Gutsy Turkish Villagers Stand Up to Destructive Dams

'Sudaki Suretler' trailer/Video screen capture
Anti-dam protesters in Turkey. The signs the women are carrying read "No to HES [hydroelectric power plants]."

"We used to wake up with the sound of birds, and then one day we woke up to the sound of machines," says a villager in Kastamonu's Loç Valley, a lush green part of Turkey's Black Sea region where up to six dams are planned for 15 kilometers of river. All told, the Turkish government aims to build more than 1,700 dams and hydroelectric power plants across the country, a plan activists say would decimate Turkey's rivers.

Despite the impact of the dams on the environment and rural communities, anyone who speaks out against them is dismissed or branded as a traitor, local residents of villages targeted for construction told the makers of the new documentary Sudaki Suretler (Figures in the Water).

Pressure To Sell Homes, Stop Protesting
The country's environment minister said people who object to the dams are "stupid people," a resident of the Black Sea province of Trabzon says angrily. Pointing to the area's denuded hillsides, he demands, "Show us the stupidity!" In other villages, people are pressured by on-the-take local officials to sell their homes for cheap and move out of the path of the dam. In the Mediterranean province of Antalya, a local imam tells people not to protest lest Turkey be left in the dark: "Electricity comes first."

But defiant residents continue to stage protests against dams and hydroelectric power plants, known as HEPPs or HES, after the Turkish acronym. They take turns camping out at building sites, signaling with drums to summon reinforcements if construction vehicles try to enter, and getting arrested in showdowns with the local gendarmerie.

Uniting Resistance Through Film
Unlike another recent Turkish anti-dam film, A Few Brave People, which focused on one Black Sea valley, Sudaki Suretler crisscrosses quickly across the country, and its similar tales repeated in different places risk bogging the film down.

'Sudaki Suretler' trailer/Video screen capture
Dam construction in Turkey.

Director Erkal Tulek says, however, that the repetition was intentional. "We were becoming aware of the [anti-dam] resistance all over the country, but [these groups] were not aware of each other," he told TreeHugger in an interview following a screening of his movie at the Sustainable Living Film Festival in Istanbul. "The idea was to make a film to collect all of [these stories] and help people see what happens in other places."

All Peoples Affected
Some of the impact may be lost on non-Turkish audiences, Tulek admits. "When we worked on the recordings, we saw the different styles of people's cultures, dialects, and accents. The same problems are affecting different people, not just Turks, Kurds, Laz, or Hemshin," he said, referring to different ethnic groups in Turkey.

The director also explained why he decided to keep the film nearly devoid of details about the different dam projects alluded to in the movie, a choice that makes it feel lacking in context at times. "HES is something that is not clear for these people, so [we decided to make it] not clear in the film as well. When these people open their windows and see machinery there, they wonder, what is it? Is it good? Is it bad?" Tulek said. "We wanted to make a film in which you come to understand the HES issue little by little."

'We Have To Show The Hope'
Most segments of Sudaki Suretler end with defiant statements by local residents. Does this risk leaving the viewer with an overly optimistic picture of the difficult fight against dams?

"The majority are not fighting. That is why we have to show the hope to be alive," Tulek said. "With the new laws passed [making it easier to build dams in natural areas], the government has no obstacles in front of them except the resistance of the people."

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Tags: Activism | Dams | Documentaries | Movies | Turkey

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