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‘ALL IN’ is a documentary that tackles the complexi...

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‘ALL IN’ is a documentary that tackles the complexities of tourism

ALL-IN film poster. Image: Volkan Üce

Volkan Üce’s documentary, featured at the recent Encounters Documentary Festival, is a meditation on tourism and hospitality from the perspective of the workers who form the backbone of the industry.

From the outset, ALL-IN is a brilliant montage of bright colours. There are swimming pools of pristine blue, the plastic yellows of slides and tubes, and reds in the shorts and flip flops of the lifeguards: the primary colours of vacation. It’s a world painted in a palette that screams: SUMMER! 

official trailer ALL-IN by Volkan Üce from Cassette for timescapes on Vimeo.

Which makes sense, as the documentary is set in a large beach-side hotel resort in Turkey. We don’t learn many specifics about the resort (its name or where it’s located in Turkey), but it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the hotel has all the tropes of a classic seaside tourist hotspot, complete with water slides and buffet dining.

Like South Africa, Turkey’s tourism industry brings in a significant amount of the nation’s yearly revenue; a 2019 report by the World Tourism Organisation ranked Turkey as the sixth-most popular tourist destination in the world. That being said, resorts like the one seen in ALL-IN are a fairly common sight on the coasts of the nation. 

The visuals in ALL-IN are so gorgeously summer-y that it almost comes as a surprise when the initial dialogue in the documentary unfolds in the form of a job interview. It’s then that we are introduced to our protagonists, Hakan Hoscan (25) and Ismail Dasdögen (18), young men from small villages who have come to work at the resort for the summer. 

Hakan, hired as a lifeguard, is thoughtful, philosophical, and suffers from social anxiety, a “phobia” that he hopes he can cure through working at the hotel. He dreams of learning English and moving to the US to make a film. When he unpacks his bags onto the bottom bed of one of the bunks that are stacked like sardines in the workers’ dorm room, he pulls out books by Freud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Dostoyevsky. He likes to talk to his colleagues about the improbability of God and nihilism.

“The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: a tourist is an ugly human being.”

Ismail is also shy, but it’s a timidness that seems to stem from his youth. He tells the human resources manager in his interview that he used to be a hairdresser and he needs to support his family; he is quick to smile, a hard worker… And is hired as a kitchen porter. 

In the next hour or so we witness the summer that Ismail and Hakan endure, an experience that is in stark contrast to the promises of freedom and relaxation that the bright, shiny façade of the holiday resort implies. This is not a film about a carefree summer vacation. It’s not about vacation at all, it’s about the hard work and mental stamina that it takes to be an employee at a holiday hotspot.

One of the major successes of ALL-IN is its subversion of the status quo. The labour that is usually invisible (chefs/lifeguards/cleaners, etc) become the central characters: they are the stars of the documentary. The tourists who do feature in the documentary fade into the background, serving almost exclusively as plot devices, or intriguing parts of the scenery. We rarely see their facial features, but rather watch their hands as they pile inordinate amounts of food onto their plates, or the red lumpiness of their bodies as they lie, burning, next to the pool that Hakan cleans. We listen to a mother (off-screen) who screams at a cringing Hakan that her child is not getting a fair turn on the limited number of boats. We watch a belly dancing class from a distance, the blonde-braided children and their mother, making a rhythmless and hobbled mess of the traditional Arabic dance style. There are scenes of hotel employees in shirts that read “CAN I HELP YOU?” scraping piles of cake, noodles, pasta, steak, ice-cream (etc, etc) into already bulging rubbish bins. 

“The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: a tourist is an ugly human being,” wrote Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid in her controversial creative non-fiction work, A Small Place. 

“You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily […] an ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that.” 

While Kincaid’s take may seem harsh, it rings true in conversation with Üce’s documentary. In comparison with the hard-working, philosophising, fully developed main characters, the tourists in ALL-IN are almost grotesque in their exorbitance and greed. 

It seems unfair (we don’t know who the tourists are, they could be fantastic individuals. The documentary doesn’t give us any time to understand them or develop connections to their characters.) That is until we remember that the roles are usually reversed. 

Here lies the crux of the matter: being a tourist is a rare luxury. 

In many mainstream films set in hotel resorts (think Crazy Rich Asians, Just Go With It, Grown Ups, The Beach, It’s Complicated, Sex and the City… the list goes on), we only see traces that hotel staff leave behind (room service, sparkling-clean bathrooms, a made bed in the morning), or fleeting glimpses of them as they set extravagant meals on tables.

But seen through the stories of Hakan and Ismail, working in the tourism industry is gruelling, especially when the people you serve are often on their worst behaviour. Vacation is a time for holidaymakers to let loose, after all, isn’t it? All rules go out the window when you’re on holiday. It’s the one time that you allow yourself to have dessert after every dinner, to get drunk on the beach and flirt with the other tourists, to wake up at noon and let someone else clean your messes. 

Shouldn’t everybody be allowed to let loose once in a while? 

That’s exactly what Ismail and some of his colleagues discuss over a shared hookah. An older colleague says: “You slowly adapt [to the resort] and then you also want to go on a holiday […] Everyone has a right to go on vacation. We do too.” Another employee pipes in: “We cannot do what they [the foreign tourists] do, but I want that too. I would love to live abroad.” 

Here lies the crux of the matter: being a tourist is a luxury. For the most part, especially in countries like Turkey (and South Africa, for that matter), where wealth disparities are glaring, the staff working at hotels and resorts are poor. Like Ismail, many of them are struggling to support their families. A “vacation” is simply out of the question. 

As Kincaid puts it: “Every native everywhere would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives of the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor.” 

In one scene, Ismail and his friend sneak into the resort after their working hours. They watch the tourists sing karaoke and go for a midnight swim in one of the pools when nobody’s looking. Ismail says to his friend and to the camera crew: “Be careful. If the security guards see us, they’ll throw us out.”

Questions of mobility and access come to the fore: which bodies are allowed into which spaces? Who has access to rest and relaxation? Who has the means and ability to travel for leisure’s sake? 

It’s an unfortunate truth that most citizens of the Global North (West) are afforded far more access to holiday destinations in the Global South, both logistically and monetarily, than the other way around. Tourists from economically stable parts of the world go to hubs like the Caribbean, South Africa or Turkey specifically because they are so cheap. These low prices are possible, at least in part, because of underpaid labour. The average hourly rate of a Turkish lifeguard is about R34, whereas a lifeguard working in Nice, France earns about R171. Which holiday destination can afford lower prices? 

Money aside, just getting to certain parts of the world is much more difficult for many citizens of the Global South. If you have a South African passport you know that the process of applying for a visa to go on holiday in Europe or America costs more than R1,000, and that it is a drawn-out logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. It’s necessary to provide proof of financial stability, birth certificates, a valid reason for visiting, proof of accommodation. EU, UK and US citizens, on the other hand, can waltz right into South Africa/Turkey/the Caribbean with no visa at all. 

That being said, large numbers of the population in Turkey depend on foreign tourists and the tourism industry for jobs. In 2019, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s annual Economic Impact Report showed that the country’s tourism industry supported more than 2.6 million jobs, nearly a 10th (9.4%) of the country’s total workforce. 

In 2019, 8.9% of South Africa’s population were dependent on jobs in travel and tourism, so this is a familiar story for us. The onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the nation just how much we lean on the industry: the dwindling number of tourists has devastated many South African livelihoods. 

The same can be said for Turkey, and Hakan and Ismail are just two men among many who share this experience. To answer the aforementioned question: everybody deserves a holiday, sure, but many simply cannot have one. In light of these imbalances, it’s no wonder that Western tourists are portrayed as disturbingly wasteful and grotesquely opulent.    

Instead of seeing these imbalances as unfair or unjust, Ismail and some of his colleagues simply want to be on the other side – they have an overblown sense of the foreign tourists, they want to be them. 

In one scene Ismail says to Hakan: “I love foreign countries […] people are nice […] I love Turkey but it’s nicer over there. People are beautiful and considerate.” It’s important to remember that Ismail has had little to no sincere and sustained contact with any foreigners who are shown in the documentary. He cannot speak English, French or Russian, so it is safe to assume he knows very little about what life is actually like in the foreign countries he longs for. “If the guests are so happy here, who knows how happy they are in their own countries.” 

Unlike Ismail, Hakan grows more and more sceptical of the European and Russian tourists he encounters over the summer. He responds to Ismail: “Considerate? In the hotel? You should be more in touch with people then you will see. In the beginning you have specific ideas. For example, learning your job. After a while you will master your job and you begin to notice other things. Only then you notice injustice. If someone is rude to you, it hurts.” He explains to the younger man: “Put yourself in my position. I’m 25. If someone is arrogant to me, then I can’t bear it.” 

Hakan seems to see these injustices with a glaring (and rather depressing) clarity. He understands that there is a major power imbalance going on, and that he is on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to the tourists he serves at the hotel. This gets to him, and he becomes depressed, wasting away his money gambling and losing all lust for life. 

Initially totally taken by the literature and philosophy of the Western canon, Hakan becomes disillusioned with the foreign tourists. “I no longer have any sympathy for Russians,” he tells Ismail later in the documentary. “When I just arrived here the Russians seemed much better to me. I only knew Russians from books. We call this phenomenon Dostoyevsky-titus.”

While everybody suffers in their own way, some suffer from places of power and others from places of powerlessness

The discordance between Hakan’s depressing clarity and Ismail’s naivete dances around another tension explored in the documentary: it’s clear that the way the tourism industry works is skewed and unjust, but does it have to be this way? Is there a way to escape this system, or should one simply give in and try to enjoy the ride? 

In a moment of astounding harmony, Hakan explains the concept behind the film that he would like to make in the US to a fellow employee while the documentary footage cuts to visuals of tourists lounging and exercising by the pool. 

The concept centres on a house with five levels, or, if the house were a person, the levels would be similar to epiphanies. Five epiphanies, five transitions to a new level.

The first level is like childhood, “the person is someone who believes he can change the world. An innocent,” Hakan explains. In level two, the person starts to doubt that they can change the world, they are “coming to their senses”. It’s in level three that the person gives up. “He’s a nihilist. He sees no meaning in life.” 

“Since my start here [at the resort], I went through these three stages,” says Hakan. “When I arrived, I thought I could meet like-minded people and fit in. That was my hope. Later, hope turned to suspicion. The suspicion didn’t last long and now I have no expectations.”

Hakan’s disenchantment crystallizes in his exit interview at the end of the summer. He tells the HR manager that he is never coming back because “I feel like I have lost myself here, I think I turned into a superficial person. I’m like an object, just doing my job. Like an automaton. If one is always in this setting one starts to see oneself through their [the tourists’] eyes. Rather than being an individual, I’m just a piece of the system.” 

The HR manager’s response brings Hakan up short: “You don’t want to be a slave of the system. I see that. But… there is no system. You don’t see this. The customers also have lives. And they pay certain prices to live them.” 

In a sense, it’s true. Everybody, whether a wealthy tourist from Europe or a poor Turkish lifeguard, has trials and tribulations, pains and depressions. A rude tourist may be mourning the death of a loved one, or a broken heart. They might have family problems or an overly stressful job. We all have our own cross to bear, whatever forms they may come in, and it’s useless to try to compare them.

However, while everybody suffers in their own way, some suffer from places of power and others from places of powerlessness. A tourist has the power to escape their day-to-day stresses. The strain that Hakan endures because of his poverty and his thankless job cannot be escaped. He is stuck. 

This is illustrated especially when, a year after this interview (after insisting that he will never come back) Hakan returns to work at the resort. He is not happy about it. “In this environment, one can’t protect his virtue,” he tells Ismail, who has also come back to work for the summer. But his need for money trumps his disdain, as it tends to do. He has not managed to escape the system.

While global dynamics often seem bleak, uncontrollable and utterly unjust, we still have one another.

Despite tackling these heavy issues, ALL-IN is not a dark film. Üce handles the footage gently and with grace. The most beautiful parts of the documentary feature brotherly love between the employees, who support and care for one another. He emphasises Hakan’s kindness and his witty, dark sense of humour (“should we commit suicide?” he asks Ismail, looking down on the street from a rooftop, “have you ever committed suicide before?”), and Ismail’s quick laughter and happy-go-lucky attitude. The men are extremely likeable and fun. They have intelligent, engaging conversations, and while watching them interact, one desperately wants to be their friend, to be a part of the group.

In the final scene of ALL-IN, Hakan and Ismail sit together on a platform on the edge of a lake whose surface shines in the golden light of the clear evening. They are fishing, and Hakan puts his arm around Ismail to take a selfie. It’s a moment of pure human connection, and it is perfect. It reminds audiences that while global dynamics often seem bleak, uncontrollable and utterly unjust, we still have one another. We still have person-to-person human connection. We can (and should) still share beautiful tender moments of love and kindness with each other, no matter what. 

In a hopeful twist earlier in the documentary, Hakan’s friend asks him a question about the film he longs to make: if the third level is giving up, what of the final levels, the fourth and fifth levels of the house? Hakan says: “I don’t know. One needs to overcome nihilism.” While Hakan has no clear answers about how he is going to move past his depression, he also believes that he will overcome his despondence, he just needs to figure out how. 

Perhaps we can apply this logic to the conundrum of the tourism industry: the injustices of the system seem too big and complex to fix for now, but simply knowing about them (and feeling the wrongness of them) puts us in the uncomfortable, ambiguous but potentially ultimately productive position of trying to think our way out of them. DM/ML

Visit the film’s website to find out about upcoming screenings.


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