Turkey’s Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival has been cancelled a week before the launch of its 60th edition due to intense political pressure around a planned screening of documentary The Decree.
The feature was due to compete in the festival’s National Documentary Film Competition but was pulled from the lineup last week following government pressure aimed at the main organiser of the event – the Antalya Metropolitan Municipality.
The Decree, directed by Nejla Demirci, depicts the plight of victims following a major purge of state institutions by the Turkish government in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016. Locally titled Kanun Hükmü, the documentary centres on a doctor and a teacher who suddenly find themselves without jobs as a result of this action.
Antalya festival director Ahmet Boyacıoğlu said its removal was due to claims that an individual in the film was part of an ongoing legal process. But director Demirci denied this claim, stating there was no ongoing legal process and called the removal a “blow to cinema”.
The move sparked a wave of protests amid accusations of censorship, with 20 competition jury members stepping down. They were followed by the filmmakers behind 27 titles, who declared they were pulling their productions from the festival’s national feature, documentary and short film competitions.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, the filmmakers said: “We consider the removal of the film… a direct threat to artistic freedom of expression. We firmly believe that it is unacceptable for festivals, which inherently belong to society, to surrender to censorship.”
The international competition titles had not yet been announced but the directors and producers of those features began following suit and withdrawing from the event.
It resulted in a reversal by the organisers, who announced on Thursday morning that The Decree would be reinstated to the programme.
Demirci posted on social media that “our cinema, our people, Antalya, Antalya Film Festival workers joined hands and won our fight for democracy”.
However, this prompted Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry to withdraw its support and issue a statement that said: “It is extremely sad that in such an important festival, the power of art is to be used to make propaganda for the FETO terrorist organization through the perception of victimhood.”
FETO is the acronym applied to the Gulenist movement, which the government considers responsible for the failed coup in July 2016, in which 251 people were killed and more than 2,700 wounded.
The festival’s sponsors also pulled their support in coordination with the ministry.
Festival director Boyacıoğlu responded to say that an investigation had been launched into him and the festival. “At this point, we are being portrayed as the responsible and guilty party in this matter,” he said in a statement. “We cannot accept being described as supporters of any terrorist organisation. We are removing the documentary titled Kanun Hükmü from the festival selection.”
Now, following a day of discussions, festival organisers have pulled the plug on the 60th edition, which had been due to run October 7-14.
“The Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival has news which is incredibly difficult to share,” said a statement from the festival, issued to Screen. “It is with a heavy heart that the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival must inform you that, given these circumstances and the oppressive environment, it cannot proceed with the festival and forum, which the festival has poured its heart and soul into.
“The responsibility of the festival is to ensure that no one in the film industry becomes a target under such a repressive regime. The Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival will always stand firm against censorship and advocate for freedom of expression.”
It is understood that festival organisers had received a wave of threats over the past week and are set to leave Antalya for their safety. Local and international guests have been informed not to attend.
It is not the first time Turkey’s oldest and most prestigious film festival has struggled with political forces. There was previously a two-year fight between Antalya’s former mayor Menderes Türel, a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the country’s independent filmmaking community over its direction.
As the local city council finances the festival, Türel was able to enforce several changes to its format, including the suppression in 2017 of the national competition, which had been at the heart of the event since its launch in 1963.
This was positioned as a strategy to make the festival more international and transform the southern Mediterranean beach resort of Antalya into a major filming hub, complete with its own studios. But local industry branded the changes as covert censorship, aimed at blocking the screening of edgy local features and political statements by winners at the televised awards ceremony.
It led to a boycott of the 2017 and 2018 editions by Turkish filmmakers and producers and the creation of a rebel national competition back in Istanbul, which ran around the same time.
Türel’s grip on the festival ended in March 2019 when he lost his seat to centre-left candidate Muhittin Böcek in local elections, which saw the AKP lose control of several major cities, and new leadership at the festival reinstated the national feature competition as well as sidebars devoted to local documentaries and shorts.
That same year, they also revived the historic title of Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, dropping the rebranded International Antalya Film Festival monicker of the previous two editions.
Following this week’s events, the festival will again be considering what the future holds.