The beginning of the 21st century has been defined by modern history being made in real-time, thanks to an oversaturated 24-hour news cycle. Mediated through flickering screens and the speed-of-light cadence of social media posts, several virtual imprints of overlapping realities exist in a palimpsest of a post-factual age, information wars and the mis-interpretation and de-contextualization of unfolding events. Despite the omni-channel overproduction of news and reporting, blind spots occur in equal volume. Naturally, certain corners of the world remain heavily unreported with many happenings cloaked under the opaque veil of reticence. Political forces regularly intercept and steer any attempts to document.
Back in 2016, a Dutch digital design collective operating under the moniker Metahaven delivered a radical meta-offering, The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda). Here, the disruptive power of found-footage and its circulation in certain contexts is demonstrated to have major influence on geopolitical situations, especially when filtered through obscure channels. Besides manifesting how reality can be severely mis-perceived when flattened into suffocating confines, The Sprawl also tackles how certain clips can wield the unmatched capacity to control when tainted by ideology: especially when one tiny haphazard piece of found-footage can in turn subvert and spin a meticulously curated narrative.
The Sprawl is enlightening insofar as it displays that the items that remain omitted— those edited out of the reality-in-the-making— are in fact the most crucial. Naturally, the fundamental question of reality tears out a multidimensional rabbit hole, beginning with Plato's notorious allegory of the cave and reaching to Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal: simulacrums and simulations. Aside from the arbitrariness of mediated reality— a plethora of simulacrums breeding diverse and contaminated versions of reality— the film medium remains a viable form to challenge subjective perception. This holds true even in a less meta-textual layer, as exhibited by The Sprawl. The medium remains a double-edged sword nonetheless.
Meteors, a black and white feature-length debut by Turkish filmmaker Gürcan Keltek, embarks on a different route. Opting for a less radical approach, Keltek avoids disrupting the perception of reality by assuming the role of an archivist. His films is comprised of intercepted found-footage videos being live-streamed by locals in the southeast region of Turkey, from cities with imposed militant curfew. This cluster of anonymous clips, CCTV footage and news reports establish a patchwork of events did not receive proper treatment in major news outlets, and was hardly registered beyond the borders of the country.
The events in question surround an internal affair in Eastern Anatolia, stemming from a rather obscure albeit not nontrivial mission designed to dismantle the Kurdistan Worker's Party with the help of six generals and ten thousand troops. After two-and-a-half years of Turkish-Kurdish negotiations, Turkey deployed its largest military operation against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Kurdish autonomists, a large-scale crackdown ignited by the murder of a soldier believed to be executed by members of the PKK.
The military operation surprised locals as they became trapped inside their dwellings before being properly briefed on the situation or its direct and indirect implications. More importantly, the streets and neighborhoods where locals used to roam freely became a battleground in a country hurtling to the precipice of civil war. Keltek makes sure to clarify that several journalists were fired for their attempts to report on the events, implying a larger, government-ordered cover-up. The Turkish filmmaker thus preserves authentic footage with obvious historic value— the event might have been otherwise erased from the collective consciousness of the country's history.
A fine line separates archivist from activist in the case of explosive material such as Keltek is handling. Instead of inciting, the filmmaker stays in the background, locked in an observational mode. To cross the line would imply an agenda which Keltek, from his current position, lacks in the political sense. Keltek disclosed that his intention was not to make a political film, although the nature of the events mean politics cannot be avoided either. However, Keltek's strategy in narrative-building omits the event, eschewing direct references from the beginning and thus the six-chapter structure becomes clear only in hindsight after the revelation of crucial information. For example, in the lyrical prelude titled "Hunters," a group of men emerges from the mountains to hunt down wild goats once revered as holy creatures in a stealth attack, a transgression mirroring the ambush of civilians in Eastern Anatolia. Depicted in a seemingly contextually unanchored and plot-less fashion, the act turns into an allegory in retrospect.
The six-episode structure establishes an innocuous parallel, shadowing the various stages of the military conflict. Keltek's narrative and formal strategy refrains from usual reporting-based codes of documentary filmmaking; instead, Meteors unfolds on a spectrum of essayistic documentary overlaid with elements from fiction filmmaking. Meteors thus takes on the role of an organic archive, a capsule storing authentic images from the field before they become wiped out from individual memory. It preserves not the actual conflict but its peripheral signs and imminent consequences. The film medium, once revered as a temple of memory, provides this former service, embalming what others might prefer to fizzle out into the ether.
Keltek presents an antithesis to heritage films in the sense that Meteors obviously circumvents nostalgia, undermining the official narrative the ruling apparatus may want to push. The film emerges in opposition to the institutionalized top-bottom hierarchy, which tends to be an open route for propaganda. The snippets of found-footage Keltek compiles are crowd-sourced and myriad in origin, offering a variety of perspectives on a single event, thus suppressing subjectivity and ruling out one invisible all-controlling hand.
Furthermore, the majority of recorded proceedings are not reconstructed but instead present the actual unfolding of events captured in real time— micro-processes or fragments of modern history in the making— a spectacle of intra-national violence from which foreigners should be excluded. However, the panorama of intimate viewpoints and recorded testimonies encapsulates a dark corner of public memory through which film can enter into a collective consciousness exceeding national awareness. Ultimately, Meteors is a trauma film in which cinema serves as an archive for memory, an event preserved as a testimony and experience to be lived through. Cinema in Keltek's offering functions as a tool for circulating memories vis-à-vis a historical narrative of an event that was intended to be kept secret.
Keltek downplays the reporting aspect of the film, privileging archive over activism as he carefully nestles his authentic found-footage into a larger narrative transcending the immediacy of the military conflict. Actress and writer Ebru Ojen provides voice-over from her latest novel The Vaccine while also interviewing people, mostly children, as they experience the lockdown of a city. The filmmaker stretches the political layer into the social and slowly drifts towards an even greater design as he lays new meanings over a disembodied patchwork of audiovisual fragments. He assimilates the formalism of found-footage material— the docu-reality— with experimental narrative strategies from fiction filmmaking to produce a complex work of universal value and relevance. The non-figurative imagery, rendered in the same monochrome aesthetics as the phone-filmed morsels, veers back to the originally established atmosphere, trading allegory for contemplation. Keltek borrows from the inventory of so-called slow-cinema to lyrically elaborate the essayistic tendencies of Meteors, a profound counterpoint to the real-life footage.
The Turkish director, however, does not engage in any foul play by cloaking a political statement under the aesthetic veil of cosmic contemplation. The political, social, artistic and metaphysical planes rather permeate and contaminate each other. The small-scale arc of a local military conflict harboring significant consequences extends into a greater design, encapsulating mythology. The political realism of bleak authentic footage finds a counterweight in the lyrical textures of pagan realism as primal consciousness— a perception of the world is leveraged against perplexing and invasive modern-day statecraft.
By tapping into a deeper configuration of the collective mind, Meteors' originally social-political valences transcend into local folklore. Mythology and superstition are usually employed when rational capacity fails to grasp certain events, locating and extending meaning. Keltek vertically stacks layer after layer— military intervention, political motivation, social intrusion, intervention of a higher order— a chain reaction impacting a precisely delineated region. The landscape becomes the center point, the protagonist for collective consciousness and myth, a mirror of national imagery. The overlapping layers of meaning embroidered into a hybridizing narrative, combined with rich formalistic textures, transform Meteors from a trauma film unfolding in real-time into a significance-laden offering that ritualizes storytelling and mythology in the same stroke— secular and sacral dimensions personified materially and immaterially in the landscape and nation respectively.