A shift of terms

The examples that I’ve worked with here so far are pitched in a very masculine and confrontational vein. That’s because I wanted to present and critique what is often thought to be the most subversive, the most radical, the most self-evidently challenging to the dominant order, to the taken for granted. But there’s another way to think of subversion, one often overlooked precisely because it is imbedded in the commonplace, in the everyday. Understanding this too depends on thinking of contingency, of the audience, of the powers that are present, of working within institutions.

I’m going to discuss a few illustrative moments from a 46-minute documentary made for Turkish state television. Presenting women caring for newborns, babies, and infants, it is titled Lullaby (Ninni, 2003) and is by a Turkish woman producer/director, Zehra Tülin Sertöz.[15] (I’m preparing a longer article on several of her works; here, just a sampler.) [open endnotes in new window]

To understand why and how it is gently subversive, you need to understand the larger historical context of Turkey, and of the role of TRT, Turkey Radio-Television, a state agency. Turkey is one of the most modernized and Westernized nations in the Middle East. Strategically positioned, with Arab neighbors to the south and east, and Soviet power to the north, it had a long period of military rulers in the post WW2 era, finally becoming more democratic. Since the 1980s the economy has grown, but so has income inequality and class antagonism. This has fueled Islamic populism and the current government reflects that. At the same time, Turkey has dealt harshly with the Kurdish independence movement within its borders, and it has a long-standing record of imprisoning critical journalists.[16]

Within this framework, Turkey has been relatively liberal in terms of giving women education and an active role in social life in more urban areas. Given that State Television exists to validate the existing dominant values, some of which silence women, or ignore them, or neglect their voice, how can you give women an expressive presence? Particularly poor women, women in remote and rural areas, women whose very language is actively repressed on television if they speak Kurdish, or is seldom heard if they are migrant agricultural laborers from Syria (and therefore speaking Arabic, not Turkish). How do you make a documentary about women, when in traditional communities a spokesman would report what women thought and said?

The answer for Sertoz’s poetic imagination was to make a film about a subject in which women were the experts, and had knowledge that men didn’t. Thus organizing the film around the fact and metaphor of the lullaby allowed women to speak, to sing, to tell about their experience in their own native languages and dialects, and from all over the country, ranging from rich to poor, from rural isolation and migrant labor to successful urban professionals and wealthy couples. We also hear from elders who talk of the old days, and young new mothers who have the latest technologies at hand.

Lullaby weaves a complex investigation of the practices and materials of infancy and women’s domestic labor. Here two passages that deal with past social norms and current rural agricultural workers:[17]

Lullaby visual essay

The film is bookended with two heart-warming sequences. The first presents a midwife attending a newborn (the soundtrack begins with the baby’s first cries). The conclusion shows a small herd of lambs greeting their mothers (and vice versa) at the end of a day of grazing. Bleats and nursing as the sun sets makes for a natural sentimentalism.

Within this framework, the film raises issues of women’s double day and class differences with the women speaking directly. The narrator-director at other points makes a rather poetic statement on how all mothers hope that their child will not have to live through a war, and asks why people can be so protective of their baby but not extend that concern to all babies.

Two elders offer their stories, contrasting the old and the new. Visual details offer additional thoughts: younger women present seem to express that they’ve heard this matriarch’s opinions many times before.[1] [open notes in new window] The Adidas stocking cap seems an ironic touch for a speaker dismissive of the younger generation’s mores.

Narrator (Sertoz) How did you put your children to sleep?

God put them to sleep, not us. We used to stroke them as we nursed them. I used to lay the baby here. I nursed it and patted its back. It was work time for us. We put them to sleep then go to get water. Work in the field, do the house chores….We couldn’t sit for an hour to nurse them. We nursed them for half an hour, then got back to work. There were no cradles then. Now we rock them in cradles.

We had lots of work to do, we didn’t have time for lullabies. Now women are free, they sing lullabies and do anything they want. We didn’t have time. We used to sing lullabies and songs when we had time.

In a vineyard:

We can’t sing lullabies. We go back to work in the field when the baby is 40 days old. We leave it behind a vine and work. We’re workers, we’re suppressed people. I don’t know how to sing a lullaby as a mother. You live in the city you are up until midnight and sleep late. We go to bed in the evening and get up at 4 or 5 in the morning. We have to prepare the lunch also the baby’s diapers, etc. We leave the baby beneath a vine. If the boss is a kind man, he lets us take care of our babies. Otherwise, the baby cries there and you work to earn your living. Poverty is such a hard thing. Ants sing them lullabies in the morning. Bugs sing them lullabies, dust and dirt fill their ears.

Narrator: Somewhere at the heart of Anatolia between Yozgat and Sivas, a small green tent in the middle of a field…could it be made to shelter food against the sun? Or is there a baby lying beneath it? But they wouldn’t leave a baby alone in the middle of a field. When we come closer we see there’s indeed a baby under it. It’s name is Ahmet, Mehmet, Mustafa or Osman. This is how his life story has begun….As his cells multiply rapidly in deep sleep…the noise of the hoes becomes his lullaby. This lullaby will only end when the sugar beet is fully hoed. Or when the dowry is earned for the uncle.[2]

Spokesman (standing next to infant under a tent). We had a miserable life. He will have exactly the same life. We didn’t have a choice.

Narrator. A few kilometers away there are two other babies…sleeping on the edge of a field under a tractor which gives the only shadow in the field. One is in a swing tied with ropes, the other in an iron cradle.

Narrator to young girl tending the baby:
What’s she having?

What else?
Boiled water
(girl makes soft rhythmic sounds)

Narrator. Cradles out of rags, cradles of rusty iron and cradles of solid gold.
This golden cradle in the Topkapi Palace inlaid with emeralds and rubies is a cradle for princes

Here is subversion in a different key. Women speak, they sing, in different voices, languages, and dialects. They are the authorities, operating in the practical, the everyday, the world. Of course this means listening, viewing, understanding in a different way: with an expanded and expansive analysis of what is political. That means attending to the local situation (the when and where), to contingency, and to seeing media as part of an historical process, itself in change, offering different possibilities through time.

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