“You’ve only seen the trailer, the film has just begun,” rang the chant as hundreds of filmmakers, producers, critics and other industry reps joined viewers in a march against censorship down Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s bustling pedestrian artery, on April 18. The march, a response to the censoring of Kurdish guerrilla documentary “North” (Bakur) at the Istanbul Film Festival and other Turkish venues, was followed by a forum at a local park, where both setting and format evoked the Gezi Park uprising of 2013.
It is unclear what Turkey’s Ministry of Culture anticipated when moving to ban the film, controversial not only because it attempts to humanize Kurdish PKK guerrillas, but also because it was filmed on Turkish soil. In the lead-up to elections in June, the ruling party recently shifted its gambit, courting nationalist voters at the expense of the three-year “Kurdish opening” that had involved, among other things, the ceasefire that facilitated “North’s” production. The Ministry’s statement on the ban, aired in the unusual form of a website press release, cast blame on the Istanbul fest for failing to uphold a 2004 law requiring films to have a registration certificate.
But fest director Azize Tan notes that festivals across the country have, in practice, been largely exempt from the certificate laws, which are, at least on the surface, there to protect copyrights and ensure proper ratings when films get a commercial release. This year, the Istanbul fest had, as always, shown many docs and shorts without certificates before Ministry reps began calling and sending police to check whether “North” would be screened in the days before the film’s April 12 world premiere.
As IFF jury head Zeki Demirkubuz noted at a festival press conference, “The ban on ‘North’ was a done deal. It’s related to the election.”
The response from industry and cinephiles has been strong. At IFF more than 30 films withdrew their screenings and all juries except those tasked with project development resigned. On April 14, cinema industry groups held a press conference demanding clarification and reform in Turkey’s cinema laws, including a waiver of the certificate requirement for festivals, which currently applies only to domestic films, thus resulting in a double standard.
Days later, the Ankara Intl. Film Festival, which had selected “North” for its documentary competition and given it an April 30 screening slot, cancelled the screening of all films without a certificate and saw numerous films and juries withdraw in solidarity. The Flying Broom Intl. Women’s Film Festival slated for May in Ankara recently had its short film jury withdraw as well.
Such unity has not come quickly or easily. One of “North’s” co-directors, Cayan Demirel, had two previous documentaries (“Dersim ’38” and “Prison Number 5”) censored in so many ways that he finally put them online to reach viewers. Demirel suffered a heart attack just before IFF began, and his inability to speak on the ban has become a symbolic rallying point for many, but few in the industry would stand by his side six years ago when his other films faced bans. Directors Kazim Oz and Aydin Orak were notable exceptions, perhaps because they too work on critical docs and the Kurdish issue.
But something shifted in 2014. Starting with a ban on “Nymphomaniac” in March of that year, the government ruling party made its efforts to shape the bigscreen almost as explicit as its well-known attacks on journalists and the Internet. The Antalya Film Festival in October saw a muted showdown, when censorship of a doc about Gezi Park protests led to the withdrawal of other docs as well as that jury, and the formation of a collective called Uncensored Cinema to fund films and censorship research. And just last month, when police raided a screening at the Filmmor Women’s Film Festival in Istanbul, organizers held their ground, demanding their right to continue with the screening.
With festivals emerging at the place for cinematic freedom in Turkey, all eyes are on the government to see what happens with “North” and with cinema regulations. Thus far, statements from the Ministry and pro-government media suggest an effort to criminalize the film, but such attempts may well backfire as focus shifts from Istanbul to Ankara, and a possible march on the Ministry sometime this week.