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Turkish Filmmakers Face Increasing Political Pressure

Turkish director Kaan Mujdeci (R), actor Dogan Izci (C) and actor Muttalip Mujdeci arrive for the screening of the movie "Sivas" presented in competition at the 71st Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3, 2014 at Venice Lido.
Turkish director Kaan Mujdeci (R), actor Dogan Izci (C) and actor Muttalip Mujdeci arrive for the screening of the movie "Sivas" presented in competition at the 71st Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3, 2014 at Venice Lido.

Turkish filmmakers have been making the rounds at international film festivals with great success. At the Venice Film Festival this month, a Turkish director again picked up a couple of awards. That follows a Turkish film winning the top award at this year’s Cannes festival. But back at home all is not well, with the Islamist-rooted government accused of increasingly interfering with and intimidating filmmakers.

At this month’s Venice Film Festival, director Kaan Müjdeci won the special Jury Prize for his debut film Sivas. Müjdeci is part of a successful wave of Turkish filmmakers that have emerged in the last decade.

But what happened to the satirical film Let’s Sin by Onur Unlu, has cast a shadow over the industry.

The film, about an irreverent Imam who goes to extreme lengths to solve a murder, received several awards. But the Turkish Ministry of Culture designated an 18-years-old-and-over rating for the film normally reserved for those with the most extreme sexual or violent content - a commercial "kiss of death" for most films, as few Turkish cinemas screen them.

The decision was widely seen by the film industry as politically motivated. A charge well founded, according to Yamac Okur, the film industry’s representative on the rating classification board.

Okur says ever since last year’s anti government protests known as Gezi, the government has adopted a political agenda on classifying films.

"Especially after the Gezi protests, I can say there is a tendency. It's very related to politics. Sometimes with the subject whether the content is sexual or religious and sometimes who directed it or produced it. For example for Onur Unlu, because Onur Unlu was very political and critical of the main government and politics," Okur stated.

The government denies any political motivation behind film classifications.

The film industry erupted in outrage over the classification of Unlu's film. The Ministry of Culture finally backed down and re-classified the film as suitable for viewers 13 years old and above.

Unlu's victory could well prove hollow for filmmakers, however. That’s because the culture ministry said in April that any film that receives an adult-only rating must return its state funding.

For producer Emine Yildirim there is now an implicit threat of an 18 plus rating. "To me the initial reaction I had was, this was a guideline pushing people towards auto-censorship especially filmmakers, writers and directors. There was always talk the ministry wanted support, for example, for family films, children's films, films about heroism. It just seems like if you don't completely support the mentality of the ruling party it's not going to be easy to do anything in this country, not only films," she said.

Okur, a successful film producer and a member of the classification board, has been trying to persuade the government to introduce reform. He says new legislation is pending that will introduce a clear criteria for the classification of films but that any reform is unlikely until after next year’s general election.

Come of My Voice, is award winning Kurdish director Huseyin Karabey’s latest film. Karabey was one of first of the new wave of filmmakers to emerge in the last decade, during the early years of the ruling AK Party. Analysts say supporting political filmmakers like Karabey fit in well with the party's then political agenda of pushing pro democracy and facing down the country’s generals.

But Karabey claims a new future is approaching for Turkish cinema. "I am a pessimist. Somehow they have found the right way to put censorship during the making of the movie. So maybe we will now start making micro movies, [with a] very small budget, very small crew. And I know even if I succeed finishing the film, these Turkish film festivals get big support for cultural ministry. So even though you make your own movie, there is no way to show your movie in this country freely. Maybe only broadcast it on the Internet," Karabey explained

Karabey claims that while his previous films were embraced by Turkish film festivals, his latest was rejected because it was too political in the current climate. While the newly-elected President Recip Tayyip Erdogan is promising a new Turkey, the question increasing on the minds of many filmmakers and audiences is: What kind of Turkey will it be?