Turkey became the center of global attention following the Gezi Park protests that erupted in June. The protests were the result of police heavy-handedness against environmentalists protesting the AKP government’s decision to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in downtown Istanbul, and construct a shopping complex in its place. The resulting protests and clashes with police have left six dead and thousands injured. The protests have also morphed from their environmental focus into a public indictment of what many Turks view as an increasingly authoritarian government led by an uncompromising leader.
Public outrage against the AKP government’s handling of the Gezi protests stands in stark contrast to the popularity the party enjoyed when it came to power in 2000 and initiated social, economic and political reforms in accordance with the EU accession process. Now, however, there is growing discontent among many Turks and a fear that government interference in the daily lives of Turkish citizens is growing and that secularism appears to be in danger.
It is no coincidence that documentary filmmaking in Turkey has flourished considerably since 2000, reflecting and contributing to the tremendous political and social transformations the country has experienced. Benefitting from the relatively inexpensive technology that is digital filmmaking and an increasing perception of creative documentary as an art form, filmmakers have created strong and courageous works that tackle taboo subjects like sexual identity, discrimination and torture, and raise awareness about some of the most traumatic chapters in Turkey’s modern history. Turkey’s leading film festivals have also started to place a bigger emphasis on documentaries; meanwhile, documentary film festivals such as Istanbul’s Documentarist and 1001 Documentary have provided important platforms for further developing the local documentary scene.
Kurdish directors have enjoyed a particularly strong presence in documentary productions since 2000, relating, for the first time, stories of Turkey’s Kurds in great detail and with impressive precision, thus, challenging and weakening the state-sanctioned discourses that have prevailed for decades. Filmmakers like Hüseyin Karabey, Kazım Öz, Cenk Örtülü, Zeynel Koç, Caner Canerik and Mizgin Müjde Arslan have explored a myriad stories, from the last-remaining nomadic tribes in Eastern Anatolia (The Last Season: Shawaks, Kazim Öz, 2008) and the victims of torture (We Have Seen Torture, Cenk Örtülü & Zeynel Koç, 2012) to the social and personal traumas of the conflict (I Flew You Stayed, Mizgin Müjde Arslan, 2012).
The most outstanding example of this new wave is On the Way to School (2008) by Orhan Eskiköy and Özgür Doğan, which constitutes a milestone for Turkey in a multitude of ways. The film follows the story of a young Turkish teacher from Western Anatolia, who was appointed by the state to teach the Turkish language in a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey. Chronicling an extraordinary encounter between a dedicated teacher who struggles to apply the state curriculum and Kurdish pupils who don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, the film succeeds in helping overcome prejudice involving difficult subject matter by employing incredible humour and humanism. Unsurprisingly, the documentary opened on 22 screens across Turkey, attracting some 78,000 people in eight weeks.