WORLD

And the award goes to... no one

A controversial batch of docs comes to Turkey’s version of Cannes

ADNAN R. KHAN November 19 2007
WORLD

And the award goes to... no one

A controversial batch of docs comes to Turkey’s version of Cannes

ADNAN R. KHAN November 19 2007

And the award goes to... no one

WORLD

A controversial batch of docs comes to Turkey’s version of Cannes

ADNAN R. KHAN

In Turkey, nothing is immune from politics. Even in Antalya, a bright and leafy resort city on the Mediterranean with beachside restaurants, partisanship can occasionally cast its ugly shadow. Two weeks ago, while Antalya kicked off its 44th annual Golden Orange Film Festival, Turkey’s version of Cannes, the expected debauchery was suddenly and unceremoniously silenced by the deaths of 12 soldiers at the hands of separatist guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, operating out of northern Iraq more than 1,000 km to the east. In the aftermath, 100,000 Turkish troops have amassed at the Iraq border, shuttle diplomacy has reached fever pitch, and the consequences to the region seem dire indeed. But if art imitates life, then life can certainly imitate art, or that’s how it must have seemed to many of the directors participating in the festival, where many of the films being screened dealt directly or indirectly with the Kurdish issue.

“There is no art for art’s sake in Turkey,” says Çayan Demirel, whose documentary film 38 was considered the most controversial of any to screen at the Golden Orange. “Turkey is by definition political. No one and nothing here can stay out of politics for long, not even this festival, which is supposed to be a celebration of film.” With his movie telling the story of Kurds in eastern Turkey who were massacred in 1937-38, Demirel is all too aware of how the events at the Iraqi border changed the outcome of the festival. “I never expected to be here in the first place,” he said shortly before his film screened. “Now, I don’t think I have a chance to win.”

In fact, none of the documentaries won. The most riveting of them exposed some of Turkey’s most disturbing historical realities: films like Bahriye Kabadayi’s A Bridge at the Edge of the World, the story of young idealists in the late 1960s building a bridge in the Kurdish east to protest the lack of development there, or Necati Sonmez’s To Make an Example Of, a eulogy to Turkey’s victims of the now-defunct death penalty, which asks viewers to question the purpose behind the 712 executions since the founding of the republic 84 years ago. In a controversial decision, the jury opted not to hand out a prize

in the category, citing “a lack of professionalism” in the films that screened. But directors like Demirel aren’t buying it.

With all of Antalya’s streets lined in the blood-red of the Turkish flag, commemorating the 84th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic, to watch films like Demirel’s 38 was a little like slipping into a backroom porn theatre, glancing around furtively to see if you’ve been seen. This is the reality for Turkish filmmakers. “It’s always difficult times here,” says Fatih Akin, Turkey’s most prominent director, whose film The Edge of Heaven has been submitted for nomination for an Oscar this year, albeit as a German film because it was partially done in Bremen and Hamburg. “I live the reality: I read the papers and I’m exposed to the issues so they naturally come out in my films. But

cl DONT HAVE A CHANCE TO WIN,5 SAID ONE. HE WAS RIGHT. THE JURY REFUSED TO GIVE A PRIZE.

you can’t always do whatever you want. It’s a bit of a twilight zone in Turkey.”

Another ofTurkey’s well-known directors, Handan Ipekçi, whose film Hidden Faces— dealing with honour crimes against women, another dark secret—was entered in the feature film competition, agrees. “Turkey is changing fast,” she says. “This is the perfect time for films like this, but some people resist change. As artists we have a responsibility: we have to show the dark side of Turkey, both past and present. If we don’t, who else will?” In the context of fiction, however, and due in part to their eminent statures, Akin and

Ipekçi can escape some of the biases Turkey’s documentary filmmakers face. “I’m afraid,” says Demirel. “If you want to tell a story against the official ideology, you risk arrest. But I can’t let my fear prevent me from doing what I want.”

Regardless of the jury’s ruling, those in the documentary category say they won’t succumb to the environment of fear they feel has been created by Turkey’s establishment. “The obvious political content of the films makes the jury’s decision suspect,” reads a release issued by two of the directors. “Our evaluation is that the jury’s comments are disrespectful to the filmmakers, who work in very hard conditions and dedicate their lives to make documentaries.”

In Antalya, the shock of 12 dead soldiers that initially nudged the film festival into a fit of self-reflection quickly faded. After three days of mourning, the schedule was again packed with parties and fanfare. But the repercussions remain. “There is a history to the events that are unfolding right now,” says Demirel. “This is not simply about 12 soldiers being killed. To understand what’s happening at the border, you have to understand the history.” 38 was his contribution to that understanding, as were other films. Turkey’s film directors are ready to tell the stories some Turks would rather not hear. But are the authorities willing to let them speak? M