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New Law In Turkey Has People In Film, TV Industries Worried About Censorship


A new law in Turkey has people in the country's film and television industry worried about censorship. Turkey already has restrictions on showing people smoking or violating Islamic customs, but the law, critics say, gives the government more power over scenes and dialogue. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The past 20 years have seen rapid growth in Turkey's entertainment sector. Turkish movies and television series have reached new levels of international popularity. But beyond the big budget Ottoman-era costume dramas, some of the Turkish productions winning the most critical acclaim are being made by a small but ambitious community of independent filmmakers.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Turkish).

KENYON: The film "My Father's Wings" has collected more than two dozen awards at home and abroad since its release in 2016. It's been called a haunting look at the dangerous conditions and desperate choices facing the construction workers who built the luxury high-rise towers that transformed the Istanbul skyline.

Writer and director Kivanc Sezer says government financing and support has long played an important role in getting films made and distributed. And getting a film past the censors has always been part of the process. Even so, he says this new cinema law is raising some red flags.

KIVANC SEZER: And we have a lot of celebrities now famous in Argentina, in the Middle East, in, like, a lot of countries. But still, the films are exposed to this censorship. They are continuing to tell our stories. And there are some stories that they don't want the people to hear.

KENYON: Political censorship has been an issue here since well before Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. Movies that openly criticized the government were rare and have essentially vanished in the Erdogan era. But censors are active in other areas as well. Turkish viewers have long grown used to watching, say, a Western television show and seeing a close-up with half the actor's face blurred out. They know that means the character's probably smoking, an image banned in the interest of public health.

What's changing now is committees rating and financing movies will be much smaller, and government appointees will be in control. Sezer's fear is that filmmakers will be pushed to present a version of Turkey he doesn't recognize.

SEZER: To make a film, nobody makes sex. There is no homosexuality. Nobody smokes. Nobody drinks, you know. But this is not true in life (laughter).

KENYON: For President Erdogan, presenting a more conservative, pious Turkey to the world has long been a goal. In 2017, he remarked that even after more than a decade in power, his party's impact in the area of culture had been relatively limited.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) You know, it's a different thing being in power politically rather than socially and culturally. We've been in power for 14 years without interruption, thank God, but still, there is a problem socially and culturally.

KENYON: Murat Tirpan, head of the cinema and television department at Okan University in Istanbul, says the new law does make some improvements for viewers such as limiting the ads theaters can run before the movie starts. But he says the potential for more aggressive censorship is likely to have a chilling effect, most immediately on screenwriters.

MURAT TIRPAN: Self-censorship, yeah, it's growing. I don't think - I know this. I have lots of screenwriter friends. They are doing this now. They are thinking about, OK, this is not good, so I should write something less harmful.

KENYON: Director Kivanc Sezer says after the success of his first film, he felt pretty confident when he pitched his second project. But the funding committee rejected it without explanation. Luckily, he says, he's been able to find financing elsewhere. That's an option he says new filmmakers trying to get their career started probably won't have. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.