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'Nymphomaniac' Latest Pawn in Turkey's Battle Over Censorship

TurkeyMoviesCensorshipRecep Tayyip Erdogan

When Serra Ciliv appeared before a packed house at the Fitas Cinema to announce that for the first time in its 13-year history the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival would be accepting latecomers to a screening, she had good reason to rewrite the rulebook.

Outside, along Istanbul's famous pedestrian artery Istiklal Street, phalanxes of police using tear gas, pepper spray, plastic bullets and water cannons battled thousands of demonstrators who had gathered to protest an Internet censorship law they considered the latest act of government repression from Turkey's conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The protesters' concerns had been duly summarized in the government-friendly press as gripes from the "porn lobby," a term that had an especially potent meaning the evening of Feb. 22, since the film being played over the coughing of tear-gassed spectators that night was Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1."

Now, the film is in the middle of the latest tug of war between Erdogan and those in the nation's arts and cinema world over which his shadow has been spreading for the past few years: In 2011, a sculpture celebrating Turkish-Armenian friendship was demolished in the city of Kars because Erdogan found it "freakish"; in 2012, he attacked the nation's most popular TV export, the Ottoman costume drama "Magnificent Century," because it portrayed 16th century Sultan Suleyman as a human with passions and regrets. The PM's rhetoric against an ever-growing list of enemy lobbies has expanded -- as he tries to convince his party to consider changing its bylaws so that he can serve a third term -- to include atheists, preachers and, in a somewhat perplexing twist, robots.

The late-January announcement by !f that it was bringing the most controversial film of the year to a country where freedom of expression has been clipped ever-nearer to the quick was met with wild anticipation; screenings sold out within hours.

But on March 3, Turkey's cinema ratings and evaluation committee banned the film, despite objections by two of its eight members. Noting what it called "pornographic images and dialogue" and citing concerns about "public order, common morals, and protecting the spiritual and physical health of youth," the commission outlawed commercial distribution of the movie.

The ruling came as a shock to co-distributors Ozen Film and Umut Sanat, which had been expecting a release of the pic with an 18+ rating, as had been the case in many countries. The distributors are appealing the decision to Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Shortly after the ban was announced, 39 members of a group calling itself the New Cinema Movement signed a letter condemning the decision, and saying the ratings committee was denying freedom of expression. Anti-censorship group Siyah Bant (Black Band) echoed those sentiments in its own missive, and demanded an overhaul of ratings procedures to respect freedom of choice. It included signatures from hundreds in the arts and cinema world, among them festival organizers and filmmakers Yesim Ustaoglu, Zeki Demirkubuz and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Yet the government wants to present a good face. Shortly after the ban was announced, news came that the Istanbul Film Festival, the city's largest cinematic event, would screen "Nymphomaniac" in April. Cem Erkul, head of the Turkish Cinema Directorate, cited the film's inclusion in the fest as evidence that Turkey is democratic, though he called the pic "pornography," and his organization continues to deny it a commercial certificate. Erkul did not respond to repeated inquiries to comment for this piece.

Ciliv, meanwhile, maintained that it's crucial for festivals to remain exempt from censorship, especially as state conservatism grows.

Perhaps the battle over censorship in Turkey is best summed up in one festival viewer's message to organizers: "Ahh, Lars von Trier, I wish for a country as free as your mind."

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