In a year when Turkey’s film industry is winning unprecedented plaudits abroad, it’s also battling censorship at home, prompting dozens of the nation’s most prominent directors to boycott its main festival and a sponsor to withdraw.
A week into the Istanbul Film Festival, the government blocked on technical grounds the screening of a locally made documentary on Kurdish militants battling the Turkish government. More than 100 filmmakers, including the most recent winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, protested the decision, signing a letter on Sunday alleging censorship.
On Monday, Radikal newspaper canceled its sponsorship of a festival award, citing “arbitrary state intervention” in a statement on its website. The Ministry of Culture didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The showdown comes at a time of record support for the film industry from the state, which says it aims to increase the value of film and television exports to $2 billion by 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Last year, 31 percent of the 108 domestically produced films received budgets from the Ministry of Culture, including “Winter’s Sleep,” Ceylan’s three-hour, Chekhov-inspired epic that won top prize from the Cannes jury.
Such support makes the blocking of “Bakur” a puzzling step back for the government, according to Cem Doruk, 35, a producer who had two films in the festival before he joined colleagues in removing them from competition in protest.
“Given the prestige the Turkish industry now has worldwide, it’s embarrassing that they’d risk that so a few hundred cinephiles can’t see this film,” Doruk said in an interview in Istanbul on Sunday. “It’s fair to say that before the ruling party came to power, there wasn’t anything like this much support for film in Turkey. An industry that used to sustain perhaps five independent films a year can now sustain 50, and that’s partly down to their support.”
The government also promotes Turkey as a film location for international cinema through tax breaks that have lured the makers of the John Le Carre adaptation “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and the last James Bond Movie, “Skyfall,” which features a motorbike chase across the roofs of Istanbul’s 15th-century Grand Bazaar.
Decades of deadly conflict with ethnic Kurds in Turkey’s southeast was a subject largely off-limits to both cinema and the media until recent years. Restrictions were eased as the government began talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to end fighting that’s killed 40,000 people since the early 1980s. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the U.S.
According to its directors, “‘Bakur’ tells the story of how the PKK, a group that built its struggle mostly on national identity, turned to become a women’s movement.” They say the documentary “challenges the audience to develop a different point of view as it sheds light on this mysterious world.”
The ministry warned the festival hours before it was due to show “Bakur” that the film didn’t have the necessary certification, and its screening and that of others without documentation would be canceled, the festival said in a statement Sunday. The government doesn’t typically require such documents before commercial release, and they weren’t asked of other films shown, the protesting filmmakers say.
The warning shows that there are still “two topics the government gets jumpy about,” Doruk said. “That’s the Gezi Park protests and the Kurdish issue.”
The Gezi demonstrations started as a protest over the uprooting of trees near Istanbul’s central square in the summer of 2013 and rolled out country-wide, sustained by a groundswell of broader dissatisfaction with the government and a harsh police crackdown. Efforts to censor a documentary about the protests sparked a similar reaction from participants at last year’s Antalya film festival.
A Ministry of Culture website shows that 332 feature films have received financial assistance in the last decade, helping to spark a revival in Turkey’s movie industry after two decades in abeyance. Last year Ceylan won two prizes at Cannes, making him one of Turkish cinema’s most decorated directors. Newcomer Kaan Mujdeci picked up the special jury prize in Venice.
“It’s clear that this act was motivated by the film’s content,” Ayse Cetinbas, producer of “Bakur,” said in an interview on Sunday.
Radikal newspaper, in withdrawing its support for an award, said “there can be no art where there’s censorship, and there can be no creativity or freedom of expression where there’s no art.”
“ No one wants to live in a Turkey like this,” it said.