Nejla Demirci: Everyone will watch this movie (Part 1)
By İrfan Aktan
Few films have captured the terrible status of free expression in Turkey, such as Kanun Hukmu (The Rule of Law), directed by Nejla Demirci. The government attacked the documentary. The opposition could not dare say, "Wait a minute, let's see what is being said in this movie," a documentary that acted as a window into the country's realities but was never watched.
This issue serves as a crucial litmus test. A large portion of the public employees fired during the state of emergency imposed following the coup attempt on July 15 were leftists who had long-standing disagreements with the Fetullahists who carried out the coup.
The film Kanun Hukmu puts this part of the problem—which the government refuses to discuss—back on the agenda. After those who haven't seen the film have had a chance to voice their opinions, let's hear from Nejla Demirci, the film's producer and director.
In the documentary Kanun Hukmu, you focus on the story of Doctor Yasemin Demirci and teacher Engin Karatas. Who are these two people?
Yasemin was working as a cardiologist at Bodrum State Hospital, and Engin Karatas was a teacher at an elementary school in Bodrum when a decree dismissed them. Yasemin is my sister. She has been an activist for the Turkish Medical Association since medical school and is a good physician. Engin is a good teacher, much loved by his students.
What were the grounds for their dismissal?
We still need to find out! As Yasemin was getting ready to work one morning, a Health Workers' Union friend called her and said, "I saw your name on the emergency decree list." The date was July 14, 2017. But when these emergency decree lists were prepared, the opinions of the superiors of the institutions, complaints, intelligence reports of unknown origin, various social relations, and membership in opposition unions were considered. Since none of their acts could legally be regarded as crimes, they used the Decree Law mechanism to purge these people. I am speaking on behalf of Yasemin. We have not received an official explanation for her case. We do not know why she was dismissed or the reason for her reinstatement with a "pardon."
So your sister is back at work?
Yes, indeed. However, Mr. Engin has yet to be reinstated to his previous position.
We also need to find out that. Engin suffered consequences for "violating the law on meetings and demonstrations" in response to his innovative, self-motivated efforts to regain employment. Engin did not engage in any resistance against the police during his daily "I want my job" protests in the square outside the Bodrum school where he had been a teacher after being fired. To put it briefly, we must know the reasons behind Yasemin's return and Engin's continued dismissal.
How did you decide to make the documentary?
Through Yasemin, I realized that when a doctor becomes a victim of the emergency decree, all his patients also become victims. Again, when Engin Karatas, the teacher whose story I covered in the documentary, was dismissed, I realized that all his students also became victims of the Emergency Decree. This was the reason why we, as a society, were so affected by the dismissals. Moreover, all the legal efforts of those subjected to the emergency decree to return to their jobs were hitting a thick and high wall.
In addition to losing their careers, their social lives have also been negatively impacted.
Of course. First, let me say this for Yasemin: the patients left behind went to the Mugla Governor's Office, the Bodrum District Governor, and the chief physician of the Bodrum State Hospital and signed petitions. On the other hand, when we look at the big picture, those subjected to the emergency decree could not tell their spouses, children, families, or neighbors about what happened to them. Their neighbors and friends began to look at them with suspicion and distance. The biggest reason for this was that those dismissed were not even told "you committed the following crime" and that uncertainty was operated as a separate punishment mechanism. They knocked on every door in the state to find out why they were dismissed. But the door of the law was wholly closed to these people.
The documentary's filming, Kanun Hukmu, took a very long time. How long did you follow Engin Karatas and Yasemin Demirci?
Initially, I believed that an illegal process could not last for so long. As I started to shoot my documentary, I gradually discovered I was wrong. Thus, illegality grew dramatically and eventually swallowed us. I started filming in 2017 when Yasemin was expelled, and on January 18, 2018, it was formally forbidden. On March 30, 2022, the Constitutional Court declared that the restriction on our film had violated our right to free speech. As the drawn-out procedure went on, people ended their lives. The hunger strikes of Semin Ozakca and Nuriye Gulmen were dramatic. Unfortunately, the public uproar yielded little outcomes. All hopes that it would miraculously begin to rise again after reaching its lowest point were dashed. Because even if the fall was spread out across years, the bottom did not appear. The clamor surrounding the Decree Law today demonstrates that we are still blind to the truth. But all I wanted to do was use my camera to document the entire procedure and see how Yasemin and Engin handled it before putting that picture in front of the public.
What did you go through during the shooting process?
Subsequently, the individuals who didn't know them—Yasemin's patients, Engin's students, police officers, anti-terror teams, guards, fascists who were released on us with a specific purpose, and threats—independently entered the frame. I also saw attempts to sabotage my relationship with my sister.
Suggestions like "Your sister is harming you by making this documentary" and "Doctor, you are such a good physician; stop it."... I saw individuals with diverse identities putting severe pressure on me in various ways. I discovered that filming took work a few months after I began. Of course, other things significantly impacted and inspired me. Yasemin's patients gathered signatures shortly after the expulsion and traveled to the Mugla Governor's Office in three busses. Each patient had penned their narratives with Yasemin in these signatures. In the meeting, the deputy governor alleged that "doctors in the east work during the day and care for terrorists at night." He told the patients that the physician attending them advocated for the terrorists. Questions like "Did the TTB or Eğitim-Sen send you?" and "Did the Health Workers Union send you?" were posed to the patients. I therefore understood right away that this film would not be finished soon.
But did you expect the documentary The Rule of Law to cause such a big fuss before it was even seen?
Given the difficulty of producing, I anticipated screening this film would take much work. However, I could not have predicted such a ridiculous, illogical slander campaign.
Where was the film's premiere?
Since we need clear and comprehensive laws governing the arts, artists want to obtain European approval before showcasing their creations. Many artists are pressured to register their work abroad to avoid implicit censure. Put another way, a film's "quality" is only considered recognized at home festivals if screened at a significant international festival. For this reason, I had Kanun Hukmu's world premiere at the MunihDok Film Festival in Germany. This nation has already seen a thousand films of a similar nature made under far more challenging circumstances. But no amount of gratitude or applause from them will cheer me up. I hope this movie gets embraced in this region. The documentary Kanun Hukmu should be widely distributed throughout Turkey, village by village and neighborhood by neighborhood, and it should catalyze conversation, debate, and conflict resolution. What did we experience? What experiences did people have during the entire process? We must talk about these issues.
The inclusion, exclusion, re-inclusion, and cancellation of the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival... What would you call it if you were to make a documentary about this whole process?
The Antalya Metropolitan Municipality Mayor used the term "known movie" when he stated, "I haven't seen the movie." There is a documentary on the very topic of my movie's ban. In fact, "the movie in question" may be the title of a documentary. This process has no name that I can find. The film was first added to the festival; then, it was taken out. It was added back in, and finally, the festival was canceled—a wholly unreasonable and unlawful procedure.
* The second part of the interview will be published tomorrow.