‘Peace Envoys’ rekindle a nation’s memory on Children’s Day
İZMİR – Mert ŞUŞUT
“Peace Envoys” is a documentary that tells the stories of four children who met on Turkey’s national Children’s Day 20 years ago. It debuted on the 90th anniversary of the April 23 Children’s Day in the Aegean province of İzmir on April 22.
At the end of the documentary, the entire audience applauded, and there was one thing on everybody’s minds: it reminded them of the April 23 festivals of their childhoods and its bittersweet memories.
Directed by the awarded documentarist and journalist Günel Cantak, the documentary focuses on the stories of the “peace envoys,” children who met around 20 years ago as part of a festival that continues to be held every year on April 23 since 1927.
Speaking to Hürriyet Daily News about his new piece, Cantak said they aimed to break the “stranger” notion.
“We began the project in the middle of last year, but we actually started feeling like we were losing the importance of April 23 Children Day’s in recent years. The festival has had an impact on our generation; your generation and mine. So, when we looked back to the history of the festival, we asked ‘Whose lives has this documentary affected over the years?’ We made a quick decision and came to İzmir’s Gaziemir municipality,” he said.
Cantak drew attention to why he picked the Gaziemir district as the location for his documentary, noting that locals from the district were reputed to welcome children coming from all over the world.
“The Gaziemir district has hosted this festival for 20 years, institutionalizing later over the years. On the other hand, a majority of the Gaziemir locals migrated to nearby regions. They were people who have experienced war. This festival resonates to them as a meeting with their neighbors. This is why we chose Gaziemir,” he said.
“When we came here [İzmir] last year, we met Hayat and Belis. Belis’ family had been hosting Hayat for two years. One day, we came to their house to shoot a part of the documentary; we heard them calling each other ‘sisters.’ If two girls from different countries, who only met twice in two years, were calling each other ‘sisters,’ we believed there was something very precious behind this festival. We admired this ‘sisterhood,’” he said.
‘Sisterhood can break walls in our minds’
“This sisterhood can break walls in our minds. It breaks the stigma of ‘stranger’ and hatred at young ages. We wanted to know whether this could be a step toward peace. And we started to research the children who attended this festival for many years,” he said.
Cantak also spoke about another protagonist in his story, a boy who fled his war-torn country.
“We met Kemal when we were in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He lost his father during the war. One day, he left the house and had not come back. Kemal’s first departure from his city was in 2000. It was his first time in Gaziemir. When he remembered his first time in İzmir, he said ‘I’ve experienced what the normal life is like, what it was like outside war,’” he said.
Children succeed in building friendship bridges: Assassinated envoy Karlov
Cantak recalled the assassination of the Russian envoy to Turkey Andrei Karlov, saying that the late ambassador played a precious part in the documentary.
“We planned to begin shootings last summer. But we had to postpone due to the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. We had the most difficulty during the shootings. But when we were about to visit Russia, Karlov was assassinated. But a significant story about Karlov emerged. He visited the Gaziemir municipality in 2004. Gaziemir was a sister city with Volgograd at the time Mr. Karlov visited the district. He had delivered a peace-themed speech at the opening ceremony of the festival. He said, ‘Children are our future. They start building international friendship bridges at their young ages,’” he said.
The crew eventually made it to Russia.
“We were saddened by his assassination. He was able to build this kind of peaceful relationship amid our visit to his country. But we eventually managed to arrive there,” he added.
The project came to life with a five-person crew. Cantak as the director, Buğra Dedeoğlu as the editor, Ece Sarıyüz as the creator of concept and production, Fevzican Abacıoğlu as the executive producer and researcher and Kadir Saraç as the director of cinematography.
Within the scope of “Peace Envoys,” the crew visited five countries, six cities including İzmir; Baku; Gorazde; Kirkovo; Sofia; Bucharest and Volgograd. A total of 32 people were interviewed as part of the project. Cantak also said they will publish a book about this project.