By Alexia Evripidou
July brings another anniversary of the 1974 Turkish invasion and with it comes all those poignant reminders of the island’s continued division.
But this year there is also a sense of hope – of the type that has visited briefly from time to time down the decades – that a solution just might be on the horizon.
Ongoing, constructive talks between the leaders have allowed the optimistic few to rekindle their hopes that all Cypriots can live together again under the same flag.
It is a vision also shared by two film makers, the Iranian-born Sholeh Zahraei and Turkish Cypriot Kamil Saldun. Through film and education the two have set about giving a voice to all people who’ve lost their homes, their friends and their lives.
“We were both born in countries that are torn apart due to their radical political past and present. Iran and (northern) Cyprus still remain regions with lack of human rights and democracy. We have been inspired by our homelands and our own experiences. We think that through filmmaking we can contribute to peace and unification. We wanted to make a film that everyone can identify with,” says Zahraei.
“I am a historian, I’m Cypriot and the Cyprus issue is always present. It’s there every day. My family was always interested in supporting unification and peace. My grandfather Kamil Mehmetali Özgönenç was a well known social-democratic activist against fascism and division from the 1960s up until his last days of life. It’s important to us to show the common pain and loss due to the conflicts and the aftermath of war,” explains Saldun.
With a wealth of personal experience and a large collection of stories told to them by Cypriots from all over the land, the couple created a film trilogy aiming to approach the Cyprus issue from different perspectives.
Their first short film ‘Gomsu’ – Neighbour (2013) is based on a dying Cypriot calling custom. Traditionally, visitors would let a person know of their visit by cutting a little branch or some flowers from that person’s garden and tagging it on the door if the owners were out. Gomşu records a gesture of a Turkish Cypriot woman leaving flowers at the door of a Greek Cypriot neighbour who no longer resides there.
The filmmakers explain how the video uses this as a metaphor for a sought-after bridge between post-war psychology and the longing for peace. The abandoned house itself turns into a storytelling character and becomes a symbol of the collective trauma and loss experienced over the years by many displaced Cypriots whether Turkish, Greek, Armenian or Maronite.
“Many people think that only one specific group has suffered but this of course is not true. All the ethnic groups have lost their homes, loved ones or have missing people,” says Zahraei.
Cyprus’ history of conflict and violence forced many to leave their homes; separating people from their families, friends and neighbours.
“This has resulted in both an individual and collective sense of loss that was intuitively passed down to next generations. Gomsu attempts to uncover several layers of history, culture, tradition, and collective trauma. At the same time, it seeks to highlight shared past memories, emotions, hopes and efforts towards reconciliation,” explains Zahraei.
Again and again, through their interactions with the people of Cyprus, the filmmakers heard the familiar words echoing, how in the past Cypriots irrespective of ethnic background, lived next door to each other as neighbours; working together and having friendships.
They were told stories of how people would celebrate and participate in each other’s religious or traditional customs. They exchanged and shared food. All shared their daily lives and often spoke each other’s languages.
“They would sing each other’s songs in Turkish and Greek. Children would play together. During the conflicts people would help each other with information and other acts to save each other’s life. When people had to leave due to the war many would cry after their neighbours and friends,” says Zahraei.
These stories led them to the second film, Letters to Cyprus (2014) which portrays a Cypriot woman in a reunited Cyprus in 2016, returning to her abandoned home in Varosha and facing her bittersweet past memories.
The film is based on real letters exchanged between Saldun’s mother and her pen pal in England during 1974. It uses original material, such as pictures, archive documents and footage related to Cyprus’ past including authentic 1974 flyers which were thrown out of Turkish military planes during the attacks. “These showed simple caricatures assuring that the Turkish military would come in peace and would leave after the conflict was solved which was never the case unfortunately,” said Zahraei.
The film begins with footage from an actual annual meeting that takes place at the open part of Varosha beach every year on July 20 to commemorate the invasion. “It’s a meeting to remind everyone that Turkey’s interference has turned into an occupation that needs to come to an end,” says Zahraei. “It’s a preview of what the moment of reunification could look like as anticipated by many people in Cyprus when finally the island decides to become one again.”
Then there’s angst and anger. The filmmakers chose to use two very well known Cypriot songs from the time of the conflicts between 1960s and 1974 to show the bullying that both sides had to endure.
“Both are ironically love songs that were used by Greek and Turkish Cypriots to demoralise each other,” says Zahraei. She goes on to explain how ‘Bekledim De Gelmedin’, an old Turkish song performed by the renowned Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, was played on the Greek Cypriot controlled state radio in the 1960s to mock the Turkish Cypriots, who had been discriminated against and excluded by the Greek Cypriots, and kept expecting Turkey as a guarantor country to protect them.
“The song’s title means ‘I have waited for you but you did not come’ which describes ironically the situation of the Turkish Cypriots that had waited for many years to be rescued by Turkey. That’s why this song was played on the Greek Cypriot state radio to demoralise the Turkish Cypriots. ‘Bir Gece Ansizin Gelebilirim’ by Yaşar Özel was the immediate reaction to the above song. It was played on the Turkish Cypriot radio station as an answer to the Greek Cypriots. The title means: ‘I could come one night unexpectedly’,” explains Zahraei.
A third film was made to complete the trilogy; ‘The Olive Tree at the Border’ (2014), approaches the subject of peace and borders from an environmental aspect.
One commonality popping up throughout their research is the shared desire for peace and unification, irrespective of ethnic background.
“We have met so few people who don’t want unification. Of course we are aware of the past and present historical and political events but it seems that common people want peace and unification. They do not want to experience war again,” says Zahraei.
“I feel that we are so late with peace and unification. I think that if it was up to the Cypriot people, we would have had it a long time ago. Both new generation of the divide are unfortunately burdened with the one-sided education, history books and propaganda. Many are not informed about each other’s loss and pain; they think that the loss was only on their own side. There are still taboo subjects that need to be addressed. My aspirations for the future include no occupation, no military, no weapons and no borders,” says Saldun.
You can view Gomsu at https://vimeo.com/70235105