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Society's excrement

Jörg Taszmann / kbmDecember 9, 2012

Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin journeyed to his grandparents' village for his latest film. Instead of a Black Sea paradise, he found only garbage - and made a documentary about Turkey's environmental scandal.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Five years ago in the picturesque village of Camburnu, located on Turkey's Black Sea coast, Fatih Akin witnessed an environmental disaster.

An enormous mound of rubbish was looming on the very spot where green tea plantations used to flourish. The stench was unbearable, and the dump was threatening to contaminate the soil in the entire region.

Local authorities hadn't even come close to maintaining the basic environmental standards that are common practice throughout the European Union. Instead, plastic tarps had been laid on the ground, and the trash was simply piled up on top.

Residents were left with two options: They could move away, or take up the fight against the local politicians.

In his documentary film "Der Müll im Garten Eden" (Trash in the Garden of Eden), which opens in Germany this week, director Fatih Akin's main goal was to give the village residents and their dedicated mayor a voice. It has mainly been local women who have tried to lodge complaints with their politicians. But their arguments that the ground water is contaminated and the fields infertile have fallen on deaf ears.

The trash heap continues to expand as more holes are dug and tarps laid down. The thin plastic provides little protection.

In one scene in Akin's film, the mayor runs across the mound and explains that even the big trucks that deliver the trash destroy the flimsy plastic tarps. Later in the film, Akin shows how the dump is filled with waste, the sewage pipes beneath it break, and a stinking sludge emerges. It doesn't only affect the air. Many wild animals in the area - particularly crows - rummage through the trash and spread it around the surrounding fields.

Five-year project

Camburnu in Turkey (c) Festival de Cannes 2012
Camburnu is both picturesque and contaminatedImage: Festival de Cannes 2012

Despite what seems like a hopeless situation, Akin is optimistic. "I can show the film all over the world and change people's consciousness," he said.

Akin spent five years on the film. He started doing research while he was working on his fifth film, "Auf der anderen Seite" (The Edge of Heaven). He had long since made a name for himself in Germany, in particular with his 2004 film "Gegen die Wand" (Head On). There, he presented the lives of Turkish-Germans with more brutal honesty, stripped of all clichés, than any other filmmaker had dared up to that point.

It was a spontaneous decision to take on the Camburnu documentary - although it wasn't just any Turkish village, but his grandparents' home. Akin could not be on location during most of the project, so cameraman Bunyamin Seyrekbsan did a major portion of the filming. Originally a photographer, Akin gave him a crash course in camera techniques. In the beginning, the two were in regular communication, but Seyrekbsan soon learned what Akin was looking for.

A women's fight

Fatih Akin holding his nose at the dump in Camburnu, Turkey (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Fatih Akin's response to the stench at the dumpImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The women of Camburnu are the focal point of the film. One scene shows how they keep a nicely dressed local politician from getting back into his car after a campaign speech. In front of the camera, the politician patronizingly spouts empty promises.

Although the women's protest is impromptu, they seem to be much more committed to the cause and more connected to the environment than the men in the community. They are "just too lazy," says one woman in the film.

The women's role is symbolic, since our planet is given a female connotation with the term "Mother Earth," pointed out Akin.

During the filming, the workers at the dump built a wall to hide from the cameras the trucks that approached with their infected freight. As if in a thriller, the film crew had to resort to "spies," explained Akin with a laugh, to secretly find out when they could film the trucks dumping the waste into the ocean.

A matter of perspective

Villagers in Camburnu, Turkey (c) Festival de Cannes 2012
The village's protests were in vainImage: Festival de Cannes 2012

Occasionally, however, the film lacks power, and it becomes apparent to the viewer that the filmmaker wasn't on location. Following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the work was criticized, particularly in the German media, and Akin was accused of simply retelling an old story.

The documentary didn't offer any new insights and lacked hard facts and statistics, complained critics.

Turkish media, on the other hand, received Akin's latest work with praise. For the filmmaker, it's clear why the opinions were so different. "The lower the environmental awareness, the more positive the reaction," he explained.

The film has not yet come out in Turkish cinemas, but the response could be more varied when it does.

Fatih Akin wasn't able to hinder the construction of the dump. But he says that the village lost their struggle with dignity. His conclusion applies well beyond Camburnu and Turkey: "Trash is the global excrement of our society."