike» opens with women coming from different cities of Turkey who gathered together in front of the factory in Antalya to stand by the Novamed strike. Sağlam and Saygılıgil, starting from the very first sequence, put their perspectives on the subject they tackle in stark relief, which is that strike and the process of unionization strengthen the relationships between women and enhance solidarity. And the documentary serves to underline the women’s struggle and voice. Women workers speaking in the movie show up in the frame at home or at the union single-handedly. As Filiz Karakuş explains in the documentary, women’s labor in the market is managed by the male-dominance. As we understand that Novamed workers take turns in terms of pregnancy, in Karakuş’s words, «they were exposed to various types of oppression at the intersection of being a woman and being a worker». The movie ends with female workers saying that they wanted to increase the number of union members in order to enhance the working conditions. That the movie does not end with a gain in the context of linear narrative structure, and that the struggle was told to be continued parallel to Gilbert’s definition of anti-capitalist documentary.
«Like a Bird in a Cage» opens with the speech of three female workers that represent the Desa strike. One of those workers, Emine Arslan, who is also the main character in the movie, describes the working conditions at Desa as «we were like a bird in the cage». Throughout the documentary, the camera of Sağlam and Saygılıgil, records and witnesses Arslan’s liberation processes in this context, who likens herself and her worker friends to a bird in the cage. Firstly, Arslan goes to Istanbul to accept the Sevinç Özgüner Human Rights, Peace and Democracy Prize that is bestowed annually by Istanbul Medical Chamber. Then, she sets off to attend a solidarity meeting in Paris, and to meet with the unions in Barcelona and Madrid. The documentary ends with the image of birds floating in the sky in sharp contrast to the image of a bird in the cage. Therefore, the language of the movie approves the emancipatory power of unionized struggle. The documentary closes with long explanations about the other ongoing resistances and the judicial processes of the workers at the labor court. The discourse of ongoing struggle makes the movie an anti-capitalist documentary with reference to Gilbert.
«The Zone» starts with the informative texts about the Free Trade Zone, accompanied by images of secluded and wired industrial zones. The documentary proceeds with the interviews with seven female workers who work in the free trade zones in Mersin, Izmir, Antalya and Istanbul. These female workers are taped in their houses. Four of them are with their children; one is with her husband; and two are unaccompanied. The last interview in the movie is made with Fikriye, a worker from Istanbul. Fikriye participates in the protest in support of Emine Aslan in Istanbul. The scenes of Fikriye during the protest are followed by images of kites in the sky. Parallel to the discourse of «Like a Bird in a Cage», «The Zone» also ends with images that refer to the freedom in opposition to the images of wire fences, walls and confinement.
Considering the discourses of women in those three movies, «division of labour and gendered discrimination in wage gap’, ‘patriarchal oppression at home and in the workplace’, and ‘the transformation after being a union member’ are the common themes that one observes.»
Gender of Labor and Wage
Raewyn Connell defines the sexual division of labor as «an allocation of particular types of work to particular types of people»; the work has been allocated based on being a woman or being a man (1987, p. 99). Connell, citing «Women on the Line» of Ruth Cavendish, argues that men who holds the power and management in both unions and factories oppose the female workers’ efforts to alter their situations (1987, p. 101). In the aforesaid factory, the male jobs are offered better pay, and some men earn twice more than the female workers although they have easier jobs when compared to women. As Connell exemplifies it with the Australian model, this situation is not exceptional (1987, p. 100). Consequently, capitalism is composed of the potentialities of power and profit created by gender relations, and it continues to be thus (Connell, 1987, p. 103). Within this context, in «Women on Strike», Novamed is portrayed as a workplace where women work at the production lines which requires a lot more circumspection, whereas men are employed for maintenance and technical services. One can see the continuity of degraded unpaid domestic labor of women into the workplaces by looking at the low possibilities for women to advance in their careers, and the stability of women’s pay despite the increase in production. In «Like a Bird in a Cage», Emine Arslan says that men earn more despite they do the same job in the factory. In «The Zone», Hülya, who works in Izmir Free Trade Zone, asserts that she has not got promoted although she has been working in the same job for seven years, and points out the interconnectedness between male-dominance over women at home and male-dominance at the workplace. Hülya stresses the relationship between the male-dominance over women at home and that male workers at work give orders to the female workers and their didactic way of talking to the women as well. Similarly, Fikriye, who works in Istanbul Free Trade Zone, does two or three different jobs whereas male workers only do one job and earn higher salaries.
Gender and Power
In the speeches given by female workers speaking to Sağlam and Saygılıgil’s camera, what attracts attention is that being under surveillance and surrounded by male-dominant mindset. That women are expected not to defy the male-dominance both at home and factory attests Connell’s postulation that gender order is «a historically constructed pattern of power relations between men and women» (1987, p. 99). That women work outside home, and their class memberships are conditioned by being exploited as women (Delphy, 2012, p. 111). Female workers do not only work outside home, but they are responsible for domestic labor and childcare as well. At the factory, they are subjected to verbal or behavioral dominance of male workers.
In «Women on Strike», Novamed is portrayed as a workplace that restricts women’s capacities both at work and in their personal lives. They interfere with the female workers’ talking to their co-workers and meet with each other after hours, or where they look at. This interference reflects the attempts to prevent any dialogues that may result in solidarity and organization among workers. Female workers disclose that they are exposed to psychological violence when they are a little late after the breaks. The male-dominant discourse that judges and insults the female workers permeates the discourse of the female workers, too. A worker who abstains from asking for an access to the restroom while working is criticized by her co-worker saying, «Cry if you can do nothing, you can’t even cry».
Female workers at strike face patriarchal backlash as they are outside both of home and of the workplaces employees of which are predominantly composed of women, and thus which can be regarded as an extension of private space. In «Like a Bird in a Cage», female workers at strike at the Desa factory in Düzce state that they were told by those around that what they are doing is not appropriate, and that they had been insulted. Emine Arslan informs as well that it is common gossip about her standing alone in front of the factory’s door although she does not give anyone her telephone number. The most commonly enunciated problem addressed by the female workers on being a woman at the factory is being put under surveillance of the male gaze and being regularly controlled as well. In «The Zone», a female worker who works at Mersin Free Trade Zone expresses her disturbance from the looks and the attitudes of male workers towards her as she had a divorce. Likewise, a female worker from Izmir Free Trade Zone reports that the male workers at work clearly put that they think women should not work, and that it is extremely difficult to work in an environment dominated by a mentality as such. She says that she used to suspect she was constantly being watched, and that she even questioned her own way of eating. The same worker also adds that she witnessed male workers defining a divorced woman as «secondhand», and that it is a good enough excuse for men to harass a 38-year-old single woman like her. A female worker who works at Istanbul Free Trade Zone utters that they are warned against getting engaged for two years or getting pregnant for two years if they are married. She also states in cases of sexual harassment, women are dismissed from work whereas men continue working.
Unionization and the Subsequent Transformation
In the documentaries of Sağlam and Saygılıgil, the primary determinants in the lives of female workers are seen to be their husbands or other men with whom they share lines of descent. With reference to Margaret Fuller, the unionization process is one in which women discover who they are with other women, in unity (cited in Donovan, 2014, p. 78). Unionization enables female workers to crack the circumferential male-dominance, enter a dialogue with one another, awake to their own power and abilities. In every one of the three films, one witnesses women gain class identity and class consciousness.
In «Like a Bird in a Cage», Nuran Gülenç, an union executive, indicates that women before unionization do not identify themselves as workers, see themselves as temporarily working until marriage, cannot have individual decisions saying, «ask my father, brother or husband». What Gülenç describes is also parallel to the conditions of female workers in «Women on Strike» and «The Zone». In «Women on Strike», female workers are seen to communicate with each other thanks to the unionization. As one of the workers asks very tangibly «Why are we so fallen apart?», the organization of work is based on preventing unionization and experience sharing. Female workers cannot communicate with each other because that they are warned when they speak with one another during work hours or breaks, and that they do not have places like only-male coffee houses for them to spend time outside home or work. Female employees of the union visit the female workers at their homes to persuade their «fathers, husbands and fiancés». Female Novamed workers describes the process of strike as: «We have learnt our freedom, how to protect ourselves, and the labor laws (…) We have seen the unity of women can help overcome many things (…) I gained self-confidence (…) We have learnt what worker and labor means, and how to claim our rights». In «The Zone», says a female worker from Istanbul Free Trade Zone: «I do not want to work at an already unionized company. I want to struggle for unionization and claim this right at my own workplace. I want to resist as Emine Arslan does. I want to gain things like her by learning. Emine Arslan’s power comes from solidarity and her relationships». This discourse thoroughly reflects women’s struggle for unionization and the effect of the support given for this struggle.
Judith Williamson argues in her article titled «Woman is an Island» that women represent the seemingly ahistorical aspect of life which is composed of personal relationships, love and sexuality, but also that they constitute an arena for the mass culture (1998, p. 139). In this context, in three documentaries by Sağlam and Saygılıgil, we witness that women are positioned as history-makers, inside the history itself, not in the personal and private realms of life, on the contrary, as active agents in the social life. They challenge the hegemonic male image regarding resistance and strike. They are not different from the women spectators to whom the movie reaches out. They show the potentials and possibilities as for becoming an agent.
In «Women on Strike» and «Like a Bird in a Cage», one can see the chain of solidarity between women. The strikes by female workers are embraced by the women’s organizations in Istanbul. Solidarity platforms are established in support of these two strikes. Through Sağlam and Saygılıgil’s cameras, we watch women, despite all the patriarchal dominations, manage the unionization processes in domestic sphere and succeed in these attempts as well as we also witness the entrance of unions in free trade zones. Yet again, Sağlam and Saygılıgil’s documentaries demonstrates that history can only be written through testimonies.
ALTUN, A. ve Çelikcan, P. (2017). «Belgesel Sinema Aracılığıyla Kadın Emeğinin Görünür Kılınması: Külkedisi Değiliz!». Galatasaray University Journal of Communication İleti-ş-im 26, ss:179-201.
CONNELL R. (1987). Gender and Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.
DELPHY, C. (2012). «Baş Düşman». Translated by Şadi Ozansü in Kadının Görünmeyen Emeği-Maddeci Bir Feminizmin Üzerine. Eds. Gülnur Acar Savran, Nesrin Tura Demiryontan İstanbul, Yordam Kitap, ss 89-113.
DONOVAN J. (2014). Feminist Teori. Translated by Aksu Bora, Meltem Ağduk Gevrek, Fevziye Sayılan İletişim Yayınları İstanbul.
ERDIN H. (2010). Türkiye’de Belgesel Sinemada Kadın Yönetmenler. MA thesis. Marmara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü.
KABLAMACI D.M (2011). «Bu Fabrika Bizim: Karanlıkta (n) Uyananlar Filminde İşçi Sınıfının Temsili», Sinecine 2 (2) Dipnot Yayınları Ankara ss:57-80.
MAKTAV H. (2013). Türkiye Sinemasında Tarih ve Siyaset. Agora Yayınları İstanbul.
WILLIAMSON J. (1998). «Kadın Bir Adadır» in Eğlence İncelemeleri. Ed. Tania Modleski. Translated by Nurdan Gürbilek. pp. 135-156 Metis Yayınları İstanbul.
YILMAZ S. (2016). «Parçalanmış Hayatların Arenası Olarak Belgesel Film ya da ‘Belge’sele Giden’ Hayatlar» in Gözdeki Kıymık. Eds. Hüzeyin Köse, Özgür İpek. Metis Yayınları İstanbul ss:65-96.
^ My Father’s Wings by Kıvanç Sezer is the first labor movie that has been ever made since 1980s. The precarity and unsafe working conditions in the gradually growing construction industry in Turkey since 2000s have resulted in worker deaths (mostly covered as corporate homicide in the media). The movie that looks at the rising number of deaths handles its theme melodramatically. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5830248/