As the Istanbul Film Festival came to a successful close in April, a palpable chill was settling over Turkey’s cinema sector.

Arbitrary censorship rulings have many in the filmmaking community wondering how they’ll balance artistic integrity with funding and distribution. New laws decree that films given a +18 rating not only have to return money received from the Ministry of Culture — often a vital contributor to a film’s financing — but with added interest. Since distribution deals and TV chances are sunk by such ratings, the effect is clear.

“Let’s Sin,” winner of several awards at the Istanbul festival, including director for Onur Unlu, was slapped with a +18 despite an absence of sexual content. While it’s not clear what prompted this rating, the film’s protagonist is a pugilistic imam who isn’t exactly a model religious leader, and scattered references to last year’s social unrest undoubtedly caused discontent.

Yet with no set criteria for making ratings decisions, the punitive rulings become capricious bludgeons used to eliminate dissent.

“It’s becoming more and more arbitrary,” warned fest director Azize Tan. Fortunately, helmer Unlu didn’t receive ministry money, but the film’s distribution chances could be completely shot.

“There are several ways of censoring,” said Tan. “A +18 kills your film, and then it becomes very difficult for you to make the next one. They have to explain why this film was +18, but there is no explanation.”

Prime Minister Recip Erdogan and his AK party seem incapable of brooking even minor criticism. That’s one of the reasons why independent watchdog organization Freedom House earlier this month downgraded Turkey from a “Partly Free” press to “Not Free.”

Although many people in the country, including most of the filmmaking community, have VPNs that allow them to bypass Internet blocks, but Erdogan’s paranoia is shifting the country toward a direction not seen since the 1980s and the period of military rule.

Politics is directly affecting the industry: “For the past 12 years, during AK party rule, filmmaking in Turkey has grown dramatically. The government made new laws, which allowed us to get much higher support from the state, and many new filmmakers, including me, were able to make their films. However in the last two years the government turned more authoritarian and less tolerant,” said director Mahmut Fazil Coskun (“Yozgat Blues”).

Self-censorship is becoming a concern, as directors and producers wonder what compromises will be necessary if they’re to get funding and distribution.

Producer and scripter Emine Yildirim (“The Impeccables”) is alarmed: “The atmosphere wasn’t really amazing previously, but at least we could get money for different alternate films. Now anything opposing the status quo is being shut down. And basically people are feeling the sword of auto-censorship.”

Adds Coskun, “Although I’ve never been interested in actual politics, this situation affects cinema, which makes me very unhappy as a filmmaker.”

Anything smacking of dissent could be targeted, along with sensitive subjects like Kurdish autonomy and the Armenian genocide.

Helmer Huseyin Karabey applied seven times for ministry support for his film “Come to My Voice,” but was rejected. According to Karabey and his producer Emre Yeksan, the ministry wants “cultural heritage” movies, nationalist heroes and family values pics.

The authorities may get something else instead. As producer Yoel Meranda said, “I think more satire will come out of this. I’m not seeing the trend now, but you find other ways of saying the things you want to say, in a way they won’t understand.”

Yeksan concurred: “I was in the selection committee of (Istanbul fest co-production program) Meetings on the Bridge this year, and we had a lot of projects that were satirical comedies.”
Notably absent, however, are documentaries about last year’s Gezi Park demonstrations. Given the avalanche of docus in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring, the dearth of films on the protests is surprising.

Many said it’s simply too soon: “Last year, several festivals said, ‘We want to show something from Gezi,’ but the filmmakers — and I find it very responsible — said no, it’s too soon. We’re trying to understand what really happened, and what it means for us. So we are not going to exploit it, and pop out a documentary with the footage we have. It’s more than that. It has to be more than that,” said Tan.