DOK Leipzig: Turkish filmmakers discuss oppression - and engaging in its combat

By Ana Ribeiro

Five Turkish film experts and directors participated in one of the public “Talk Specials” at this year’s DOK Leipzig, the city’s longest-running film festival. They discussed how filmmakers tackling controversial topics suffer from and navigate the tightening censorship environment in Turkey.

Protest Turkey Filmmaker at DokLeipzig Stop support for Erdogan - a peaceful protest by Turkish filmmakers in front of the Museum für Bildende Künste, the DOK Leipzig headquarters. (photo: ECPMF/Lamm)

Entitled "Documentaries in Turkey: The Next Frontier?", the 2 November panel was moderated by Turkish film expert and journalist Özge Calafato, the curator for the festival’s 2016 Country Focus on Turkey. DOK’s Country Focus programme featured 18 documentaries and animated films, many coming out of the entrails of chaotic political developments and growing oppression of free speech in Turkish society.

Calafato said the documentaries being discussed in the panel "are directly connected to what’s going on in Turkey today". Most of the Country Focus films were made in 2015 and 2016, and DOK gave them a vital platform to be shown and disseminated – when government interference is taking them away from the Turkish film circuit.

Via an English translator, director Kazim Öz said at the panel that he has actually had to deal with censorship making films in Turkey since he started his career in 1990. That is because his films have addressed issues of the marginalised Kurdish minority in the country. He suggested that the level of rights given to the minority in Turkey has oscillated over the years, and in some ways has been worse before than it is now.

Shown at DOK 2016, his documentary “Once Upon a Time” delves into the conditions Kurdish families endure when hired as seasonal workers in Ankara. It has been shown in film festivals around Europe, while being rejected at several film festivals in Turkey, Öz said.

Certificate for censorship

"Once Upon a Time" did manage to make it into the Ankara Film Festival in 2014. However, this was not the case with a more recent attempt by the filmmakers behind  "I Remember" – it was kept out of the Ankara festival ostensibly because it was missing the "registration certificate".

"I Remember" follows a teenager as he becomes a goods smuggler across the Turkish-Iraqi border and the head of his household, after losing his older brother at the hands of the Turkish army. The brother was one of 34 civilians (19 of them children) killed on 28 December, 2011, as they were purportedly mistaken for Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants.

Basak Callioglu, part of the team who brought "I Remember" to DOK, said at the panel that the film’s blockage received a lot of attention on social media and media outlets. Calafato said the domestic authorities' use of such a certificate as a pretext to keep films out of festivals in Turkey has become a central theme of the censorship debate.

An audience member at the talk, as well as panellist Firat Yücel, brought up that German filmmakers, for one, do not need the same certificate to enter festivals there. It is difficult and expensive for small Turkish films to obtain the certificate, said Callioglu; and while the requirement to have it is not new, only now is it being enforced.   

Calafato asked filmmaker and critic Yücel whether he was planning to get the certificate for his film, to which he replied:

"No. Because we think it’s absurd. […] There are thousands of movies that are shown without certificates. But of course, they didn’t like the politics of the movie [“I Remember”]. So they use this certificate thing as an excuse to censor some movies, and we feel that if we get this certificate, we will legitimise the censor."

Looming threats for independent filmmakers

The ECPMF asked the DOK panellists whether the Turkish government or authorities had ever intimidated or arrested them, or if they know of any filmmakers who had gone through that in recent times.

Yücel replied that Turkish authorities tend to use social media channels to threaten filmmakers and other types of artists. A few filmmakers have been arrested but he does not know anyone in prison right now, although activism is very present in the industry there:

Filmmakers are also part of political imagination and political action in Turkey. Some filmmakers who are making movies find it futile to [keep doing so] now, and they move into political action [such as going into hunger strikes]."

Audience member Cay Wesnigk, who hosts Turkish productions on his website Online Film AG, asked the panellists whether they are still allowed to film in the streets. Callioglu responded that, with the post-coup state of emergency still in place, Turkish authorities have the right to search vehicles for cameras. And while at it, they have the right to ask whether someone has a permit to film in public, and also what they are working on, and for whom.

Although the situation is worse on the eastern side of the country in terms of arrests, people on the west are now also becoming afraid of carrying out projects, Callioglu said. She personally knows people taken into custody for being caught filming:

A camera is like a gun right now – it’s dangerous.”

Zeynep Güzel, coordinator of the New Film Fund, was also part of the DOK panel. She explained that the fund functions independently from the Ministry of Culture, the latter being the main source of public funds for filmmakers in Turkey – and an unreliable one at that because of the political directives it follows. Denying filmmakers funding is one of the main sources of censorship, rather than direct intimidation, Güzel said.

Another tactic has been to blacklist them. Güzel mentioned the case of some 400 filmmakers who signed a petition supporting academics in their pleas for peace in Turkey last year: Their names have been exposed and the filmmaking profession insulted, largely via social media channels. 

Güzel is of the opinion that the situation in Turkey is not a "war scene" or a "catastrophe", but that censorship is more systematic and structural, rather than "direct action" on people filming in the streets.

Resisting and challenging the status quo

Established in early 2015, the New Film Fund is the product of joint domestic and international efforts on behalf of independent filmmaking in Turkey. It financed four films from Turkey shown at this year’s DOK. Güzel, Callioglu and Yücel are all connected somehow in such efforts.

"We are trying to make it more systematic for filmmakers that there is a fund [for which] they can apply every year twice", Güzel said, adding that with the quality of the films being produced and the opportunity to screen them, "we see that there is a reason for what we do". Even if the amounts given to each film do not cover all costs, it is an important incentive also for the filmmakers to obtain further funding, she pointed out.

The New Film Fund’s supporters and partners are listed as the Turkish branch of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation (Açik Toplum Vafki); the U.S. Department of State; the Istanbul-based company Atlas Post Production; the Turkish institution Anadolu Kültür; and the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival, in which Yücel has been involved as catalogue editor.

"Within one year, the fund really established itself, and is now one of the key resources and it has an amazing lineup of films", Calafato said, referring to it as probably "the only independent film fund in Turkey".

In London, Callioglu runs the production company ARTvoltage. It currently represents "I Remember" and  "Audience Emancipated: The Struggle for the Emek Movie Theater". The latter had its world premiere at DOK and was one of the four Country Focus films featured there to receive support from the New Film Fund.

As its title suggests, "Audience Emancipated" depicts efforts to save the Emek Theatre, a key historical landmark in Istanbul, starting in 2010. Yücel, part of the team heading the project, said the film had no directors or producers, but was based on "collected footage from the activist people who were involved in this struggle".

Developers, backed by Turkish authorities, were trying to turn the 100-year-old theatre into a shopping mall, and succeeded. However, the protests snowballed into a movement involving representatives from various social groups and outlived the destruction of the theatre and of the cultural hub of which it was part in Istanbul. It fed into further protests, directed towards the demolition of Gezi Park in 2013, another casualty of present urban development policies in Turkey.

Beyond trying to save these urban landmarks is protesters' revolt against the general repression the Erdogan government has brought about. The fight for the landmarks became an emblem for growing popular awareness and unrest in Turkey, and a reminder of the violence the government is capable of in its growing attempts to crush dissent.

On 4 November, four of the panel participants joined a peaceful protest by Turkish filmmakers in front of the Museum für Bildende Kunste, the DOK Leipzig headquarters. Each forming a letter in German, they asked Chancellor Merkel to "stop support for Erdogan".

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –