On February 22, Serra Ciliv, director of the !f Istanbul independent film festival appeared before a packed house at the Fitaş Cinema and announced that, for the first time in the program’s 13 years they would be accepting latecomers to a screening. “As you know, the events outside have made it more difficult than normal for people to arrive on time, so we ask your patience and cooperation.”
The “events outside” included phalanx upon phalanx of police using tear gas, pepper spray, plastic bullets, and water canons to wrest control of Istanbul’s famous pedestrian artery, Istiklal Street, from the thousands of demonstrators who had gathered to protest a new internet law. Among their complaints: censorship, surveillance, media meddling, and corruption. These concerns had been duly summarized in the government-friendly press as gripes from the “porn lobby,” a term which had an uncanny ring on that evening, as the film being played over the coughs of tear-gassed spectators was a double bill of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” parts 1 and 2.
This was the third and final screening of the show that had become the talk of the festival well before opening day.
Shortly after !f’s press release listing “Nymphomaniac” on the schedule, traditional and social media went wild with anticipation. The festival was bringing the most controversial film of the year to a country where freedom of expression is clipped ever-nearer the quick on a daily basis. When pre-sales opened, seats for “Nymphomaniac” sold out within hours, leaving just a handful of Istanbulites in possession of the coveted tickets.
Just how valuable those tickets were became clearer on March 3, days after the festival, when Turkey’s cinema ratings and evaluation committee banned the film despite objections by two of its eight members. Noting what it called “pornographic images and dialog” and citing concerns about “public order, common morals, and protecting the spiritual and physical health of youth,” the commission issued a decision against the commercial distribution of the film.
The decision came as a shock to co-distributors Ozen Film and Umut Sanat, who had been expecting a release with an 18+ rating, as had been the case in many other countries. Noting that “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which contains extended sex scenes, had come out last year with no problem, Ozen Film’s Mehmet Soyarslan told members of the press that he had not anticipated such a decision from a board tasked with rating films rather than banning them. That’s why release had been scheduled in Turkey for March 14 (vol. 1) and 21 (vol. 2).
Speaking at the same press conference, lawyer Sabit Halat explained that the battle was far from over. Their first strategy was to appeal to Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism with a letter, noting in particular the film’s artistic merits and world-class cast. If no response is forthcoming, an administrative court appeal will be next and, ultimately, the distributors are willing to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights as a matter of freedom of expression.
The legal team is not the only group appealing to the Ministry of Culture. Shortly after the ban came out, 39 members of Turkey’s New Cinema Movement signed a letter saying the decision was against freedom of expression. Siyah Bant (Black Band), an organization working against censorship of all kinds, published an open letter demanding reorganization of the ratings procedures along with respect for artistic freedom. It included signatures from hundreds in the arts and cinema world, among them festival organizers and the likes of Yeşim Ustaoglu, Zeki Demirkubuz, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Ceylan, Turkey’s most recognized auteur, also took to Twitter, stating “I strongly condemn a ban on the film when there’s already an age-limit policy in place.” Acclaimed Turkish author Elif Şafak tweeted about the ban to an account under von Trier’s name, starting a racy dialog with its user that raised eyebrows for its irreverence. (Zentropa Film says von Trier no longer gives public statements, including social media.) The discussion included the surprisingly nuanced suggestion that the film be shown in Rüya Cinema, one two of old cinemas along Istiklal Street controversially demolished last year to make way for new shopping centers. It had most recently been used for screening porn. These merely extended the trail of Tweets about censorship in Turkey that the film had already accrued, perhaps best summed up in one festival viewer’s message to organizers, “Ahh, Lars von Trier, I wish for a country as free as your mind.”
For !f director Ciliv, this was part of the reason for bringing Nymphomaniac to the festival in the first place. Noting recent changes to cinema regulations that give the government stronger oversight of films, she explains, “One of the most important things about festivals is that they are exempt from all censorship, and it is crucial that they remain so, especially as state conservatism grows.”
This conservatism includes the new internet law, which appears to have been designed to prevent leaks implicating Prime Minister Erdogan and his party’s higher-ups in activities ranging from taking bribes for government contracts to illicit gold-for-gas deals with Iran to direct interference with news coverage. The leaks have increased in the run-up to municipal elections later this month. A recent tape purports to be Erdogan telling his son to liquidate hundreds of millions in foreign cash at the outset of a corruption investigation in December.
But beyond these immediate matters of graft there is the ever-spreading shadow of Erdogan’s take on the arts and everyday life.
In 2011 a sculpture celebrating Turkish-Armenian friendship was demolished in the city of Kars because the PM found it “freakish.” In 2012 he attacked Turkey’s most popular TV export ever, the Ottoman costume drama “Magnificent Century,” because it dared to imagine 16th Century Sultan Suleyman as a human with passions and regrets. Last year, his insistence that one of Istanbul’s last green spaces, Gezi Park, be paved for a shopping mall shaped like an Ottoman barracks led to massive protests that played out worldwide over social media. This year has already seen him dismiss renowned Turkish architect Nevzat Sayın’s plans for a Seljuk-inspired mosque on the grounds that it doesn’t have a dome, despite this being one of the hallmarks of Seljuk architecture.
If this authoritarian approach has touched on the arts and architecture, it has also included attempts to mold lifestyles. Erdogan has made repeated exhortations for women to have at least three children and offered his paternal advice that the populace eat wheat bread. His campaign against c-sections (which might preclude multiple pregnancies) and abortions turned into policy that altered the advice women receive regarding birth methods and made abortions much harder to obtain. Last fall, he turned his eyes towards college life, attacking “girls with boys” (co-ed) housing not only on campuses but in private residences as well. In fact, it was in reference to the latter that !f offered, in jest, the “girls with boys” rating for films with sexual content, so that potential viewers would know what they were in for.
Asked about the festival’s penchant for such critique, Ciliv notes that !f is activist, “not in the sense that we set out to make big political statements, but in the sense that we have always thought of film as a platform of great inclusion. It’s just how we—the programming team—look at the world. !f has been screening LGBT films since its first year (2001). We have programmed a Kurdish film selection since 2009, and last year screened a film speaking about the plight of girls who faced discrimination because they wore headscarves at universities. We’ve screened whatever has touched us, caught our attention and needed a new platform. We don’t think of this as making a statement, but rather making reference to things that break our hearts and need healing.”
But with “Nymphomaniac’s” ban, the role of festivals is likely to become overtly political. Shortly after the ban was announced, news came out that the Istanbul Film Festival (IFF), the city’s largest cinematic event, would screen “Nymphomaniac” in April. Festival director Azize Tan noted that IFF opted to shoulder this responsibility because they felt the decision of a total ban was wrong.
This choice appears to comes with the sanction of Turkish Cinema Directorate head, Cem Erkul, who cites the film’s inclusion there as evidence that Turkey is democratic. This same Erkul had penned a letter to festival organizers across the country in January, reminding them of a 2004 law that had never been enforced and stating that those screening works without an “operating certificate” would be subject to fines as would production companies of those films . “Nymphomaniac” was banned in the course of applying for this certificate.
Erkul, who did not respond to comment on this piece, seems to want it both ways. While he called the film “pornography” and his organization denied it a commercial certificate, he also praises its inclusion in a festival. The contradiction here arises from a clause in the law that allows foreign films to circulate without a certificate, but only at festivals.
As anti-censorship collective Siyah Bant stresses, this new order for festivals appears to be “another arbitrary practice that the state can employ to target events that are politically inconvenient or oppositional.” The operating certificate is a way of excluding independent and first-time filmmakers from festivals and other events, because only production companies (not individuals) can apply for these certificates. What’s more, on the face of it this new order applies to any public screening of a moving image, potentially including art exhibits as well as open galas.
Until recently, festivals and other non-commercial events were a notable exception to the ever-present oversight of the state in cinema. Films touching on sensitive issues such as the Kurdish struggle, oppositional politics, or sexuality that have had trouble receiving certificates had been able to show in festivals, but this may no longer be the case. The state has asserted its authority to act, and may now do so on a whim. As one Siyah Bant member emphasized, the timing for Erkul’s letter is no coincidence: “the fact that they’re enforcing this now has a lot to do with the Gezi Park protests.”
This year, !f screened four feature documentaries, four mid-length films, and 24 shorts without certificates, but there’s no telling whether they’ll get away with similar tactics in the future. The turnout for the festival left Ciliv optimistic, though, as she noted, “the massive show of public support for organizations like us shows that we’re certainly not alone.”
Indeed, on the night of Nymphomaniac’s final screening, the hundreds who dodged barricades, water canons, and tear gas to watch made clear that the festival was far from alone. Many in the crowd had been protesting outside and, since this was the second demonstration against the internet law in recent days, they knew they would be dismissed in Turkey’s partisan press with the doublespeak term “porn lobby.” Some had ironically owned the phrase, just as the Gezi Park protestors had adopted the PM’s term çapulcu (looter) with pride. And so it happened that on that night, in a cinema just three minutes’ walk from Gezi Park, von Trier’s didactic lectures on freedom of expression took on extra meaning for Turkey’s so-called “porn lobby.”
Since that night, Erdogan’s election rhetoric against an ever-growing list of lobbies and enemies has expanded to include atheists, preachers and, in a somewhat perplexing twist, robots. He’s banned Twitter, made threats to get rid of Facebook and YouTube, and is mulling over changing his party’s bylaws so he can serve a third term as PM.
The dissent continues—most recently with upwards of 2 million taking to the streets over the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who was shot in the head by a gas canister fired by police during the Gezi protests and had been withering away in a coma until last week.
In this tense atmosphere, IFF’s screening of “Nymphomaniac” will once again give audiences a chance to ponder Stellan Skarsgard’s portrayal of the man who’s there for the story but just doesn’t seem to get it, and perhaps reflect on what Turkey’s patriarch, frustrated by the unrepressed crowds he’s faced in recent months, might try next.