Turkey Pulse

Despite Ankara's lack of support, Turkish film wins big at Sundance

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Article Summary
The Turkish government has put private theater and movie productions in a chokehold through restrictions in financing and legal hurdles.

The Turkish movie "Butterflies" has won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival. For 36-year-old director, screenwriter and co-producer Tolga Karacelik and his team, the win was a pleasant surprise.

While accepting the award, Karacelik said the movie had been shot in just 18 days. He had applied for financial support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism but was denied. Though his previous movie, "Ivy" (2015), had received funding from the ministry and went on to win multiple awards at domestic and international film festivals, Karacelik and his friends relied on crowdfunding to finish this one.

After the festival, when asked why the ministry denied him funding, Karacelik said that was not a question he could answer. Al-Monitor spoke with a former employee of the Culture and Tourism Ministry who said on condition of anonymity, “All public statements of those seeking funds are monitored. If it is seen as critical to the moral values of the society or the principles of the state, then your application is disqualified.”

Karacelik’s "Ivy" had strong yet subtle political messages, and movie critics were surprised the ministry had granted it funding. During the Antalya Film Festival's award ceremony, Karacelik announced he was dedicating the award to jailed journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, and the speech by the award-winning star of the movie, Nadir Saribacak, was censored by pro-AKP media outlets.

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"Butterflies," about which one Sundance reviewer said, “It’s an exceedingly rare accomplishment in cinema to so audaciously dare authenticity while maintaining an equilibrium of sincerity,” did not receive a dime from Turkish government.

The AKP’s track record on art has been rather mixed. For the last six years Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been advocating the privatization of theater and there have been many debates about what kind of plays state-sponsored theaters should stage. Erdogan’s argument goes that if the state funds the theater, then the government should be able to monitor and participate in the decision-making process as well. Since 2013, any government funding for cinema or private theater has required that the product should comply with morality criteria, and any material deemed unsuitable for audiences younger than 18 is ineligible for funding. It is also an unwritten but well-established rule that any theater group known to have extended support for the Gezi protests will not receive any financial support from the state.

Erdogan’s initial attitude toward the arts could have been considered liberal: Let them do as they please if they can survive on their own means. Yet it has changed recently, producing bans and eventually closures of theaters and prosecution of artists.

The first sign of change came in 2015, when the documentary "Bakur" was denied screening at the Istanbul Film Festival. In 2017, the directors of the movie were charged with “terrorist propaganda.” It was the first known ban on a documentary in Turkey, said co-director Ertugrul Mavioglu. Still, the ministry told the press it had not been officially banned. 

Dozens of Kurdish theaters have been shut down under the emergency law. Even children’s theater festivals in Kurdish cities have been banned.

In this increasingly hostile environment, independent artists struggle to survive. One of them is Baris Atay, an outspoken actor who has been detained and sued over his social media posts, speeches and opinion pieces. Despite constant social media attacks, Atay has been staging a one-man play called “Sadece Dictator” (“Only A Dictator”) since November 2015. The show does not directly address or name Erdogan but makes historical references to famous dictators and focuses on systems of one-man rule. It criticizes those who are complacent with incremental increases in authoritarianism.

On Jan. 11, a performance in Artvin province was blocked, with the content deemed “inappropriate.” The Artvin ban was only the first sign of what was to come, and one city after another started issuing bans. In the Kadikoy district of Istanbul, all theaters were banned from staging the play on the grounds that it posed a threat to public safety. The day Atay and his colleagues all around the country had called for the play to be read live on social media live, Jan. 29, Atay’s Twitter account was suspended, to be reinstated a few hours later.

Ankara Municipality banned the play, which was scheduled for last year, and prohibited all associations with Atay himself. As odd as it sounds, the ministry has banned the actor from holding a gathering for fear that he might start performing the play. Instead, Atay's colleagues all over Turkey read the play in front of cameras and shared it on social media. Facing increasing pressure and blocked from the stage, Atay reminded the government of what he had said in 2015: “If there was a dictator, you could not be watching this play.” In front of Istanbul's Emek Theater, Atay said, “Do you accept this ban means our president is a dictator?”

Atay is one of the most resilient and defiant political actors in Turkey, with over 1.1 million followers on social media. Atay said that during the play's second season, Turkish embassies attempted to block the performances in European cities. But it has been performed 160 times, reaching more than 40,000 viewers. So why the bans now, in the most left-wing cities and municipalities? Further restrictions on the exchange of opposition views, which unnerve the government, can be expected on a wider scale.

A sociology professor from Istanbul who asked not to be identified told Al-Monitor, “Theater in places such as Yalova or Artvin or Kadikoy pose a real potential danger for the government. Theater, unlike other arts, is a simultaneously shared moment. Strangers gather in one place and laugh or feel angry together. This could create a connection among people who otherwise feel alone in their discontent against the government, but due to fear and isolation they have to act as if they believe in the system. … With the bans, the state is telling us, ‘You are no longer permitted to have these shared experiences.’”

So what kind of art is acceptable? Erdogan’s attempts to leave a local and national artistic legacy have failed. One of his most prized attempts was a movie called “Reis” ("Captain") detailing Erdogan’s life and political achievements. The movie was expected to achieve international success yet failed utterly, not even holding a proper gala. The director did not attend the premiere and the producer was later arrested for alleged connections with the Fethullah Gulen movement. The rating of the movie on IMDB is 1.8 out of 10. In the meantime, Erdogan advises young Turks to watch a popular sitcom about one of the last Ottoman sultans' life and affairs to learn about their history. This advice could be a harbinger of further pressures on freedom of expression based on morality and public order, and a future in which art forms available to public are limited to melodramatic romances and light-headed comedies.

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Found in: movies, akp, turkey politics, artistic freedom, art, theater, freedom of expression

Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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