Antalya: Turkish Film Industry Weathering Turbulent Political Climate

Christopher Vourlias

ANTALYA, Turkey — It was an ominous sign for many Turkish bizzers when the government announced earlier this month its plans to leave the EU’s Creative Europe program, a 1.46-billion-euro ($1.59 billion) cultural fund supporting the arts.

Since Turkey joined the program as a non-EU member country in 2015, an estimated 2.4 million euros ($2.6 million) had been allocated by Creative Europe to support Turkish films and cultural projects.

But the decision to withdraw from the fund was the latest indication of how Turkey’s film industry could be caught up in the country’s ongoing political turmoil.

“Paranoia is everywhere,” says one local bizzer at the Antalya Int’l. Film Festival, which wrapped Oct. 23.

In making their decision, Turkish officials were reportedly upset about the performance of a Creative Europe-funded concert in Germany earlier this year, commemorating the Armenian genocide. The killings of more than a million Armenians and other ethnic minorities by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1922 is one of the country’s most politically charged issues, with successive governments rejecting the term “genocide” and denying the systematic mass killings ever took place.

So fraught is the subject that its impact could be felt across the world in Hollywood this week, with producer Eric Esrailian hinting at dark forces scaring off buyers for helmer Kirk Kerkorian’s $100 million Armenian genocide epic, “The Promise.”

“I’ll just say that there are some studios that have business interests in Turkey, and you can form your own opinion,” the producer told Variety.

The Turkish government meanwhile has increasingly been at loggerheads with Europe over the sweeping crackdown that followed in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July, with critics seeing it is as a sign that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (pictured) is seeking to consolidate his tight grip on power.

In Antalya this week, many bizzers were still trying to come to terms with a year that has witnessed terrorist attacks, mounting concerns over the Syrian refugee crisis, economic turmoil—and then the remarkable events of July.

“If someone would make a film out of this…no one would understand it,” says veteran programmer Ahmet Boyacioğlu, who manages the Turkish pavilions in Berlin, Venice and Cannes. “You can’t write a clear script out of the things that have happened in the last three, four months.”

A decade ago, as Turkey began to introduce reforms with an eye toward eventual E.U. membership, there was a sense that this country – historically seen as a crossroads between East and West – was embracing a new era of pluralism and tolerance.

The government publicly signaled its intent to ensure the rights of long-persecuted ethnic minorities. L.G.B.T. voices were suddenly being raised. In the film industry, a growing number of Kurdish directors began examining the plight of a group which for nearly three decades has faced brutal suppression in Turkey’s restive southeast region. It was an encouraging sign for an industry that “has not dealt with its history and problems very often,” says critic Esin Küçüktepepınar.

In 2004, this new era of openness extended to government checkbooks, as the Ministry of Culture began investing millions of dollars into the production of local films. Already bolstered by the growing international acclaim for a generation of auteurs who came of age in the ‘90s, including Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan and fest favorite Zeki Demirkubuz, the Turkish biz blossomed. Productions climbed steadily—from less than 40 a decade ago to a record 138 last year. No less important was how government support opened doors for Turkish producers in Europe, paving the way for more co-productions and leading to Creative Europe membership last year.

It’s still unclear how the government’s decision to leave the program will impact Turkey’s membership in Eurimages, the European co-production fund, or what the ripple effect will be across the industry. In light of the turbulent weeks surrounding the failed coup attempt, there was palpable relief when the government finally announced a deadline for its next round of funding.

What projects get that support, though, remains to be seen. One bizzer notes that without government funds it’s “almost impossible” for Turkish producers to tap into European coin, a fact that many quietly fear will have a chilling effect on the range of stories being told.

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