Why was “Bakur: A Guerilla Documentary” not screened in the festival?

Why was “Bakur: A Guerilla Documentary” not screened in the festival?

In a relpy to the ctitics of the film, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, the co-director of “Bakur” asks: "What we have done can simply be translated as following: Which PKK do you prefer? Do you prefer children who go on combats and kill soldiers? Or rather a PKK which plays marbles, rolls out doughs, walks around in the mountains? Those who criticize the film shall decide on this". – Urheber: Bakur Film. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.

Bakur, a feature-length documentary produced in 2015, was to be screened as part of the non-competing category in the Istanbul Film Festival organized annually by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). However, neither this documentary nor many of the films and documentaries which were to participate in the film festival were able to be screened. The apparent reason was that Bakur: A Guerilla Documentary did not have the registration document required by the Ministry of Culture.1 The fact that the registration document was not demanded until the date of the documentary’s screening caused public indignation and 21 filmmakers whose films were to be screened in the festival withdrew their films from the festival to support the producer and directors of Bakur.2

Directed by Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and Çayan Demirel, Bakur (North) is about the daily lives of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerillas. Many film-makers, artists and intellectuals are of the opinion that the main reason for the censorship imposed on the film is its story. This documentary is not the only work of art which was censored, banned and prevented from being presented for telling the story of the lives, thoughts, aims and ideals of the PKK guerillas.3 What are the reasons used to justify censorship in film festivals and in the history of Turkish cinema in general? What are the legal and social processes that ensured the continuation of these justifications?

Censorship in cinema

Censorship is legally defined as the “measures taken by the state to control any kind of oral, written, visual or vocal publication.” The main lines of the censorship applied to the films by the state in Turkey were determined by the Regulation on the Control of Films and Film Scripts adopted in 1939. According to this regulation, the films which:

  • politically propagate in favor of any state
  • humiliate any race or nation
  • insult the feelings of friendly states or nations
  • propagate in favor of a religion
  • propagate in favor of a political, economic or social ideology that is against the national regime
  • run counter to general decency and morality and national feelings
  • dishonor and propagate against military service
  • are dangerous for the order and security of the country
  • encourage people to commit a crime
  • and include scenes which may be used to propagate against Turkey cannot be authorized for screening.
  • Urheber: Bakur Film. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.This regulation, which was used to restrict and control both the imported and domestic films during the Second World War, continued to be used until 1980s with various amendments despite several attempts of film-makers and politicians to the contrary. However, these fundamental articles reflect the thinking which legally constitutes the backbone of censorship. According to this regulation, the state’s “official” understanding of national unity, national integrity, ideology, propaganda, symbol, military structuring, religious values, sexuality and morality cannot be interpreted, shown, criticized, changed and spread by the citizens. This understanding of the state which was constituted and legitimated under conditions of war has permeated the totality of artistic production and continues to exist up to this date. This condition has limited people’s access to many important cultural workers and their valuable production. Contrary to the reason of its existence, this regulation hindered the accumulation of cultural capital of the country.

In 2004, with the 7th article of the Law on the Evaluation, Classification and Support of Cinema Films (law number 5224), it was made obligatory that “cinema films, produced domestically or imported, are evaluated and classified allowing for recording and registration before their commercial distribution and screening.” Under the same law, it was stated that “the films which were found to be inappropriate as a result of the evaluation and classification shall not be commercially distributed and screened.”4 In 2005, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism prepared the Regulation on Procedures and Principles regarding the Evaluation and Classification of Cinema Films with the aim to “determine the procedures and principles regarding the evaluation and classification of all kinds of imported or domestic films so that they are recorded and registered before being presented for commercial distribution and screening and the establishment of committees and sub-committees for evaluation and classification.” The 15th article of this regulation5 constituted the reference point of the letter sent by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts to censor and warn against the film Bakur: A Guerilla Documentary.

Since the very early days of censorship, hegemonic power and the ways in which it presents, defends and protects itself has had to deal with criticism and protests. The largest problem which hinders the sharing and reception of cultural production in our country is the various restrictions imposed on films due to their subject matters, the people whose story they tell, the places in which they are shot, the language they use and the movie theaters in which they are screened. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) may seem to be an intermediary institution; however, it acted in an incompetent and partisan manner in giving in to the pressure of the Ministry of Culture that demanded a “work registration document” for the screening of the film. If one of the principal aims of the Istanbul Film Festival is to support directors making new and creative films, it is crucial that this first feature-length documentary, which deals with a very significant subject in relation to the political and social history of the country, is able to reach an audience.

Urheber: Bakur Film. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.The types of censorship imposed on films in Turkey

Many films shot and screened in Turkey could be given as examples for the films censored in accordance with the legal regulations that I summarized above. These films may be grouped under four categories as follows:​

  • Films for which work operation licenses were not issued6
  • Films which were accepted conditionally (requiring partial changes or removal of certain scenes)7
  • Films which are rejected and/or are prevented from being distributed or screened8
  • Films subjected to repressions other than state censorship.9

An analysis on the practices of censorship related to the work operation licenses will be informative in terms of understanding the extent to which censorship practices are still used today.

What is registered by the Ministry of Culture?

The screening of Bakur, which had been announced to be screened at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival, was cancelled on its screening date 12 April 2015 with the following statement:

“As per the statute, festival participation requires that ‘films produced within the country are registered and recorded.’ The screening of films produced in Turkey without this certificate results in legal sanctions, therefore the Istanbul Film Festival will not be able to screen films that do not have the aforementioned certificate. As such, the screening of Bakur / North directed by Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, previously scheduled to be shown at 16.00 on Sunday, April 12, at the Atlas Movie Theatre, will not take place. A future screening date of the film will be announced on the condition that it acquires this registration certificate.”

Considering the history of the state censorship, we may conclude that the documentary, which represents the lives of PKK guerillas in the mountains “showing life how it is really lived there,” was banned for representing the philosophical, social and artistic dimensions of the guerilla in a poetic and natural manner, which is contrary to its representation as a violent, relentless and barbaric kind of organization.10 Bakur depicts the structures and representations of the guerilla’s differentiated understanding brought about by the war, equality of men and women, the consciousness of women, class structure and family relations, representing what one of the guerillas in the film calls “dervishes of the mountains”. Bringing the struggle which began in 1938 in Dersim to the 21th century, it enables the audience to learn about “these lands which have a spirit.”

Urheber: Bakur Film. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, one of the directors of the film, says the following about the developments related to the film and the theme of the film, which was shot in approximately four months:

“…We entered the PKK camps and documented what we saw. No one kneaded dough for us since they were already eating bread themselves. No one played with marbles for us; because they really spend their time by playing with marbles and solving puzzles. Our response is this: which PKK would you prefer? Would you prefer kids who kill the soldiers and engage in combats? Or, a PKK which plays with marbles, kneads dough, wanders around the mountains and engages with the people? Those who criticize need to decide that.”11

“The first and foremost thing was to ensure that the work could be conducted in an independent way. We would not venture into that work if there would be any demands related to its content. We work independently and we prefer to work with our own preferences, points of view and the things we see. They accepted that. Their only request was to have no filming that would put their security at risk. Our aim was not to put anyone in jeopardy. We just wanted to document. Therefore, their request was acceptable.”12

As the statements above illustrate, the documentary directed by Mavioğlu and Demirel is a documentary expression of a popular political organization. It is located in the Middle East, expecting new conflicts and wars. It has emerged as a continuation of age-old civilizations and struggles for the identity, life, existence and future of a people. These kinds of realistic works are important both for these reasons and for the place they might have in the current peace process.

In this context, the official processes relating to the classification, evaluation and censoring of films need to be either applied to all films in the same manner or be abolished for all the films since they have turned into repressive practices. It is difficult not to have access to a work of art in the digital-global age in which we live. Therefore, the fairest and most conscientious attitude would be to let the audience interpret the works of art including films. The fundamental condition to create the transformations aimed at abolishing censorship is to respect the labour of the artists like the labour of any other people and to defend the rights of all citizens “to freedom of expression and to express themselves artistically.”13

Urheber: Bakur Film. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.Otherwise, one day we may find ourselves without memory, tongue-tied and silenced like ‘some’ of the filmmakers, theater actors, dancers, musicians, journalists, scholars and politicians.

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1    Bakur: A Guerilla Documentary could be watched online thanks to the support of the Surela Film, the producer of the documentary.

2    “The obligatory recording and registration is an obligatory process completed in exchange for a specific fee to record and register cinematographic and musical works by the producers that make the first fixation of films and phonogram producers that make the first fixation of sounds for the purpose of preventing violation of their rights, facilitating proof of rightholdership and tracking the authority to exercise economic rights, and without the aim of creating any rights.” (http://www.telifhaklari.gov.tr/ana/sayfa.asp?id=405).

3    The book titled Dağın Kadın Hali [Being Women in the Mountains], prepared by Arzu Demir and published by Ceylan Yayıncılık in 2014, was found to be objectionable and banned in the Diyarbakır D-type prison and Kandıra Numbered 2 F-type Prison (2.5.2015, www.firatnews.com).

4    Duygu Çağla Doğan, “Sinemanın Toplum Hayatındaki Rolü ve Denetimi” [The Role of Cinema in Social Life and its Control] Hukuk Gündemi Dergisi, 2010-2, p.77; http://teftis.kulturturizm.gov.tr/TR,14244/sinema-filmlerinin-degerlendirilmesi-ve-siniflandirilma-.html

5    The article of the regulation which explains the obligation of recording and registration is as follows:

      “Films to be screened as part of artistic events:

      Article 15— Any kind of responsibility which emerges from the screening of foreign films brought from abroad to be screened to the public or to participate in the contests held in fairs, film festivals, festivities or similar artistic events organized within the country without any other commerical distribution or screening lies with the organizing committee of these events.

      The organizing committees have to receive the positive opinion of the “Artistic Events Commission” in relation to the events mentioned in the paragraph above. The Commission in question is comprised of representatives of the related professional associations, with one representative from each association. The head of the Commission is selected from among the members and its secretariat is run by the professional association which is the oldest one by its establishment date. The Commission determines its procedures and principles of operation with a meeting held in the beginning of each year. It submits its annual working report to the Ministry until the end of the January of the following year. The Commission is to notify the Ministry about the events for which it gave positive opinion at least one week before the starting date of the event in question.

      The films produced within the country may participate in these events provided that they are recorded and registered.”

6    Films such as Hiçbir Yerde (Nowhere), 9, Sarı Günler (Yellow Days), Büyük Adam Küçük Aşk (Big Man Little Love), Bakur (North).

7     Films such as Aysel Bataklı Damın Kızı (Aysel, The Girsl From the Swampy Roof), Hudutların Kanunu (Law of the Border)

8    Films such as Aşık Veysel’in Hayatı (Life of Aşık Veysel), Yılanların Öcü (Revenge of the Snakes), Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer), Umut (Hope), Yol (The Road), Otobüs (The Bus).

9    Metin Erksan’s film Sevmek Zamanı (Time to Love) was not bought by any producer on the grounds that it will not have a success at the box office and could not be screened at movie theaters (http://ozgur-gundem.com/yazi/47055/metin-erksan-ve-teofilo-stevenson)

10  http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/11245/bakur-belgeseline-kayit-tescil-belgesi-sansuru; http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/koseyazisi/257947/_Dagdan_inmek_istemiyoruz_diyorlar_.html#;  http://www.sendika.org/2015/04/gerillayi-anlatan-bakur-belgeseli-istanbul-film-festivali-programindan-cikarildi/; https://hakangungorarsivi.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/ertugrul-mavioglu-ekip-olarak-sansuru-hazmetmedik/; http://www.bianet.org/biamag/diger/163727-festivalde-bir-gerilla-belgeseli-bakur-kuzey

11  http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/koseyazisi/257947/_Dagdan_inmek_istemiyoruz_diyorlar_.html#

12  https://hakangungorarsivi.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/ertugrul-mavioglu-ekip-olarak-sansuru-hazmetmedik/

13                    The following entities, associations, societies and groups have taken the first steps towards organizing against censorship: http://sansurekarsi.org/,  http://www.sinemaakademi.com/, Belgesel Sinemacılar Birliği (BSB- The Association of Documentary Filmmakers), Çağdaş Sinema Oyuncuları Derneği (ÇASOD- Contemporary Screen Actors’ Guild), Film Yönetmenleri Derneği (FİLMYÖN- Film Directors Guild), Oyuncular Sendikası (Actors Union), Senaryo ve Diyalog Yazarı Sinema Eseri Sahipleri Meslek Birliği (SENARİSTBİR- Screenwriters and Dialog Writers Film Works Owners Guild), Senaryo Yazarları Derneği (SEN-DER- Screenwriters Association), Sinema Emekçileri Sendikası (SİNESEN), Sinema Eseri Yapımcıları Meslek Birliği (SE-YAP), Sinema Oyuncuları Derneği (SODER), Sinema Oyuncuları Meslek Birliği (BİROY- Film Actors Society), Sinema ve Televizyon Eseri Sahipleri Meslek Birliği (SETEM- Cinema and Television Works Owners’ Society), Türkiye Sinema Eseri Sahipleri Meslek Birliği (SESAM- Cinematographic Work Owners’ Society of Turkey), Boğaziçi Gösteri Sanatları Topluluğu (BGST- Boğaziçi Society of Performance Arts) Oyuncu Sendikası (Actor Union), Türkiye Görüntü Yönetmenleri Derneği (Association fo Directors of Photography in Turkey), Sinema Televizyon Sendikası (Union of Cinema and Television), Yeni Sinema Hareketi (New Cinema Movement), İşçi Filmleri Festivali (Labor Film Festival), Documentarist, İstanbul Belgesel Günleri (Istanbul Documentary Days), Hangi İnsan Hakları Film Festivali (Which Human Rights? Film Festival), Emek Bizim İstanbul Bizim (Emek is Ours, Istanbul is Ours) and Gökyüzü Oyuncuları (Actors of the Sky).

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