Turkish cinema asks: Which human rights?

Turkish cinema asks: Which human rights?

Emrah Güler ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkish cinema asks: Which human rights

The best way to take a look at human rights in Turkey is to remember some of the feature films that have brought some of the violations into the spotlight.

Today is Human Rights Day across the globe, the day we celebrate the proclamation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For many in Turkey there isn’t all that much to celebrate these days considering the hunger strikes, imprisoned journalists, disappearances in custody and a growing perception that the rule of law is no longer the norm.

Perhaps the best way to take a look at human rights in Turkey - or rather the violation of human rights - is to remember some of the feature films and documentaries that have brought some of these violations into the spotlight in recent memory.

The obvious first choice is journalist Ruhi Karadağ’s documentary “Simurg” (Simurgh), currently on release in theaters. The film focuses on hunger strikes, an issue that recently made the news, although the recent hunger strikes were different to the ones shown in the movie. What’s more, the recent ones did not end up with an infamous operation in which police and soldiers broke into prisons to halt the strikes.

“Simurg” follows six revolutionaries who went on hunger strikes against the F-type prison cells in 1996, as they react to and support the strikes in 2000 for the same cause. Karadağ lets his camera hover over the six as they follow the news, talk to one another, and talk to Karadağ himself. We find out that their bodies are no longer able to carry such a burden, suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome after having been on hunger strike for over two months.

Alper’s take on life after prison

For many Turkish moviegoers, a film that serves as a companion piece to “Simurg” is “Sonbahar” (Autumn), the 2008 debut feature of writer and director Özcan Alper. Taking the audience to the Black Sea region – the site of Alper’s hometown – the film tells the story of Yusuf (Onur Saylak), a political prisoner released because of his deteriorating health after ten years.

Returning home to his elderly mother, Yusuf realizes that life has changed, with all of his activist friends having separated from the ideologies that once had brought them together. Yusuf’s mostly silent role is taken to a haunting effect with beautiful cinematography, while a number of amateur actors speak in local dialect, requiring subtitles for the Turkish-speaking audience.

With his second feature in 2011, “Gelecek Uzun Sürer” (The Future Lasts Forever), Alper moves his camera to southeastern Turkey for a harrowing journey into the heart of the war. Opening with a quote from Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese: “When the war ends one day, we have to ask ourselves this: What are we to do with the dead? Why did they die?” the film introduces its central character, a young woman (Gaye Gürsel) who travels from Istanbul to the southeastern city of Diyarbakır to research Anatolian elegies for her doctoral thesis. Her research turns into something altogether different, as she talks to women who have lost their beloved ones to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict that has claimed thousands of lives over the last three decades.

Freedom of expression, no longer

A plot revolving around the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, along with a subplot on the burning topic of the Armenian relocation of the last century, could easily tread the waters of propaganda, or at least become didactic. However, Alper manages to distance his film from any political message or emotional drama that could easily have become the tone of the film. He manages this by shooting the interviews in a documentary style, with real footage included in the film. Part road movie, part lament to lost love, and part political drama, the movie’s power to move mostly comes from its heartfelt look at the consequences of war on individual lives, and mostly on women.

Recently, Turkey has been making headlines with its record number of imprisoned journalists. However, there is an even darker record in recent history when, in the early 1990s, Turkey topped the list of countries with the highest number of journalists killed. In fact, the number of journalists killed between 1992 and 1994 is a staggering 30, while the number becomes even more striking when the 17 distributors and sellers are included in the list. Director and writer Sedat Yılmaz’s 2011 drama “Press” examines the period by following a group of journalists in Diyarbakır.

The film tells the story of journalists in the Diyarbakır office of the daily Özgür Gündem. The first issue of the newspaper was printed on May 30, 1992, and during its total run of 580 issues in less than two years it was hit with a record number of 486 lawsuits. While “Press” is a feature film with a real newspaper in its center, the characters are fictional journalists inspired by real journalists. Bayram Balcı, a real-life correspondent for Özgür Gündem during it short-lived life, is the script consultant and the name behind the story.

One final example that goes deep into the heart of a major human rights violation in Turkey is the upcoming release “Küf” (Mold), director and writer Ali Aydın’s debut feature. The film won the Future of the Lion award at this year’s Venice Film Festival and tells the heartbreaking story of a father desperately waiting for news of his son, who has been missing for 18 years. Aydın’s minimalist style and Ercan Kesal’s subtle performance as the father make the film a touching story of loss, rather than simply an angry political drama.