2022 edition of the Golden Orange film festival - © frantic00/Shutterstock

2022 edition of the Golden Orange film festival - © frantic00/Shutterstock

The prestigious Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival will not take place this year. The reason? The controversial decision to exclude the documentary "The Decree", which talks about a taboo topic: the consequences of the repression following the failed anti-Erdoğan coup of 2016

13/10/2023 -  Kenan Behzat Sharpe

The 60th year of Turkey’s prestigious Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival was set to happen Oct. 7-14. A festival this well established, in which national films of the highest caliber compete, should be a source of pride. However, the shocking cancellation of this year’s festival after a week of intense controversy has revealed painful truths about censorship and freedom of expression in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The controversy began when a documentary was removed from the festival programme. In response, the jury members quit and then most of the directors and producers removed their films from the competition. After the festival organisers tried to calm the storm by promising that the documentary would be shown after all, various government ministries pulled their funding. Then the documentary was taken out again. With almost no films or jury members now left, the entire festival was cancelled on Sept. 26.

At the centre of this storm of controversy is documentary filmmaker Nejla Demirci. She described the absurdity of the situation in an interview: “I am bewildered. Think of a country, a large country, the Turkish Republic. And in this country, a single, tiny person minding their own business is able to scrape together a documentary film. This is who the country is messing with. Who is doing this? The Culture Ministry, the Internal Affairs Ministry, the Justice Ministry. They are making statements and I am watching in utter bewilderment”, she told an opposition TV channel .

Turkey’s controversial statutory decrees

Demirci’s documentary The Decree (Kanun Hükmü) follows a cardiologist, the director’s sister Yasemin Demirci, and an elementary school teacher, Engin Karataş, in the picturesque Aegean city of Bodrum. They were both fired from their jobs by government decree.

Presidential rulings by statutory decree (known by the Turkish initial KHK) became common under the state of emergency declared by the Turkish government after the failed coup attempt in 2016. These decrees have been widely criticised  for limiting fundamental rights and bypassing normal judicial checks and balances.

Many teachers, physicians, and other government employees were dismissed from their positions without a trial after the state of emergency. Most were accused of being part of the now banned organisation of Fethullah Gülen, a preacher in exile in the U.S. whom the Turkish state blames for the coup attempt. Yet, as in the case of the two people whose stories are told in The Decree, many of those sacked and banned from public employment were not involved with the Gülen movement but simply left-wing or otherwise critical of the government.

In the years since, Yasemin Demirci was subsequently restored to her job at the Bodrum State Hospital while Karataş, who is known for his creative protests writing the words “I want my job and my students back!” across the city of Bodrum, remains banned from public employment.

The festival administration cancels, retracts, and cancels again

The Decree was just one film among several in the Golden Orange’s national documentary competition until festival director Ahmet Boyacıoğlu announced that the film had been taken out of the competition because it touched on an ongoing court case. He said that the film would be shown after the trial was completed.

The first response came from director Demirci, who explained that there was no ongoing trial. This was merely an excuse for censorship. She went on to argue  that the removal of the film from the festival was a blow to all who believe in democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

The only court case that directly involved the film occurred during the initial filming. Demirci had applied to the Bodrum district governor for permission to shoot in the city. Despite her repeated applications, she got no response and was eventually denied. She appealed to Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that her right to free speech had been violated.

Afterwards, the members of the jury shared a statement  saying they were withdrawing from the festival. “We do not accept this view that seeks to identify criminal elements in films and normalise censorship measures”, the signatories wrote. “We will only fulfill our duties as jury members if the film is brought back”, vowed the group including actress Demet Akbağ, director Özcan Alper, writer Sema Kaygusuz, and others.

Then came a joint statement from the directors and producers of some of the most anticipated films in the National Feature Film Competition, the festival’s main event. They said the removal of The Decree was “a direct threat to artistic freedom of expression”. In addition, the filmmakers behind all of the short films and six of the eight documentaries also pulled their films until The Decree was reinstated .

In response to this solidarity from the other participants in the festival as well as the general public, Boyacıoğlu made another announcement saying that he had recently been informed that there was no active court case involving the subjects of The Decree. Therefore, there was no obstacle to the documentary rejoining the competition.

The filmmakers and jury members again criticised him for refusing to apologise and for reinstating the film with such a flimsy excuse, but they still celebrated the decision to show the film. However, the cries of victory from Demirci and film lovers across Turkey was short lived. Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry made a statement saying they were pulling out of the festival. They claimed that showing the documentary would dishonour the memory of “epic struggle for democracy our beloved nation engaged in on 15 July”, the date of the failed coup attempt in 2016. This was followed by statements from the Youth and Sports Ministry also pulling its sponsorship for the event. Justice Minister Yılmaz Tunç declared he could not allow “a tradition festival like the Golden Orange Film Festival being used for terror organisation propaganda”.

Faced with this backlash, festival director Boyacıoğlu backtracked once more and said that the festival administration had again removed the documentary from the competition. He noted that an investigation had been launched into the festival and that he had safety concerns after threats were made against himself and his team. He also complained that the festival had not been shown sufficient support from the cinema sector.

After the jury and the filmmakers involved in the festival again vowed not to participate unless The Decree was reinstated, opposition mayor of Antalya province Muhittin Böcek eventually announced that the festival had been cancelled altogether.

A history of censorship

This is not the first time attempts have been made to censor a film at the Golden Orange. In 1979, three films were removed from the competition because they did not pass the censorship board that existed in Turkey at the time. The last time the Golden Orange was cancelled completely was in 1980, after a military coup took power in the country. However, within a decade even films critical of the government could again be shown at the festival, as in the case of 1989 Best Film winner Don't Let Them Shoot the Kite, about left-wing activists in a women’s prison after the coup.

In 2014, a documentary by director Reyan Tuvi focusing on the Gezi Park protests of the previous year was removed from the competition on the grounds that it violated the Turkish Penal Code. At that time, jury members again quit in protest. After a small change was made to the film’s subtitles, the festival administration reinstated the film.

The situation today is much worse. “We don't know what will happen to us next. We're in the middle of a Kafkaesque situation. How can someone comment on a film they haven't even seen? It’s a funny, humane, naive documentary about the lives of two people. Are we committing a crime by showing it?”, one festival employee told Turkish columnist İsmail Saymaz .  The same employee, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said that the debacle had showed that the Culture and Tourism Ministry will now simply refuse to fund any festival or event if they do not like the topics in films.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also weighed in on the debate. “We cannot accept the targeting of the national will with art as an excuse”, he declared in parliament on Oct. 1.

The state of artistic freedom in Turkey’s new century

The surprising announcement that this year’s Golden Orange would be cancelled came as news broke about the result of a court case against high-profile civil society activists, including a filmmaker. On Sept. 28, Turkey’s Court of Cassation upheld the conviction of five of eight activists in the notorious Gezi Park trial. Despite strong rulings against these convictions from the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, the ruling was upheld that these civil society figures are responsible for masterminding the popular 2013 protests against the demolition of a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Among those sentenced was Çiğdem Mater, a film producer and journalist. A documentary film about the Gezi Park protests that she never made  was used in the case against her. Meetings she had or planned to have with international film festivals abroad to show the unfinished documentary were used as evidence of a crime.

Antalya Mayor Böcek vowed on Sept. 30 that, with a new festival management and without the expectation of support from Turkey’s ministries, the 60th Golden Orange Film Festival would still happen before the end of 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic. Whether or not the festival happens this year, the growing restrictions on freedom of speech and artistic expression today are a grim sign of what things could be like in the country’s second century.

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