Summer in Istanbul.
I am thinking that freedom means different things. It can mean freedom from obstacles, from suppression, or, on the other hand, freedom to something – as in freedom of expression.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamic party, AKP, are about to be re-elected. Erdogan doesn’t care about hiding how he suppresses his political opponents; as we see politicians with opposing opinions put in prison for no good reason. Through its socially critical stand, the documentary festival Documentarist shows several film examples of how freedom is limited here in Turkey. Some people I see at the festival call this country a police state. The Prime Minister is called a smart player; something we from the outside don’t see the true extent of. Anyway, I also do see the main street of Istanbul called Istkal as a place with a lot of demonstrations – to some extent having free speech. All of a sudden, as I’m walking through Istanbul one day, I encounter a big, colourful Gay Pride Parade, loudly expressed in shouts, drums and whistles. But the groups of lesbians, homosexuals, transsexuals, feminists and others who made up this demonstration suddenly had to shield their faces from the teargas in the air.
The explanation was actually that, around the corner, a demonstration by Kurds was being brutally dealt with by the Turkish police. Several were injured. Erdogan doesn’t like his Istanbul to be like the old, diversified and multicultural Constantinople; he is using Islamic nationalism as a driving force. Which means that the Kurds are not really accepted. More than 10 million Kurds in this country have limited freedom, they do not have the same rights as the Turkish, their language is not officially accepted – in the courts it is “non-existent”. Turkey still suppresses every eighth citizen, because of Atatürk’s mission to establish one Turkey.
The two-year-old documentary festival has, as the Turkish-Arab festival head Necati Sonmez tells me, created an arena and an audience previously unseen in this city. He and his wife Emel have this year collected 80 films and got 2-3000 visitors made possible by a budget of 15 000 Euros (!) – as documentary festivals of a certain size in Europe normally cost several hundred thousand Euros. About a hundred documentary films are produced in Turkey every year, and one fifth of them were represented at this festival: One Step Beyond shows us three female students, who cared about the Kurdish movement at the beginning of the 1990s. They were arrested and got ten years each, after court cases where only evidence was their connection to the PKK or opinions they had expressed about the situation, and the problems the Kurds were facing.
After the screening, I ask the female director Tülin Dag why her films don’t explain more exactly what they were arrested for – violence or sabotage? No, as she says, it was enough for the governing AKP party that you had been seen in those circles. Also the three women explain how, during their harsh imprisonment, they were convinced that they would be there for life – and forgot the world outside. They lost their pride and self-esteem in the decade they were inside. And when they got out in 2003, the world had also forgotten them; the University would not let convicts back in the first instance. One of them also needed seven years to be able to have an emotional relationship again, it was, as she says, far too late to establish a family. Inside the prison they at least used to sing to soothe their nerves; outside they struggled with depression for years.