Still from the film Bağlar by Berke Baş and Melis Birder. Photo via

Building Hope with Bonds

On ‘Bağlar’: A documentary film by Berke Baş and Melis Birder

update on 20 August 2016: the film just received a Special Jury Mention at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

In Turkish, the word “bağ” means “bond” or “tie”. Used in plural, it becomes a “relationship” as in “aile bağları” — “family ties”. A word in plural for a story with multiple layers: Bağlar is also the name of a district of Diyarbakır, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city. Bağlar is where filmmakers Berke Baş and Melis Birder take us to document a poignant and inspiring story, and it is the title they chose to tell it.

Diyarbakır (Amed in Kurdish) is at the center of decades long clashes between the Turkish State and the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party) — decades of violence, pain and trauma: the so-called “Kurdish issue”. As I write these words aimed at praising this documentary film I watched at the Sarajevo Film Festival, I also read the disturbing news that newspaper Özgür Gündem has been closed down, and its journalists and staff arrested in a brutal way, “for conducting alleged propaganda on behalf of the outlawed PKK”. Another sad reminder of how important a film like Bağlar is.

Still from the film Bağlar by Berke Baş and Melis Birder. Photo via

Bağlar chronicles a 3-year period in the life of a basketball team, in which we follow coach Gökhan Yıldırım’s efforts to reach to the national league, while a whole community tries to survive in a politically charged environment. “This is a war… A war for these kids, a war for you, a war for Diyarbakır!” shouts 37 year old coach to his players during a basketball game. Yıldırım is a primary school teacher and with the help of the Bağlar Municipality, he has created a sports club in order to offer an alternative vision for hundreds of young boys and girls who would otherwise be stuck with “the sad destiny of the East.”

Curator of the Documentary Film programme at Sarajevo Film Festival, Rada Šešić (left) moderates the Q&A with directors Berke Baş and Melis Birder

During the Q&A following the film screening in Sarajevo, co-director Berke Baş shared the reaction of a viewer after the film had been screened in Diyarbakır. This woman told Baş and Birder that she never realised the struggle was also carried by these young boys playing basketball, adding that she, like other Kurdish dissidents, thought their fight only happened in the streets, inside jail cells, at protests and hunger strikes. And this is indeed what Bağlar clearly shows us: resistance happens on many different levels within society, including in sports. This ties into my own beliefs that resisting oppression, and that civic movements protesting undemocratic practices require a long process that can manifest itself through the arts and culture. A cultural realisation itself, the film highlights the role sports can play in places where conflict and political turmoil dominate. These ties are key to trigger change, and I strongly believe they can, even if slowly.

Still from the film Bağlar by Berke Baş and Melis Birder. Photo via

Bağlar very well balances hope and conflict, as we experience it through the eyes of the coach and his team, that are filmed with care and affection by Baş and Birder. I see this film as a wish: for better bonds, for non violent ties, for a humane relationship between Kurdish and Turkish communities. These kids don’t give up in the face of defeat — be it political or sportive. Their drive to continue the struggle is kept alive, despite of all the challenges they face daily. This is what makes this film hopeful. This is also what makes “bağlar” necessary, today more than ever.

Director: Berke Baş, Melis Birder 
Screenplay: Berke Baş, Melis Birder 
Director of Photography: Berke Baş, Melis Birder and Zeynel Doğan 
Editor: Melis Birder 
Music: Sam Miille, Miser, Diskking and Cityboy, Sersem MC and Deniz Bolayır 
Sound: Berke Baş, Melis Birder and Zeynel Doğan 
Producer: Berke Baş and Melis Birder 
Production: inHouse projects