In the summer of 2016, members of the Turkish armed forces attempted to stage a coup d’état against the government of strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The putsch failed, and in its aftermath came a sweeping purge that led to the suspension or dismissal of tens of thousands of soldiers, judges, teachers, police and civil servants, as well as a crackdown against those alleged to be connected to the opposition Gulen movement.
Since then, over one million Turkish nationals have been investigated for terrorism and possible support for the coup attempt. Over half of them have been arrested, while more than 75,000 Turks have fled to Europe to seek asylum. Those events form the backdrop to “Invisible,” Greek journalist Marianna Kakaounaki’s feature directorial debut, which follows three exiled Turks as they struggle to adapt to new lives in Greece. The film world premieres in the Newcomers International Competition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Kakaounaki is an award-winning print and TV journalist who has spent the past five years covering the story of Europe’s ongoing migration crisis. She works as a field producer for CBS News, has reported for the Wall Street Journal, and has been a part-time employee of the Olympic Broadcasting Services, working as their features reporter for eight Olympic Games. She spoke to Variety about “Invisible” ahead of the film’s premiere in Thessaloniki.
What inspired you to make this movie?
It all started in late 2016, when I was covering the case of eight Turkish soldiers who had fled to Greece the night of the attempted coup for a Greek newspaper. President Erdogan initially asked for and soon demanded their extradition. Therefore, it was a big story for us; the politics between the two countries have always been complicated. And as it happens when you are so involved in a story, I started getting this information about how hundreds of Turks were actually escaping to Greece. Academics, judges, businessmen, doctors, who were all accused of terrorism overnight. When I realized that there was an ongoing and massive persecution of an entire community, I wanted to do something more than a feature for the newspaper, and as I started meeting some of those people, I became convinced that this should be a film. However, it took years for them to agree to participate.
So they were reluctant to share their stories with you?
Very. For almost two years they were too afraid to talk to me, even off the record. It took a lot of time, not so much to gain their trust—I feel they trusted me early on—but for them to feel safe enough to open up so publicly. So this was a real concern. And it still is a concern, actually; there are confirmed cases of kidnappings in other countries and members of the community have been forced back to Turkey and imprisoned. As a result, their choice for a long time had been to live as if they were invisible. But I think at one point they felt they had to tell their story despite the risks. And since they already knew me and trusted me, we started filming.
How did you meet the three protagonists?
Ahmet was actually one of the first people I met in the community. I still remember the day he took me to this underground place he had set up together with other Turks. I couldn’t believe how all these families were living under the radar and at the same time were doing intensive Greek language courses, dreaming that one day they could really build a life in Greece. I wanted Ahmet to be one my protagonists because he is such an interesting character, and he could introduce the story of the wider community vividly.
I met the other two protagonists in September 2019. I got the news that a family who had suffered a terrible loss were on their way to Athens. So as soon as they arrived, I met with them and with the help of a mobile translation app we talked for hours about their life back in Turkey and the tragedy they had suffered. When I got back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about them and their story. The next time we met I asked them to take part in this documentary I wanted to do. They said yes right away, even though I told them they could think it over and consider the risks. But they feared nothing, they had nothing left to lose. I spent the following months shadowing those three people as their stories were developing: Ahmet who wanted to put down roots in Greece and the Kara family whose grief wouldn’t let them settle.
What was it like for the Kara family as they adjusted to life in Greece?
Gonca, a kindergarten teacher, and Ebubekir, the manager of a school associated with the Gulen movement, decided to hide. Their fear was not unfounded. Their property was soon confiscated, their bank accounts blocked, and they were both accused of terrorism. Horrified by the prospect of a trial that could take them away from their children and put them in prison for years, they decide to flee Turkey.
When they cross to Greece they are free, but that doesn’t matter anymore. They have to come to terms with an unbearable trauma that is slowly being revealed. Now, they are trying to stay out of sight and obtain fake passports that can bring them to safety in Northern Europe.
And Ahmet? What was his life like in Greece?
Ahmet Polat, once a doctor, is spending his days in a secret location in Greece with others who were also forced into exile. Almost every week, they welcome a new arrival. To be able to help them, Ahmet puts his dreams of practicing medicine aside and dedicates himself to the space they have created.
Members of this growing community have trouble getting used to their newfound freedom. They fear they might be used as bargaining chips during ongoing and difficult negotiations between Turkey and Greece—two countries with a long and complicated history of disputes.
What do you hope audiences will take away from “Invisible”?
I hope the audience will feel like they have walked alongside those families and that they form a better understanding of their lives. Their needs and aspirations are universal: to find a job, pay the bills, secure a better life for their children. They are not fleeing war. They were unjustly persecuted in a country that is supposed to be a democracy. If you look at the purge numbers, each number has a similar story like the ones told in the film. People are still crossing over, they are still afraid and hiding. This documentary aims to make these people more visible.