Veni, Vici, Vidi. The Power to Conquer and to Film

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
(Eye Filmmuseum)

The earliest still surviving films known to be shot in the Ottoman territory are those made in 1897 by Lumière Brothers’ cameraman Alexandre Promio. They register his travel through the Levant; from Egypt to the Eastern Mediterranean, ending in Constantinople. From the invention of the cinema in 1895 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, the Ottoman Empire featured in various ways on the silver screen, mainly in films made by the foremost film producing European countries of the time, such as France and Italy. It is noticeable however, that the tone of the films produced in the earlier years of this timespan, mainly dominated by a fascination for the “otherness” of the Ottoman culture, gradually shifted. It seems to be the case that during the escalation of the Balkan Wars and in the wake of WWI, the Ottoman Empire gradually became “the enemy.”

Since 2014 I have been part of an independent curatorial project we call Views of the Ottoman Empire, which aims to discover and show archival footage from the former Ottoman territories accompanied by live music and narration providing historical context. For each screening we select and recombine the films according to the desired theme. During research I have noticed repeatedly that footage catalogued under the innocuous genre of  “travelogue” can actually contain various hidden levels of propaganda.

As an illustration, in what follows I share four films that I regularly use in my programs. All of these films are from the Eye Filmmuseum collection, surviving as prints used for screenings in the Netherlands, evidenced by the presence of Dutch intertitles inserted to replace the original ones.1

These early films are probably best read in the larger context of the commonly available images at the turn of the century; newspaper reports, postcards, caricatures, photographs, and illustrated lectures together formed the image one had of any distant country. For Western Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century, the image of the Ottoman Empire and its capital Constantinople seems to oscillate between a desirable fairy-like faraway country and a barbaric, annoying neighbour, made up of an amalgam of Orient Express posters (from 1883 onwards), gravures accompanying “Orientalist” literature such as Aziyadéh (1879) by Pierre Loti, Mozart’s popular opera The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), numerous “Orientalist” paintings depicting the harems, and the often published sketches and caricatures portraying Sultan Abdul Hamid II, whose reign started in 1876 and abruptly ended in 1909 after his deposition by the Young Turks.

After roughly 1910, we notice that the language of the film’s intertitles changes; drifting away from the fables of the One Thousand and One Nights atmosphere towards increasingly condescending expressions. The same places are no longer just “exotic,” but also “curious,” “strange,” and “foreign.” One of the many examples is provided by the film Constantine (France, Eclair, 1913) showing views of this spectacular Algerian city from various vantage points, preceded by intertitles distinguishing the “European city” from the “Arab city,” while all the time we are clearly looking at the same city from only a slightly different angle.

Constantine (France, Eclair, 1913).

Once a territory is conquered, or ceases to belong to the “enemies” of the Western colonialist powers, the films again change their tone: still highlighting contrasts such as “Arab” versus “Western,” but also praising the beauty of the new territory, often drawing similarities with what can be seen as their Western counterparts—suddenly a positive, more inclusive language is employed. This language, which I call the language of  “the conquered territory films,” seems to both hint towards and reinforce these new power relations, while also reminding home audiences that this part of the world has now become part of their own empire or nation, and as such there is nothing strange about it and it can thus be safely embraced.

Belgrado (France?, 1922?) is an example of this. Little is known about this film, except that it was distributed in the Netherlands by Hollandsche Filmuniversiteit (HOLFU; the Dutch Film University). Despite the short catalogue title, the opening titles of the film read: “Belgrade. Capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slavs. / Following the St. Germain treaty (1919) Serbia became an extended kingdom.” in reference to the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” established in 1918. The film is likely shot by the French (or one of the other Allied forces nations) after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a consequence of World War I. It contains endless comparisons of Belgrade to Western European cities: “The city centre looks just like any other West-European city. / Also here the traffic agents work hard. / Just like in our cities: big restaurants with large terraces.” At the same time, it also seems to constantly “apologize” for the perceived backwards traditions of locals: “The ox-carts (a common appearance in Belgrade’s streets) form great contrast with these modern images.”; and also “apologizes” for the “unbecoming” behaviour and looks of the locals with statements such as “Belgrade has a monumental station with a beautiful square in front. / The farmers in their traditional clothes waiting for the train form a contrast with this modern piece of architecture.”

Belgrado (France, ?, 1922).

The difference in tone witnessed here is completely hinged to the political and historical context and is almost impossible to convey using the “universal/objective” and “timeless” descriptive tools of the film archives and their databases. The metadata falls short of categorizing these films fully, doing injustice to their various potential levels of meaning. The keywords and standard plot descriptions give no hints about the context, leaving everything up to the researcher’s knowledge of the subject and their interpretation.

This difficulty is evident in the Italian production Tra le pinete di Rodi [Among the Pine Forests of Rhodes] (Italy, Savoia Film, 1912). Despite its charming and romantic appearance this four-minute film is a political and military propaganda movie. It reaffirms Italy’s claim over the island of Rhodes immediately after its Italian conquest in 1912, following four centuries of Ottoman rule since 1522. The film begins as a romantic travelogue, featuring the silhouette of an elegantly dressed European couple in the woods and by the seashore, but in its last minute suddenly cuts to show Italian army ships surrounding the island and ends in a nationalistic tone, with a hand-painted Italian flag as the end title.

Tra le pinete di Rodi (Italy, Savoia, 1912).

My final example is the thus far unidentified film Constantinopel, natuuropname van de grootste stad van Zuid-Europa (France?, 1920?). After struggling for many years to date this film I realized that it must have been shot during the occupation of Istanbul by the Allied forces (1918–1923). The unnaturally long main title of the film is conceived in the most “inclusive” way; suddenly we are not talking about the constantly exoticized capital of the Ottoman Empire, but rather, the “biggest city of Southern Europe”! The intertitles too insist on repeating the word “European”: “The European shore with the beautiful Dolmabahçe Castle, entirely built of marble,” or “Rumeli Hisar, a European fortress,” etc. Although it is customary today to refer to different parts of Istanbul as Asian or European, films from the early twentieth century almost never use these descriptions, the only exception being the standard reference to the “Sweet Waters of Asia” (today’s Göksu and Küçüksu) often appearing in the travel writings of Westerners like Lady Mary Montagu, Théophile Gautier, Edmondo de Amicis, and Pierre Loti.2 In fact, although many Constantinople films feature images of Üsküdar, it is not always emphasized that Üsküdar is on the Asian side as this would probably give away something that is definitely never mentioned, that both shores of the Golden Horn, or the entire historical peninsula with its trademark mosques and palaces, are actually all geographically situated on the European continent.

Constantinopel, natuuropname van de grootste stad van Zuid-Europa (France?, 1920?).

Put together, these title cards evoke a different feeling than those in the earlier films about Constantinople, making me believe that this film must have been shot during the occupation, employing the “language of the conqueror,” emotionally annexing Constantinople to the rest of Europe.

I would like to conclude by saying that we still need to further identify and understand the correct historical context of the images we hold in the archives, for only then can we understand their intent, or even their “raison d’etre.” However, we should also realize that the ability to do so might go beyond the means of any individual film archive. A film archivist may be a film historian, but not a specialist in the geo-political history of particular regions. A film archive contains many types of footage, everything from home movies to feature fiction films, and archivists help to categorize and describe the footage to the best of their abilities, but one cannot expect them to immediately recognize historical sensitivities in the footage they are describing. And even if they do, their institutional databases require a “neutral” language, free of interpretations. This type of footage is hard to fit into any category, not only in relation to film genres, but also in relation to seemingly basic descriptions such as geographic attributions that might have become impossible due to constantly shifting national borders. It is only through the help of others, specializing in particular periods, geographies, histories, cultures, and traditions, that the real potential of the footage waiting to be discovered in the archives can be brought to light.

Archival Practices
Film & Video
Institutional Approach