Ekrem Serdar

San Stefano

Fragments of an abandoned film series regarding the Ottoman Empire, the formation of ethno-states, among other matters, taking as its basis The Destruction of the Russian Monument at San Stefano (1914), often credited as the first Turkish film.

The film depicts the destruction of a church and community center - the Russian monument - built by the Russian empire, in the outskirts of then Constantinople. It was built to honor killed Russian soldiers following the Ottoman’s defeat during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878.

Image description: A screenshot of a news clipping from the December 19, 1898 of the New York Times. It reads: “Russian Warriors Honored: A Monument Unveiled Is Reviving Hatred Among the Turks. Constantinople, Dec. 18 - The Russian Grand Duke Nicholas, who arrived here on Friday on board a Russian steamer, unveiled to-day at Galatana, near San Stefano, where on March 3, 1878, was signed the treaty of peace that terminated the Russo-Turkish war, a monument to the Russian soldiers who fell in that conflict. The unveiling was accompanied with much ceremony and military parade at which representatives of all the Balkan States were present.”

It was destroyed upon the Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War 1 in late 1914. The film stock and equipment was provided by the German army. The film is credited to Fuat Uzkinay.

The film doesn’t exist. Some say it was never made. Some say that Uzkinay shot it, but it being his first film, nothing was exposed and the film came out blank. Some say that the film, which was stored in a palace, was thrown in to the Bosphorus as they didn’t want the nitrate strip to burn down the building. Some say that someone else made it. A film canister bearing the films name was found; inside the can was another film. Some people said they’ve seen it; others have doubted the supposed viewers’ honesty.

Image description: A photograph of a strip of 16mm film from Ekrem Serdar, The San Stefano Project. There are perforations on the side of the strip, and individual images, in green, depicting a the Russian Monument at San Stefano prior to its destruction. The scan lines of a monitor are also visible on the individual frames.

When Turkish historians refer to it as the First Turkish film, what they mean is the first film by a Sunni Muslim. They don’t mean the first film made within the Ottoman Empire--for that would be the Manaki brothers in Macedonia. Besides its non-existence, its consideration as “the first” demarcates the violent turn to ethno-nationalism, the collapse of the empire and the birth of the nation-states in the region.

It acquired its status with a slow accumulation of decisions after the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, almost 100 years ago. First a “director’s” name. Then, a blurb. In the early 2000s, a gallery exhibition celebrating Turkish film history fabricated a movie poster for the film.

Image description: A photograph of a three film frames from of 16mm film from Ekrem Serdar, The San Stefano Project. There are perforations on the side of the strip. The three frames, in green, black and white, show an illustration of a young person wearing a fez looking at a working film projector. Underneath, two almost identical frames of an illustration of a person with a mustache wearing a fez. The image is abstract enough that its not clear if he is smiling, or if his features have been greatly exaggerated.
The historian of cinema faces an appalling problem. Seeking in his subject some principle of intelligibility, he is obliged to make himself responsible for every frame of film in existence. For the history of cinema consists precisely of every film that has ever been made, for any purpose whatever.…The historian dares neither select nor ignore, for if he does, the treasure will surely escape him.
The metahistorian of cinema, on the other hand, is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art. Such works may not exist, then it is his duty to make them. Or they may exist already, somewhere outside the intentional precincts of the art (for instance, in the prehistory of cinematic art, before 1943). And then he must remake them.
-- For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses, Hollis Frampton, 1971

The series of films I worked on focused on this non-existent first Turkish film to think through the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It took ample inspiration from Hollis Frampton’s words regarding metahistory and his own uncompleted Magellan project, as much as I understood of it. I had never decided how many parts it would end up being, or how far it would sprawl. Ideas considered at the time included found footage films including interviews with Uzkinay’s daughters. A film regarding the jihad read by the Sheikh ul-islam at the Fatih Mosque just ahead of the monument’s destruction, calling Muslim’s worldwide to rebel against the infidel (except the Germans). A film wondering what soup the Fatih Mosque was serving that day. An adaptation of Molière’s play Le Marriage Force, popularized in Constantinople by an Armenian theater troupe, and which was the basis of the first credited narrative film (also lost) directed by Sigmund Weinberg. Including films by others, the Manaki brothers of course, but also Chienne d'histoire (2010) by Serge Avedikian, an animated film about a historical event where the street dogs of Istanbul were banished to the Princes’ Islands, which Weinberg also documented.

Image description: A photograph of a strip of 16mm film from Ekrem Serdar, The San Stefano Project. There are perforations on the side of the strip. It is a photogram of an egg: an egg yolk placed on a film strip and exposed to light. The yolk is a dark circle on the right side of the image. There are swirls of light on the left.

I finished two very short films in the series in 2010, in so far as I attached green and red leader to the beginning and end. The last time I screened them - attempting to show both as a multiple projector performance - some of the splicing tape got caught, and I decided at that moment to hold on to the film so the lamp burned through the frames. Haven’t opened the can since.

The sprawl was a reason for the abandonment of the project. My technical inexperience -  another. My physical distance to Turkey - in all its implications - another. At the time, my mind was stuck on questions I needed answers to, before being able to proceed just a further frame: Why was I making this on 16mm, when that format didn’t even exist then, nor was it ever popular in Turkey (and why was I making it on film, period?)? What language would the title cards, captions, text be? Who was this project - its aesthetics informed by the North American avant-garde, but asking audiences to be invested in the region's ongoing history - for? Why situate this moment of history as a center of this project?

The film project may have been abandoned, but I do continue to follow many of those questions, in which I found friends, interests, focus. A question to a listserve - “where can I find a 16mm film projector in Turkey?” - led to lifelong friendships and the Küçük Sinemalar group and our screenings in Turkey, the US, and big tables of rakı and beer late into the night wondering what experimental media in Turkey looked like, could look like. My interest in Frampton’s notions of metahistory towards other writers, artists, thinkers what to do with linear time and history. The Manaki brothers found themselves in Punctures: Textiles in Digital and Material Time. My concerns on legibility across continents led to my continuing love of artists working, writing, theorizing on working transnationally. Meanwhile, I’m thinking less of Uzkınay, but some of those thoughts animating the San Stefano project are swirling around the Princes' Islands nowadays, where the chienne d'histoire were banished at the turn of the century; where Trotsky lived in exile as Turkish communists were arrested; where Adnan Menderes was hanged, nowadays named Democracy Island; where Jesús Franco shot Vampyros Lesbos (1971); the islands where so many Turkish dizis take place, among many other histories. Another sprawling archipelago, for another time.

Image description: A photograph of a strip of film that is twirled into loops. There is splicing tape, barely holding two bits of it together. The images show a man with a mustache and wearing a fez, and a woman with white hair.

(To those interested in The Destruction of the Monument at San Stefano, I found Dilek Kaya Mutlu’s research and articles to be the most incisive.)

The author would like to encourage you to donate to relief funds for Syria and Turkey in light of the catastrophic earthquakes. Some easy options for residents in the USA that go to non-governmental efforts are Molham, Turkish Philanthropy Funds and the White Helmets.

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