Current state of filmmaking in Turkey

Between hope and despair. After the recent elections, said to strengthen president Erdoğan's position further, Berke Göl reports on censorship in Turkish festivals and theatres.



Following his grandmother's death, Jan, a young man born in Paris and raised in New York, visits his father’s homeland, Turkey, for the first time. As he looks for the origins of the song his grandmother sang to him, the journey takes him to Dersim, a Zaza (Kurdish) city in Eastern Turkey. Walking around the town square, Jan comes across old photographs commemorating The Dersim Massacre, where Zazas rebelled against the Turkish State in 1938. Thousands of them were killed by the government troops. As he moves closer to a certain photograph, the screen goes black without warning, though the soundtrack is still audible.

The title reads: «You cannot view this scene because the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism's Supervisory Board of Directorate General of Cinema finds it inappropriate.»

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Following a brief moment of surprise, the audience at Istanbul's Atlas Theatre starts to applaud to show solidarity with the film’s creators. Later in the film, the same thing happens once again, this time slightly longer, and the spectators applaud once again.

The film in question is Zer (2017) by acclaimed director Kazım Öz, competing for the Golden Tulip at the national competition of the 36th Istanbul Film Festival last April. The incident is the latest in the long and toilsome history of cinema’s battle against censorship in Turkey. Times change, the conditions change, but there is always an excuse for censorship. At any given time it is possible to find countless incidents where the state restricts the filmmakers' freedom of expression. However, it is safe to say that a relatively «liberal» period is now over and such cases have increased significantly during the last few years, as the government turned to increasingly more authoritarian and oppressive policies in the aftermath of the Gezi Resistance in the summer of 2013.

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In October 2014, Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek (Love Will Change the Earth), a documentary about the Gezi movement (dir. Reyan Tuvi) that was chosen by the selection committee of the Antalya Film Festival to compete in the documentary competition, was removed from the program, possibly due to pressure by the government (or perhaps self-censorship by the festival administration). Supposedly, a certain graffiti that briefly appears in a scene included an insult to the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and hence was a violation of the Turkish Penal Law. Filmmakers and critics demanded that the film be included in the program, in line with the committee’s initial decision. When that demand was rejected by the festival administration, a strong reaction sprang up culminating in an organised protest of all the documentary filmmakers withdrawing their films from the festival, causing the documentary competition to be cancelled altogether. To this day, Antalya Film Festival has not organised any national documentary competition.

A few months later, in April 2015, a very similar incident occurred at Istanbul Film Festival. The screening of Bakur (North, dir. Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu), a documentary about the daily lives of PKK guerrillas during the ‹Peace Process›, was cancelled at the last minute. The Festival declared that the film was not going to be screened because the producers failed to provide the official registration document given by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, though previously this document was never required for festival screenings of domestic films. Forum discussions on how to handle the situation were quickly organised by filmmakers, there were declarations of solidarity and protests, but in the end, the film was restricted from reaching the audiences, save for in smaller independent festivals that dared to resist the state pressure, and in certain special screenings.

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Since then, there have been many other occasions where films were banned, screenings were cancelled, and permissions were denied. The state has more and more taken it on itself to hinder artistic freedom. Gradually, censorship has become perhaps the most important problem occupying the very centre of cultural life in Turkey.

Filmmakers for Peace

The international success the cinema of Turkey enjoyed during the mid-2000s owes a great deal (among other things) to the support provided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Following a certain legislation that was enacted in 2004, many feature films, documentaries and shorts have been partially financed by the state. Although the structure of the selection committee was always a source of controversy and the way the support mechanism functioned was heavily criticised, state support certainly helped aspiring filmmakers to get their films made. Eurimages, the main European cinema support fund, requires projects to be domestically supported in order to be eligible for application, so state support proved crucial in terms of getting projects started. During this period, the annual film production in Turkey multiplied, domestic films increased their share at the box office (though, this obviously was the case for popular comedies and horror films rather than independent films), and many young directors earned international acclaim with their works. However, the doubts regarding the funding mechanism have increased in light of recent events, and criticism intensified.

In January 2016, some two thousand academics signed a petition, demanding the government to stop ongoing military operations in the country’s eastern provinces, mainly populated by the Kurdish minority. The ‹Peace Process› between the government and the PKK had officially come to an end following the June 2015 elections and full-scale hostilities had begun again. For signing and circulating the petition, the ‹Academics for Peace› were accused of «advocating terrorism» by state officials, and soon they faced criminal charges. Some of them have received threats, many lost their jobs, and some have been jailed. Filmmakers were among the first group to show solidarity with the academics. About four hundred filmmakers immediately signed a petition declaring their support for the academics’ demands. The response from the government came early in 2017, as all projects by the signatories of that petition were denied state funding. Among those not supported were award-winning directors like Emin Alper, whose Abluka (Frenzy, 2015) won the Special Jury Prize in Venice, and Tolga Karaçelik, whose Sarmaşık (Ivy, 2015) competed in Sundance. Kurdish helmers like Erol Mintaş, who received the Best Film Prize in Sarajevo Film Festival with his feature debut Annemin Şarkısı (Song of My Mother, 2014), and Rezan Yeşilbaş, who won Palme d'Or for Best Short Film with Be Deng (Silent) in 2012, did not receive funding either. Although the government made no official statement on the issue, the word is that there is a ‹blacklist› of ‹Filmmakers for Peace› and that they will never receive government support for their projects under any circumstances from now on.

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As a protest against the criminalisation of filmmakers and the increasing pressure on artistic freedom, filmmakers from Turkey issued a call for solidarity at this year’s Berlinale. They said, «Academics and civil servants who call for peace have been removed and banned from their public service positions. Journalists and politicians have been arrested and put in prison. Filmmakers took their share from this pressure by being blacklisted and their artistic facilities have been subjected to heavy constraints. We, the filmmakers of Turkey, who came together at the 67th Berlin Film Festival, repeat our very first call for peace.» As of April 2017, the ‹Filmmakers for Peace› is also under investigation.

Bleak picture

The circumstances in the cultural scene certainly paint a bleak picture. The last couple of years saw the country return to armed conflict between the state and the PKK; the hope for peace that once seemed in arm’s reach diminished. As of December 2016, Turkey has become the top jailor of journalists in the world. Hundreds of politicians are in prison. The failed coup attempt in July 2016 was utilized by president Erdoğan to further increase his powers. Since then, the country is in a constant state of emergency, being ruled principally by executive orders. Most recently, the constitutional referendum of April 16 (the results of which have been disputed by objective analysts and refused by the opposition, due to the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council illegally allowed more than 1.5 million non-stamped ballots to be accepted as valid) is likely to grant the president even more power. It would be unrealistic to expect the cultural sphere to remain immune to all this political turmoil.

Currently, it seems independent filmmakers, socialists, Kurds, those critical of the government – basically anyone who falls outside the state's definition of the «good citizen» will have a much harder time financing their films, and it will be even more difficult to screen their works. Kazım Öz's was an innovative method of exposing censorship, turning the weapon of censorship against itself. However pretty soon it became clear that this could not be a sustainable method of protest: When Zer was theatrically released the following week, those ‹blackened› scenes were asked to be removed altogether. The authorities made sure that there was no sign of censorship – or they would refuse to provide the ‹official registration document›, which is a legal requirement for theatrical release.

Orhan Eskiköy, whose film Taş (Stone) also competed at Istanbul Film Festival, said in a recent interview, «Making this film, I tried to act as freely as possible, and to try anything I wanted. Because, I told myself, it is quite possible that I will not be able to make films any longer.» Such seems to be the shared feeling of independent filmmakers in Turkey. It is certainly very easy to fall into despair due to the increasing social, political, financial, and legal pressure on artists. Nevertheless, history reminds us that new methods of struggle, new ways of artistic expression are out there, waiting to be discovered.

Av Berke Göl 3 maj 2017