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Categories: Features

The Kurdish documentary “Bakur” was banned from this year’s Istanbul International Film Festival, leading to many filmmakers pulling their own films out of the festival and boycotting the event. Lynn Klein discusses the controversy. 

The film festival in Istanbul is a major event every year. One of the biggest festivals in the region, it connects East and West, and showcases numerous Turkish films to an international audience. During two weeks, the city of Istanbul turns into a haven for film fans. 

This year, however, the festival did not go as planned. One of the Turkish films set to compete in the documentary section was Bakur (North), a Kurdish film about camps of the outlawed PKK in Turkey. A day before its release, the Turkish ministry of culture requested the film have a registration certificate to be allowed to be screened. None of the Turkish films had this document, but only Bakur was asked to present it. As a consequence, the film was pulled out of the competition.


The festival’s decision not to screen the film was understandable; they rely on the government’s good will, and wanted the festival to run as smoothly as possible. This blatant case of censorship did, however, prompt other filmmakers and jury members to withdraw from the festival. The day after Bakur was pulled, 23 Turkish filmmakers had withdrawn their films from the festival.

More than 100 filmmakers published an open letter, condemning the move by the ministry of culture:

We, the undersigned film-makers, oppose the imposition [of this regulation] as a tool of censorship. The festival programme was announced weeks ago, and other local films that did not have the registration certificate were screened without problems.”

As filmmakers withdrew, the juries of the competitions took the same decision. Rolf de Heer, head of the international jury, and presenting a film himself, said that the festival had given them the choice to withdraw:

When it happened everyone got very excited. I thought  that was the worst time to make a decision. We sat down and talked about the issues each one of us had and we came to a agreed collective decision that this was what we needed to do,” he said.

Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, co-director of the film, said that he wanted to make this film to show a side of the PKK people were not aware of as they were only ever depicted as evil. “Sometimes you need these kinds of events to raise awareness,” he said. 

Look now, there is no news at all, people do not know what is happening in Turkey. You don’t know anything. Why? Because the media don’t write. Journalists cannot work in Turkey. If censorship continues, self-censorship will begin. People will start to make only films that would not get censored. Then you won’t see the realities you should see through cinema.”

Documentary filmmaking does play a vital role in our society to show realities we would otherwise not be able to see. Some documentaries actually have a significant impact on corporations or governments. Is it right then, to withdraw films from a festival in solidarity? Is it not the audience that gets punished rather than those who exercise censorship?

Alin Taşçıyan, president of the FIPRESCI federation of film critics certainly thinks so:

I think we are over-doing everything, as usual. I’m afraid we have to learn to look deeper into things, think better about them and react in a more efficient way. These kinds of small reactions which end up punishing the audience are totally useless.”

Though she hasn’t seen the film in question, Ms Taşçıyan is confident that it will have more of an impact than the filmmakers’ boycott. “Who wouldn’t be curious to see these PKK camps, the guerrilla and everything? In terms of history it’s an important documentary,” she said. 

Film critics and journalists are put in a difficult spot in situations such as these. A couple of days after the initial reaction, some Turkish films were screened for press after all, but who will the critic write a review for, if there is no audience who can access the film? Boycotting the event altogether is even less of an option, as it is our duty to report what is happening. 

The festival itself seems to have reacted in the only way it could have, giving all the filmmakers and jury members the opportunity to take their own decision. In a case such as this, no decision is illegitimate. I hope that there will be a lesson learned from this year’s festival. Hisham Zaman, a Norwegian-Kurdish filmmaker, was certain that the 34th Istanbul International Film Festival would not be forgotten. Let’s hope it will also bring about change.

Mr Mavioğlu at least is hopeful that his film will be seen:

You cannot kill this film. Now this film is already made and is everywhere. Nobody can censor a finished film.”

Posted on May 4, 2015

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