The cycle of censorship in Turkish Cinema from the 1970s to today
By Deniz Cakmak
The censorship debate started after the exclusion from the festival selection of the documentary 'Kanun Hukmu (The Rule of Law),' which depicts the struggle for justice of Yasemin Demirci, a doctor, and Engin Karatas, a teacher, who were suspended from their jobs by the State of Emergency decrees, has expanded to include all the interlocutors in the world of cinema.
The process, which involved everyone from the Golden Orange management to the jury, from directors and producers whose films were included in the festival program to the Antalya Metropolitan Municipality, has finally reached the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, a shadow actor whose name is always spoken behind closed doors, points to other kinds of structural problems that mark Turkey's cultural life beyond the decision to include or remove 'Kanun Hukmu' in the selection.
Understanding that what is happening today is not an isolated incident is enough to look at the cycle of censorship that Turkish cinema has fallen into since the 1970s.
Let's look at the long tally of censorship, in which the same bans are perpetuated on the same grounds. The crisis that flared up again with the documentary 'Kanun Hukmu' has happened many times in the past, and the judiciary has even been used as a springboard for larger political agendas.
The recent history
For bans, there is no need to go back too far to locate the censorship of documentary cinema in the collective memory. Only nine years ago, in 2014, two documentary films were banned from screening at two different festivals in Turkey - reportedly on the Ministry of Culture and Tourism instructions.
One of them is Reyan Tuvi's 2014 documentary film 'Yeryuzu Askın Yuzu Oluncaya Dek (Until the Earth Becomes the Face of Love)' about the Gezi Resistance, and the other is 'Bakur' by journalist and writer Ertuğrul Mavioglu and director Cayan Demirel.
Directed by Reyan Tuvi, 'Yeryuzu Askın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek' was screened at the Istanbul Film Festival and Adana Golden Orange Film Festival and was selected as one of the films to compete in the National Documentary section by the preliminary jury comprising Berke Bas, Ayse Çetinbas and Seray Genc.
The Antalya Golden Orange Festival committee excludes the film from the competition because it "contains expression and content contrary to articles 125 and 299 of the Turkish Penal Code".
Upon this decision, the festival's preliminary jury members declared they did not recognize the decision, saying, "We consider it censorship to evaluate a documentary film according to the Turkish Penal Code, regardless of its content, and to exclude it from the list."
Following the announcement, the representatives of the professional cinema associations came together. They submitted a text signed 'Power Unity' to the signatures of the filmmakers who will attend the festival, calling on them to withdraw if the film is not included in the program again.
Following the call, the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival Committee said inviting the preliminary juries was "to submit a selection to help the management and the main jury in their work" and that the festival would not go back on its decision.
"The festival management "may accept or reject the submitted films," and this is also stated in Article 25 of the festival's regulations".
The committee explains the criteria for a film to be included in the screening program as "not offending human rights and not violating ethical and legal criteria".
The years 2014-2015 are a particular period in terms of Turkish cinema's test with censorship. The attitude of the festival management and the Ministry towards filmmakers and society is almost like a game of hide and seek.
Regulations, reasons, accusations, and each institution skipping out on their responsibilities during a protracted festival season in 2015 choked the windpipe of cinema.
In the same year, the 34th Istanbul Film Festival canceled the screening of 'Bakur/Kuzey,' a guerrilla documentary made by Ertuğrul Mavioglu and Cayan Demirel, which was shot in 2013 while the resolution process was ongoing.
The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) cited a warning letter the Ministry of Culture and Tourism sent on April 11 regarding the "registration certificate" for canceling the documentary screening.
The Ministry claims that "the letter in question was not sent to the festival management recently, but was a general information letter sent on January 9, 2014, reminding them of the relevant legislation."
Azize Tan, director of the 34th Istanbul Film Festival, told Bianet that the Ministry sent them the same letter dated January 9, 2014, on April 11, 2015, and insisted on pointing to the Ministry's "written warning" about the cancellation of the documentary screening:
"The General Directorate of Cinema of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey sent a letter to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts reminding the Foundation that, under Article 15 of the 'Regulation on the Procedures and Principles Regarding the Evaluation and Classification of Cinema Films,' films produced in Turkey to be screened at festivals must have a registration certificate."
At the meeting, Tan stated that they, like many other festivals, did not request this document during the application process and said, "When we were struggling for the amendment, we had the attitude that screenings could continue without the document, but it is necessary to face this."
The Ministry responded to the Istanbul Film Festival management's statement that the censorship did not originate from them and that the festival management had deliberately blamed the Ministry for their deficient practices.
The Ministry's statement at the time holding the festival management is responsible is:
"This irresponsibility is further reinforced because the festival management, by hiding the existing shortcomings and wrong practices, made statements that would lead to an understanding as if the Ministry was practicing censorship... Before all this, it is also clear that the legal process that both the festival management and the film producers had to fulfill for the film's screening was not started and was even ignored. Attempting to portray our Ministry as an institution that imposes censorship in this process, which continues as a series of inaccuracies by hiding the deficiencies, is, to put it mildly, a false statement. In this respect, claims to the contrary are incompatible with reality."
"As the use of the term 'PKK documentary' in the news reports about the film shows, the terrorist organization propaganda in question is incompatible with basic democratic values and universal criteria of freedom of thought. Terrorist organization propaganda, as shown by the characterization 'PKK documentary,' concerns the foundation and the festival management."
The events, which can also be described as a quick joke, show that censorship in Turkey's culture and art life is common when it is not met with an organized reaction from artists or the public.
As an irony of this environment, in 2015, a year of censorship debates, the documentary 'Yollara Dustuk (We Hit the Road),' which tells the story of Yesilcam's 1977 March against censorship, had to be withdrawn twice from film festivals where it was selected as a finalist because of censorship and once due to lack of a certificate of authorship.
Deniz Yesil, the film's director, told Bianet's Cicek Tahaoglu, "I couldn't screen a censorship documentary in two festivals because of the censorship imposed on other films. But my astonishment didn't end there. Yesterday evening, I received a phone call from the Eskisehir Film Festival, and Yollara Dustuk had to get off the roads again." His words prove that censorship is not limited to regulations and singular decisions but operates like a machine that grinds every narrative on its periphery, if possible, with its judgment.
"Yollara Dustuk" was first withdrawn from the 51st Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival because of the censorship imposed on Reyan Tuvi's documentary and then from the 34th Istanbul Film Festival because of the censorship imposed on Ertuğrul Mavioglu and Cayan Demirel's documentary Bir Gerilla Belgesi Bakur/Kuzey (A Guerrilla Documentary Bakur/Kuzey), cannot be screened at the Eskisehir Film Festival because of the obstacle of the Work Management Certificate.
'Yollara Duştuk' was first selected as a finalist for the Antalya Film Festival. However, when Reyhan Tuvi's documentary was censored, 12 of the 15 films signed a joint text and announced their withdrawal from the festival.
What exactly was the copyright certificate requirement that led to the banning of these documentaries, then?
The Work Management Certificate is a document that films must get from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism before entering festivals.
The requirement to have a certificate of registration and registration, which was also a stumbling block for Bakur in 2015, has become a justification that directly affects the processes related to the screening of films by both festival administrations and the Ministry.
In the same interview, director Deniz Yesil explains how this procedure works in the following words:
"The Ministry will not give that certificate to films it deems unsuitable under the headings of national interests and general morality, and those films cannot apply to the festival. This is direct censorship, blocking the film."
The regulation, which paved the way for the process that resulted in filmmakers withdrawing their films from the festival and canceling competitions after Bakur was blocked, was met with reaction by filmmakers.
Subsequently, the Ankara Film Festival announced the cancellation of the documentary and short film competitions. The festival states that this decision is a consequence of the law that prevents the screening of films at the Istanbul Film Festival and announces that it has withdrawn from jury duties.
In its decision, the Ankara National Film Competition Jury points out that the procedure operates as an apparatus of censorship and says: "We oppose the operation of the registration and copyright certificate as a censorship mechanism."
The same year, film workers and writers marched from the French Cultural Center on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu to the Atlas Movie Theater with the slogan "Free cinema."
We recall the censorship and obstructions against Turkish cinema in the press statement made after the march.
The filmmakers stated the following in 2015, claiming that they regard the removal of the requirement to get a Certificate of Authorship as the first step in the struggle against censorship:
"Films and festivals will probably face much greater restrictions in the coming period. We will fight with all our strength to abolish all overt or covert practices that allow censorship immediately."
The junta heritage
Every subsequent crisis in the history of censorship extends to the junta era. However, the suppression of 1979 is a crucial starting point to comprehend how the coup's impact infuses institutional reasoning.
Following Yesilcam's "No to Censorship" march in 1977, all producers and directors withdrew from the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in 1979 after the Censorship Board banned the films "Yolcular (Travellers)" by Yavuz Pagda, "Demiryol (Railroad)" by Yavuz Ozkan and "Yusuf file Kenan (Yusuf and Kenan)" by Omer Kavur, which were in the competition selection of the festival.
The jury members protested the situation by saying, "Since we could not evaluate all the films, we unanimously decided not to evaluate the takes part in the competition for feature films". Taking a stance against censorship, the festival management canceled the 16th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival Feature Competition.
Despite the preparations for the 17th edition of the festival, the Feature Competition section, which had been canceled the previous year, and despite the clarification of the festival date, the day before the opening date, which had been set for September 13, the military coup of September 12 took place. The festival was canceled entirely following the declaration of martial law.
What "Kanun Hukmu" shows
The motivation for cinema censorship has never been free from the political baggage of the governments. Still, since the 1970s until today, the efforts of art institutions to create public pressure and protect the autonomy of art against the practices that have been normalized by the executive, sometimes with the stick of the judiciary and sometimes with the conditions of the 'State of Emergency,' have always lagged the efforts of art workers.
The exact process can be traced to the shyness of the Ministry and the Istanbul Film Festival to take ownership of the censorship decision during the chain censorship crisis that emerged in 2015.
The removal of the film 'Kanun Hukmu' by Nejla Demir from the selection by the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival management on the claim that 'the judicial process is ongoing' shows that without the public pressure created by film workers and the jury, festival management can easily evade responsibility against the "warnings" of the Ministry.
That the event has grown into a sizable economy contributes to the current predicament.
One reason the Antalya Metropolitan Municipality, which organizes the festival, remained silent for a long time in response to the reactions following the decision to exclude the film from the selection is that the cost of the festival is shared with the Ministry and other sponsors.
Besides the general costs of the festival, another dimension of the crisis is the fines that the organizers of the Golden Orange will have to pay after the withdrawal of the Ministry's support because of the tender procedure at the festival.
Following the reinstatement of Kanun Hukmu to the selection after pressure from the public and film workers, Festival President Ahmet Boyacioglu announced that he was left alone in the face of investigations and death threats against his person and that the film was again excluded from the selection.
With this latest decision, Turkey has entered a new era for cinema and all cultural life.
Aside from all the dilemmas of the current situation, which is impossible to keep up with, that the film was accused of "FETO (Gulenists) propaganda" by the Ministry is interpreted as a sign that the film may face a Governorate ban in the coming days, even if the administration does not cancel it.