Istanbul United (2014)

Brave souls unite behind football in ‘Istanbul United’ (2014)

No words can adequately describe the courage and madness in fighting a government’s violence against its people. To understand this, you must watch it unfold. To see how football fans influenced the 2013 Gezi protest in Turkey, watch a few videos as the protests began. And then watch Istanbul United. And then watch Ayaktakimi.

For those who missed this when it happened (as I did), the Gezi Park protest started as a peaceful Occupy movement. Young people occupied the park to prevent its destruction for construction of a shopping mall, dictated by Erdogan. On May 31, 2013, the government used police force, water cannons, and tear gas to disperse the protestors. The protestors continued to resist, and they were bolstered when they were joined by Ultra supporter groups from the 3 rival clubs: Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe.

Feuding supporters groups unite under one cause

twitter photo of Istanbul United movement

Rousing photos of the unified supporters proclaimed them to be “Istanbul United”, in defiance against Erdogan. The photos caught the eye of Directors Faire Eslam and Oliver Weldhauer, who literally dropped what they were doing and traveled to Gezi Park to capture the moment from a football perspective.

“Shoulder to shoulder against Fascism” 

– supporter chant

The Directors start with intimate and honest interviews of members of each supporters group. The ultras come across as regular guys who are casual in their historical hate of their rivals. On the streets or in the stands, the ultra groups would be happy to fight, beat up, and even kill their rivals. They scream horribly offensive chants and curses at each other.

Istanbul United - Ayhan Guner

So when such mortal enemies unite against the oppressive government, it fortifies the Gezi protestors. Plus, it greatly helps that the Ultras know how to wage resistance: they can handle flares and tear gas. Plus, they are organized, and they lead rousing, taunting good cheers, such as:

Come on and shoot! Come on and shoot!
Come and shoot us with your tear gas
Take off your helmet
Put away your baton
And we will see who is the real man

How the documentary was made

Eslam and Weldhauer took their initial footage, made a trailer, and started an indiegogo campaign to complete the film. They also incorporated cell phone videos from an internet archive (that no longer seems to exist, although there were remnants at the website everywheretaksim, however that site seems to have been taken down after the Jun-25-2018 Turkish election that reaffirmed Erdogan’s autocracy). Put together, the footage in Istanbul United is extraordinary and emotionally persuasive. However, there is little explanation of what is going on.

I could never really figure out the timeline of the footage, and it could be that much is not shown in sequence as it occurred. At the end, the film crew returns to the stadium at the beginning of the following season, as if to imply that the supporters groups have simply returned to rivalry as usual. But I actually wasn’t sure what was meant.

There is not much soccer in this film, but you get a real feeling for what it means to be an Ultra in Turkey. If you want a film that makes you proud to be a football or soccer supporter, this is the film to own.

How soccer explains the world

To understand how ‘soccer explains the world’ in Turkey, here is my recommended reading/watching assignment, in this order:

  • Vice story with host Milène Larsson, showing the early violence over May 31 to June 1, 2013
  • Istanbul United
  • 32-minute documentary by Brandon Jourdan. Produced in Aug-2013, it covers the background of the park resistance and explains the movement as it progressed. Its coverage is more analytical and less emotional. It briefly covers the unity of the supporters groups, and it ends with positivity on the short-term aftermath of Gezi.
  • Ayaktakimi covers the intermediate-term aftermath of the protests: the arrest of Besiktas supporters, banning of fans from stadiums, and the creation of a pass system that identifies fans while generating income for Erdogan’s family.

For summaries of the Gezi uprising and the long-term effects, read these explanatory articles published around the uprising’s 4th anniversary:

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8


Updated on Jun-25-2018 to remove the reference to the everywheretaksim website.