Turkey is being accused of pressuring organizers of a film festival in the city of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan to cancel the screening of an award-winning entry depicting the resistance put up by the youth wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) against the Turkish army during its three-month-long siege of Sur, the historic heart of Diyarbakir, in 2016.
While the exact death toll remains unknown, hundreds of civilians are thought to have died in an urban insurrection that began in 2015 when the PKK declared autonomy in a string of predominantly Kurdish towns and cities across the southeast and left entire neighborhoods, including Sur, in ruins. The UN said in a report that Turkey had committed vast abuses, including unlawful killings of women and children.
The film “Ji Bo Azadiye” or “The End Will Be Spectacular” is based on the diaries of young fighters in Sur.
The Turkish state typically intervenes with foreign governments to suppress cultural events, the erection of monuments and the like that refer to past atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities, notably Armenians and Kurds. In this particular case, Turkey allegedly enlisted Kurds to act against their own brethren, sowing divisions and feelings of betrayal.
Organizers of the fifth annual Sulaimaniyah International Film Festival informed director Ersin Celik that his film was being withdrawn just hours before its scheduled showing on Dec. 18. The organizers claimed it was because the film did not meet the requirement that films competing in the feature film category be no more than two years old. Celik’s film was shot in Kobani, a town on the Syrian Kurdish border that won international fame with its epic resistance against the Islamic State, and released in 2019.
Lina Raza, director of programming, told Al-Monitor, “This has nothing to do with political pressure at all. It has to do with our rules.” Why had it taken the organizers so long to realize that "Ji Bo Azadiye" didn’t qualify? “There were 142 films," Raza said. "I asked all the directors to tell the truth.”
She went on, “This is about trust between me and the directors,” and sent Al-Monitor a screen shot from the festival’s webpage via WhatsApp outlining the rules.
However, Celik and his co-producer Diyar Hesso gave an entirely different version of events that was supported by correspondence between themselves and the festival organizers and a screen shot from the festival’s website with the rules for Kurdish cinema. It states, “No requirement.” Hesso charged that the organizers had amended the page today to fit their own narrative. Raza did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment regarding the claim.
Celik told Al-Monitor that he offered a compromise whereby the film was withdrawn from the competition but shown at the scheduled time “so as to spare the organizers embarrassment and shame.” That offer was spurned, reinforcing suspicions that Turkish officials were behind the affair.
Celik, who left Turkey in 2013 after being convicted of spreading “terrorist propaganda” for his work as a journalist on police abuse, acknowledged that he had no proof. However, he added, that he did believe that Turkey was to blame for the affair because it had sought to prevent the film from being shown at other festivals. “In some instances they succeeded, in others they didn’t,” Celik said.
Turkey has arguably more economic leverage over the Iraqi Kurds than any other country, including Iran and the United States. Iraqi Kurdish oil, a big source of revenue, is exported despite an ongoing legal challenge from Baghdad through a pipeline that runs to loading terminals at Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Ankara has used that leverage to deploy thousands of troops and fight its war against the PKK across Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK accuses the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which wields the greatest power in the Kurdistan Regional Government, of colluding with Turkey. Tensions between the PKK and the KDP escalated over the summer, resulting in deadly clashes.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which prevails in Sulaimaniyah, has traditionally enjoyed closer ties with the PKK. But it has come under mounting pressure from Ankara to curb the latter’s activities since August 2017 when the PKK abducted three Turkish intelligence operatives.
Winthrop Rodgers, an independent commentator on Kurdish affairs based in Sulaimaniyah, noted, “The PUK has always been subject to pressures from Turkey and has acted on it.” He cited another example of Turkish-driven censorship from January 2019, when the Asayish, the name for internal security forces, closed down Sinema Salim, a local cafe and movie theater just before it was supposed to show a film about Sakine Cansiz on the anniversary of her killing. Cansiz was a founding member of the PKK who was assassinated by a Turkish citizen with alleged links to Turkey’s intelligence services in Paris in January 2013.
The cafe was allowed to reopen but was denied permission to screen "Ji Bo Azadiye" earlier this year.
In November 2018 the PUK shut down all the offices of the PKK-friendly Kurdistan Free Society Movement. “The belief at the time, which was never really refuted, was that both of those [moves] came under Turkish pressure and as an apparent act of appeasement,” Rodgers told Al-Monitor. The aim was to get Ankara to reopen its airspace to flights from Sulaimaniyah's airport, which had been closed by Baghdad in response to the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum on independence. Ankara continued to enforce the ban even after Baghdad lifted it. Flights resumed in January 2019.
The latest accusations of Turkish meddling arose when the PUK moved against Lahur Talabani, a senior PUK figure who is openly sympathetic to the PKK and hostile to Turkey.
Ankara’s bullying doesn’t always work. In 2016, the Turkish government tried to get Swedish authorities to ban the screening of “Bakur” or "Turkish Kurdistan," an award-winning documentary detailing the daily lives of PKK fighters that features top PKK commanders Cemil Bayik and Fehman Huseyin. They refused.
Ertugurul Mavioglu, a veteran Turkish journalist who co-directed the film, was sentenced to six years in prison for “propagating terrorism” and currently lives in exile in Greece. He told Al-Monitor, “Not only is it probable, it is absolutely certain that Turkey prevented the screening of 'Ji Bo Azadiye.'”