“Almanya” in San Diego

San Diego kicked off its first German Film Festival, German Currents in 2011. It seemed to be a long time coming considering that there are an estimated 100,000 Germans living in the San Diego metro area and Orange County.

The festival opened with the screening of Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland, a movie written by two Turkish German sisters, Yasemin and Nesrin Şamdereli, about a Turkish immigrant family’s literal and figurative trip back to Turkey. The family’s patriarch, Hüseyin, leaves his hometown in a village near Anatolia during the initial Gastarbeiter wave of Turkish immigration in the ‘60s in order to earn what was considered big money working in a German factory, which he sends back to support his family. Although originally unplanned, the whole family, made up of his wife, Fatma, and their first three children, eventually join their father and move to their new home in Berlin. Hüseyin and Fatma soon thereafter welcome their fourth child who is their only child born in Germany.

The immigrant journey is narrated by the oldest grandchild, Canan, who is a female student at university trying to come to terms with an unplanned pregnancy with her non-Turkish boyfriend. Shs tells the story of their family history to her younger schoolboy cousin, Cenk, who is struggling with being teased at school for being neither Turkish nor German; his father, Ali, is the youngest child of Hüseyin and Fatma, and his mother, Gabi, is a stereotypical, blonde German. While the whole family listens on, Canan recounts their grandfather’s journey from Turkey and entrance into Germany as the one millionth and first guest worker to the family’s integration as a Turkish German family.

The writers took a comical approach in portraying the initial and eventual reverse culture shock as they first arrive in Germany. Cleverly, the actors portraying the young version of the newly immigrated Turkish family speak German while all of the Germans they encounter speak jibberish.

While the family was initially bewildered and disgusted by the western style toilet in their first flat in Berlin, they become repulsed upon seeing their former, squat toilet in Turkey. In an effort to bridge their German lives to their Turkish roots, the whole family of six pack into their German-made car making the near 30-hour drive from Germany to Turkey. The idea of regular visits back home was immediately terminated when the family soon discovered that the friends and family they left behind expected more handouts from their newly “rich” German friends; they felt that they no longer had a home there.  The movie is full of these light-hearted illustrations of the transitions in the immigrant experience.

For me, seeing the movie came close on the heels of my becoming friends with a Turkish family in San Diego who recently moved from Germany. We exchanged stories of our own dismay and frustration with general German prejudices of Turks. My new friend, as an academic from Istanbul, was salmon swimming upstream as she constantly faced stereotypes in both Berlin and in the German-speaking community in San Diego for “not looking Turkish.” She was frequently questioned for not wearing a headscarf and for being so well-educated as a Muslim woman. She told me that she was even asked on several occasions while living in Berlin if she had been beaten by her father. The German perception of Turks has been painted in broad brushstrokes by the Turks of Gastarbeiter times who typically came as low-skilled labor from Anatolia and the environs and were more traditionally Muslim. Sadly, negative stereotypes of Turks and their culture are compounded with reports in the media of the abuse and death of women by their families and of an ongoing integration problem.

The movie takes on many of these stereotypes in a lighthearted manner and had some “Hallmark” moments, i.e., harmonious, communicative and functional familial scenes and confrontations that become resolved with a declaration of love and a hug. But, given the frequent dark portrayal of Germany’s perceived “Turkish problem,” the amusing and humanistic touch is warranted and welcome.

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