Freedom of Speech: the Before and After

​ Karlovy Vary 2015 - In Focus TFL Alumni Meeting

Writer Profile



Name: Wim Vanacker

Nationality: Belgium


TorinoFilmLab is a year-round, international laboratory that supports emerging talents from all over the world – with a special attention to those working on their first and second fiction feature films – through training, development, funding and distribution activities. In parallel with this activity, TorinoFilmLab also aims to promote the building of a dynamic community of international film people comprising their former participants, trainers, guests and partners. With that in mind, they’ve been organizing an annual Alumni Meeting since 2012- a networking event conceived to exchange experiences and to share ideas with former participants from all TFL programmes. This year, TorinoFilmLab’s Alumni Meeting took place during the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and had as theme: Provocative cinema – Addressing taboos, dealing with censors, generating debate and acting for change. 

“Our so-called liquid modernity is full of contradictions - interactivity and wider access to information does not quite mean a wider freedom of speech and expression. Recent awards at the Berlin Film Festival for two filmmakers, who have repeatedly addressed taboo issues of their respective societies - Chilean Pablo Larrain and Iranian Jafar Panahi, proved once again that cinema is by nature provocative and thus often threatened by censorship (be it financial, political or self-imposed)” said Matthieu Darras, TorinoFilmLab’s Head of Programmes, “therefore our desire to delve deeper into this basic contradiction. We want to broaden people’s perspective and inspire.”

But before delving into censorship itself, it might not be a bad idea to define the basic notion of what art is supposed to do, to put everything into a wider spectrum. As put very eloquently by Nicolò Gallio, who was there to share the results of an ongoing research on transgressive & offensive cinema: “Art is supposed to challenge the notion of what is considered safe, the conventions, and is supposed to push the boundaries of what’s generally accepted as content. Of course, all of this is very closely related to the culturally defined notion of taboos: something we shouldn’t talk about, discuss, watch nor study. Taboos are about defining cultural norms and breaking those boundaries and rules.” 

Which takes us to the notion of censorship, the other side of the coin. A topic we’ll tackle in two movements, a personal one, that of a director, and a public one, that of a festival. We’ll start with the personal one, the journey of Edwin. An Indonesian filmmaker who has been confronted with censorship in the context of his own films, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Postcards from the Zoo, who’s currently working on a documentary about censorship in Indonesia, Potongen or Cuts. The strange thing in Indonesia is that Cinema is the only art form being censored. According to Edwin, mainly due to the fact that when the radical reform took place that liberated all press and art in 1998, Cinema was still an extremely young art form and the new generation of filmmakers that stood up at the end of the nineties weren’t aware of the censorship going on because they were all new to the industry. Gradually they realized how powerful they were. 

The Indonesian censorship board is involved in the filmmaking process every step of the way: from the title, to the script, to the synopsis, to the final edit; if they approve, you get a permit so you can release the film in mainstream cinemas. If not, you’re bound to end up in a still very undeveloped, unstructured underground scene where the film can be shown outside of the system, but with a very limited impact. In the end, censorship in Indonesia is a reflection of the old, unorganized system rooted in corruption. The standards being used and the rules being applied always seem to change, depending on the government and their aims. The filmmaking community is trying to work with the censorship board, but they don’t give any indications about what’s accepted and what’s not. Initially they thought it was mainly about sex and violence, but throughout the making of his documentary, Edwin realized that religion and national values are a whole lot more important. The censorship board used to be under the Ministry of Education and Culture, but now they’ve moved the censorship board under the Commission of National Defence and the Military, which says a lot and makes it more political than ever. But the worst part, the local people, the real audience, they’re so used to being censored that they don’t realize it any longer. It becomes accepted and common practice. The public, they don’t even talk about their rights. The notion of freedom of speech is a very absent and abstract one. The censorship board reigns through fear as they constantly advocate the people to be careful for their children as sex, violence and liberal political thinking tends to harm the growth of a nation, this to a point where people unconsciously start self-censoring their thoughts. A scary proposition, but a perfect transition to the notion of festivals being at the mercy of politics.

If looking at film festivals world wide, they’re all to some extent connected to politics. Film festivals are indeed widely recognized as realms of freedom of artistic expression, but if looking more closely, they are increasingly on the threat of political pressure. There are many recent examples of political interference to be found: the executive director of the Busan Film Festival was forced to step down, the Israeli Minister of Culture is threatening to reconsider public funding for the Jerusalem Film Festival as we speak, and, of course, we all know about the events that shook the Istanbul Film Festival last April when Turkish filmmakers pulled out their films over a censorship row. 

Azize Tan, the director of the Istanbul Film Festival, was present in Karlovy Vary to guide us through the events that resonated worldwide: a rift between the festival, the Turkish filmmakers and the government that was instigated by a documentary called Bakur that treated the life of guerillas living in the mountains in the north of Turkey. A topic that hadn’t been depicted yet, but a very sensitive subject in the context of a Turkey in turmoil because of the tension and ongoing war between the Kurdish side and the government. Up until that moment, the media had only depicted the side of the government, so that documentary, although an imperfect one, was an important step forward. Given the current political climate, the festival thought it wouldn’t be a problem to program the film. Until they organized a press screening and one of the pro-government newspapers wrote a very critical article about it, which triggered the whole controversy. Usually the government doesn’t care about most newspapers as they’re being read by people who wouldn’t vote for them anyway. But this time it was different as it was a newspaper directed at their voters and as the festival is partly supported by the Ministry of Culture, they didn’t want their voters to think that they approved of the content. The festival tried to convince the ministry of culture that it would only create a bigger mess if they would interfere, but the next morning there was an incident in the East of Turkey between the army and the Turkish guerillas which only made matters worse and put the already volatile subject even more in the spotlight. Because of the pressure enforced by the government to withdraw the film, the filmmakers called for a meeting after which the festival, together with the filmmakers, decided to cancel the national competition, the international competition and the closing ceremony. 

And of course, there’s one important detail to be taken into account. The government never says that you cannot show a film. They never say no. But as Turkish films have to apply for a registration paper, mainly to define who owns the film and who’ll reap the benefits once distributed, in order to distribute the film in mainstream cinemas, they can just refuse to supply you with such a paper. And as festivals are supposed to ask for that document, the government is legally in a position to put pressure on the artistic decisions festivals are making. There’s no censorship department in Turkey, at least not officially, but that document is used as a censorship tool. There’s also the rating system, which helps the government push certain films in the shadows and turn them into a niche attraction. One might wonder what kind of impact does it really have. Well, it can harm the film as the Turkish population is very young. Half of the population is under the age of 30 and if you rate a film plus 18, it means a big chunk of the population won’t be able to see it. It also has substantial financial implications as it means the film cannot be sold to and shown on television. 

“In the end, the main thing the government is looking for is to control you. They’re always interpreting the law according to their wishes,” says Azize Tan. “If they don’t want to create a big mess, they let the festival show the film, but they don’t allow the film to be released. That’s why it’s so hard to do things. All that’s left for a festival to do is approach all of this with the necessary irony. If they play with the rules, we’ll try to play it smart and strategic and fool them into allowing us to do the things we’re aiming for. A different kind of resistance, but the only one we have left to play with if wanting to sustain our position.”

But the main problem in Turkey seems to be the fact that it’s such a divided country. Initially there was a lot of solidarity from all over the world. But it became obvious very quickly that even the artists and filmmakers amongst themselves were very divided. The festival was very hopeful change could be achieved as was the case in 1988. Right after the Coup d’état, Elia Kazan, who was part of the jury, gathered a group of filmmakers and they managed to push the Ministry of Culture to issue a new law that film festivals would be exempt from censorship. The festival was hoping for something similar, but unfortunately, the zeitgeist was different and they couldn’t achieve any of that. But even then, that exemption was only for foreign films, not for Turkish films. Something they were aiming to change now, to annihilate the difference in rules between foreign and Turkish films. The deputy minister even made a statement saying he knows there’s a problem with the regulation and that he was going to change it and that they were going to put Turkish and foreign films on the same level. “If only we would have gone after it and push the issue”, says Azize Tan, “we might have succeeded, but after that, one month later, there were elections and the boat had sailed. In a country like Turkey, what happened one month ago is no longer valid one month later.”
“In Turkey, everybody seems to be out on their own. There are so many divided opinions now, especially amongst the opposition, which makes it very hard to work and act together. We’re in constant competition, but if wanting to achieve something we need great solidarity, because that’s when change happens, because than you have the power.“