A Brief History of Censorship of the Cinema of Turkey

in 34th Istanbul Film Festival

by Senay Aydemir

The history of the cinema of Turkey, having existed already for 100 years, can also be considered as the history of censorship practices. What’s most intriguing is that the first-ever censorship practice in Turkey was applied by a Frenchman.

MurebbiyThe  film titled “Mürebbiy”, shot in 1919 in Istanbul which was then occupied by the Allied forces after the First World War, was prohibited by the Commander of the French forces with the preamble that the film showed “a French woman to be devoid of morality”. After the Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923 the central administration decided to take over the situation and particularly when the number of films produced started increasing the administration passed a set of laws between the years 1932 to 1939 in order to tightly control and inspect these films. The censorship boards formed within the framework of these laws were composed of members from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of National defense and also a member of the Turkish Armed Forces. Furthermore, the chiefs of police were granted the authorization to prevent the screening of any film that they saw fit.

This formation of the censorship board continued as it was, with only minor changes, until the year 1986, had the ambition of controlling films right during pre-production. Producers first submitted their screenplays to the board, and if the board approved of the screenplay only then could the producers fully green-light the film. That the board could sometimes demand for changes in a screenplay set in a village on the grounds that “showing the wheat ears perishing, and the redness of the sun is sheer communist propaganda, and that this might instill rebellion in the villagers” had become completely normal and ordinary. For this reason, the producers would always work on two screenplays. The first version would be submitted to the censorship board, and the second version was the one to be shot. After the film was completed, the producers submitted a different copy to the board and gave exhibitors a different copy for public screening. However, this was not always a very safe method of practice.

Dry SummerIt’s essential to point out that these censorship practices lead to a series of interesting anecdotes. We can give two examples. The first one being, director Metin Erksan’s 1963 film “Dry Summer” (Susuz Yaz) which could not be screened in Turkey due to the censorship laws. The film’s 35mm copy was secretly transported to Germany in a suitcase and later received the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear award in 1964. The second story is that of “The Road” (Yol) which was written by Yilmaz Güney and directed by Serif Gören, and was similarly smuggled abroad and went on to receive the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. The distribution and exhibition of these two films was banned in Turkey for a very long time.

In 1986 the censorship board was removed and the authorization to control films was passed on to the Ministry of Culture. This situation brought forth a relative relief for the film industry. However, starting from the second half of the 1990s, when films and documentaries about the consequences of the Kurdish issue had begun to be produced, problems arose once again. The authorities prohibited the screenings of these films not only through legal action but also through the national security forces.

With amendments to the Cinema Law in 2004 and 2005, the regulations pertaining to the inspection of screenplays before filming were removed. Producers and directors started freely filming their stories. However, in order to achieve commercial distribution, they had to apply for a “commercial exploitation permit” which was decided upon by a board composed of industry representatives and state officials. This specific permit can currently be used for the purpose of practicing censorship. For example, Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” could not be shown in Turkey because the film’s local distributors were denied this permit. However, the film could be screened in festivals.

An attempt to censor the Istanbul Film Festival in 1988 was disrupted when jury president Elia Kazan lead a protest demonstration against censorship. This action did bear fruit, as since then foreign films are not required to hold a Turkish commercial exploitation permit for their festival screenings. However, the regulations require that local films must hold this permit even for their festival screenings. In the past years festivals disregarded these regulations, however the Ministry of Culture is currently pushing for them to be observed regarding some specific films. The fact that “North” (Bakur) could not be screened at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival for lacking this permit goes to show that the government not only demands the control and inspection of the films in commercial distribution, but also their festival screenings.

Unfortunately, the words cinema and censorship have always gone hand in hand in Turkey. Although important steps have been taken and achieved against censorship, it still looks like there’s a long road ahead.

Edited by Carmen Gray