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September 2010

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Brussels identities from A to Z

Süleyman Özdemir was born somewhere on the road in Turkey and during his entire childhood remained unfamiliar with the concept of a fixed address. Today, he runs, together with his daughter Serap, a unique video store in Schaerbeek. He also works tirelessly on updating his film archive. The nomad has become a sedentary Brusseleer


ll of my parents’ children were born in the middle of the yayla (steppe); I was the only one to come into this world in the vicinity of a village. By the time I was born, my father had already died; my mother passed away seven years later. In the early 1970s, I gave up my nomadic way of life and settled in the north-western Turkish city of Eskisehir. There, my eyes were opened to a completely different world, filled with many different peoples such as Tatars, South-East and East Europeans, Kurds, Chechens, Georgians and Arabs. I found it all immensely interesting. The very concept of ‘the city’ was a revelation to me; the city offered diversity, culture and a way of life which immediately appealed to me and that I jumped into with great gusto. I also discovered cinema. I used to go to the movies two or three  I love real rummage stores like Evasions (89 Rue du Midi), times a day, devouring Le Fantôme Espagnol (31 Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier) and everything from westerns Pêle-Mêle (55 Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier). to Turkish films. At that  Brussels’ film Walhalla is Excellence video store stage, I hadn’t yet thought (94-96 Boulevard Anspach). This is more than just a video store, in of making a living out fact, it’s a film archive. I got through every single one of its films in of films, I was simply a a couple of years – but then, I did go there every day to rent movies. movie buff, but cinema The owners are from Liège, and run their store out of passion and completely changed my without one Eurocent of government grants. Respect! life. My friends have cal When friends come to visit me and want to discover Brussels, I culated that, to date, I always put them on bus 66. It stops right near my place at Josaphat must have seen 25,000 Park and crosses Saint-Josse and the centre of Brussels. On the films. way, you hear every possible kind of language, you see faces of In May 1976, I arrived in people from all continents, you drive past gorgeous old houses, the Brussels. I can still rememRoyal Palace, the Cathedral and the Galerie de la Reine. You get ber seeing Turkish people off at De Brouckère, in the middle of the city centre. sitting on their doorstep in Rue Quatrecht, near Brussels’ North Station. They would leave their money outside their front door, with the certainty that nothing would be stolen. Such was Brussels in those days: crime simply didn’t exist. That street looked like paradise to me. Still, in the beginning, I didn’t have it that easy as I didn’t speak a language that the inhabitants of Brussels understood.

In praise of:

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Eventually, though, I created a new life for myself here. I worked as a cleaner on trains – cleaning 200 carriages a day – in factories, in a nuclear plant – you name it, I cleaned it. When I saw how increasing numbers of people were watching films in bars, I hit upon the idea of doing something with my old love and opened a video store so people could watch films at home. That was in 1983, here in Schaerbeek. Ten years ago, my daughter Serap, who has devoured films ever since she was a child, stepped into help me with the business. The diversity which I first encountered in Eskisehir I found again in Brussels, only amplified a thousand times. What a fantastic mix this city is! I love to walk the streets of Brussels or move about it by public transport. On every journey, I discover something new, even though I have been living here for 25 years now. The city’s diversity is most clearly seen through the variety of cuisine on offer: there’s the Egyptian with his tasty veggie falafel at Flagey, the Greek place on Place de Bethléem, the Turkish pizzerias along Chaussée de Haecht, the Lebanese restaurant right near the Grand’Place. Brussels is also a city which feeds me spiritually. If I’m looking for a book or a film, I am sure to find it here: at Filigranes (39 Avenue des Arts), for example, Tropismes (11 Galerie des Princes), Passa Porta (46 Rue Antoine Dansaert), or maybe at the flea market in the Marolles. As for the screening rooms, from Cinema Nova (3 Rue d’Arenberg) to the Cinematek

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In front of the camera: Süleyman Özdemir, centre, with two of his four children, Serap, left, and Mehmet, outside his video store Hasret (47 Rue Geefs), which also sells film music. “People come here from Brussels, as well from all over the country and even Europe.”

in Bozar (9 Rue Baron Horta), they’re simply wonderful. In 1959, Istanbul’s film archives burnt down – it was arson. Film then was seen as a dangerous medium; filmmakers and actors were viewed as Communists – even when they weren’t politically active and were only, let’s just say, different. Cinema was considered the art form of the resistance. In the decade following the 1980 military coup d’état, many more films disappeared. And because of that, my archive here in Schaerbeek is unique. I have 5,000 Turkish films made between 1960 and the present day, and I also have every Turkish film released on video during the 1980s and ’90s. I am now faced with the problem of how best to conserve these films, so as to preserve them for posterity. Preservation is a problematic and expensive affair. I’ve already digitalised more than a thousand films, but that is only a fraction of my cinematographic archive. I’ve also subtitled some 20 movies into Turkish: international films which effortlessly stand the test of time because they’re so great. Films by Jean Renoir, for instance, as well as Surrealist films by Luis Buñuel, The Mahabharata by Peter Brook, Triumph des Willens by Leni Riefenstahl, the American western Heaven’s Gate, contemporary film Matrubhoomi: A nation without women by Indian Manish Jha, Angel on the Right by Jamshed Usmonov from

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Tajikistan, and Hundstage by Austrian Ulrich Seidl. I looked for editors not only in Turkey, but also in Germany because there’s a Turkish film industry there, but to no avail: the German Turks turned out to have just as closed a mentality as the Turks of Brussels. Too bad that there’s such a lack of interest among Turkish migrants for the Turkish film heritage, because if they don’t cherish their culture, they will lose it. That’s why I find it heart-warming when a young Turk comes into my store and says: ‘We preserve our knowledge of Turkish here in Brussels thanks to the films we rent from your place.’ That is the reason why I do what I do.”  Interview by Veerle Devos & Kristof Dams Image by Veerle Devos

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Brussels identities from A to Z: Nomad  

Süleyman Özdemir was born somewhere on the road in Turkey and during his entire childhood remained unfamiliar with the concept of a fixed a...