It is not often that a film causes major controversy before it is even released, but that is exactly what happened with award-winning Turkish director Emin Alper’s latest film "Burning Days."
The surprising events have led to a debate in Turkey over artistic freedom, censorship and attacks against the LGBTQ community with the government demanding the funds it had provided to support the film.
Before being released in Turkey, "Burning Days" was received positively abroad. It was shown at the 75th Cannes Film Festival in May 2022, and honored with several awards this year. Then it made its Turkish premier at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in October, winning nine awards, including best director.
Yet, on Dec. 8, the day before the film was finally set to open in Turkish theaters after much anticipation, Alper and producer Nadir Operli made a shocking announcement: Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism had demanded the filmmakers pay back the funds the ministry had given to support the film — with interest.
Alper and Operli said that the justification the ministry made for this demand were alleged changes made to the screenplay after approval for funding. The filmmakers say they carefully followed the government funding process and made no major changes.
“No democratic country oversees changes made to film scripts after supporting it with public funds,” the filmmakers said in their statement.
The film sector and the public promptly rallied to the film’s cause. A petition signed by people in the industry described the ministry’s decision as “a black stain on the history of cinema.” On social media, dissident voices vowed to flood cinemas to support the film with some celebrities holding raffles to gift tickets to students.
The government’s move sparked an outcry particularly among Turkey’s already beleaguered LGBTQ community. Though the ministry has yet to comment on the filmmakers' statement, coverage in pro-government Turkish press offers a clue into the official objection.
Far-right Islamist Yeni Akit newspaper released an article slamming the film’s streak at the Golden Orange Festival that read, “An LGBT propaganda film was supported by the ministry! It won nine awards,” the daily said, claiming the film also “insulted” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.
The filmmakers describe these accusations as a “defamation” campaign that has been unleashed after "Burning Days" became a candidate for the Cannes Queer Palm, an LGBTQ prize.
Yet, hitting the theaters, "Burning Days" is clearly not a film focusing on a gay relationship, but instead an oppositional film. It subtly condemns cruelty against minority groups — from people of different sexual orientations to ethnic minorities, women, animals and the environment. It uses an impoverished town in the Anatolian countryside as an allegory for Turkey.
Culture writer Binnaz Saktanber told Al-Monitor, “'Burning Days' is one of the best films to come out of Turkish cinema in recent years. [The film] expresses the climate of repression and intimidation that has encircled the fictional town of Yaniklar and the feeling of being 'hunted' that minorities, women and LGBTQ people experience.”
The fact that the film was censored “after the fact,” Saktanber argued, "is a way of punishing independent filmmakers and intimidating future artists who have the intention to speak out.”
The film follows Emre — played by Selahattin Pasali — an idealist young prosecutor who is assigned to a provincial town that is rife with casual violence. When a woman is raped only Emre feels compelled to pursue justice.
He meets only one kindred spirit: the opposition-minded young journalist Murat — played by Ekin Koc. While neither character is portrayed openly as gay, the cinematography implies a homoerotic tension. Both the prosecutor and the journalist quickly come in the crosshair of the mayor, the town’s strongman, who mobilizes his supporters in increasingly populist ways in a bid to hold onto power.
Film writer Umur Cagin Tas argues that the LGBTQ themes implied in the film are solely one of the reasons the film has been targeted, pointing at broader pressure on any kind of dissent. “It is wrong to reduce the reactions [to the film] to the queer characters. The government in power is not used to being criticized and punishes those who do,” Tas told Al-Monitor, arguing that government officials were using homophobia as “camouflage” to attack the filmmakers.
Alper expressed solidarity with the students resisting at Bogazici University and the “political prisoners” of the Gezi Park trials during his award acceptance speech at the Golden Orange Awards. One of the co-producers of "Burning Days" is Cigdem Mater, a filmmaker sentenced to 18 years in prison for allegedly masterminding the 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.
“Since the Gezi protests of 2013 — when actors, musicians and other popular artists became focal points of the opposition because of their visibility — the AKP [Erdogan's Justice and Development Party] has viewed artists as a threat,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at John Hopkins University.
Along with many other social areas, Turkey’s culture scene has increasingly become the subject of scorn of government officials with musicians critical to the government witnessing concert bans and censorship over their work’s queer content.
“Artists and allies of the LGBTQI+ community are especially targeted, as are Kurds and Kurdish-language content,” Hintz told Al-Monitor.
The ruling party is frustrated about being unable to dominate Turkey’s cultural sphere, according to Hintz. Despite its domination of the political landscape, the government has been unable to make serious inroads in the art/culture scene, where liberal voices remain prominent.
Now with the Turkish economy in dire straits, the government is focusing on issues that score points with its conservative and nationalist supporters.
“Especially now with elections looming and with identity politics being a cheaper way to court votes than tangible benefits, we are seeing increased interference in the cultural sphere,” Hintz concluded.