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Kurdish voices grow stronger through film

Kurdish filmmakers are using cinema to broach sensitive topics in Turkey, but major challenges persist.

Last updated: 13 May 2014 11:30
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Kurdish directors are using film to bring their community’s stories to a larger audience in Turkey [EPA]

Mizgin Mujde Arslan knew it was only a matter of time.

When she watched the final cut of her documentary film, "I flew, you stayed", the 32-year-old Kurdish director said she had no doubt the Turkish police would soon be at her door. Then, in February 2012, two months before her film would have its public premiere, they were.

"I had to be brave because it was my heritage; it was my life. I had to tell this story," said Arslan, who was released shortly after being arrested and interrogated.


RELATED: Turkey - 'World's biggest prison' for journalists


The story was that of her father, a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish resistance group designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. In the film, Arslan is looking for his grave and seeking answers to questions about their relationship.

"I didn't want to lie any more. I wanted to tell everyone that he is my father. I wanted to make peace with his existence. It was really hard for me," Arslan told Al Jazeera. "It was a really tough childhood because, as you can guess, it wasn't easy to be his daughter in Turkey."

Her arrest was part of a widespread government crackdown on individuals with suspected links to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which Turkey believes to be the urban wing of the PKK.

Arslan now lives in London, where she is completing a PhD on Kurdish cinema and teaching script-writing courses. She is also working on her next feature film, which will eventually be shot in Turkey's eastern Kurdish region. She said that writing from London gives her a sense of freedom that doesn't exist in Turkey today.

In Turkey, censorship "keeps you quiet", she said. "It's a deal between all of us, to stay silent and not ask many questions."

Despite her arrest, Arslan is among a new generation of Kurdish directors in Turkey that are using film to bring their community’s stories to a larger audience.

Turkey's Kurdish minority currently numbers between 12-15 million and is largely concentrated in the country's eastern region of Anatolia, and in Istanbul, home to about three million Kurds. For decades, films that told stories from a Kurdish perspective had been nearly absent from Turkey’s film scene.

Restrictions on Kurdish-language music were lifted in the early 1990s in Turkey - after being banned for decades - as the Turkish government prepared for its bid to join the European Union. Kurdish films quickly followed suit and began to take more prominence.

The international success of directors like Kurdish-Iranian Bahman Ghobadi helped propel the Kurdish film industry [EPA]

Considered to be one of the earliest Kurdish films coming out of Turkey, Mem u Zin, based on the Kurdish fairytale of the same name, was directed by Umit Elci and shot in 1991. Told through a Romeo and Juliette-style love story, the film describes Kurds' longing for a homeland.

The first Kurdish film festival in Turkey was held in 2009 in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in eastern Anatolia.

That same year, the widely-acclaimed film Min Dit (The Children of Diyarbakir) was screened during the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival.

"If a film in the Kurdish language can take part in national competition in Antalya, this means that we have done the right thing. This move also paves the way for young filmmakers from Diyarbakir to have a future in the sector," Kurdish-German director Miraz Bezar said at the time.


RELATED: Turkey's peace process faces fresh challenges


Before that, Kurdish characters appeared every so often in Turkish films, primarily portraying stereotypical roles - an ignorant man from the countryside who speaks Turkish with a heavy accent, for example - for comic relief, according to Ozgur Cicek, a PhD candidate at Binghamton University who conducts research on Kurdish cinema in Turkey.

By making their own films, Kurdish directors are using the medium to bring Kurdish issues to the forefront of Turkish society. "It is part of their own way of representing themselves within their own reality," Cicek said. But access to Kurdish cinema remains limited in Turkey, Cicek said, as the films are rarely shown in mainstream theatres. Cicek, who teaches film at a handful of Turkish universities, explained that her students are often shocked by what they see in Kurdish films.

When they see that this Kurdish director is not a terrorist… they start to understand that things are maybe not the way they were taught, [and] things are not the way the mainstream media has revealed.

- Ozgur Cicek, PhD candidate and researcher on Kurdish films in Turkey

"When they see that this Kurdish director is not a terrorist… they start to understand that things are maybe not the way they were taught, [and] things are not the way the mainstream media has revealed," she told Al Jazeera. "There is a counter history that is represented with those films."

But what exactly makes a film Kurdish?

With approximately 25 million Kurds spread out across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Kurdish population in the Middle East has diverse cultural traditions, dialects and experiences. These differences also extend to the films Kurdish directors are making.

In the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, 14 movie theatres were opened last summer, showcasing Kurdish and international films. Kurdish directors are producing various types of films - short films, documentaries, and feature-length films - across the Middle East, and in the diaspora.

According to Devrim Kilic, a Kurdish PhD student in film studies at La Trobe University in Australia and editor of kurdishcinema.com, the common denominator in Kurdish films is the presence of Kurdish protagonists.

Originally from the town of Dersim (Tunceli in Turkish), in eastern Turkey, Kilic told Al Jazeera that seeing Kurdish characters speaking Kurdish on screen is an emotional experience for many people in the community.

Until recently, the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey (using the letters Q, W and X was illegal), and Kurdish human rights issues remain difficult, if not impossible, to broach publicly for fear of arrest or other reprisals. Some of these restrictions have been eased by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as part of his efforts to build confidence in the peace process between his government and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the PKK.

"[People] used to cry. It was the first time they saw their language being spoken through the TV," Kilic said.

"The Turkish government had been trying to tell the Kurdish people that they don’t exist… If you think about the psychological effect of this, the Kurdish culture - Kurdish music and Kurdish cinema - is bringing back that self-esteem to the Kurdish people. They can stand up and say they are Kurdish and they are proud of it."


RELATED: Hope for peace sweeps over Diyarbakir


In the major Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, film screenings and fimmaking are relatively new phenomena, first emerging in the early 2000s.

"The city was still under the rule of military control and the cultural and artistic events and environment was quite dead in the entire southeast region," explained Ovgu Gokce, project coordinator at the Diyarbakir Arts Centre, which was established in the city in 2001.

At the outset, the centre - a branch of the Istanbul-based Anadolu Kultur network - organised workshops, screenings, and art exhibitions, with a particular focus on film and literature. The centre moved to a smaller office in 2010, and has since focused on workshops for youth and cross-cultural artistic exchanges.

A recent project, called Bak: Revealing the City through Memory, trained youth aged 18-26 from the cities of Batman, Canakkale, Diyarbakir and Izmir in film and photography.

"Most of the Kurdish films and documentaries that got critical acclaim in festivals nationwide or internationally are produced not by people living in Diyarbakir, or the Kurdish cities, but [by] Kurdish directors living in Istanbul," she explained, pointing to a lack of funding, equipment and film instruction in Turkey’s Kurdish region.

Still, she said that increased cooperation between Kurdish directors and artists in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria was a positive development that she hoped would continue.

"That’s something important," Gokce said, "in the sense that the Kurdish people, although they don’t necessarily speak the same dialect or come from the same historical background… [have] more and more interest and will to make more connections with other Kurdish societies in the region."

Follow Jillian Kestler-D'Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

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Al Jazeera
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