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The “criminal foreigners” explain

In the 1990s they were the terror of the streets. A documentary film talks to two former members of the youth gangs in Hesse about their current life

I realised later”, says Kerem. “I was the idiot. Whatever, you learn about it. Its never too late”. He is talking about his time as a member of the criminal youth gangs, which were set up in Hesse in the early 1990s. He and two other gang members, Hakan and Dönmez – whose families also come from East Turkey – describe a life of drug-taking, dealing and murder.

Kerem was 15 or 16 when he started smoking cannabis. Heroin and cocaine followed, and then he had to deal to finance his drug habit. Against all expectation, it wasn‘t him who died but his brother – the victim of a knife attack. Kerem looked for the killer – but without success. After a tussle, he stabbed a US-American and was imprisoned for the murder.

Hakan was not so involved in the criminal intrigues, but he was still deported to Turkey. He had to do military service in order to get a passport, and even this passport was stamped “homeless”, which makes it impossible for Hakan to find legal work.

Dönmez also had to leave Germany. At the age of 26 he visited his parents’ country for the first time. His parent sent him to Turkey to escape his drug dependency and the criminal milieu. Today he has a Turkish wife, and seems to be the most content of the three.

But the past still determines their everyday life. Kerem‘ s health is ruined, and he is already in early retirement at the age of 40. Hakan is upset because he is still single and says “my time is over already“”. Even the otherwise optimistic Dönmez worries that his criminal record will cause problems for his son.

It would have been easy for this film to be a moralistic smart-alec morality tale. But the directors Andrea Stevens and Cornelia Schendal, who as teenagers in Hesse both experienced the uproar about the youth gangs first hand, prefer to listen than to judge.

We hear of the protagonists‘ regret, but at the same time we understand why this life was so attractive to them. The men talk about evenings when they spent 10,000 Marks, and of wild parties in luxury hotels. But at the same time, they remember a dignity which was not allowed them elsewhere. Kerem says that “no-one was allowed to mock me” at school, and “people were afraid of me” because he was in the gang.

As far as I am concerned, one thing is missing from the film. According to Stevens, the film is „no homage to the gangs, which we don’t want to analyse. Primarily its about the life of the three men.“This is fair enough. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to hear more about what brought these particular men into the gangs.

What is not really discussed is the growing racism in Germany after the 1992 attacks on refugees in Solingen, which directly affected people from Turkish backgrounds. The boys had problems at school because their parents spoke little English, but they were also victims of systematic exclusion from a racist society. It wasn’t a coincidence that one of the gangs called itself „Turkish Power“.

Nevertheless, the strengths of “Tokat” massively compensate for such small gaps. At a time when the media and politicians once more stir up hatred against “criminal foreigners”, the film offers a counterweight, which allows the people who have been vilified to speak for themselves.

This review will appear in German in the next edition of marx21 magazine.

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