I don’t think I have ever more emotionally devastated by a documentary before.
Personal feelings aside, I still think this was a really well made documentary, incorporating interviews, found footage, contemporary media from every time period discussed (music, news reports, political speeches, etc.). It really uses everything at its disposal to create a sort of collage of history; a history of America that the history books leave out.
The 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution is what the documentary takes its name after. This amendment helped to abolish slavery in America, with one exception: prisoners. The documentary traces this loophole in the amendment and its effects on people of color throughout recent history to show how the mass incarceration (particularly aimed at non-white people) is basically a sort of postcolonial slavery. If imprisonment is now another word for slavery, then the war on drugs, segregation, and any other form of oppression is an excuse for being racist.
The most powerful point in the film for me was the sequence crosscutting between a speech Trump gives at a very recent rally for his presidential campaign with images of violence against black people from the 1950s. Literally, nothing has changed between then and now. It was so powerful for me because of how recent the events shown are and how much violence blacks and all people of color experience.
Whatever your political views are, I think it is necessary for everyone to watch this documentary. DuVernay interviews a variety of people, giving us a lot of different perspectives that all really lead to one conclusion: American politics are corrupt and are working against low class citizens and people of color.
In his book American Zombie Gothic, Kyle Bishop claims that Romero’s quintessential film Night of the Living Dead serves to reinvent the zombie. Based on the previous manifestations of the creature as products of voodoo and magic, Romero’s flesh-eating monsters are quite different. However, Romero does not necessarily reinvent the zombie as Bishop claims, but expands on and adapts the meaning of the zombie in a cultural context. By doing so, Romero’s use of the zombie in his film Night of the Living Dead is quite similar to the use of the same creature in White Zombie.
The origin of the zombie can be traced back to the island of Haiti. As a former French colony, Haiti had ties to African culture, where the majority of the slaves were obtained from, and Western culture. The religion that developed on Haiti reflected the hybrid nature of the population. The result was voodoo, a mixture of Western Christianity and African mysticism (Bishop 42). Voodoo beliefs and rituals deal directly with death. The zombie comes about by stealing the soul of a human and bringing their corpse back to life through the use of voodoo rituals. The creatures were then forced to serve their master as mindless slaves. The widespread belief in the zombie among the population of Haiti reflects the prominence of a cultural anxiety based on the history of slavery on the island. For the Haitians, the process of zombification reflects having your identity and autonomy unwillingly stripped from you, as in the process of enslavement. In White Zombie, this process is clearly shown when Madeleine is forced to become the slave of the wealthy landowner Beaumont who has tragically fallen in love with her. Beaumont seeks help from Legendre, a powerful sorcerer who practices voodoo on the victims of Haiti. When Madeleine is under Legendre’s spell he orders her to kill her lover, Neil, and willingly does so until an intervening third party stops her. She has no control over her actions and is subjected to the needs and wills of Legendre. Consequently, by turning Madeleine, an innocent white American woman, into a zombie rather than a local Haitian, White Zombie also reflects American cultural anxieties of becoming mindless slaves to capitalism as well as the fear of being colonized by a foreign Other.
On the other hand, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead deviate from the Haitian zombies in many ways. For instance, Romero’s zombies are flesh eating, reanimated corpses that can only be stopped by a blow to the head. In his book, Bishop notes that Romero’s reinvention of the zombie narrative combines elements drawn from “classical Gothic literature, vampire tales, and science-fiction invasion narratives” (Bishop 94). By combining elements from established texts and traditions, Bishop claims that Romero is able to author a completely original text, bringing a new sort of narrative to popular culture (Bishop 94). The zombie narrative may be assembled out of an existing monster tradition, but Romero’s zombies are no different from the zombies in Haitian folklore on a cultural level. Traditionally, the zombie reflects cultural anxieties of the contemporary culture that produces the narrative. For example, in Night of the Living Dead, the zombie as well as the zombie narrative has been adapted to reflect a change in the cultural anxieties in 1960’s America. There are many new fears that the zombies symbolize in Romero’s film, including the civil rights protests. This aspect of the film is most evident during the radio and television broadcasts, simultaneously providing an explanation of the zombie’s origin in the film. The broadcasts report that the zombies are coming from the southeast part of America, and that nothing west of the Mississippi River, except for southern Texas, has been affected yet. Evidently, these parts of America were the most active centers for civil rights during the protests. The difference between the zombies reflects the shift in cultural fears during the time when each film was produced. The absence of magic and voodoo in the creation of the zombie suggests that there is no master, and perhaps suggests that the zombies symbolize a mass rebellion that was feared during the civil rights protests. In comparison to White Zombie, the zombie narrative in Night of the Living Dead may also symbolize a fear of an invasion of the Other. Contrary to Bishop’s claim that Romero has reinvented to subgenre, Night of the Living Dead proves that Romero has instead adapted the zombie narrative to contemporary issues.
After the publishing of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, rumors regarding Batman’s homosexuality became a controversial topic. Consequently, Kate Kane and her alter ego Batwoman were introduced two years later to play the love interest of Batman and serve as his female counterpart. She ultimately served as an object of desire for the male gaze. Her weapons consisted of mostly stereotypically feminine objects including a purse, lipstick, jewelry, and hairnets (Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999). Moving forward to 2006, writers reintroduced her character, only this time as a lesbian. However, Kate Kane is still subjected to notions of gender conformity in costume and appearance (Paul Petrovic, “Queer Resistance, Gender Performance, and ‘Coming Out’ of the Panel Border in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2 (2011): 67). The history of the character is important in considering the latest reincarnation of Batwoman in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s graphic novel Batwoman: Elegy. Both writer and artist are able to elevate her character to an “alpha superhero” (Caroline Hedley, “Lesbian Batwoman is DC Comics’ first gay superhero,” Telegraph, February 11, 2009). No longer stuck in her passive female role of the past, Kate Kane is now a powerful figure representing women, gender queer, and Jewish people. Rucka and Williams work together to create an emancipating story for Kate Kane, but the ostentatious design of the graphic novel is most representative of this. Through the mixing of different art styles, the exclusion of panel borders, and repetition of scenes, Batwoman: Elegy serves as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity, which coincides with her identity as Batwoman.
One of the most notable features in this graphic novel is the mixing of art styles. Not only is this a drastic departure from normal comic book visual design, it also serves as a representation of the fluid nature of Kate’s identity. The mixing of styles can be seen most clearly in a comparison of present day scenes to flashback scenes. The first time this occurs is just after Batwoman faces her nemesis Alice, a woman who speaks in riddles taken from Lewis Carroll’s novels. Directly after the climax of the battle, the story shifts abruptly to a flashback scene from Kate’s childhood. Her family background is explored, which reveals that she once had a twin sister who was kidnapped and presumed dead along with her mother, and also serves as a tragic backstory that sparks her intense desire to serve in the military. The story then shifts forward to the recent past where Kate is forcibly “outed” at West Point military academy. She then struggles with finding a way to fulfill her willingness to serve, just as her mother and father did in the military. Throughout this part of the story, the graphics are rather simplistic. There is very little realism attempted in these sections, where the colors are bright and flat and there is little or no shading. It is not until Kate’s first encounter with Batman that an attempt at realism is made. In this section Kate remains in the simplistic and cartoonish style previously used for the flashback scenes. On the other hand, Batman is more detailed, with shading and texture more evident to give a realistic impression. Although they appear in the same panels in some instances, the difference between the art styles is jarring and calls attention to itself as a significant point in the story. In an interview the artist J.H. Williams III insists that the choice of mixing art styles here symbolizes that Batman has found meaning in his vigilantism while Kate “has not fully realized herself” (Chris Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams,” last modified July 8, 2010, http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=26981). After she has lost her purpose and struggled with finding a way to work that would allow her to be herself completely, Kate is emancipated when she meets Batman because he has shown her how to reconcile her struggle with her identity.
The use, and sometimes exclusion, of panel borders in the graphic novel are representative of Kate’s expression of gender. Whether or not the panel borders are constituted relies upon Kate’s confidence in her identity. For instance, in the extended flashback scene the pages loosely follow a strict grid pattern typical of standard comic books. However, Williams omits a border on each panel, letting them run off the page, uninterrupted. With the scene where Kate first encounters Batman serving once again as a transitioning point, the style as well as the use of borders is symbolic of Kate finding her purpose. The panels with Batman in them have a thick black border around them, while those with only Kate remain unconstituted. Williams plays with the borders throughout the graphic novel, incorporating the Batman icon into the design or using a highly designed approach to make the pages visually appealing and add fluidity to the storytelling (Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams”). One of the best examples of the playfulness of the borders occurs on a two-page scene that takes place at the Annual Gotham City Police Department Charity Ball. Kate dons a tuxedo to the formal event, which is deemed inappropriate by her stepmother. The Captain of the Major Crimes Unit for Gotham PD, a woman named Maggie Sawyer, also shows up wearing a tuxedo. The two characters bond over their similar attire and eventually share a dance, which is the subject of the two-page scene. During their dance they discuss how long they have been out, past relationships, and being unchallenged in their display of sexuality. In this scene, the traditional panels have been abandoned and replaced by musical notes that flow across the page along with Kate and Maggie’s dance. This scene is important because it is symbolic of Kate’s fluid expression of gender. The tuxedo represents a queer or gender neutral aesthetic with the musical notes being symbolic of the fluidity of gender Kate expresses. In comparison to the flashback scenes it becomes clear that Kate’s gender identity is a part of her character, and hiding her sexuality while serving in the military is not possible.
The framing and repetition in the flashback scenes where Kate is forcibly outed at West Point and when she comes out to her father create an interesting parallel in the story. Shortly after receiving her honorary ring, marking her official membership into the West Point community, Kate is anonymously outed to Colonel Reyes who is forced to reprimand her. It has already been revealed that Kate is in a relationship with her roommate Sophie, which is in direct violation of a rule regarding homosexual conduct in the military. Colonel Reyes gives Kate the opportunity to deny her sexuality in order to allow her to continue to serve in the military. However, Kate chooses to recite the cadet honor code, “a cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, nor suffer others to do so,” knowing that by doing so she is required to testify her sexuality. Colonel Reyes represents the patriarchal culture of the military when he enforces disciplinary action against Kate under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy even though he acknowledges that Kate is “a damn fine cadet.” The next scene shows Kate returning home after being discharged from the army and coming out to her father, Colonel Kane. Both of these scenes require Kate to testify her sexuality and the parallels between the scenes are unmistakable. Her face is framed the same way in each scene, in a square panel that focuses like a close-up shot on her face. She remains calm, silently contemplating the implication of her actions, but at the same time her declaration of her sexuality is resistant to the heteronormative discourse of the military. What is significant in these two scenes is the response from each of the Colonels. At first Colonel Reyes’ response suggests he is only there to execute disciplinary action on Kate, but when compared more closely to the response from Colonel Kane it suggests much more. By echoing the first scene, Colonel Kane commends Kate’s actions, stating that she kept her honor and integrity. The strong parallels between the two scenes focus attention on to the responses of the Colonel’s who might seem to represent the heteronormative discourse of the military but actually represent more personal response of individuals within the military. By including this into Kate’s background story, Rucka and Williams place Kate into the cultural and political context of the real world. The scenes of Kate’s coming out to Colonel Reyes and her father provide new insight into how individuals might have reacted to the discriminatory policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
By having Kate take over the role of Batman, she is inherently reclaiming the image of the superhero for women. Upon meeting Batman, Kate disidentifies with him, meaning that she reclaims and re-appropriates his ethics and purpose and transforms them into something meaningful to her (José Esteban Muñoz, “Introduction: Performing Disidentifications,” in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 4). Through the process of disidentification she adapts characteristics of the Dark Knight to create her own image. Kate still dons the cowl and cape of the Dark Knight, but adapts some elements to make it her own. One of the most obvious differences is the inclusion of the color red that gives her an iconic image. Also, her female figure is clearly seen. Kate’s disidentification with Batman also relates directly to the history of the character Batwoman. Most notably Kate’s costume and appearance drastically depart from past incarnations of the character. For instance, her Batwoman costume as well as general appearance is not overly feminine or sexualized. While her female figure is still apparent, Kate’s Batwoman costume values practicality. Williams includes a character sheet at the end of the graphic novel explaining some of the costume choices for Batwoman. Her long red hair is part of the costume and is used as a detachable wig. Her utility belt is now tightly fitted and the cape is much longer, which are both direct references to the impracticalities of her original appearance in the 1950’s.
Rucka and Williams draw heavily on the past to create a new and inspiring incarnation of Kate Kane. The mixing of different artistic styles, use of panel borders, and repetition of scenes in Batwoman: Elegy allows it to serve as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity. Considering how the flashback scenes drastically depart from the ostentatious layout of the present day storyline and the lack of panel borders in these sections suggest that Kate lacks a cohesive identity. The constant dislocation from past to present makes the memories seem segmented and unconnected in a way that not even the order of military school can fix. However, once Kate meets Batman, he inspires a new direction for her life that empowers her and fulfills a solution to her identity struggle. Both Batwoman and Kate Kane provide positive representations of women and queers in comics. Her elevation to an “alpha superhero” is one that can finally be celebrated as a woman reclaiming her image in comics.
**This is a paper I wrote back in 2014 on the first installment of the video game Left 4 Dead for an American Studies class on zombies in popular culture.**
The video game Left 4 Dead is a co-operative first-person shooter game with survival horror elements. The story is set after the apocalypse has passed, and zombies have already taken over. The majority of the human population has been turned into mindless, flesh-craving creatures by an outbreak of the Green Flu. The virus manifests as increased aggression and loss of most brain functions. There are some that are immune to the virus as well as some who are carriers that don’t show symptoms but can transmit the virus. A group of four survivors, all of which are immune, work together to survive the plague of the undead.
Left 4 Dead is geared towards a very general audience. The four main characters, or Survivors, range in age, background, and physical appearance. There is Bill the seasoned war veteran, Francis the biker, Louis the middle-class office worker, and Zoey the young college student. Players can choose from any of these characters. This version of the zombie apocalypse narrative is not a unique occurrence. It is capitalizing on the prevalence of zombies in popular culture. The game draws on its cinematic predecessors, venerating the zombie film in many ways. For instance, the focus on a small group of random, regular people forced to survive together is an obvious continuation of the tradition started by Romero in Night of the Living Dead. The zombies, in particular, recall the creatures from 28 Days Later, which are fast, agile, and aggressive. And perhaps Louis’s attire is a nod to the parody film Shaun of the Dead. Left 4 Dead also follows in the tradition of preceding zombie video games, such as Resident Evil, which established the survival horror evident in Left 4 Dead, and also draws inspiration from the cinematic traditions of zombie narratives (Chien).
The popularity of zombies in popular culture has become a global phenomenon. Zombie narratives appear in many forms including films, novels, comics, and video games. The majority of zombie films, made in the last decade, have come from many different countries around the world. Most of these stories deal with a similar message: co-operation is necessary to overcome the global threat of a zombie apocalypse. This aspect of teamwork during the apocalypse is one of the main successes of Left 4 Dead.
Zombies in this game range from the typical horde to heavily mutated creatures with special abilities. While the typical hordes are generally easy to escape from, going up against the special infected zombies requires teamwork in order to make it out alive. The Boomer is an extremely bloated zombie that will vomit on a survivor. It is a rather fragile zombie that will explode when hit, spraying dangerous bile and fluids on the survivors. Getting hit by the vomit will not cause a fatality but will temporarily blind a survivor and attracts a nearby horde of zombies. The general purpose of the Boomer is to slow down survivors and create general confusion, since the survivors tend to spread out to avoid the mutated zombie. Teamwork is necessary to defeat the Boomer if any of the survivors have been vomited on. Because of the temporary blindness caused by the vomit, a player must rely on the survivors to continue attacking any zombies that might attack. Unlike the robust Boomer, the Hunter is extremely agile. Their agility as well as strength allows Hunters to do a lot of damage to the survivors. They will jump onto a player to pin them down and claw at them. The only way to break free from a Hunter once it has pinned a player down is to wait for another player to push it off or kill it. And to avoid Hunters altogether it is best to avoid becoming separated from the rest o the survivors. The Smoker is a mutated zombie with an extremely long tongue, which it uses to grab any nearby survivors and either drag them or choke them. Its mutations also include growths on its skin, which will emit smoke when killed, hence the name Smoker. When the Smoker catches a player they only have a small amount of time to react. If they are unable to break free from the Smoker’s grip then they have to wait for another survivor to save them. Also, once a Smoker grabs a survivor they become much more vulnerable and easier to kill, making teamwork not only helpful but beneficial as well. The Tank is perhaps the most powerful of all special infected zombies. Despite its abnormal amount of muscle mass, the Tank is fast and agile; survivors can only outrun a tank if they are at a good health level when they encounter one in the game. The Tank exhibits extreme amounts of rage and is easily provoked. And because of its extreme strength as well as agility, the survivors must work together in order to take it down. Although unfortunate for the victim, the Tank pursues only one survivor at a time, providing the other survivors with the opportunity to attack. Last but not least is the Witch. This is the most powerful of the special infected zombies, as she can take out a survivor with one hit. She is usually passive in the presence of survivors, but will attack when provoked. Usually, the Witch occupies narrow hallways so avoiding contact is not an option and the survivors must come up with a plan of attack. It is impossible to take on a Witch alone, so working with the other survivors is essential.
Gameplay is more exciting when multiple players are involved. Relying on the computer to control your teammates, with one player leading the group, will not get you as far. According to a review featured on IGN Entertainment, the game is built around co-operative multiplayer action. Editor and author of the review Jason Ocampo states “This is a game that comes to life when you play with at least one other human player, and it’s even better is there are four humans in each game.” Ocampo concludes that working with others in the game is what makes it exciting and ultimately succeed. He goes on to say that if there aren’t enough human players, the AI will fill in when necessary. But he claims that working with the AI can be problematic since they are passive and must be lead through each level (Ocampo). But, if you’re playing with other humans you can communicate with them to make it through the levels more effectively.
The heavy emphasis on co-operative multiplayer action in Left 4 Dead may reflect concerns over global politics. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, took notice of this cultural phenomenon of zombies. In his article “Night of the Living Wonks,” Drezner claims that there are many sources of fear in world politics, but recently an unnatural problem has become a growing concern in international relations (Drezner 34). There are many possible reasons for why this obsession with the undead has become so prevalent, but Drezner is more concerned with how world politics would approach the problem if the dead do end up rising from their graves. Drezner provides three views of how world politics might approach a zombie apocalypse, which are realism, liberalism, and neo-conservatism. In the realist view, international relations would be largely unaffected by an invasion of flesh-eating monsters, viewed as just another plague (Drezner 37). Overall, global politics would remain unchanged in a realist view as countries deal with their own problems. The liberal approach to fighting off a zombie invasion would be working together is the best possible option. However, the liberal approach would become vulnerable in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no common threat to fight against. A neo-conservatism approach would involve an aggressive and militarized response, eliminating the zombie threat swiftly (Drezner 38).
It could be assumed that Left 4 Dead exemplifies, even advocates the liberal approach to a zombie invasion. The emphasis on multiplayer action supported by the various threats encountered by players throughout the game requiring teamwork to succeed is a perfect example supporting a liberal approach in international relations. The only way to succeed in the game is to work together. However, as Drezner points out in his article, there are flaws to every approach. Liberalism might work well during a zombie apocalypse, but what would happen to Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoey once the threat is eliminated. Although the future already looks bleak in Left 4 Dead, with a severe lack of survivors, this diverse group of characters may not get along as well when they only have each other to deal with. Once the zombies are eradicated, there may no longer be a common threat that requires working together. In more general terms, Left 4 Dead reflects the popularity of the undead in today’s culture zeitgeist and possibly advocates for a certain approach to international relations if the threat actually manifested.
Chien, Irene. “Playing Undead.” Film Quarterly 61 (2007). Accessed December 2, 2014.
Drezner, Daniel W. “Night of the Living Wonks.” Foreign Policy 180 (2010): 34-38.
In the early 1960’s there was an influx in immigration to Germany as guest workers. People from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries began pouring into the country to take advantage of the abundant work opportunities. Eventually, these immigrants had children who grew up culturally and socially as German while still retaining their parents’ traditions. The immigration that took place led to the creation of fluctuating border zones as well as notions of identity as these children were tied to both Germany and, in the case of Fatih Akin, Turkey. Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants and was born in Hamburg. This duality of identity is frequently explored throughout his films that are often autobiographical in nature as he deals with this “tricky balancing act that shapes the existence of people like himself who juggle more than one language, tradition, and set of codes”. Akin often uses broad, recurring themes such as travel, identity, and multiculturalism, all which are enhanced by the use of music, to reconsider and reconcile what it means to belong. These themes and devices are exemplified by his films In July (2000) and Head-On (2004), through which Akin is able to explore a fluid cultural identity within the transnational spaces of the twenty-first century while redefining German identity in the film industry.
Places in Akin’s films are most often connected by the plotline, as opposed to geography or politics. This is achieved through the theme of travel. For In July, the protagonist Daniel embarks on a road trip with Juli, a free-spirited woman who plays a part in setting him on the journey, to Istanbul in search of who he believes to be his true love. The romantic comedy follows Daniel and Juli’s developing love relationship, which is central to the film’s story. Along the way Daniel meets a variety of characters and has many cross-cultural experiences. The theme of travel helps to create a sense of fluid borders where boundaries have been dismantled so that these cross-cultural encounters and alliances can occur. The use of the road trip in the plot of In July highlights the relatively short distance between Germany, the heart of Europe, and Turkey, which remains on the periphery. In this way, Akin’s film becomes slightly politicized, especially when considered in the debate over Turkey’s integration into the European Union. However, the story of In July focuses more on the deconstruction of fixed national identities. As Daniel and Juli make their way across Europe, crossing borders freely, they are also overriding the idea of rigidly defined boundaries and identities of nations based solely on language, culture, or ethnicity. For example, about halfway through the film, Daniel meets Luna, a mysterious woman driving a military jeep along a dirt road, there is a close-up shot of the back of the vehicle as they drive away. This shot reveals Luna’s national origins as Yugoslavia, but even more significant is the red “Ex” spray-painted over the sticker. Akin uses this to situate the film within an international framework by confronting Europe with its former East. Europe’s own identity is in flux, calling into question what exactly constitutes Europe. This ties in to the autobiographical nature of Akin’s body of work, dealing with the idea of a more hybrid or fluid identity influenced by many places and cultures instead of a fixed identity with set boundaries.
A narrative element that also lends itself to Akin’s exploration of identity is the focus on multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions. This is most evident in the film Head-On, a dark melodrama about two Turkish-Germans who are brought together by fate. This film is the first installment in Akin’s “Love, Death, and the Devil” trilogy. But more importantly is the way Head-On exposes the psychological strain of mixing cultures and what happens when Turkish-Germans do not adhere to cultural expectations. Sibel and Cahit, the two main protagonists, struggle with this very problem of living up to the expectations associated with being a German born Turk. On one hand, Cahit denies both German and Turkish culture, commenting to Sibel that he has all but abandoned his Turkish side. His apartment is decorated with posters of bands representing his subcultural tastes. On the other hand, Sibel is forced to adhere to the rituals and traditions of her Turkish family but seeks sexual freedom. As a result, they engage in a fake marriage as a form of mutual escape. The wedding scene exemplifies the expectations of Sibel and Cahit and how they comply to yet disregard them. For the protagonists, the wedding is only a show. They engage in the replay of rituals as a ruse for Sibel’s family. This is underscored by the shot of Sibel and Cahit taking lines of coke as the wedding continues on in the background. Also, their delirious, drug-induced dance anticipates their later interaction when they dance to a punk-rock tune in Cahit’s apartment shouting, “Punk is not dead!”. Inevitably, the couple ends up becoming emotionally reliant on each other, failing in their fake marriage and their attempt to escape adherence to both German and Turkish conventions. In the end, when Cahit and Sibel reconnect in a final sexual encounter, their physical transformations become a façade for their rebellion, indicating their failure to defy conventions as they are forced to re-assimilate into society’s social norms.
Creating a sense of character is a central focus in Akin’s films. The stories become personal and serve as insights into the lives of these fictional characters but also more generally the lives of immigrants dealing with a dual or mixed identity. The use of music in Head-On provides additional insight into the emotional and mental states of the main characters. For instance, at each critical transition point in the film, A Turkish chorus introduces and obliquely comments on the story. They are arranged in a line with their backs to the Bosporus River and performing for the camera. The chorus enhances the visual storytelling of the film by calling attention to important themes or elements of Sibel and Cahit’s struggle. Also, the soundtrack throughout the film is also in conversation with the characters, emphasizing certain aspects of images and content. In the beginning of the film, as Cahit attempts suicide by driving head on into a brick wall, the dark and moody sounds of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” echoes his unstable mental and emotional state. Music is employed again in a later scene when Sibel has finally realized her love for Cahit. The melancholic, bittersweet sounds of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” accompanies Sibel as she is shown laughing and smiling, enjoying the thrills of amusement park rides. Music as a theme also occurs in relation to Sibel and identity in the digital age. In the scene directly following Cahit defending Sibel’s honor and accidentally killing a man, Akin contrasts close-ups of Sibel with a CD. The song that plays is Turkish, which speaks to Sibel’s family background and belonging to that culture. However, the CD also represents a new notion of identity in the digital era as one that transcends national borders. Sibel’s identity is a clash between her Turkish and German backgrounds; it is one that exists without borders because she does not identify as neither Turkish nor German but both. As Mine Eren argues in her essay on cosmopolitan filmmaking, the use of the CD “demonstrates the easy access to global culture and the transformation of national subjects into ‘hyperlinked’ individuals”. The use of international music, coming from Turkish, German, and American backgrounds for instance, in the soundtrack relates the characters of Sibel and Cahit to a bigger picture on transnational identity in a time when crossing borders has become an inherent part of immigrant experiences. As the shot of Sibel and the CD suggests, identity has expanded beyond national borders.
The reception of Akin’s films within Germany often ranges from an emphasis on his Turkish-German background to praise for the European dimension of his work. However, his films work within a broader context of German cinema that contributes to redefining how Germany is seen in the global arena. As a result of the guest worker program initiated in the 1960s, Germany has inevitably become a country of immigration. In correspondence with this, films often celebrate differences of those living in Germany, with a strong emphasis on successful integration into German mainstream culture by assimilation. Akin’s films fit into this context of German culture by moving beyond stereotyped or clichéd representations of immigrants to address broader human questions about love, pain, or self-discovery. For instance, In July deals with issues of border crossing within Europe, finding love, and for Daniel the road trip serves as a moment of self-discovery. Similarly, Head-On can be described as a “Turkish drama in Germany” but also deals with topics that could take place in any location because it deals with universally human issues actuated by the Otherness of the protagonists. Akin’s films, exemplified by In July and Head-On in this case, contribute to the changing notion of German cinema by creating a cinema of migration that is defined by the hybridity of the characters.
Akin often emphasizes the autobiographical nature of his films while also drawing attention to their status as a work of fiction as well. He draws on the familiar in order to create stories about outsiders, love and loss, as well as self-discovery in a world characterized by immigration, border crossing, and fluid identities. His characters seem to be perpetually on the move, either crossing borders or vacillating between identities. Drawing on the familiar from his own life, Akin places his characters in the same world, which is most evident in a shot from In July of a road sign pointing in opposite directions to Hamburg and Istanbul. He resists any notion of a fixed identity through this road sign by showing both aspects of his identity competing and intersecting in a single representative space.