Is Free Cinema Possible in Turkey Today?

in 34th Istanbul Film Festival

by Senem Erdine

It all started when the scheduled screening of Bakur (North), the film directed by Ertugrul Mavioglu and Çayan Demirel which documents the everyday life of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas in their mountain encampments, was cancelled by the festival due to a last-minute warning from the Ministry of Culture. Upon this, the filmmakers withdrew their movies from the festival in solidarity with Bakur; the juries (including our FIPRESCI jury) withdrew and finally all the competitions in the festival, both national and international, were cancelled, bringing the 34th festival almost to a halt. Thankfully it didn’t stop altogether, although there were some people who suggested that. The screening of the movies which were not in competition continued and the screening schedule of the competition movies was not changed or replaced, so the filmmakers could come together with their audience and explain to them about their withdrawal from the festival. (Some filmmakers used the chance to discuss the latest events with their audience, although some of them didn’t bother coming to the theatre.)

Towards the end of the festival the filmmakers and supporters of free and uncensored cinema came together on Saturday 18 April in the heart of Istanbul at Istiklal Street in Beyoglu and marched from the French Consulate to Galatasaray Square where a press announcement was made against censorship in cinema. The announcement expressed that the arbitrary imposition of censorship is becoming the norm in Turkey, thus constricting the freedom of festivals. The protestors called the Ministry of Culture to take the necessary steps for the free screening of Bakur and they demanded that the requirement for domestic films to have an exhibition certificate for festival screenings be removed immediately.

The exhibition certificate is a requirement imposed on domestic movies in Turkey by the “Law on the Evaluation, Classi?cation and Support of Cinema Films” which was put into effect in 2004 and has been used by the government as a tool for censorship, to serve its political agenda whenever it’s deemed necessary. Since then, some filmmakers refuse to apply for the certificate because applying for it means accepting this undemocratic law to be imposed on their movies. Istanbul Film Festival, which has always been a strong supporter of free and independent cinema in Turkey, has been screening many of these movies without the certificate by taking the risk. According to the law in legislation, the full responsibility of the screening of the foreign films in the festival belongs to the festival whereas it’s not the case for domestic movies. The law which bans the commercial screening of domestic movies without a certificate also bans the screening of those movies in festivals.The ones which are inclined to blame the festival for self-censorship or insisting that the festival should have taken the risk to screen Bakur in spite of the warning from the Ministry of Culture which noted that the ministry is not going to be responsible for the security of the ones in the theatre in case of any conflicts that the screening of the movie may cause, should take this fact into account and reconsider the roles and positions of all institutions and communities taking part in the latest events in the 34th Istanbul Film Festival within the context of the current social, political and economic conditions in Turkey.

Tha latest censorship event is just a single reflection of the strong political oppression of people in Turkey today. One of the most violent operators of neoliberal policies in the history of the country, the totalitarian, Islamic AKP government has been using its power to keep all social, cultural and economic activities of people under control. The media is gradually possessed by the supporters of the government. The independent theatres are closed one by one opening the way to the big exhibition monopolies operating in shopping malls to dominate the exhibition channels. The movies which are unfavourable to these monopolies do not have a chance to meet the audience on the big screen. The festivals which are the only exhibition channels for these movies financially depend on the funds they get from the local governments, the state or the sponsors. And for most of the independent filmmakers the share they get from the cinema funds of the state is the only way to finance their movies.

The overall reaction and the solidarity of the film community against censorship in the 34th Istanbul Film Festival is an achievement to be celebrated and remembered; on the other hand these are the questions still to be answered; how can we talk about ‘independence’ or ‘free cinema’ under the current conditions? What’s self-sencorship? What’s solidarity? Can we find more efficient ways than withdrawing our movies from festivals to raise our voice for free cinema? How can we create a free cinema environment in Turkey?

Edited by Carmen Gray