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Censorship of Istanbul Film Festival

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There is an outcry going through the rows of Turkey’s filmmaking crowds for weeks now. After the Istanbul Film Festival, the accusations of censorship towards the Turkish Ministery of Culture are now as well affecting the Ankara International Film Festival: The directorate of the latter decided to cancel its documentary and short film competition.

It all started two weeks ago when organisers of the Istanbul Film Festival received a note in the middle of their ongoing festival. They had arranged a glamourous opening ceremony and had been screening several movies already, matters ran their course. But then there appeared this e-mail sent by the General Directorate of Cinema of the Ministry of Culture on April 11th. It intended to „remind“ the team of a certain, well-established rule: Movies produced in Turkey need to obtain an official registration certificate before being screened on international festivals.

This precept has been existing for a while and is well-known among film makers and producers in Turkey. Azize Tan, director of Istanbul Film Festival, stated that this regulation, even if it was not implemented in practice, has been creating massive problems for festivals and film makers for a long time. So maybe one can call it light-headed that the committee did not request proof of all the movie’s certificates in advance.


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Because in fact, some of the participating films lacked the certificate in question. But a couple of them had been brought to the cinemas without any problems during the first days of the festival. The ministerial e-mail attained Istanbul one day before the scheduled screening of one certain movie and although it did not say an explicit word about it, public was convinced quickly that the whole issue was aiming on hampering the screening of „Bakur“ („North“).

The movie by director Ertuğrul Mavioğlu treats an issue obviously still too controversial for official Turkish authorities: It depicts the life of PKK fighters in the mountains of Kurdistan. Mavioğlu’s documentary portrays the armed Kurdish activists, shows their daily life in three different camps and lets them talk about their decisions to join the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Additionally the film contains interview scenes with senior figures of the movement, including the PKK’s Iraq-based operational commander Cemil Bayık. Scenes, the Turkish authorities seem not to be willing to see in public during an ongoing peace process with PKK.

As „Bakur“ did not possess the official certification, the Istanbul Film Festival team decided to pull the movie from the festival in the last minute due to the ministry’s warning of fines. This initiated a series of solidary withdrawals: Almost two dozens of directors and producers decided not to screen their movies at the Bosphorus at all as well as more than 100 Turkish film makers, including the most recent winner of Cannes’ Golden Palm, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, signed a letter in solidary with Mavioğlu alleging censorship at the festival. Finally the Istanbul Film Festival cancelled its competitions due to the withdrawals and nixed all its ceremonies.

But as it turns out now this implosion of the Istanbul Film Festival did not stop the „Bakur“ wave: At Ankara International Film Festival, which is currently running and which will last until the 3rd of May, „Bakur“ is not screened as well. Because of this the directorate of Ankara Film Festival has cancelled its documentary and the short film competition. “When even just one film is not able to show its official registration certificate, it would not be a fair competition“, the organisers accounted.

So the story behind „Bakur“ is still going on, although it is told by just one side. The Turkish Ministery of Culture did not comment on the occurences except from a note stating the letter in question has been sent to the Istanbul Film Festival team already in January. “The festival committee released an old letter as if it had been recently sent, thus trying to show the ministry as a censoring institution. This is false statement, to say in the least,” the official ministerial statement said.

Film makers in Turkey are still waiting for another reaction from Ankara: “I hope that this situation converts into an opportunity that brings 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”, Azize Tan stated.

Thomas Büsch

Filmmaker, Founding Member and Secretary General of diyalog, promotion of cultural exchange with Turkey. Since 2012 he is also project manager of InEnArt.

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