Turkish documentary flourishes in an increasingly polarized political climate.
Turkey became the center of global attention following the Gezi Park protests that erupted in June. The protests were the result of police heavy-handedness against environmentalists protesting the AKP government’s decision to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in downtown Istanbul, and construct a shopping complex in its place. The resulting protests and clashes with police have left six dead and thousands injured. The protests have also morphed from their environmental focus into a public indictment of what many Turks view as an increasingly authoritarian government led by an uncompromising leader.
Public outrage against the AKP government’s handling of the Gezi protests stands in stark contrast to the popularity the party enjoyed when it came to power in 2000 and initiated social, economic and political reforms in accordance with the EU accession process. Now, however, there is growing discontent among many Turks and a fear that government interference in the daily lives of Turkish citizens is growing and that secularism appears to be in danger.
It is no coincidence that documentary filmmaking in Turkey has flourished considerably since 2000, reflecting and contributing to the tremendous political and social transformations the country has experienced. Benefitting from the relatively inexpensive technology that is digital filmmaking and an increasing perception of creative documentary as an art form, filmmakers have created strong and courageous works that tackle taboo subjects like sexual identity, discrimination and torture, and raise awareness about some of the most traumatic chapters in Turkey’s modern history. Turkey’s leading film festivals have also started to place a bigger emphasis on documentaries; meanwhile, documentary film festivals such as Istanbul’s Documentarist and 1001 Documentary have provided important platforms for further developing the local documentary scene.
Kurdish directors have enjoyed a particularly strong presence in documentary productions since 2000, relating, for the first time, stories of Turkey’s Kurds in great detail and with impressive precision, thus, challenging and weakening the state-sanctioned discourses that have prevailed for decades. Filmmakers like Hüseyin Karabey, Kazım Öz, Cenk Örtülü, Zeynel Koç, Caner Canerik and Mizgin Müjde Arslan have explored a myriad stories, from the last-remaining nomadic tribes in Eastern Anatolia (The Last Season: Shawaks, Kazim Öz, 2008) and the victims of torture (We Have Seen Torture, Cenk Örtülü & Zeynel Koç, 2012) to the social and personal traumas of the conflict (I Flew You Stayed, Mizgin Müjde Arslan, 2012).
The most outstanding example of this new wave is On the Way to School (2008) by Orhan Eskiköy and Özgür Doğan, which constitutes a milestone for Turkey in a multitude of ways. The film follows the story of a young Turkish teacher from Western Anatolia, who was appointed by the state to teach the Turkish language in a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey. Chronicling an extraordinary encounter between a dedicated teacher who struggles to apply the state curriculum and Kurdish pupils who don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, the film succeeds in helping overcome prejudice involving difficult subject matter by employing incredible humour and humanism. Unsurprisingly, the documentary opened on 22 screens across Turkey, attracting some 78,000 people in eight weeks.
Filmmakers have created strong and courageous works that tackle taboo subjects and raise awareness about some of the most traumatic chapters of Turkey’s modern history
According to Kurdish documentary filmmaker Caner Canerik, the past ten years have seen a reduction in clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Kurds have started to seek more peaceful alternatives to armed struggle by using the power of the arts and cinema, drawing from a wealth of stories that never before came to light due to state oppression. In his works, including Was (2013) and Bertij (2010), Canerik focuses on the stories of the Kurdish Alawis in Eastern Turkey; his portrayal of the community is both powerful and intimate, a tendency he observes among other documentarians who now increasingly prefer to focus on personal stories rather than relying on grand statements and heavy political terminology. Despite the success of On the Way to School, however, only a handful of documentaries have enjoyed a theatrical release. Among them, Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits by Imre Azem (2011) used crowd-funding to raise the necessary funds for the film to be screened in cinemas. Relating the story of Istanbul as a mega city on a “neo-liberal course to destruction,” Ecumenopolis represents an outstanding example of recently produced documentaries that concentrate on rapid urban transformation and ambitious gentrification projects by the government, which have created strong public resentment, most recently manifested in the Gezi Park protests.
Taking the documentaries out of their cocoon through effective outreach strategies is one of the most important challenges for filmmakers
As filmmaker, film critic and Documentarist’s co-director Necati Sönmez points out, Turkey is a “fertile land” for documentary filmmakers, offering an incredible wealth of issues that were never really dealt with before and, consequently, creating the difficult task of digging up some of the darkest tragedies in modern Turkish history. Çayan Demirel’s Prison Nr. 5 (2009), through employing the testimonies of convicts at Diyarbakir Prison on the use of systematic torture and abuse in the years following the 1980 coup d’état, is one such attempt to expose and come to terms with the past. Similarly, works like Hush by Berke Bas (2009) and Beginnings by Somnur Vardar (2013) chronicle the sorrowful stories of Turkey’s Armenians, aiming for reconciliation and restoration of memory. On a different front, filmmaker and scholar Can Candan’s My Child (2013) offers a platform to the parents of Turkey’s LGBT community where they talk about the difficult path they confront in what remains a highly conservative and homophobic society.
Filmmaker and Documentarist’s co-director Emel Çelebi feels that despite the rapid growth in documentary production in the 2000s, it is still too early to talk about an established industry. Documentary filmmakers face a wide range of challenges including lack of support from the government, the private sector and TV channels, as well as the absence of commissioning editors, the difficulty of finding a producer, and a lack of distribution and awareness regarding their own rights. In the absence of a well functioning industry, directors find themselves in the unenviable position of having to do everything on their own, from production to distribution, which negatively affects their creative process.
For Berke Bas, “taking the documentaries out of their cocoon” through effective outreach strategies is one of the most important challenges for filmmakers. She believes that in order to maximize the social impact of documentaries, partnerships with local NGOs, foundations, professional associations and educational institutions are imperative, in order to help widen and diversify the audience for the films.
Çelebi says that the Gezi Park protests reinforced an immediate need to document and share the truth, for which video-activism has become an indispensible tool in seeking justice and protecting one’s rights in the face of wide spread disinformation. She expects this momentum to be translated into high quality documentaries in the coming years, opening up a new perspective for documentary filmmaking in Turkey.Sönmez too feels that the protests will offer great motivation for documentary film production in Turkey, “just like the way European cinema flourished in the 1970s following 1968.”
Indeed, inspired by this significant historical moment, the voice of Turkey’s documentarians will only continue to grow throughout the next decade. _