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Turkish filmmakers fear the spectre of censorship

Turkish filmmakers fear the spectre of censorship

June 26
04:41 2017

The dynamism of the Turkish film industry in recent years is a paradoxical story: while the headline figures are robust, the foundations seem shaky.

On one hand, in 2016, 53 per cent of box office ticket sales in the country were for Turkish films — giving it the highest national market share of any country in Europe. The number of new Turkish films screened in 2016 was also an all-time high and Turkey is the only European country where domestic films regularly outperform Hollywood offerings.

At the same time, however, cinema attendance has fallen from its 2014 peak — a possible result of a recent economic squeeze and rising unemployment, or the aftermath of last July’s coup attempt and a series of terror attacks claimed by Isis or Kurdish groups. From more than 61m in 2014, cinema admissions fell to 58m last year. Fewer foreign films were distributed.

The numbers are not the real cause for concern, according to the industry. The spectre of censorship is also starting to haunt Turkish filmmakers.

After nearly a year of emergency rule, and April’s controversial referendum to grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, a sense of unease has turned into one of deep concern.

“Cinema used to be the only sector in Turkey where the state had no hand, but now it is casting a long shadow,” says Zeynep Unal, director of the Mithat Alam Film Center at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

Regulations in the 2004 Cinema Act paved the way for increased state control. The act states that every Turkish film must obtain a certificate of registration from the Ministry of Culture for commercial distribution. In recent years, film festivals have come under scrutiny and the ministry has banned several documentaries and short films, either by citing the lack of such a certificate, or by refusing to release one unless changes are made to the film.

A scene from ‘The Last Schnitzel’

The latter was the case for a short film called The Last Schnitzel this year. In the futuristic satire, which tells the story of the evacuation of Earth to Mars, an authoritarian president of the Grand Turkish Republic demands to be served a chicken schnitzel before Turks are allowed to depart the Earth. Unfortunately, chickens have been extinct for hundreds of years.

When asked by the ministry to make changes, the filmmakers refused to comply and had to withdraw their work from the Istanbul Film Festival in April.

The Rating and Evaluation Board also came under fire recently. A psychological drama, Clair-Obscur, by director Yesim Ustaoglu, narrowly escaped receiving a 18+ rating, which would have allowed the ministry to demand a full refund of its financial support. Ms Ustaoglu cut scenes from her film to avoid the pitfall.

In the present climate of anti-terrorist crackdowns and post-coup purges, even holding a valid certificate of registration is no guarantee of safety.

Clair-Obscur, directed by Yesim Ustaoglu

Having obtained a certificate for his feature film Zer in 2014, the Kurdish director Kazim Oz was this year asked to remove scenes that portrayed a historical massacre of ethnic Kurds by government forces. Mr Oz screened the film complete, with the censored scenes covered by blacked-out frames at the Istanbul festival. His certificate was repealed.

“It is near-impossible to make politically outspoken or critical films under the state-of-emergency rule, especially if you are a Kurdish director or work in the east [of the country],” says Yamac Okur, a producer of mainstream and art house films.

Members of the industry who signed a petition calling for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish conflict, face blacklisting.

Ms Unal senses “a political and cultural crisis in the making” for Turkish cinema. “We hear the footsteps of a new wave of repression,” she says.

Kazim Oz’s ‘Zer’

Financial backing for filmmakers is also precarious. A large part of the industry is focused on the domestic market, where the lion’s share of profits go to a few studios that produce mainly comedy blockbusters and operate in a self-financed world of their own. For the rest, public support is essential.

As relations with Brussels have soured, Turkey last year pulled out of the EU’s Creative Europe Programme, a fund to support culture and the arts. Eurimages, the cultural support fund of the Council of Europe, supported a single Turkish film this year, at the cost of less than half of Turkey’s €1m contribution to the fund this year.

Public money, from a tax on ticket sales, distributed by the ministry is the only lifeline for most directors. Around €10m this year was awarded by the Film Council, on which four government officials sit alongside 10 industry representatives. Mr Okur, who once served on the council, says its proceedings are not sufficiently transparent. Infighting within the industry and political pressure undermine its effectiveness, some directors say.

Critics include director Esra Saydam, 33, a graduate of Columbia University in the US, whose award-winning first film about the trauma of a terminated pregnancy, Across The Sea, was supported by the ministry in 2014.

“My film would be rejected if submitted today,” she says, citing increasing conservatism as the reason. Her new project, Clown is Down, was submitted to the council this year and received no funding. “Liberals, progressives, we feel enormous pressure for self-censorship,” she says.

Kamil Koc, a director whose films are informed by his Islamic faith, thinks the industry is shooting itself in the foot, unable to harness its potential because of an inability to close ranks and organise. He is also critical of President Erdogan’s government: “They are keen to increase their cultural capital, but they have squandered what little of it they set out with,” he says.

Handan Ozturk, a film-maker and cinema lecturer at Marmara University, believes the authorities are poised for a cultural offensive. “The ministry has an agenda,” she says. “We sense a will to shape culture in a certain mould.”

Nevertheless, the energy and dynamism of her country gives her hope. “I’ve met nurses in Diyarbakir [a city in southeastern Turkey] trying to make films, organising screenings on rooftops,” she says.

Ms Saydam says, “We will make films no matter, we shall create a global nation of cinema.”

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