Posters for Emin Alper’s Kurak Günler (2022) (photo Jennifer Hattam/Hyperallergic)

Turkey’s Culture Ministry is demanding the return of its production funding for an award-winning independent film, a move its creators say sets a “dangerous precedent for the future of Turkish cinema.” The art-house thriller Kurak Günler (“Burning Days”) (2022) was the subject of a smear campaign by pro-government media outlets that dubbed it an “LGBT propaganda film” and riled up social media outrage that accused the director of “treachery” and “fraud.” 

The controversy drove a strong domestic opening last weekend after writer-director Emin Alper and producer Nadir Öperli called on cinemagoers to show their support in a December 8 public statement. They said the reimbursement demand had come in an official letter from the ministry’s General Directorate of Cinema, citing script revisions made during project development.

“As we see it, this decision was taken under the pressure of a large-scale media campaign in Türkiye spreading disinformation and defamation,” Alper and Öperli wrote in their statement.

Pressures to change the content of films, or even outright bans on their release, are nothing new in Turkey, but “they were usually happening through phone conversations or other informal means, in a more subtle way,” Övgü Gökçe, a film critic with the online publication Altyazı Fasikül: Free Cinema, told Hyperallergic. “Since it was not a very open process, the filmmakers haven’t often wanted to publicize the interference.”

Government production support is generally expected to be reimbursed within two years of commercial release if the filmmakers want to remain eligible for future funding, according to Dr. Sonay Ban, an academic working on a book about documentary cinema in Turkey. But films are exempted from this requirement if they are selected to screen at international festivals, as Kurak Günler was when it had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2022.

Culture Ministry support is the only national public funding mechanism available to filmmakers in Turkey, who generally operate on a shoestring budget compared to their US or European counterparts, Ban told Hyperallergic. (Kurak Günler reportedly received 950,000 Turkish lira in ministry support in 2019, around $183,000 at the time. A press spokesperson for the Culture Ministry did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment on the film or its funding.)

“I think many filmmakers would be intimidated to apply for Culture Ministry production support now,” said Ban, who is also an editor at the Susma Speak-Up Platform Against Censorship and Self-Censorship. “They would think: Even international success like Emin Alper’s is not enough to keep people from being targeted.”

Director Emin Alper at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival (via Antalya’s press website)

Through their press representative, Alper and Öperli declined to comment further on what parts of the Kurak Günler script were deemed objectionable by the ministry. In their public statement, they emphasized that script changes are a natural part of any production process and should not be controlled by public funders.

The film’s psychologically tense plot about a scrupulous young urban prosecutor posted to a remote Anatolian town deals critically with authoritarian populism, machismo, mob mentality, and entrenched corruption. But speculation in Turkey about the controversy it has provoked has centered on the ambiguous yet erotically charged relationship between its two male leads. 

Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has recently ramped up as a rallying point for conservative factions in Turkey, and the online furor over Kurak Günler that started after Cannes re-erupted when the film won nine awards at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in October. At the festival’s awards ceremony, director Alper voiced his support for ongoing protests at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, where the film’s editor Özcan Vardar had been teaching until his classes were canceled by a government-appointed rector. Alper also expressed solidarity with the film’s co-producer Çiğdem Mater, who is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for her involvement in the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

In the past, Turkey’s state institutions directly banned or censored films, including those by acclaimed directors such as Atıf Yılmaz and Yılmaz Güney. But since the 2000s, “the mechanisms and actors of censorship and self-censorship have been multiplying,” Ban said, citing the conservative media campaign against Kurak Günler as an example.

Documentarians have been among the most frequent victims of censorship pressure — or worse. As this article was being reported, documentary filmmaker and video activist Sibel Tekin was taken into custody during a police raid that seized footage and cameras from her home in Ankara. Film editor Erhan Örs sits in jail in Istanbul as his trial for alleged “membership in a terrorist organization” awaits its next hearing in January; the evidence against him includes his editing work on a film made by a member of a human-rights organization that has been targeted by Turkey’s sweeping anti-terror laws. 

Directors Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu meanwhile continue to appeal the almost five-year prison sentence leveled against them for “making terrorism propaganda” with their film Bakur (“North”) (2015), a documentary about Kurdish militants. That movie had been filmed while Turkey’s government was in peace talks with the militants, but the situation had soured by 2015, when its scheduled premiere at the Istanbul Film Festival was blocked by Culture Ministry officials under a previously little-used regulation.

The Bakur example highlights the ever-changing, often unwritten standards and criteria that can create uncertainty and foster self-censorship among filmmakers and other artists.

“What is acceptable in films changes very much depending on the circumstances and the politics at the time,” Gökçe told Hyperallergic. “A Kurdish or oppositional film can even get funded once in a while, but you never know where the line will be drawn.”

Jennifer Hattam

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she writes about arts and culture, environmental issues, food and drink, politics and society, travel, and urbanism.