Against Censorship

in 8th Documentarist - Istanbul Documentary Days

by Cagdas Günerbüyük

As a modest documentary festival in a city of demolished movie theatres, Documentarist had one special screening on 15th June: The Kurdish film North (Bakur), which was censored at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival in April and opened a discussion about censorship in Turkey, again. This time, the screening actually happened in a crowded theater with celebrities from both cinema and politics. It was a happy evening for free cinema and freedom in Turkey.

It is the 8th year of Documentarist, Istanbul Documentary Days, which is probably the only festival to have gone on for so long without any support from the Ministy of Culture and Tourism. Nonetheless, its enthusiasm for screening censored and banned films applied not only to North but a whole section of Censored Documentaries. The section included a Kurdish film about the 1990s (Berivan), another one about a great massacre in the 1930s (Dersim 38) –the 2006 documentary by Çayan Demirel, who co-directed North with Ertugrul Mavioglu – and Love will Change the Earth (Yeryüzü Askin Yüzü Oluncaya Dek): a documentary about the Gezi protests in June 2013, and the target of the first big censorship wave this season. In October 2014, Love will Change the Earth was not screened at the 51st Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, because of its critical content, including a vague swear word for the most terrifying man in the country, the Prime Minister of Gezi, the elected President, Erdogan. The decision of the festival was subject to strong objections: most of the participants in the documentary film contest withdrew their films from the festival and the competition had to be cancelled.

Nobody knew for sure at that time, but this was only the beginning. In April, this time at the Istanbul Film Festival, it was announced that North would make its premiere. This was a film about the PKK camps and the lives of guerillas in the north, which refers to northern Kurdistan, the informal name of the Kurdish area inside Turkey’s borders. This time the ministry called the festival and told them that they could not allow the screening. The festival cancelled it, and again many filmmakers, both documentary and fiction, withdrew their films from the programme. This time the justification was the lack of a registration document – a legally gray area, sometimes used against unwanted films.

So, this year Documentarist was home to documentaries without documents, symbolised by the screening of North which was, for that reason, the most important event of the festival. Nearly a thousand people watched 92 minutes of Kurdish guerillas playing games, preparing food, getting an education, living their daily life and talking about it to the camera, openly. This is still a kind of taboo in Turkey, in the governmental sense despite the peace process and the opinions of the majority of people. Even the use of the word “guerilla” which is the most correct one to define the characters in this film, is still rare and considered “divisive”. That’s why most of the Turkish press told their readers that the film was about “PKK members”, not guerillas. Several pro-government columnists wrote that North was a “propaganda film”.

In fact, the intention of the film is to show what kind of people guerillas are, what they do, what they fight for and especially their daily life which had not previously been filmed and therefore never shown to the public before. For some time, the need for “normalisation” in Turkey has made a few steps forward, and every screening of North is a part of that democratic process. Censorship shows that the government and “the palace” do not want that kind of confusing information like “guerillas can be human too” but they cannot change the truth, only delay it.

Edited by Alison Frank