In recent years, countless cultural events and concerts have been canceled in Turkey due to the ruling government's censorship and increasingly conservative views. Some festival organizers have even made the tough decision to cancel events following state pressure.
This is what happened to the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival — the country's most prestigious film festival — that was scheduled to take place between October 7–14. This year's edition was going to be the festival's 60th anniversary celebration. As most things go in Turkey, the story began with censorship — a documentary film titled “Kanun Hukmu” (“The Decree” in English) faced criticism over its plot. The film explored the firings that occurred in the aftermath of the failed military coup in 2016 under the state of emergency that continued until June 2018.
The documentary was set to feature at the festival but was removed by the festival's organizers on September 22, 2023, following government pressure on the grounds that one of the characters in the film was still facing legal proceedings. Except, this was not true. Following the decision of the organizers, the film's director, Nejla Demirci, and countless artists criticized the festival organizers’ decision. Demirci said the decision was an “excuse” and “outright censorship.”
— George Roussos (@baphometx) September 29, 2023
Censorship at the #AltinPortakal film festival is a disgrace. “The Decree” a documentary exposing the mass firings by the government decree following the coup attempt in Turkey, was unfairly pulled from the best documentary category. https://t.co/sxFeWNa9SE
— İmdat Oner (@im_oner) September 22, 2023
Directors and producers of other documentary films and short films competing in the festival announced their withdrawal from the event while expressing their solidarity with Demirci. As a result, producers and directors of 27 entries announced they were pulling out.
In a joint statement on September 27, 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 Actors Union, Cinema Workers Union (Sine-Sen), Cinema Writers Association (SİYAD), and the Documentary Filmmakers Union also criticized the exclusion of the documentary from the festival.
On September 23, the festival's 20-member jury issued a statement in which it expressed “shock” and “sadness” about the censorship, adding they would only remain as jury members if the film is reinstated.
The outpouring of support forced festival organizers to eventually reverse their decision. On September 28, the film was officially back in the festival program. The director of the festival, Ahmet Boyacıoğlu, said, “The trial process regarding the person in the documentary … is not continuing, so it has been decided that the film will be included in the competition selection.”
This prompted the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, one of the supporters of the festival, to withdraw its support. The decision was welcomed by the Minister of Justice, Yılmaz Tunç, who said, “It is absolutely unacceptable to make propaganda for a terrorist organization at a traditional festival like the Golden Orange Film Festival.” Following the ministry's announcement, the festival's sponsors also pulled their support.
On September 28, Ahmet Boyacıoğlu tweeted that an investigation had been launched against him as a result of the controversy over the documentary film, so he was removing the film from the program.
The 2016 coup and its aftermath
So why was the ruling party so incensed about the film?
After the aborted 2016 coup, authorities in Turkey went after civil society on a massive scale. Officials said just short of 218,000 people were detained over alleged links to the Gulen movement, which Turkish officials refer to as FETO (the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation).
The coup offered a useful pretext for authorities not just to root out a corrosive Gulenist influence but also to create a “New Turkey” — a phrase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tossed out repeatedly since then. This “New Turkey” doesn't leave much space for alternative visions of the country's future.
In the meantime, the Gulen Movement turned into a tool for the state, allowing them to eradicate opposition in all its forms. From the military and academia to the business world and media, thousands were rounded up and arrested in Turkey — even those with little to nothing to do with the movement. These arrests continue to this day.
Over the next two years, countless professionals lost their jobs, as businesses raced to avoid fallout from the coup.