Turkey: HEJAR film banned at Istanbul Film Festival
Forbidden tongues, dangerous films!
A film which had already been seen by 100,000 people in Turkey was cut out of Istanbul Film Festival because it showed police violence and a girl speaking Kurdish. Bram Posthumus was there. (Note: Film was then banned by Turkish government. Filmmakers took their case to court and won. So the film was permitted re-release..)
Turkish actress Serra Yilmaz stood on the immense stage of the Istanbul Concert Hall, flanked by the presenter and a representative of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. The occasion was the glitter-studded Gala at the end of the 21st Istanbul Film Festival and Yilmaz had just won the prize of "Best Actress".
Unlike Hollywood, which turns on the tear taps, its Turkish opposite number is remarkably business-like. The actress simply said: 'I thank my director, the crew, and I'd also like to mention my father, who was among the first film critics in our country. It is my wish that this festival may continue, without censorship.'
The man from the Ministry of Culture put his hands resolutely behind his back and refused to even acknowledge Yilmaz's presence. Moments later, when she walked off the stage, he probably realized the churlishness of his snub and turned to her with the trademark haughty friendliness of bureaucrats. She brushed past him and the look on her face made it quite clear where he could go as far as she was concerned.
Yilmaz got the prize for her performance in a remarkable film, "9", which depicts the reconstruction of a murder case through a series of police interrogations which were cut up and re-arranged into a delightful sequence.
But "9" was one of three films that were in serious danger of not being shown at all. It finally only happened to one, "Big Man Small Love" (in Europe to be released as "Hejar") by Handan Ipekçi.
It is the story of a small Kurdish girl who hides in a closet while the police conduct a very violent raid on the apartment where she lives with a group of suspected Kurdish activists. She is the only one to survive and when it is all over she walks into the apartment of a retired judge who does not understand a word of what she says and has actually forbidden her Kurdish housemaid to speak her own language. But slowly he comes around and in the end we see the old man and the little girl teaching each other their languages.
"Hejar" is a moving experience but it also moved the censors. 'I was completely shocked when I heard it,' recalls Ipekçi. 'After all, the film had been financially supported by the Ministry of Culture, it had been shown in Turkish cinemas. More than 100,000 people had already seen it.'
In its official explanation, the Ministry of Culture said that the inspection board had asked for the film not to be shown and that the police were offended by the way the raid had been depicted. Also, the use of the Kurdish language in official settings is banned and the film contains dialogues in Kurdish, with Turkish subtitles.
But art critic Esevin Okyay who writes for the left-of-center Radikal newspaper and is an advisor to the festival thinks it is an act of monumental folly. 'Have you ever heard of anything this silly? I mean, if this one could not have been shown, then a host of other films should have been banned also.' Indeed, "9" contains instances of police brutality and another film, "The Photograph" shows a much more radical depiction of the Kurdish conflict.
Ipekçi thinks that her film has become the victim of a struggle for influence within the Turkish government, between the traditional and the more progressive tendencies.
Ümit Ünal, the director of "9" has worked as a script writer for many years. 'The law can be interpreted in such a way that the authorities can ban virtually everything. You may have insulted the police, the army, morality, respect for tradition et cetera. It seems to me that they are trying to create a climate of fear around filmmakers, which may result in more self-censorship. To a certain extent, we already self-censor ourselves when we write scripts.'
In the age of the war against terrorism, sympathy for causes that in the mindset of the Turkish authorities are closely associated with terrorism, like the Kurdish fight for autonomy, means moving into dangerous territory.
But Ipekçi is adamant that her film was about creating respect and tolerance in a multi-ethnic society. The judge in her film is 75 years old, the same age as the modern Turkish republic. 'We were celebrating our 75th birthday as a country and yet there was a war going on. I reflected on this contradiction and so I built the story around the little girl and the judge.' The judge really is the central character. 'I made the film in the hope that Turkey would develop. Turkey must change, it must become more tolerant. The government should have supported my film, to steer the country more towards democracy.'
Instead, she had to take the state to court to get her film released. The case was still pending when the festival got under way but Ipekçi hopes that she will win in the end.
The slot that was allocated to "Hejar" was now used for a brief meeting of Turkish filmmakers who used the occasion to write and release a statement in which they condemned the ban. "We call upon the public and especially professional guilds not to become accustomed to prohibitions" reads part of it.
But while this suggests a closed front of filmmakers who stand firm against censorship, this is not quite the case. Each director was asked to read the statement before showing his or her own film at the festival. Most did, some did not. In fact, the action came about when Ipekçi wrote a short article in Radikal about her lone struggle.
'Handan complained about being alone,' recalls art critic Okyay, 'You know, today they have done it to her and tomorrow they can do it to someone else. I admit it is not a very noble way of thinking but at least it is something. I really do believe that actions against censorship must be better organized. Because if it is true that this a move towards more censorship, we are going in the wrong direction. I mean, we have made progress. Are we going back to the time when they would read and judge the scripts before the film was made?' Perish the thought.
The whole episode has been a public relations disaster for the festival. Director Hülya Uçansu is well aware of the implications. 'We have lodged a petition with the Ministry of Culture to ensure that this utterly unpleasant experience is not repeated,' she says. 'We have asked them to exempt Turkish films from censorship, just like the foreign ones. I believe that this has been a mistake.'
Indeed it was. Instead of talking about the new Turkish films, some of which are of excellent quality, censorship was the topic of the day. For a country that aspires to EU membership, this is bad publicity indeed. "Keep pace with the changing world" was the exhortation of the English language Turkish Daily News. The gist of the article, in two words: grow up. Ending censorship would be a good start.