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Turkish Festival Screenings of ‘Nymphomaniac’ Take on Deeper Meaning

Lars von Trier's film embraced by government critics and protesters

Turkey Protests
Baris Acarli/Getty Images

On Feb. 22, Istanbul’s !f independent film festival hosted the third and final screening of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” as not far from the theater, police violently quashed thousands of demonstrators protesting a new Internet law.

The protestors’ concerns — censorship, surveillance, media meddling and corruption — dovetailed with the festival’s commitment to bring all kids of arthouse fare from around the world to Turkey despite the government’s growing conservatism.

Serra Ciliv, director of the !f festival, notes recent changes to cinema laws that give the government stronger oversight of films. “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,” she says.

When word came out that “Nymphomaniac” parts 1 and 2 would be coming to Istanbul, traditional and social media went wild with anticipation. !f was now bringing the most controversial film of the year to a country where freedom of expression is clipped ever-nearer to the quick on a daily basis. As pre-sales opened, seats for “Nymphomaniac” sold out within hours and, weeks later, as audiences emerged from the film, they started reflecting on what in meant for Turkey. One viewer tweeted to the organizers, “Ahh, Lars von Trier, I wish for a country as free as your mind.”

The new conservatism includes the Internet law, which appears to have been designed to prevent leaks implicating prime minister Recep 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.

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, massive protests erupted over his insistence that one of Istanbul’s last green spaces, Gezi Park, be paved for a shopping mall shaped like an Ottoman barracks. The mayhem played out over social media worldwide. 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 unilateral conservatism 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 medical advice women receive regarding birth methods and made abortions much harder to obtain. Last fall, he turned his eyes toward 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 criticism, 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. And the massive show of public support for organizations like us shows that we’re certainly not alone.”

Indeed, on the the night of the final showing, the hundreds who dodged barricades, water cannons and tear gas to watch “Nymphomanic” 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 well knew that their dissent 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 capulcu (looter) with pride.

And so it was that the so-called “porn lobby” spent the evening with a sex film that is far from porn. 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. And Stellan Skarsgard’s portrayal of a man who’s there for the story but just doesn’t seem to get it left some reflecting on what Turkey’s patriarch, frustrated by the unrepressed crowds he’s faced in recent months, might try next.

Distributors Umut Sanat and Ozen Film are in negotiations to determine whether “Nymphomaniac” will be allowed theatrical release in Turkey.