Censorship and sensibility: Turkey's arthouse directors face growing crackdown
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is widely hailed as the reigning master of Turkish cinema. The auteur's latest languid character study, The Wild Pear Tree, received critical acclaim and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, a prize he previously won for 2014’s Chekhovian drama, Winter Sleep.
But Ceylan now has competition, as a promising new generation of Turkish filmmakers is stepping out from under his shadow and receiving their own critical success.
'This new generation is trying to open a new way for Turkish cinema'
- Kıvanc Sezer
“In the last 10 years, directors doing their first, second and third films, are starting to get acclaim at festivals. This new generation is trying to open a new way for Turkish cinema,” said Kıvanc Sezer, whose own debut film, My Father’s Wings, received much praise both at home and abroad in 2016.
Thirty-seven-year-old Tolga Karacelik’s dark comedy, Butterflies, became the first Turkish film to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year, after having been nominated for the same award for 2015’s slow-burning psychological thriller, Ivy.
Emin Alper, whose sophomore film, the dystopian Frenzy, won Venice’s Jury Special Prize in 2015, competed for the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February with his pastoral family drama, A Tale of Three Sisters.
But for all of the success overseas, these art-house filmmakers are facing major obstacles at home.
Political risks include censorship and a lack of state funding - crucial for independent films - for directors who are not friendly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and, increasingly, jail sentences.
Turkey has a long history predating the current government of censoring various art forms, but prison sentences for filmmakers have taken the phenomenon to an unprecedented level.
Sezer says Turkish and Kurdish filmmakers are used to censorship, but over the last five years, it has been getting progressively worse.
Self-censoring and boycotts
“I think this is one step further,” he said. “If you put someone in jail… it’s a kind of warning for others to self-censor.”
Kaya says the current uptick in censorship can be traced back to a specific date. “It all started with Antalya.”
At the next year’s festival, director Karacelik dedicated an award for Ivy to prominent journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, who were on trial for espionage and terrorist propaganda after reporting on illegal Turkish weapons shipments to militants in Syria.
Nadir Sarıbacak, an actor who won an award for Ivy, was also cut off during an acceptance speech at the same festival by a pro-government television network when he said, “I’m concerned for my country.”
Two years later, Antalya mayor Menderes Turel, of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had the national film categories - Turkish feature-length films, short films, and documentaries - cancelled, resulting in permanent boycotts from all of Turkey’s cinema associations and unions.
Don't talk about the PKK
Meanwhile, in 2015, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism barred North, a documentary about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), hours before it was to be shown - though the film has been screened in festivals around the world. This again resulted in mass boycotts from prominent Turkish directors, including Ceylan. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its NATO allies.
The film’s creators, award-winning Kurdish director Cayan Demirel and veteran journalist Ertugrul Mavioglu, are currently on trial for “disseminating terrorist propaganda” and are facing up to seven years in prison.
In February, Kurdish director Veysi Altay was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, charges related to New Life, his documentary about the Islamic State (IS) group's siege of Kobani in northern Syria in late 2014.
'Anything you do about the Kurdish issue, anything with the word ‘Kurd’ in it gets a backlash from the government'
- Kazım Oz
The documentary was a rare look at the siege from inside the Kurdish Syrian town, mostly from the perspective of female fighters in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female version of the PKK’s Syrian branch.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a decision like this,” said Kurdish director Kazım Oz, who’s also facing terrorism-related charges. Oz’s last film, Zer, had scenes showing the state-perpetuated massacre during the Dersim Rebellion in 1938 cut.
According to Oz, there’s a lot of pressure on any filmmaker dealing with the Kurdish issue in particular. “Anything you do about the Kurdish issue, anything with the word ‘Kurd’ in it gets a backlash from the government, especially recently.”
Ayse Cetinbas, the wife of director Demirel and producer of North, says her husband has roots in Tunceli, also known by its Kurdish name Dersim. The region, long oppressed by the Turkish state, is populated mostly by Zaza Alevi Kurds, marginalised for their ethnicity, religion and their leftist, Kurdish nationalist political beliefs.
“It’s not a coincidence that Cayan is dealing with these kinds of topics,” Cetinbas said. “He’s a Kurdish man who grew up with all these political tensions. In 1938, 55 of his family members were killed in the [Dersim] massacre.”
She says most Turkish people still don’t know about the issues she and her husband have made films about. “I’m interested in taboo issues in this country because someone has to tell the stories, but it’s really hard.”
And Cetinbas says it’s only getting harder. “A lot of filmmaker friends have left the country because it’s just not possible to live and work here anymore.”
New Life director Altay says documentary filmmaking is meant to be critical and challenging. “My job is to make the state uncomfortable. If the work I’m doing isn’t accomplishing that, then we have a problem,” he said.
History of censorship
Altay says there’s a long history of censorship and oppression of Kurdish culture in Turkey, but stresses that it’s not just against Kurds. “Kurds are especially targeted, but not only Kurds. It’s also anyone who falls outside the official state ideology.”
Director Sezer says many independent filmmakers find themselves on what he calls a “blacklist”, unable to get ministry funding. “They tend to reject films that have directors or producers who are controversial, who tweet something anti-government.”
In January 2016, 433 filmmakers signed a petition supporting the so-called Academics for Peace, who themselves signed a petition calling for resolving the conflict in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeast. Many of the academics are now on trial with terrorism charges.
At least 4,280 people have been killed since the resumption of a 40-year war after a ceasefire was broken in 2015.
'My job is to make the state uncomfortable. If the work I’m doing isn’t accomplishing that, then we have a problem'
- Veysi Altay
Film critic Kaya says even two of the brightest new stars of Turkish art house cinema, directors Karacelik and Alper, were not able to get funding for recent films. “Everybody knows it’s because they signed the petition,” she said.
Filmmakers also worry about a new cinema bill coming into effect this July that will create a committee having the power to prevent films deemed "inappropriate" from being released.
“It’s pretty obvious where it’s going,” Kaya said. “It will be all pro-AKP, pro-government filmmakers.”
Controversial subjects in the arts have also been censored. The capital Ankara has banned the public showing of LGBTI films or exhibitions, and the television series Modern Family has had episodes banned for showing children born out of wedlock.
Government circles have long decried their inability to dominate high culture, including art-house films, which tend to come from more secular-minded artists who do not support President Erdogan.
“Politically ruling is one thing. Socially and culturally ruling is another thing entirely. We’ve been in power for 14 years but we still have problems with ruling in the social and cultural field,” Erdogan said in 2017, and he has made similar statements more recently.
“Of course there are filmmakers who have more conservative or nationalist ideas, which they use in their films, but very few of them have managed to have festival success,” Sezer said.
On top of the political pressures, there are also economic obstacles, such as “a really monstrous monopoly,” in the film industry, said Kaya, who co-directed a documentary outlining the problems.
A few huge companies with little interest in art-house films dominate production, distribution and exhibition. As a result, Frenzy was only shown on 25 of 2,300 screens in Turkey, and Ivy on just 16.
South Korea-owned Mars Entertainment, which owns 34 per cent of movie theater seats (884 theatres) in Turkey, serving 44 per cent of the audience, declined to comment.
“This new generation doesn’t have the means to get recognised by the audience in Turkey,” Kaya said.
In addition to filmmakers, other sectors of the arts have also been crushed under the heavy hand of the state. Theatre actors, artists, and many singers have recently been given prison sentences on political charges.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism declined to comment for this story, but ministry head Mehmet Nuri Ersoy told BBC Turkish in February that he found the concerns over censorship "groundless".
"Looking back over the past five years, thousands of movies have been screened and only three of them were banned - those that had pornographic content," he said.
But for the artists who have been hard hit by the chilly atmosphere, this is far from the truth. “In the end, the cultural sector is dissolving, be it through censorship, be it through oppressive mechanisms, or be it just through financial problems,” said Kaya.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.