In this article, I am going to handle Serdar Kökçeoğlu’s documentary film Mimaroğlu (2020) on the political and private domains. Then I am going to touch upon the technical questions and opportunities that are provided by documentary as a genre. My aim is simply to posit questions rather than answering them.
In the documentary that was produced by gathering the archives of İlhan Mimaroğlu, the first thing that stands out is the political aspect. When describing his works at Columbia University about electronic music, Mimaroğlu prefers the word “suicide”. What makes him use these words is the marginality of making electronic music in a period when it can be considered as avant-garde, besides being political. The first question I want to ask is what kind of politics we are talking about here. When it comes to political activism, we do not come across an understanding that goes beyond a nostalgic longing for the street movements half a century ago. Although the film has the potential to bring a fresh approach to political activism through the aesthetics of Mimaroğlu’s music, unfortunately, it fails to get off this prosaic understanding of politics. Almost melancholically, the documentary again confines a couple of footage of the street protests in rote fashion.
Another conspicuous characteristic of the film is its emphasis on the “unsung hero” type. We hear this from Mimaroğlu himself and the other interviewees that are speaking in the film. According to them, his voice was not only unheard in terms of ideology but also in the music industry. For example, we learn that his recording company was on the verge of bankruptcy because there was no interest in avant-garde music among the people.
On the other hand, the question is if Mimaroğlu really wanted to be understood, or wanted his music to become popular. Considering the role of advertisements in the music industry, we cannot help but ask if it is possible to take an ideological stand against the tips and tricks of capitalism, yet being popular.
Perhaps we should return to that big question again: Can technique be independent of ideology? Is it possible to refrain oneself from the very nature of the music industry, i.e. making your voice heard by many, and at the same time being avant-garde? Mimaroğlu, who has positioned himself in a distinctive place from the very beginning, seems to be aware of this dilemma by calling his work “suicide” from the beginning.
Even though we think that İlhan Mimaroğlu is in the center of the film, there is another story that surpasses his: The story of his wife, Güngör Mimaroğlu. For example, we do not find any information about İlhan Mimaroğlu’s childhood or family, even that he was the son of a well-known late-Ottoman architect Mimar Kemaleddin. On the other hand, we learn about Mrs. Mimaroğlu’s poliomyelitis, the story of her marriage and divorce before meeting İlhan Mimaroğlu, and her emotional adventure after Mimaroğlu’s death. Even when they moved to America after getting married, the dominant story is of Güngör Mimaroğlu’s. Leaving her child from the past marriage, she describes how quickly she felt like a “New Yorker” and joined the street movements as if she was a part of the culture. Going adrift in the flood of people, she claims to find her identity. Perhaps this is one of the hallmarks of American culture. You cast adrift in the crowd and congratulations: You have already been a part of it. If you can’t find your identity here, there surely is one for you.
Besides the story of these two people, what attracted my attention was a third one that we can consider as the other side of the coin: The story of Rüstem Batum. Mrs. Mimaroğlu tells how she left her little son behind when she left for America to become a free woman, to work, and to live an activist life. I already mentioned above, the story of this child is what caught my attention the most. Think in the terms of negative space aesthetics: If we are to find an interesting narrative, it must have been engraved right in here. The director does not leave this question suspended, though. The last 20 minutes of the film, which I consider the documentary owes its success to, is where the director passes the microphone to that child. Edited almost in the form of a dialogue, we listen to the problems of Rüstem Batum, “the child left behind”, and Güngör Mimaroğlu, “the abandoning mother”. If we are to seek the director’s signature anywhere in this film, I think it was in this part.
The film at hand does not follow the classical doctrines of a documentary, such as showing the faces of the interviewees but using only their voices. For a documentary in which the main subject is sound and music, I think the director Kökçeoğlu’s stylistic choice is quite appropriate and aesthetic in this respect. However, the footages that are used in the film are mostly captured by İlhan Mimaroğlu himself. This allows us to see the world through his eyes. However, this technical choice of the director leaves us with another question: Since both the footage and the sound used in the film are recorded by Mimaroğlu, what was the role of the director, other than simply arranging them? What makes this film Kökçeoğlu’s, if any other director could have done the same? My answer to this question is that the director’s stylistic preference on establishing the whole narrative on the sound layer, and letting the voices speak, not the faces.
Mimaroğlu has been the subject of many critical discussions both in terms of technique and content so far, and it seems to continue to be for a little longer. If İlhan Mimaroğlu and his music have been understood or not is another question that still needs to be focused on. In this review, my aim was not to answer these questions but underline some of them, and add a couple of new ones.