Media Screen Turkey is a blog on the state of media in contemporary Turkey across a range of topics, including cinema, TV, journalism, the arts, and censorship. In addition to 5 Yorumsuz (5 Without Comment), the weekly roundup of some of the biggest developments in Turkish media, the site houses interviews with key figures and commentary on the state of media. New posts are noted at the Twitter handle @mediascrnturkey.
The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) Istanbul Film Festival (IFF), Turkey’s biggest both in terms of number of films shown and number of viewers reached, is back for its 34th round from the 4th to the 19th of April, featuring some 204 films by 222 directors from 62 countries. With over 20 categories ranging from horror to children’s films to cinema of the Balkans, as well as numerous competitions and awards, including best domestic feature and documentary, international feature, and best film on the theme of human rights, the festival has something for everyone and, according to director Azize Tan, that’s precisely the goal. I had a chance to speak with her last fall, during the lead up to IFF’s sister festival, Film Ekimi (Film October – FE), in a discussion ranging from the history of the festivals and their evolving role to the challenges facing the film industry in Turkey.
AT – Well, IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts) was founded in 1973 by businessmen before there was even a Ministry of Culture. They were organizing a big festival in the summer, quite similar to the one in Edinburgh now, featuring mostly classical music concerts, as well as some theater and dance. In 1982, after the military coup, they decided to screen films at that festival too. It started with just six films, but there was a great interest because cinema was practically dead in Turkey at that time. The cinematheques had been shut down with the coup in 1980 and almost no films were being produced or released, so that was the only place where people could go and see what was happening in world film.
The demand was so great that they decided to make it a separate festival. They pushed it to March, and they gave it the name FilmDays. It was like that for almost 10 years, and then it shifted to become International Istanbul Film Festival, as they added an international and national competition. On the 30th anniversary, we decided to drop the title International, since everybody knew the festival was international, so now it’s only IFF.
If IFF is a festival for the film world, FE is a festival just for the audience.
FilmEkimi started 13 years ago and, just as IFF marks the coming of spring, FE announces arrival of autumn. In fact, this year we did our press conference on the 23rd of September, which is the first day of autumn, and there was a storm and the weather changed in a single day. FE is similar to the gala screenings of the big films at IFF. It’s kind of a “best of” fest, and it’s the right season to do an event like that because summer is quite slow for film in Turkey. October is the time when people start to go back to cinema.
If IFF is a festival for the film world, FE is a festival just for the audience. We don’t have any guests, competitions, or industry events. Take a look at the program and if you’re interested in independent or auteur cinema, you’ll find that you can catch up with most of the films that you want to see within the season. FE is organized to get films to viewers while they’re still fresh. If we start the cinema season with Sundance in January and Berlin in February, we get many of those films in IFF. But with films that come to Cannes (May), Venice (September), and Toronto (September), it would be a long time to wait for April to see those films, and many will have been distributed digitally or on pay TV by that point.
FE also allows us to follow the films and the directors we’re interested in. So if there’s a director that we’re following throughout his career at IFF, and there’s a new film that can’t wait for April, we include it in FE. That’s how it works. For us it’s a kind of relief, because we don’t lose those films, and it seems to be working very well. In fact, we started our sales on Saturday the 27th after two days advance sales for our loyal members, and by the end of the second day, which is the fourth day in total of sales, we had sold 75% of the tickets. We even had to open 15 additional screenings and extend the festival by a day on either side. We expect an audience of 50,000 people in Istanbul alone.
JC – Do you show any Turkish films at FE?
AT – Not in the Istanbul program. We do a big showcase of Turkish cinema at IFF, including a number of competitions, and even if a Turkish film has already been released we prefer to leave it until April in order to showcase it for our foreign guests. But FE also has a traveling selection, which varies from city to city, and we do show Turkish films in each edition. For example, the 2014 National Competition Golden Tulip winner I’m Not Him is going to be shown at the traveling festival in Urfa, Diyarbakir, and Trabzon, because the film won’t be released in those cities, but we won’t show it in Istanbul, Ankara, or Izmir because they’ve all scheduled it for release.
JC – So it sounds like you’re very careful on the matter of film distribution. Could you say more about the role of festivals as they relate to that?
… film festivals are becoming an alternative distribution channel for film
AT – When we started to take the festival on tour it was a collaboration between Sarajevo Film Festival, Sofia Film Festival, Transylvania Film Festival, and ourselves, and we still continue this collaboration. We generally go to cities where there’s a big university and a young audience and our goal is to promote these films. We hold screenings in real movie theaters, not alternative venues, and we project digital, with good subtitles, so the quality is quite high. The project has been very successful and our audience has been increasing steadily each year. We have a very loyal audience, and it’s kind of proved that film festivals are becoming an alternative distribution channel for film. On the other hand, this highlights a problem with the current distribution system as well, because during the normal public releases this audience kind of gets lost.
JC – That’s an interesting point about alternative distribution models. Do you coordinate with Başka Sinema (Another Cinema – a new distribution model in Turkey for independent and arthouse cinema)?
AT – Yes, we coordinate with them on a number of fronts. We’re all from a generation who grew up with IFF, and it had a big impact on all of our lives. What they are creating is quite parallel to the legacy of IFF in many senses—their special sections and theme nights, for example. In the case of FE, nearly 90% of the films there have a Turkish distributor, and in many cases that is Başka Sinema. In order to defend and sustain independent cinema, we have to collaborate with other parties, otherwise we wouldn’t stand a chance.
The Karaca Cinema in Izmir is a good example. It’s in the city center and the owner decided to shut it down. But FE had been holding the festival there for the last four years and we had seen the potential of bringing quality films to that place—in fact, there was a huge demand from Izmir. So we suggested that they collaborate with Başka Sinema and now they’ve got an agreement for the small screen there. We still use the cinema for the festival and now we also promote Başka Sinema with commercials throughout the festival. So far it’s a collaboration that’s helping a cinema to survive.
AT – Yes, when you have a successful festival you can have a major effect. IFF lasts 16 days and includes three weekends, FE is 10 days, and many cinemas that we collaborate with, especially the smaller ones in Beyoğlu, rely heavily on this income to make it through the year. And it’s not only the cinemas that benefit. The face of Istiklal Street changes during the festivals. Different people come here and even the shop owners on the street ask us ‘why don’t you organize a festival every month?’ Our audiences come, they sit, they eat, they spend money. They buy books—well, there are no more book stores left on Istiklal, that’s another story—but I mean we create an economy.
JC – Last year we corresponded when IFF chose to screen Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier) after it was banned by the ratings commission. There were concerns about censorship hitting the festivals in a new way at that point because Cinema Directorate (a subsidiary of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) head Cem Erkul had written to festival organizers saying that all films would have to go through the ratings procedure, which would mark a major shift in the way festivals worked. Did IFF face any fallout from the choice to show Nymphomaniac or local films without a certificate?
AT – The system has to be completely redefined, and instead of a certificate, the existing rating system should be put in effect. The cinema law drafted three years ago will, I believe, help regulate the system and alleviate certain problems, as soon as it is ratified.
JC – 2014 is, by some accounts, the 100th anniversary of Turkish cinema. What do you see as the brightest spots and biggest challenges as cinema moves forward?
Before MP3 downloads, concerts were not so big. But now with the downloads it’s like albums are dead and the big thing is the concert. I think we are witnessing a similar thing with the film festivals. Now festivals are becoming the big event.
AT – You know we’ve been lucky in the sense that our films did pretty well at the festivals. Winning the Golden Palm (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Kış Uykusu – Winter Sleep at Cannes) after 34 years was a big success in itself. And then we had Song of My Mother (Erol Mintaş – Kurdish and Turkish titles: Klama dayîka min / Annemin Şarkısı) which won the Sarajevo film festival. And then Sivas (Kaan Müjdeci) at Venice, being a first film selected to the main competition. So in that sense it went pretty well.
On the other hand I think we still have a lot to do for Turkish cinema. For example, the main problem is that we’ve been waiting three years for this new cinema law to pass. It’s ready, it’s waiting at parliament, so I think the most urgent thing to do is to pass it. There are new regulations, the system is changing, the industry is changing, and we definitely need a new law.
At the same time, the festivals and general distribution will have to redefine themselves. In a way it’s like the music industry. Before MP3 downloads, concerts were not so big. But now with the downloads it’s like albums are dead and the big thing is the concert. I think we are witnessing a similar thing with the film festivals. Now festivals are becoming the big event. So you can come together, see the films together, talk about the films, see the directors, ask them questions, and it’s become something popular. But then we have to redefine regular release in some way.
We have to sit down and think about what we are doing and having a film institution at the center of it all would be very useful. I mean everybody is trying to work for the promotion of Turkish cinema, like the festivals, the producers’ association, but I think we need a center to organize all these efforts. Otherwise there are too many people working on the same things and there is no continuity.
JC – Something apart from the Cinema Directorate?
AT – I mean a structure similar to the establishments in Europe. Someplace to organize everything. The Ministry of Culture is working with different parties for different tasks, but since there is no continuity there is often no follow-up. This year they did good things—Venice proved to b a wonderful opportunity to make our presence felt celebrating the 100th anniversary of Turkish cinema, and we did something big at Cannes, with the stands and everything—but I think for the upcoming years we have to improve. However, these and similar efforts need to be expanded into the whole year. International bonds, once built, must be sustained. The international presence and representation of Turkey must be continuous. A new cinema law, and a film institution to provide continuity are the most urgent, and then we must tackle the problem of distribution with regards to changing windows, like everywhere else.
JC – And what is the primary problem of distribution?
… we know that 60% of the Turkish box office comes from Turkish films, but it’s only five films that make this number. What happens to the other 65 films?
AT – I mean we are talking about successful Turkish cinema. We’ve got about 70 films produced per year, but we don’t know how many of them are going to be released. Or, for example, we know that 60% of the Turkish box office comes from Turkish films, but it’s only five films that make this number. What happens to the other 65 films? We have to talk more about that. We should have a quota for the distribution of Turkish films. And maybe there are too many films being produced in Turkey, that’s something that we have to discuss as well. It’s not only a problem for Turkey either. It’s all of Europe, with the existing funding system. In fact there are 700 films being produced in Europe per year. Is there an audience for so many films? Apparently not.
Maybe the focus should be to produce less films, but make them more appealing to the audience in a way. I think for the whole world, not just for Turkey, I think to reach and connect with potential audiences is the first priority.
This piece published simultaneously on MediaScreenTurkey.
Original text of translated chapter: “Il premier e il sultano: il conflitto turco tra storia sacra e libertà de espressione.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 33-36.
Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan, holding power for 46 years and overseeing massive expansions of the Empire’s territory during the 16th Century. His TV counterpart, Turkish actor Halit Ergenç, has actually conquered more of the globe, but his reign over ratings bas been threatened by the man some are calling Turkey’s next sultan, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.
On 25 November 2012, while speaking at the opening ceremony for an airport in the city of Kuthaya, Erdoğan veered from his remarks on the progress Turkey has seen under the past decade of his Justice and Development Party’s (AK-Party) rule to lambast one of the country’s most popular TV shows, the sometimes sultry Ottoman costume drama Magnificent Century. Noting that opposition leaders had criticized his government’s foreign policy, Erdoğan responded by saying, “We know our responsibilities. We’ll go everywhere that our [Ottoman] ancestors went, but I think some may be imagining the ancestors in Magnificent Century. People watch that show and believe it’s a documentary. We don’t recognize that Suleiman. The real Suleiman spent 30 years of his life on horesback, not in the palace like you see on the TV show. I condemn the directors and the owner of the channel and, since they’ve been warned, I expect a judicial decision on the matter.”
Though the PM didn’t detail his concerns with the show, he tapped into a discourse about respect to sacred figures that has plagued Century since its premiere. Critics feel that the show delves too deeply into speculation on the Sultan’s private life, particularly with regard to his interest in women and the significance of harem intrigues. They are also worried that the Turkish public takes the show as fact, and is therefore getting a skewed sense of this heroic figure.
Erdoğan is arguably the most popular and powerful Turkish leader since the founder of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, so when he speaks, things happen. Within a few days, a tour guide from the city of Konya had filed a law suit against the show, claiming that it misrepresents history and distorts Turkish values. The following week, an AK-Party MP, Oktay Saral, introduced legislation to amend the constitution of the country’s censorship board, RTUK. Taking cue from a statute that already protects the memory of Atatürk, this new law was to ensure that, “historical events and characters that contribute to national values shall not be diminished, disrespected, or shown in manners other than they were.” Days later, Saral appeared on TV promising that Century would be taken off the air in 2013 and, the following day, Turkish Airlines canceled its plans to offer the popular program as in-flight entertainment.
Erdoğan’s opponents were far from silent on the matter. Many claimed that this was simply another example of the PM trying to distract the public from more pressing issues. Just as six months prior he had come out against abortion to silence critics of a military operation that killed 34 Kurdish civilians, critics said, he was now trying to divert attention from increasing Turkish/Kurdish tensions and serious problems on the border with Syria.
Some historians pointed out the PM’s historical nescience, saying that archive documents indicate Suleiman spent about eight years on (horseback) campaign rather than 30, and suggested that his speech was simply an attempt to rewrite Ottoman history for political ends.
A number of critics noted that iconoclasm was nothing new for Erdoğan. On a visit to the eastern city of Kars in 2011 the PM had attacked a sculpture dedicated to Turkish/Armenian friendship, calling it an “abomination” both because it was ugly and because it was near a religious site. The sculpture was quickly torn down.
Perhaps the most damning critique, however, linked the PM’s attack on Century with a December 2012 report on press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which noted that Turkey had more journalists in prison (49) than any other country in the world. Adding to these the hundreds of students, politicians, and activists rounded up on questionable charges of terrorism, critics claimed that Erdoğan’s volley was just the latest in a series of AK-Party attacks on freedom of expression in recent years.
At present, the fate of TV’s Suleiman looks brighter than that of the journalists. The show, which reaches an estimated audience of 150 million viewers in 44 countries throughout the world, made some quick changes to its format. Female characters began to dress more modestly in the weeks after the PM’s remarks, and Suleiman’s wife, Hürrem, took to praying. Whether in response to these actions or not, the so-called “Suleiman” law seems to have stagnated in parliament, at least for the moment. The show is slated to end in June of 2014, and it is unlikely that any law will come into effect soon enough to harm it, though such a law could be a concern for the latest big-budget Ottoman drama, Fetih, which premiered in September of 2013 and tells the story of Istanbul’s conqueror, Mehmed II.
Suleiman, Mehmed II’s great grandson, was called “magnificent” throughout the world for the strength and expanse of his empire. In Turkey, however, he is known as the “law maker” because he codified a set of rules regarded as strict on the one hand, but also as reasonable and just. Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongest leader in years, may be pondering his own epithet as he contemplates his abortive assault against the Sultan of the airwaves.