Festival cancels competitions and closing ceremony after dozens of directors withdraw films following removal of documentary Bakur from programme.

Bakur North

The 34th Istanbul Film Festival (April 4-19) has cancelled its competitions and closing ceremony after dozens of Turkish film-makers withdrew their films in protest over the removal of a documentary from the programme.

Cayan Demirel and Ertugul Mavioglu’s documentary, Bakur (North), deals with the daily life of three Kurdish guerilla fighters in the north of Turkey and was set to be screened at the festival yesterday (April 12). But it was cancelled just hours before the screening after festival organisers received a letter from the Turkish ministry of culture claiming that the film did not have the required registration certificate.

Despite being seen as a move by the government against free speech, festival organisers chose to comply with the ministry’s orders and sparked outrage.

The directors and producers of 22 festival films - including Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter’s Sleep) - pulled their titles and issued a declaration that stated: “We do not accept the requirement of these certificates for local productions, especially as they are not required for foreign films. We consider this to be a form of oppression and censorship.”

Although other screenings will continue, the festival announced at a press conference today that the National and International Golden Tulip Competitions, National Documentary Competition and the closing ceremony were cancelled.

Call for solidarity

A statement from the festival issued “a call for solidarity” to the whole sector to change the regulations, extending the current exemption implemented for foreign films to locally produced films as well.

This regulation has been in place since 1988, when a similar measure referring to all films without exception was cancelled, following a mass demonstration led by the late Elia Kazan, the jury’s president that year.

Festival director Azize Tan stated that this regulation had created a major problem for festivals and filmmakers for a long time, and the festival has previously conducted negotiations to change it.

Tan said: “I hope that this situation converts into an opportunity that brings film industry together to change this regulation. In order to overcome the problems in the industry, I think that a new film regulation should be enacted and it should secure the freedom to screen films at the festival without any problems.”

At the press conference, festival organisers also invited the film crews, who decided not to screen their films at the festival, to come to the movie theatres at the screening times, in order to turn these places into discussion spaces.

Tan also highlighted that films without a certificate have previously been screened without any government objection.

The festival director confirmed the international programme will proceed without any changes, including the Turkish films that did not express a wish to withdraw.

As for co-production forum Meetings on the Bridge, the event is due to open on Wednesday (April 15) and should take place as scheduled, unless the Turkish filmmakers decide to extend their boycott.

The censorship move has been seen as another attempt by the government to clamp down on free speech ahead of the upcoming elections. It follows the blocking of access to Twitter and YouTube for several hours earlier this month over photos showing a militant pointing a gun at a prosecutor who died last week in a failed hostage rescue operation. Turkey also threatened to ban Google over the images.