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SEMRA ERTAN

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by Cana Bilir-Meier

grade: 7

Semra Ertan is what we do not expect, an intentionally fragmentary work, whose fragments, just like many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, compose a living, breathing portrait of a person who is now forgotten by most, but who did so much to make the world we live a better place. At the Viennale 2022, section Österreich real.

A too short life

The Turkish poet and writer Semra Ertan (May 31, 1956 – May 26, 1982) is remembered today not only for her talent and extraordinary sensitivity, but also – and above all – for setting herself on fire in a Hamburg market in order to protest against racism in Germany. How topical is her story today? How have things changed? And, above all, have things really changed since that dramatic day in May? What matters, first and foremost, is that certain events are not forgotten. In this regard, the filmmaker Cana Bilir-Meier made in 2013 the short documentary Semra Ertan, which was re-presented to the audience at the Viennale 2022, as part of the retrospective Österreich real of the Filmarchiv Austria.

The young writer’s life ended too soon. Within a few moments, everything changed forever. In order to fully convey the idea of a suddenly ended life, the director opted for a frenetic montage in which a series of clips from TV news, talk shows and audio recordings alternate with images from Semra Ertan’s own diary. Between one excerpt and the next: brief moments of silence, in which the screen goes totally black.

A passionate love poem is recited by the writer’s voice-over. A poem addressed to a man, but which at the same time reveals much about the author’s own personality. An extremely strong and resolute personality, ready to do anything to remain true to her ideals. And so, unfortunately, we have been shown. In order to fully convey the essence of her works and her short life, nothing more is needed and, in just eight minutes, we get an idea of who the artist was.

We should not expect a classic, didactic documentary while watching Semra Ertan. On the contrary, Cana Bilir-Meier has opted for a strongly anti-narrative approach which, in this case, proved to be an excellent solution in order to let us get to know the writer closely. Semra Ertan is what we do not expect, an intentionally fragmentary work, whose fragments, just like many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, compose a living, breathing portrait of a person who is now forgotten by most, but who did so much to make the world in which we live better.

The writer’s voice recites a poem. Darkness. Images from a large square in Hamburg. Darkness. And then, again, a short interview that the young Semra Ertan gave on television shortly before she committed suicide. In this short but intense documentary by Cana Bilir-Meier, there is never time to catch one’s breath or to observe the details on screen, even for a few seconds. Yet, the image of Semra Ertan remains impressed in our minds. And thanks to this short and precious work, we can believe that she will live forever.

Original title: Semra Ertan
Directed by: Cana Bilir-Meier
Country/years: Austria, Germany / 2013
Running time: 8’
Genre: documentary
Screenplay: Cana Bilir-Meier
Cinematography: Cana Bilir-Meier
Produced by: Cana Bilir-Meier

Info: the page of Semra Ertan on the website of the Viennale; the page of Semra Ertan on iMDb