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Tensions Between Turkey’s Film Festivals, Government Take Toll

Under normal conditions, the 22nd annual Golden Boll Film Festival in Turkey’s southeastern city of Adana would have been celebrated with galas, concerts, and parades this September. Under normal conditions, its chief rival, the recently rechristened Antalya Intl. Film Festival, would have been held in October. Azize Tan would be gearing up for her 10th year at helm of the country’s largest cinematic event, the Istanbul Film Festival, and Cem Erkul would still be head of the Cinema Directorate. Conditions in Turkey have been anything but normal this year, and the festival circuit has been among the most visible casualties as the increasingly authoritarian Justice and Development Party (AK-Party) fights to stay in power.

Simmering tensions between artists and the government came to a head at the Antalya film festival last October, as officials sought to censor a film about the Gezi Park protests that brought Istanbul and many other Turkish cities to a standstill in the summer of 2013. Reyan Tuvi’s “Love Will Change the Earth” was selected for the documentary competition by jury, but when officials in this municipality-run festival saw the story of anti-government protests, they first attempted to ban the film, then backtracked in the face of strong opposition, calling instead for edits.

The concession was too little too late, as 11 of the 15 documentaries in the festival withdrew alongside the entire documentary jury.

The Istanbul Film Festival (IFF) in April was next to face the fire, this time for daring to show a film about Kurdish guerrillas. “North,” above, a documentary shot during a 2012-2014 cease-fire between the PKK Kurdish rebels and the Turkish army, was intended to offer a humanized portrayal of the guerrillas, paving the way for an ongoing peace process that the AK-Party had been instrumental in fomenting.

But the election of Prime Minster Erdogan to the presidency in August 2014 shifted the political calculus. Erdogan made no secret of his plans to turn the ceremonial role of president into a vessel for one-man rule, and his popularity began to wane as that of the socially progressive and Kurdish-sympathizing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) rose. The ban on “North” took place alongside a number of other AK-Party moves to trade peace for nationalist votes in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June.

HDP success in these elections came at the expense of the AK-Party, which lost its one-party mandate, and both the festival world and the country have been reeling from the consequences.

“North” was banned under a certificate law crafted for commercial distribution. Festivals had been largely exempt from the law in practice and other films without certificates had already screened at IFF when the Cinema Directorate stepped in the day before “North’s” premiere. From that day forward, festivals were forced to take a clear stand on the certificate. Some, such as Documentarist, chose to ignore the law and show films (including “North”) without a certificate, but larger festivals such as Ankara, Eskisehir, Adana and Antalya, which depend on government or corporate backing, have all upheld the certificate requirement.

Cineaste casualties of this new order include Directorate head Cem Erkul, who resigned in April after it came out that he had approved screening of mockumentary “O.H.A.” without a certificate at the Ankara festival, and IFF director Azize Tan, who resigned in August after heading the festival for nine years.

Shifts on the political front have boomeranged back to the festival world as well. Though Turkish law required the AK-Party to form a coalition government, Erdogan worked against this, aiming to win back one-party rule in snap elections Nov. 1 instead. He quickly put the HDP in crosshairs as chief political rival and increased military attacks on the PKK, inciting PKK activity in the southeast.

A tit-for-tat escalation included PKK attacks on the Turkish military in September, leading Adana to cancel all festival events except for screenings and a press-conference for awards. (Top honor went to Emin Alper’s “Frenzy,” which also took the special jury prize at Venice this year.) Antalya followed-up by rescheduling its own event, bumping the festival from late October to late November in hopes that tensions ease after the Nov. 1 elections. Wary organizers have also scrapped the documentary competition, putting faith in fiction for a better year to come.

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