The thirty-fourth annual Istanbul Film Festival has cancelled all of its film competitions at the behest of the various juries, given the extraordinary circumstances at the film festival this year. The festival was forced to withdraw a programmed screening of a Kurdish documentary, Bakur [North] (Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, 2015) from the festival, which resulted in all of the domestic competition films except for two being pulled from the festival by the filmmakers.
Filmmakers and film critics from Turkey had issued a press release on 12 April condemning the decision to censor the film Bakur at the Istanbul Film Festival. The signatories of the press statement included most of the filmmakers from Turkey with films in this year’s festival, and they showed a united front by pulling their films from the festival in solidarity with Bakur. The festival announced that it was being forced to pull the film from its screening programme on the day it was meant to be shown (12 April 2015), revealing that the Ministry of Culture had arbitrarily decided to enforce an edict requiring domestic film productions to have a exhibition certificate (Eser İşletme Belgesi in Turkish) to show in a cinema.
While this edict has been in effect since 2004, it has not been consistently enforced for the festival, and is clearly being trotted out particularly for this film. Most documentary filmmakers in Turkey, including those who made Bakur, refuse to apply for the exhibition certificate, rejecting it as a precondition for festival screenings. Yet in announcing the cancellation of the Bakur screening, festival organizers stated that they would not screen any Turkish film that does not have certification, thus in one stroke rationalizing the festival’s approach, while perhaps unintentionally doing the bidding of the Ministry.
Bakur, a feature length documentary by accomplished Kurdish filmmaker Çayan Demirel and journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, follows the movements of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) soldiers in the mountains of Turkish Kurdistan (a region also known as Northern Kurdistan, which is why the film is called “Bakur,” which translates as “North” in Kurdish) at a time when there is a rapprochement and an ongoing peace process between the leaders of the PKK and the Turkish government. The film gives an intimate and sympathetic portrait of the life and beliefs of the guerrillas, who have been long battling against the Turkish military.
The film was shot during the ceasefire in 2013 and 2014, giving viewers a rare opportunity to gain insight into the motivations that drove its subjects out of their villages and cities and into the mountains to take up arms. Unfortunately, Demirel has not been involved in the events with the festival, as he suffered a serious heart attack in March and has been hospitalized in intensive care ever since. His wife and the producer of the film, Ayşe Çetinbaş, accompanied by Demirtaş’s co-filmmaker Mavioğlu, were at the initial press conference.
The festival had agreed to show the film months ago and the program was widely publicized, though the Ministry of Culture chose not to act until the day of the screening, practically ensuring that protests against the censorship would only come after the fact. This is not the first time censorship has come via the authorities to festivals in Turkey. For example, a previous film of Demirel’s, 38 (2006), about the 1938 massacre in Dersim, faced a similar situation at the Munzur Festival in Dersim. However, the same film was shown in Antalya’s Altın Portakal festival the very next year, with no certificate required—evidence that the demand for the certificate is in all cases politically motivated.
The festival held a press conference on 13 April to clarify its position, in part to deflect criticism that was being directed at them. Azize Tan, director of the festival, made it clear that it was the direct pressure from the Ministry of Culture demanding the exhibition certificate, which they have not required for any of the other festival films, that led to the withdrawal of Bakur from the festival. The Ministry of Culture, in a rare move, publicly denied the claims made by the festival and placed the responsibility squarely on with the festival, while claiming that the film in question is “PKK propaganda” and thus that any screening would risk claims of supporting “terrorism.” While such scare tactics may help to sway public opinion, the film community in Istanbul seems to recognize the divide and rule tactic for what it is and its solidarity has shown no signs of diminishing.
The festival stands with the filmmakers and film community in decrying this blatant act of censorship. Many hope that this case can be turned into an opportunity to organize against such arbitrary abuses of power. As Tan stated at the press conference, “I hope that this situation converts into an opportunity that brings the film industry together to change this regulation. In order to overcome the problems in the industry, I think that a new film regulation should be enacted and it should secure the freedom to screen films at the festival without any problems."
Turkish and Kurdish filmmakers, as well as film industry professionals, are maintaining a united front. To date, more than twenty filmmakers have withdrawn their films from this year’s festival and the pressure is mounting. What will result is as of yet unclear.
For updated information about this unfolding situation, please visit www.sansurekarsi.org
[This article was written with input from Enis Köstepen, Fırat Yucel, Senem Aytaç, Melis Behlil, and Banu Karaca]