May Featured Case: Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu
On May 29, the Turkish duo of filmmaker Çayan Demirel and journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu will appear in front of the Batman 2nd Assize Court. Both filmmakers stand charged with disseminating propaganda in favor of a terrorist organization under Article 7/2-1 of Law no. 3713 on Counter-Terrorism for their documentary film Bakur, and face up to five years of imprisonment.
Bakur, which translates to “North” in English, is a documentary that provides another perspective of the 40-year armed conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK. Filmed during the peace process in 2013–2014, the film intimately explores the daily reality of guerrilla fighters residing in the mountains of Northern Kurdistan. Filming was no easy feat.
This was the first time that a professional film crew had ever accessed these camps. Filming took place in the summer and fall months of 2013 in various camps in North and South Kurdistan, primarily in Dersim, Amed, and Botan. The film allows the viewer to hear the history of the PKK movement recounted firsthand and tells the personal stories of the guerrillas as we learn about their hopes and expectations for the future. This movie gives its audience the metaphorical “keys to the mountains” and invites them to view the PKK from an entirely new perspective.
The two Turkish documentary filmmakers, Çayan Demirel, an award-winning director, and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, a veteran journalist, are currently on trial for Bakur. Both filmmakers have faced strong backlash from the Turkish government despite the fact that the film was never screened in Turkey. Both are accused of producing “propaganda for an illegal group” and could face up to five years in prison, making this the first case in Turkey’s recent history in which a lawsuit has been filed against filmmakers.
Since its debut in 2015, Bakur has been screened at prestigious international festivals such as DOK Leipzig, Visions du Réel, Trento Film Festival, and the Montreal World Film Festival. It has also received awards for Best Documentary from the Berlin-based Festival International Signes de Nuit, the Mexico International Film Festival, and the Mediterranean Film Festival.
The response to the documentary in Turkey could not have been more different. Hours before its premiere at the 34th International Istanbul Film Festival in May 2015, Bakur was banned by the festival committee on behalf of the Ministry of Culture. According to the latter, the film lacked an official registration certificate to be able to show at the event. However, before the censorship of Bakur, several films without the certificate had screened at the festival without any problems.
This blatant act of censorship sparked protests from many filmmakers in Turkey, who withdrew their films from the festival in a show of solidarity and support for directors Demirel and Mavioğlu. Before Demirel and Mavioğlu’s first hearing in court on January 18, 2018, dozens of filmmakers gathered in front of the Çağlayan Courthouse in Istanbul where the trial was held to protest the censorship. Their signs read, “Sinema Yargilanamaz! Keep Films Out of Court!”
This case is one more sign of the growing crisis for Turkish arts and culture in recent years. The Turkish government’s sprawling crackdown on its real and suspected opponents, touched off by a coup attempt in July 2016, has continued unabated. Using emergency powers and vaguely worded terrorism laws, the authorities had suspended or dismissed more than 110,000 people from public-sector positions and arrested more than 60,000 people by the end of 2017. Extensive use of pretrial detention has left many suspects behind bars for long periods without due process.
Against this backdrop, many leading human rights activists have been arrested on charges of terrorism. The Turkish-Kurdish artist, journalist, and activist Zehra Doğan was sentenced to nearly three years in prison for creating a painting that portrays the Kurdish town of Nusaybin after its destruction by Turkish security forces. Osman Kavala, perhaps Turkey’s most prominent civil society leader, was detained in October 2017 and eventually charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. On June 6, 2017, Taner Kılıç, a human rights lawyer and the Chair of Amnesty International Turkey, was arrested along with 10 other human rights activists. Kılıç was released on January 31, 2018, and brought back to jail the next day. The case is pending, and the defendants face potentially long prison sentences if convicted. The next hearing is in June.
Since the attempted coup, at least 1,500 civil society organizations have been summarily closed and their property confiscated. The prosecution of journalists and thinkers continues. Arrests based on messages shared via social media are common, leading to widespread self-censorship and a general chilling effect on political discourse.
However, even in this environment, Bakur is the first notable case in Turkey’s recent history in which filmmakers have been so harshly targeted. Responding to the accusations, Mavioğlu stated, “While making this film, Çayan and I focused entirely on documenting the peace process. Any propaganda one can find in this film would be a propaganda for peace. Yet whenever we say ‘Peace’ the state tends to hear it as ‘Terror’ and they base their allegations on this perception. For me, this case is illegitimate and against the law.”
Ertuğrul Mavioğlu appeared before court on February 5, 2018, to give his deposition, only to hear after hours of waiting that the judge did not have the correct indictment. Çayan Demirel was scheduled to appear before the court on February 8, 2018, but decided against it, given his difficult health condition after a heart attack. Demirel had already been called for deposition on December 28, 2017; this has been postponed, however, since the board of judges was on leave at the time. Both filmmakers will have to wait until May 29, 2018, to defend their case during their next rescheduled hearing.
Documentary filmmakers are storytellers of truth. Like all artists, they play a critical role in contemporary society, from promoting dialogue across borders, bearing witness to inhumanity, and stimulating innovation to inspiring change. Given the power of their voices, it is not uncommon for them to be unjustly targeted and threatened.
Help PEN America and the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) raise awareness about this case and tweet your support for the directors of Bakur as they prepare to defend artistic freedom in Turkey. Use the button below or create your own tweet including hashtags #DefendBakur #SinemaYargılanamaz and #KeepFilmsOutOfCourt, and please tag @AtRiskArtists and @PENamerican so that we might amplify your message.