Film Review: Bakur

Discussing political fundamentals in the combat zone

The new documentary film “Bakur” shows the courageous struggle of the Kurdish PKK in Turkey. That we see more political debate than weapons being shot shows the interesting times in which we live finds our reviewer Phil Butland

1455177875_bakur-kuzeyIn 2013, the filmmakers Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu took their cameras to the guerrilla units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to capture the everyday life and opinions of ordinary PKK fighters. It is the first time ever that a documentary has showed the life of PKK units.

The film was made shortly after party leader Abdullah Öcalan announced a ceasefire with the Turkish government. Not all fighters are fully convinced of the necessity of this step, but all use the free space to discuss political alternatives. One talks about how the “5000 year old patriarchal system can be broken”. A contribution to this debate is the establishment of female-only PKK units, in which only women fight and make the decisions.

The nation state – an outdated model?

Others debate the attitude of the PKK to the state. Since the demise of the “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe, the PKK has developed new ideas, which are often similar to the theories developed by the philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. The former national liberation organization has refined its position on the nation state.

A fighter justifies what he calls a “paradigm shift” as follows: “What was our old paradigm? It was a national liberation movement … What was its aim? Military victory and with the help of socialism ridding the land of the occupying army. To create a state, a nation state. Back then we believed that creating a state meant liberation.”

Today, the PKK no longer believes in the nation state. In the film a fighter explains: “even if there were a Kurdish state, Kurds would not be free.” Instead the fighters propose a democratic federation: “a system that doesn’t include a state … based on the coexistence of difference”.

The film allows PKK members with a variety of opinions to have their say – and every last one is highly interesting.  It may be surprising how similar many of these discussions within the PKK are to those in other contemporary organisations and alliances elsewhere – whether Blockupy in Germany, 15M in Spain or the new “Nuit Debout” movement in France.

It would be a great mistake for socialists to ignore these important debates and to arrogantly think that we can’t learn from them. It would be equally wrong, however, to accept all these ideas unconditionally and to not pay them the respect of discussing them critically, and with the necessary feeling of solidarity.

Let’s take for example the question of the State. It is perfectly understandable that war-weary PKK guerrillas do not want another nation state. It is also a significant step forward to set goals that go beyond national liberation. Workers in former colonies from South Africa to Egypt have learned through experience that oppression and exploitation can also dominate in “liberated” countries.

Yet the nation-state still exists – embodied not least by Erdoğan’s Turkey, which last year broke the ceasefire and has started a new offensive against the Kurds. Even according to Turkish government statistics, 6000 Kurds were killed last year. So, the PKK surely needs no instruction from us about the continued reality of the national state. Any theory of the state must take into account this real danger, as well as the threat from Assad’s Syria and the United States. In other words, existing theories still need to be further developed.

Potential of common struggle

“Bakur” also shows fascinating discussions about the role of the working class. It is possible that small Kurdish areas can be liberated from the occupying powers. But what does this mean for those of us who live in the big cities? Relatively early in the film, a fighter explains how she was originally a manual worker in the predominantly Kurdish city Diarbakir (Kurdish: Amed), but went into the mountains to bring about political change.

But the struggle for social change must also take place in factories and call centres. Workers play a special role, because they can only win if they fight together. Working class struggle brings Turks, Kurds, Armenians and others together in a common fight.

Some guerrilla fighters and fighters proudly talk about the two founding members of the PKK who were Turks. Although the PKK is usually perceived as a purely Kurdish organization, the current generation of activists is emphasizing that their cause extends across national borders. In this context, the development of progressive forces in Turkey is important – such as the Gezi Park movement, which reached its highest point around the same time that “Bakur” was shot.

It could have been interesting to hear more about how the PKK fighters reacted to Gezi, or to the development of the HDP, a left wing pluralist mass party, in which Kurds, Armenians and left-wing Turks are active together. This unity strengthens the Left both in Turkey and in Kurdistan.

Finally lift the PKK ban!

It’s not a serious criticism of a 90 minute film that not every point can be discussed to the end. “Bakur” still provides plenty of fodder for detailed discussion about how we understand socialism and how it is to be achieved – both in Kurdistan and worldwide.

The filmmakers have already said that they are interest in organising screenings of “Bakur”, followed by a discussion. Local groups of Die LINKE and HDP should take this offer seriously, or even organise their own events.

One final point, which unfortunately still needs to be made in Germany. “Bakur” is an impressive film, which presents the guerrilla fighters as real people – people who live and love, play sports and watch plays. The brave and sympathetic comrades who we see on the screen could be arrested and imprisoned in Germany, simply because they are members of an organization that fights consistently against oppression. This is at a time when Chancellor Merkel is happy to receive Erdoğan and to pay him for keeping refugees well away from Germany soil.

If “Bakur” is successful, this would be a shot in the arm for the campaign against the PKK ban and for the rights of millions of Kurds. That alone is a good reason watch the film and to organise further screening.