In Istanbul today, like in many other places, the most popular place to go to the movies is the mall. There are more than 100 malls in Turkey’s largest city, and many of them are directly connected to various metro stops, ensuring convenient access. The mall has become a symbol for all that has gone wrong in Istanbul in recent years, as a construction-fueled boom has spawned massive citywide development at the expense of green spaces, a source of endless consternation for Istanbullites who remember when the city breathed easier.
In April 2013, police cracked down on a protest attended by thousands of activists determined to save Istanbul’s beloved Emek cinema from being demolished, and turned into a shopping mall. The cinema was eventually torn down — a Madame Tussaud’s shop now stands in its place — but the efforts to rescue Emek bubbled over into the Gezi Park protests that broke out in May of that year. The country-wide demonstrations were rooted in opposition to then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to pave over the park and build a commercial complex resembling the Ottoman-era barracks that once occupied the same space.
Emek, even before Gezi Park, became an emblem of a city that was being stolen from its residents. Local government has been a passionate cheerleader of the transformation of Istiklal Avenue, the city’s busiest street, and the Beyoğlu district upon which it is located. Beloved, decades-old small businesses used to dot the pedestrian-only street but they have been pushed out by fast food chains, Starbucks and Zara. Hungry developers even found it necessary to build malls side by side one another in two prized historic buildings, one of which was the former home of Emek. A theatre was built in the complex, but it has been boycotted by the activists who fought to save the historic cinema.
Steps away from where Emek used to be is the Beyoğlu Cinema, one of just a few small theaters left in Beyoğlu, itself once synonymous with the Turkish film industry. Saddled with debt, it was nearly forced to shut its doors in 2017 until a campaign was launched allowing film lovers to purchase loyalty cards enabling them to watch a certain number of films throughout the year. The campaign has saved the cinema from closure for the time being, but it is unlikely to permanently sustain it. Nevertheless, the outpouring of support that the effort received was a conscious effort on the part of Turkish cinema goers with the tragic fate of Emek still on their minds. Among the last of their kind, the independently-run Beyoğlu and Atlas cinemas are located directly across from each other in charming, historic shopping arcades that stand in stark contrast to the banality of the nearby malls.
The Beyoğlu Cinema is where I watched Ceylan Özçelik’s feature debut Kaygı, (Inflame) a scathing take on today’s Turkey, set in a dismal, cloudy Istanbul dominated by an endless series of intrusive construction sites. A brash Islamist strongman who doubles as a tycoon presides over a stifled society where critical media has been stamped out and dissenting voices are no longer tolerated. The film, billed in its press release as a “psychological thriller based on a true Turkish nightmare,” is so critical that viewers abreast of the current political situation in Turkey might be shocked that the film made it to the screen.
They may be even more surprised that its production received funding to the tune of TL 300,000 ($79,000 at current rates) from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. That was in 2015, a year before a notorious coup attempt jolted the country, and was followed by heavy government crackdown on opponents — both those allegedly behind the coup and otherwise — that continues today.
“The period in which I applied [to the Ministry of Culture for financial support] was distinctly different from the present,” Özçelik said of the film’s release early in 2017. “When I finished the film, the atmosphere [in the country] was much more daunting. Naturally I had my concerns,” she told The Outline.
“The censorship of films in Turkey has never truly gone away; it has only changed in name and form.”
Its premiere came less than a year after the failed coup prompted the government to declare a state of emergency, which has been repeatedly renewed. More than 100,000 people have been booted from their jobs in state institutions since July 2016, and critics say President Erdoğan is using the declaration as a means to root out opponents and crack down on dissent. The committee in Ministry of Culture that opted to grant Özçelik funding was no longer around in 2016, and its current configuration was evidently not pleased with the final product, declining to provide additional support so Özçelik and company could attend the 2017 Berlinale and SXSW film festivals. (This was in spite of the fact that Inflame was the only Turkish film to be shown at both prestigious festivals, Özçelik said.)
It was the Anatolian Culture foundation, helmed by businessman and civil society activist Osman Kavala, that had provided the funding which enabled Özçelik and her collaborators to attend the international festivals. Well-known and respected in Turkey, it came as a shock to many that Kavala, was arrested in November on charges of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Colleagues say the charges completely lack merit and indicate a clampdown on civil society.
Özçelik had also found herself in hot water along with hundreds of other filmmakers who signed a petition in support of academics who had signed a separate petition condemning the Turkish military’s campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country. The petition was launched after an ongoing peace process between the government and the Kurdish rebel group went up in flames in 2015, leading to an outbreak of clashes between the camps that left entire neighborhoods flattened and resulted in thousands of deaths.
The petition was a subject of ire for President Erdoğan, who called the signatories “traitors.” Many of the academics were subsequently fired from their jobs at state universities. For their effort, an investigation was launched against the filmmakers in late 2016 for “praising a crime or criminal.” At last year’s Berlinale, the Filmmakers for Peace made an urgent plea to their international colleagues for solidarity against censorship and oppression.
“The censorship of films in Turkey has never truly gone away; it has only changed in name and form,” film critic Murat Emir Eren told The Outline. “It has continued during the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP’s tenure.” This has recently applied to films both local and foreign, Eren pointed out. Lars Von Trier’s 2014 effort Nymphomaniac was banned by the country’s cinema board, while the directors of the 2015 documentary Bakur (North) — which zooms in on the PKK — are currently facing terror propaganda charges. The film had been removed from the program of the 2015 Istanbul film festival at the last minute, creating a storm as more than 20 directors pulled their films from the festival in protest.
Some of the most iconic figures in Turkish cinema faced similar pressure and persecution. Yılmaz Güney, among the most important directors in the history of Turkish cinema, ruffled the feathers of the authorities for years with films that showcased the grueling conditions that the working class and Kurds endured in Turkey in the 1970’s and 80’s. His magnum opus, Yol (Road), is a harrowing film about five prisoners heading to their respective hometowns when given a one-week release from jail. Güney himself was in jail during its production, and from behind bars provided elaborate cues to co-director Şerif Gören. Released in a harsh atmosphere less than two years after the 1980 military coup while the generals were still in power, the film was unceremoniously banned in Turkey and remained illegal for 17 years. (Güney passed away in exile in Paris in 1984.)
The sacrifice of Istanbul’s vibrant culture and unmistakable beauty at the hands of grotesque development is a main issue tackled in Inflame as protagonist Hasret navigates a grim, grey behemoth of a city dominated by the din of innumerable construction sites. A glimpse of a newspaper stand reveals half a dozen broadsheets featuring the same headline word for word, a spooky phenomenon that occurs frequently in Turkey.
The film also addresses the Sivas Massacre, one of the darkest stains in the country’s history. 35 people were killed when an Islamist mob torched a hotel hosting participants of an Alevi cultural festival in the Anatolian city of Sivas in 1993. The massacre is a touchy subject for tihe AKP, as numerous lawyers of the defendants went on to become party politicians. The case ultimately was allowed to disintegrate beneath the statute of limitations in 2012. The mayor of Sivas at the time, now the leader of a small Islamist party, stubbornly refuses to refer to the massacre as such. Fittingly, Inflame depicts the massacre as having been forcibly expunged from collective memory. Even the victims’ families do not know how they really lost their loved ones.
Despite its praise, Inflame didn’t move far past the dwindling independent theatre circuit domestically. Though a number of excellent films have been released in Turkey since the coup attempt in 2016, Özcelik’s current project, described as a “dark comedy about women and violence,” isn’t likely to see the light of day anytime soon. She won’t be getting any funding from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism this time around, and has spent months searching for alternative funding in Turkey to no avail.
“We have met with producers abroad, but one principal prerequisite for a co-production is obtaining funding from within the country. Since we haven’t been able to secure any we can’t move forward,” Özçelik said. But the director, fresh off the heels of the international acclaim garnered by her debut film, refuses to concede to the unfavorable atmosphere and aims to push through with her second effort.
“My producer and I are still hopeful, Özçelik said.
They have reason to be optimistic. Acclaimed director Tolga Karaçelik made the headlines in January when his latest film Butterflies was awarded the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism declined to support the film, which was partially financed with crowdfunding. The ministry had supported Karaçelik’s first two films Toll Booth and Ivy, and its refusal to do the same for Butterflies likely stemmed from Karaçelik’s dedication of a film festival award he won for Ivy to two journalists who were behind bars at the time after attracting the wrath of the government for publishing an explosive story alleging that the Turkish intelligence agency had shipped trucks full of weapons to rebel fighters in Syria. Butterflies premieres in Turkey in March, and earlier this month, Karaçelik attended a screening of his previous films and at — where else? — the Beyoğlu Cinema.