Turkish Cinema Has A Gun To Its Head

A government crackdown on dissent in Turkish cinema is transforming filmmaking and destroying careers.

Turkish movie posters
Turkish movie posters
Hanns-Georg Rodek

BERLIN — The movie trailer opens with "Ali Avci presents." Daybreak. Someone washing his hands. Soldiers penetrating a house. Cufflinks on a freshly starched shirt. An overlay: "July 14, 2016." Gunfire as the armed men shoot several people in the house. Then, silence.

Two legs dressed in the green pants of the Turkish army stride past bloody corpses. A general. He inspects the bullet-ridden bodies of a family in the living room. And then, a close-up shot: a pistol on the head of a kneeling man, unmistakably Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's powerful president. The screen fades to black. Another overlay appears: "yakinda," it reads — "soon."

The trailer for the film Uyanis (awakening) was released in July. The following day, Turkish authorities arrested the producer, Ali Avci, and accused him of being "a leader of an armed terrorist organization" and having connections to imam Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government accuses of being behind the attempted coup of July 14, 2016.

The accusations are astonishing. Avci's previous film, just released this past spring, is called Reis (chief) and offers a glowing depiction of President Erdogan's childhood and first baby steps into politics. But now the filmmaker is stewing in prison. And Uyanis, it's safe to say, won't be coming soon to a theater near you.

The desired level

It's hard to imagine, here in Germany, a film that shows Angela Merkel"s family being mowed down, and with the chancellor herself having a gun pressed to her head. It's also impossible to say how the authorities might react. But in Turkey, the scenario is quite real, the result of an ever-escalating confrontation between Turkish cinema and Erdogan's regime.

Late last year, President Erdogan declared that Turkey had "failed to reach the desired level in two fields." First is the educational sector; the second is arts and culture. In its platform, the governing AKP party provides some clues as to what the "desired level" actually is. Education and culture should transmit "national, religious, moral and folkloric values," the platform reads. Or as Erdogan himself says, "Really, we need freethinking intellectuals but who live in peace with their nation and history. None who look down on their kinfolk."

Where that leaves Polat Alemdar, is not clear. Alemdar, a tough-guy action hero who moves like a robot and fearlessly faces down evil, is hardly an intellectual. The character is more like James Bond, except instead of fighting for MI6, his exploits are for the honor of Turkey. In dozens of television episodes and three movies, he has defeated the mafia, Kurdish terrorists, and the Israeli army. Alemdar's latest adventure, Valley of the Wolves: Homeland, arrived in theaters around the world in late September. In it, the Turkish 007 takes on the most important assignment of his career: stopping an invasion of his homeland and disarming rebels.

The Alemdar franchise, for one, isn't in any open conflict with the government. There are plenty of other examples too. The 2015 film Kodi Adi: K.O.Z. (Codename: K.O.Z.) portrays the alienation of Erdogan and Gulen, but through a pro-government lens. And Semih Kaplanoglu, whose Bal (Honey) won the grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010, openly supports AKP.

But other filmmakers are clearly pushing the government's buttons, and facing real consequences as a result. The festival showing of Cayan Demirel's 2015 movie Bakur, about the daily lives of PKK guerillas during the peace process, was canceled outright on the pretext that organizers failed to provide an obscure "registration document" that had never been requested at previous festivals. In response, nearly two dozen directors removed their films from the national feature film competition in Istanbul. The jury followed. And in the end, the competition was canceled.

Another taboo: Kurds

The context of the current conflict dates back decades. The Turkish film industry is one of the largest in the world. In its heyday — the 60s and 70s — it brought 200 films per year to the silver screen, more than some European countries like Germany. And for a long time, Turkish cinema routinely dealt with social issues like injustice and the feudal system. The only taboo for the emerging crop of movie stars was having the wrong ancestors.

When Ayhan Isik, one of the country's most beloved stars, died in 1979, an Armenian colleague mourned his passing in the Turkish daily Hürriyet. He concluded his letter with "your uncle Nubar Terziyan." In reality, Isik was born Isiyan, an Armenian name. His shocked family put out their own article saying, "Important correction: Our dearest Ayhan Isik has nothing to do with the piece signed "your uncle."" When the star comedian Kenan Pars passed away 30 years later, his true name — Kirkor Cezveciyan (Armenian) — was revealed as well.

Another taboo are the Kurds, and not just since Erdogan terminated the peace process with Kurdish rebels. Six months ago, Karim Oz's Zer (Yellow), a historical drama on the massacre of Dersim, during last large Kurdish uprising some 75 years ago, premiered at the Istanbul Film Festival. Halfway through the festival screening, the screen went black and typeface appeared: "You may not view this scene because the governing board of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism considers it inappropriate." When the film later appeared in theaters, the blackened passages were missing altogether.

As the controversy over Bakur demonstrated, liberal festivals have become the main staging ground for confrontation. A documentary film about the 2013 Gezi Park protests was taken off the schedule of events at a festival in Antalya, presumably because it showed anti-Erdogan graffiti. As a result, every single participating director declared a boycott. The documentary competition was then dropped entirely

The festivals face intense financial pressure. The main sponsor in Istanbul, Akbank, pulled out for fear that it would be associated with troublemakers. And in Adana, the city council fired the entire festival selection committee and replaced it with public officials who had no formal knowledge of cinema.

So far, there's no official industry blacklist. In practice, though, certain filmmakers are being left out in the cold. Examples include internationally renowned directors like Emin Alper (his Abluka is currently in German theaters), Tolga Karacelik (his last film was at Sundance), and Erol Mintas (he won a prize in Sarajevo). Since Turkey pulled out of the Brussels-based "Creative Europe" program, there are even fewer opportunities.

In Alper's Abluka (Madness), authorities prematurely release a prisoner so that he can spy on his neighbors. He doesn't have much success. Instead, he moves through a nightmare of roadblocks, images of terrorist attacks on television, and wild dogs picking off residents. It isn't an anti-Erdogan film per say. But it does show a country that is going, quite literally, to the dogs.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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