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Stille Post

Director: Florian Hoffmann (Germany). Year of Release: 2021

Germany, 2015. A primary school teacher is showing his class round a large modern building, obviously home to some sort of media group. A woman, later revealed as Leyla, the teacher’s partner, shows the class how easy it now is to manipulate photographs. See this picture of a couple kissing? One click of a switch and they’re looking away from each other.

Shortly after, we see Leyla again, this time in a meeting at work. They have received footage of military repression in Cizre, on the Turkish-Syrian border. But there’s no way of knowing whether it’s authentic. Beside which, is the German public really interested in more stories from Kurdistan? Leyla says that she can follow it up. The other journalists first prevaricate and then manoeuvre to take the job off her, but she obviously wants to do this one on her own.

Leyla returns home to Khalil, the teacher. She proudly tells him, that work has given her her first major job. What’s more it’s about his home city. Maybe he could help her by translating what the people on film are saying. At first he is reluctant – he’s had enough of the war in Kurdistan which has already taken the lives of his parents and sister. Then, he hears his sister’s voice on some of the footage. Maybe she didn’t die. Maybe she faked her death so she could carry on the struggle.

At the same time, Khalil isn’t certain that the footage is from the town he left as a child – it was all too long ago, and he doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about the past. But his search for his sister forces him to confront his origins. When he asks Kurdish groups in Berlin if they can help him find his sister, they say that he can, but only if he can get some of their film into the German media. An integrated German like him can be very helpful to them.

The problem is that Cizre is currently blockaded and there is no way for people to get in and out. But many of the inhabitants have become photojournalists by necessity and are smuggling films out attached to the base of kettles sold by import-export entrepreneurs. But they still have problem gaining the attention of German journalists who seem unconcerned that one of Germany’s main NATO allies is gunning down civilians.

In their attempt to gain more attention, Khalil and Leyla start to sex up the footage. Just as Leyla showed Khalil’s class in the opening scene, they decide that their best option is to create the sort of coverage that the media are looking for. Yes, it is unprofessional, but the end justifies the means. The problem is, that Khalil’s ultimate end is not fighting oppression as such, but getting closer to knowing what happened to his sister.

There is no question that Stille Post is sympathetic to the Kurdish struggle. While the PKK remains a banned organisation in Germany, it is refreshing to see a wall full of pictures of martyrs, each one with the colours of the Kurdish flag in the background. To see Kurds depicted as the victims of imperialist aggression and not as mere terrorists is breath of fresh air. And yet, the film seems to try too hard to depoliticise a situation which it shows is highly political.

Khalil is often engaged in separating his Turkish and Kurdish pupils. When the class wishes to take a minute’s silence, but disagree fundamentally about who they should be mourning, Khalil tries to calm everybody down and say that everyone should choose their own martyrs. This is a laudable move by a teacher trying to control an unruly class, but dodges the political issues.

Similarly, Khalil’s barber, and the father of one of the kids in his class, repeats the cliché that “An Eye for an Eye makes everyone blind”. This may be the case when the balance of power is equal, but when one side holds all the power, it is a slogan which reinforces and justifies the current repression. This is something which is clearly noted by Melda, the barber’s daughter, who continues with little acts of resistance to display her Kurdish identity.

I’m sure that director Hoffmann is aware of all of this, and I’m not suggesting that he is consciously trivialising Kurdish oppression. But I guess that I want a different film to the one that was made. Hoffmann concentrates on Khalil’s reluctance to identify with the struggle of his parents and sister – he is fully integrated and acts and thinks like a German. It is an interesting experience, but for me there are not enough films of resistance to use up our resources showing wavering indecisiveness.

This is before we get to the discussion of Khalil faking films to make Germans more aware of the oppression of Kurds. It is an interesting moral dilemma, which provides the film with dramatic tension. But I’m not sure that this is the political message that we need to be discussing. A film which talks more about conflict between German Turks and Kurds than in German complicity in the problem contains sufficient ambiguity to help the public look away.

There is a scene close to the end, when Khalil talks to his sister Senem via skype. He tries to make familial small-talk which doesn’t interest her. They only have a limited amount of time before the connection will cut out, and she is about to engage in a journalistic venture which may cost her her life. She has no time for familial sentimentality. There are various dramatic reasons for why she is saying this, but it shows how the film is torn between showing two irreconcilable viewpoints.

Once more, this is almost certainly not what the film is trying to do – the end credits thank the Turkish and Kurdish people who provided (unfalsified) films from the suppression of resistance in Cizre which was used in the film. And yet this is not the main story. We see enough people chiding Khalil for his reluctance to take sides, and yet the film is shot largely through his eyes. Maybe it’s time is still to come, but I worry that we are currently discussing something else entirely.

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