Human still in ‘The Last Birds of Passage’


IN summer, they journey to the cooler climes of the central and southern mountains of Turkey, but in winter they are in the lowlands. They are the nomads of this place.

Their trek around the mountain trails has the support of a collective memory and consciousness formed thousands of years ago. Like any other countries around the Mediterranean and parts of Europe, the places from where they come and the upland roads they pass through and by have seen developments that negate nomadism, hunting-and-gathering human groups, because under this new economic dispensation, we are supposed to be sedentary. This material rootedness is viewed as the reason how we have evolved efficiently into societies that can control not only the environments but subjugate them, as well. Against the permanent settlements that this century and the previous have embraced is the threat from those who carry in their hearts and limbs the natural and physical desire to migrate.

Herein lies the tale of the Turna Misali, or The Last Birds of Passage, a film from Turkey directed by Iffet Eren Danisman Boz, a woman filmmaker.

It is a story of a family of nomads now living separately but among non-nomads. They have with them camels and goats; they live in black tents made of goat’s hair. They are a site to behold in their brightly colored clothes and the fact that, for the lowland,  they settled citizens are different. While perhaps the mountains afford them the wide spaces, down in the lowland plains, they have to think of the nursery of trees being tended to, which their goats attack. Of course, the local official comes with the complaint and the warning that they should stay in their place.

But how does one tell a nomad to stay in his place?

No one can tell the grandmother of this family who decides for everyone. She carries the knowledge of the nomad traditions and is proud of that. Her pride also extends to what she considers a given: her family is nomadic and when the right season comes, they should leave that area and start the travel to other places. These are directions that their bodies have memorized, which no mind can ever change.

It is interesting how migration has become an ancient phenomenon in an ancient civilization. While the present-day diaspora, of which Filipinos and other nationalities coming from under-developing economies participate in, is triggered by the push-and-pull factors of politics and economics, the migration of the nomads (for this is still migration of the seasonal kind) is conditioned by the instrument of cultures and traditions. The Yoruks, as they are called, have to move because they have always moved.

In one scene in the film, the nomads are invited to a kind of cultural festival in the city. They are declared as the real Yoruks, an identity important for them. Their presence is applauded and people take their photographs as if they are museum specimens. In real life, the director admits to a prejudice these people experience. It is a discrimination that is more subtle and implicit, and which comes out only in conflicts that arise because of the fact that there are people who move from one place to another, their incursion into lands not ably validated by license or ownership. Thus even on the way to the mountains, these people have to be careful not to tread on plantations owned by other people. Their supply of fresh and clean water is also endangered because mining and other human activities that allow humans to stay put have occupied lands and endangered the surroundings.

At the core of the story of The Last Birds of Passage is human agency placed in this grandmother, tough and strong-willed. She is so courageous even her husband is terrified of her. She attends a meeting of a group of men and she can outtalk them. In a housing program for the nomads, she encounters women who still wash their clothes manually despite the availability of a washing machine. Their problem: they cannot afford the bill that comes with the use of these appliances.

Her husband opts to live in the city, to be comfortable. The wife does not like this but she does not show her sadness at the thought that her man is going to leave her. Her camel, goats, the tent and the mountains are all that matter to her—and the family members who decide eventually to join her.

The house made of stone will not allow her to breathe. Then comes the greatest lesson of this film: that for most of us who have moved far away from nomadism, there is no turning back. There is, however, a great wisdom in these nomads’ life not on earth but with the earth.

In the TIFF (Tokyo International Film Festival) Talk Salon, two important questions were asked of the filmmaker, Iffet Eren Danismar Boz. One question was about the actors in the film: “Are they nomads or professional actors?” The director explains that the leads are played by professional actors, with the grandmother’s role essayed by Sennur Nogaylar, one of the acclaimed Turkish thespians. All the rest are professional actors, including the two children who are part of a theater group in the place where the film was shot. Like the person who inquired about the characters, I, too, believe in the searing performances of the ensemble. This can be attributed to a keen storytelling, a result of more than four years of research.

The other question was about the title: “Are your feelings about the nomads expressed by the title you gave this film?” The director replied how these nomads are fast disappearing. In her reply could be felt a wistfulness for that from which all of us came: a tribe that travels in search for the green meadows, clean air and a mountain that is free.

The Last Birds of Passage competed in the recently concluded 34th Tokyo International Film Festival.

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