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A purge so brutal its story cannot be told: the film the Turkish gov’t wants to bury

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Bünyamin Tekin

The Turkish government has been going after a documentary film since its production began in 2017.

The film, directed by Nejla Demirci, sheds light on the challenges faced by victims of Turkey’s post-coup purge.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government initiated a massive purge of state institutions following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Over 130,000 civil servants lost their jobs due to suspected ties to “terrorist organizations.” The people who were fired also faced barriers to employment in the private sector and restrictions on obtaining passports.

The documentary, titled “Kanun Hükmü” (The Decree), was released last year. It focuses on the challenges faced by Yasemin, a doctor, and Engin, a teacher, who lost their civil service jobs under post-coup emergency decree-laws issued by the AKP government.

“Our documentary was banned while it was still in production, and we took it to court. In the end, the Constitutional Court assessed my work in the context of freedom of expression and decided [that the government should] compensate me,” Demirci told Turkish Minute.

But that has not stopped the government from trying to prevent the public from seeing the film.

Just last week, district governors in Ankara and İstanbul blocked the screening of Demirci’s documentary.

The 19th International Workers Film Festival was scheduled to show the documentary during its opening night in Ankara on Thursday, but the governor of Ankara’s Çankaya district blocked the screening one hour before the scheduled time.

On Friday the governor of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district banned the screening of the film as well as a panel discussion featuring Demirci that was to take place afterwards.

“These bans are illegal, yes, but they are more than just a refusal to show a film. They are an aggressive rejection of the painful truths that many in this country live with,” Demirci told Turkish Minute. “By blocking the film, they are not just censoring a story, they are trying to silence the experiences of more than a hundred thousand people who have suffered under these decrees because they know they are in the wrong and that this will resonate with the film’s viewers.”

This is not the first time that the mere presence of the film at a festival has worried the authorities.

In September the 60-year-old Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in southern Turkey was abruptly canceled following a controversy surrounding a decision by the festival’s organizing committee to remove the documentary.

The decision to remove the documentary sparked outrage, drawing strong criticism from victims of the purge as well as activists.

In response to the initial removal of “Kanun Hükmü” from the festival’s lineup, 28 producers and directors of other films participating in the festival announced their withdrawal in solidarity with Demirci and her documentary.

The festival’s cancellation came after the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry withdrew its support, accusing the festival organizers of allowing “terrorist propaganda,” and sponsors followed suit.

This festival has only been canceled twice before, in 1979, when a conflict between right-wing and left-wing groups that killed over 5,000 people devastated Turkey, and in 1980, when the Turkish military took power and began to rule the country with an iron fist.

The complicity of the opposition

“This festival was organized by people who claim to be against the AKP government and its policies,” Demirci said, alluding to the fact that the festival is organized by the Antalya Metropolitan Municipality, which is run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“They did not say where the pressure was coming from and instead blamed it on my film,” she said, accusing the CHP of tacit complicity in the AKP’s repression.

The recent moves to ban the screening of the film come against the backdrop of the March local elections, which saw the CHP emerge victorious after 47 years, relegating the AKP to second place for the first time in 22 years.

This led to overtures by President Erdoğan to CHP leader Özgür Özel, meeting with him after eight years on Thursday, the day Demirci’s documentary was supposed to be screened but was banned by authorities.

Erdoğan sought Özel’s support for a new constitution.

The next day, Erdoğan hinted at an easing of political tensions in Turkey.

For Demirci, this is all just window dressing, and if the CHP is helping Erdoğan in his PR efforts, it is doing so in bad faith.

“Those in power are hardwired to increase their oppression. Whatever thaw or normalization they seek, the opposition must ask them: ‘How can there be normalization without redressing the injustice suffered by hundreds of thousands of victims of your government’s decrees? How can you talk about the rule of law and democracy while unjustly imprisoning thousands of people and ignoring the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] ordering their release?'” Demirci said.

Critics have long accused the CHP of politicizing within the red lines set by Erdoğan and not putting up strong resistance that could challenge the president’s ruling AKP.

They claim that the CHP does not oppose the AKP’s policies when it comes to groups systematically targeted by the state apparatus, such as Kurds and members of the faith-based Gülen movement, who have been the target of an intense government crackdown since a failed coup in 2016.

The Turkish government blames the Gülen movement, inspired by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, for the 2016 coup attempt.

The group denies involvement in the abortive putsch and describes itself as a peaceful civil society organization focused on education, charity and interfaith dialogue.

However, the government has classified it as a terrorist organization and has since arrested thousands of people associated with it, including journalists, academics and civil servants.

Among the ECtHR rulings alluded to by Demirci, besides the orders to release Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş and philanthropist-businessman Osman Kavala, whom the European court decided were political prisoners, was also the landmark September ruling on the case of Yüksel Yalçınkaya.

In its judgment in the Yalçınkaya case, the ECtHR ruled that the Turkish courts’ use of the mobile messaging app ByLock as evidence of terrorism was unlawful, highlighting the need for remedies to the systemic problem of unfair trials affecting tens of thousands of people accused of links to the Gülen movement.

While discussing the censorship and legal challenges she faced, Demirci also talked about Koray Kesik, who was part of the film crew of “Kanun Hükmü.”

Kesik, a respected cinematographer who has worked on major documentary projects in the past, was recently detained on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization” in connection with his work on the documentary “Bakûr – Kuzey.”

The details of his detention remain unclear, but recent reports indicate that Kesik is expected to be brought to the prosecutor’s office later today.

“This is not just about me or the film. This is about a social wound that affects millions of people,” Demirci said, adding, “Imagine being afraid of a modest documentary that does not interpret the plight of those it documents or chant slogans, but simply shows what they are going through.”

“If they were justified in their actions, they would not resort to such repressive measures against a film. They fear the truths we present. This is no longer just a problem for those directly affected but for Turkish society as a whole.”

Demirci’s documentary has not only received recognition within Turkey but has also garnered international acclaim. In November it received a special mention at the Festival del Cinema dei Diritti Umani di Napoli in Italy, where it was commended for its portrayal of the courageous struggle of individuals whose lives were affected by the post-coup purge. The festival, organized by the Cinema e Diritti cultural association in Salerno, is an event where documentaries and feature films about human rights are screened.

The mechanical eye

“I’m an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you,” Dziga Vertov, Soviet pioneer of documentary film, wrote in his 1923 manifesto.

This is also how Demirci wanted her camera to act, as an observer freed from human limitations.

Alluding to the documentary modes conceived by American documentary theorist Bill Nichols, Demirci expressed her preference for the observational mode, which she finds esthetically pleasing due to its unobtrusive approach to filmmaking. “I have always been drawn to observation because it captures reality in a subtle yet profound way,” Demirci said. However, she said that the political and social conditions in her country have necessitated a shift to a more engaged, participatory way of working.

“Instead of simply documenting events, I feel compelled to engage directly with the subjects of my documentaries. This involvement is not just a choice, but a necessity, as it resonates with the urgency of the people’s struggles I want to shed light on,” she explained.

“My country has made me an activist for my documentaries because the circumstances here do not allow me to express myself through my art.”

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