Documentary filmmaker Çayan Demirel and his co-director Ertuğrul Mavioğlu were each sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison on the charge of "terrorism propaganda" over a screening of their 2015 film, Bakur, in Batman province
The day after he put the finishing touches to the final edit of his film Bakur (North), a documentary he shot during the failed 2013-14 peace process together with veteran journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, award-winning documentary filmmaker Çayan Demirel fell to the ground in the middle of the road and his heart stopped beating for 15 minutes. The date was 18 March 2015.
His brain didn’t get enough oxygen for 15 minutes, which caused severe brain damage. Director of critically acclaimed documentaries such as Dersim 38 (38), Dr. Şivan, and 5 No’lu Cezaevi: 1980-84 (Prison Number 5: 1980-84), Çayan Demirel was in intensive care for the next 1.5 months.
Demirel was handicapped when he was discharged from the hospital after almost six months: He couldn’t see, since his visual cortex was damaged; he had balance and coordination problems, and he had trouble speaking.
Ayşe Çetinbaş, Çayan Demirel’s wife and producing partner, would juggle at the time between attending to Demirel when he was hospitalized and dealing with the obligatory tasks as a producer ahead of Bakur’s upcoming premiere less than a month later. She was by Demirel’s side in the intensive care unit, when she received a phone call, hours before the gala screening at Istanbul Film Festival, organized by the İstanbul Culture and Arts Foundation (İKSV), announcing that the film was to be censored.
It was just the beginning of a long saga for Çetinbaş and Demirel: following his discharge from the hospital, and at a time when the documentary was already screened around the country, Çayan Demirel and his co-director Ertuğrul Mavioğlu were on trial for “disseminating propaganda for an illegal organization.”
Çetinbaş and Demirel detailed how judicial harassment snuck into their lives long before the filming of Bakur, the censorship they had to struggle against, and the overall hardships of being a documentary filmmaker in Turkey for the video essay Under Watch: Stories of Judicial Harassment, produced as part of the Expression Interrupted project and implemented by P24.
“Judicial harassment started off with Dersim 38”
Çayan Demirel was born in İstanbul in 1977. He graduated from Bandırma College. Ayşe Çetinbaş was also born in Germany in 1979. Studying in Turkey from high school on, she graduated from the department of economics. After many years of working voluntarily for film festivals, Çetinbaş got her start in film making when she met Çayan Demirel during the production of Dersim 38, and went on to become a producer.
According to Ayşe Çetinbaş, judicial harassment and censorship came into their lives then, with the documentary Dersim 38:
“When you say judicial harassment, you immediately think of Bakur, but it all started off with 38, actually. Çayan shot the film 38 in 2006. It is about the Dersim Massacre. It was then, after the movie was already screened at some of the biggest film festivals in Turkey such as Antalya Golden Orange, and through police intervention to a screening in Dersim that we first became aware of the existence of a document called official registration certificate.
“Police came in during that particular screening and told us that we needed to have an official registration certificate, even though we had never been asked for it before. Then, we applied for one, but were denied on the grounds that ‘there were parts in the film which denigrated Turkish culture, and incited hatred and hostility between groups of the population,’ upon which we filed a suit against the Ministry of Culture. The case file was then sent to a panel of experts; the film was examined and the panel favored us with a rather suspect report.
“The panel suggested the allegations against us were based on unfounded concerns, citing in their report that the film was screened at various festivals, that there were many people who had seen the film and that people at those festivals hadn’t been provoked. We won the case, the Ministry of Culture challenged the court decision, and the file was transferred to a higher court. The case file of the film we made in 2006 is currently before the State of Council, pending review. It is the year 2020 and this documentary film can’t be shown legally in Turkey to this day.”
“The film crew was there when withdrawal stopped”
The documentary Bakur was born out of the idea to witness PKK’s withdrawal to semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, after the announcement of a ceasefire agreement and initiation of peace process to end the 40-year armed conflict between the Turkish government and the organization in 2013. Ertuğrul Mavioğlu called Çayan Demirel to talk about how he would have liked those instants to be documented and archived; they met in Gezi Park to further discuss the prospects in the heart of the Gezi Park protests:
“Çayan and Ertuğrul made a quick decision; they wanted to be able to go everywhere. Meetings were held, required permissions were granted, and our friends set off to document the process with a small crew. It was a different time then, things were easier. They went to Diyarbakır, Dersim, Botan, border regions, and visited PKK camps.
“Our friends had taken off to witness and document the withdrawal, but as it usually happens when making documentaries, the circumstances changed abruptly. The withdrawal was stopped when the crew was there, and then they documented something entirely different than what they initially set out to film. The crew got to see the daily reality of the people who resided there. What do these people do there, what and how do they eat, how do they drink, how do they live there and under what circumstances... These were the key questions. That’s how the documentary Bakur came to be.”
“İstanbul Film Festival invited us”
The editing of the documentary, shot in 2013, was underway, almost ready to be completed in 2014 and the crew was discussing where they would premiere the film:
“We were trying to be mindful strategically; we actually wanted the premiere to take place somewhere abroad, in one of those big festivals like Berlin and Rotterdam, and were making the relevant applications. However, Berlin Film Festival didn’t accept our application; we were eliminated at the eleventh hour regrettably. Then, I got a call from Istanbul Film Festival. Apparently, they had found out about the film, despite our best efforts to keep it secret. It was Azize Tan on the phone, the then director of Istanbul Film Festival. She said she knew about the film, and invited us to premiere it at the festival, saying that all previous films of Çayan were screened at the festival, and that this needn’t have been an exception, that they would have a very special opening for us.
“Çayan and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu did not want to do it. They wanted to open the film abroad just like we initially agreed on; they said it was safer that way, that they didn’t trust festivals in Turkey. I, unfortunately, didn’t listen to them. I was more optimistic, more positive, I thought we could do it and I convinced the directors. I have a say in these things as a producer. I, of course, know how wrong I was in hindsight, but what can I do now, kısmet, as they say. I somehow influenced them, which took a lot of effort, because their hearts weren’t really in it. But it was going to be perfect.
“We were to have our own gala first in a cultural center in Diyarbakır, on the death anniversary of Halil Dağ. It was very important for us to have the first screening in Diyarbakır in every sense. We even had meetings with the then mayors Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, who are both behind bars now.”
“Çayan had a stroke on March 18”
After the editing was completed, the film was handed over to the post-production studio. The next day, Çayan Demirel had a stroke in the middle of the street. Çetinbaş, who was in Izmir at the time of the incident, describes the following events as:
“They stopped an ambulance which happened to be passing through the street by pure chance, and doctors provided immediate medical response on the spot for half an hour. However, because they came in 15 minutes later, during which time Çayan’s heart wasn’t beating, he had suffered a severe brain damage. He was hospitalized. Çayan was ill on March 18, he was in a coma.
“The Istanbul Film Festival premiere was scheduled to take place on either the 12th or the 16th of March. We didn’t even have a month in between. We were, all of us, together with our friends and family, waiting by the intensive care unit at the hospital, while at the same time running errands relating to the festival and the approaching gala. We had to cancel the gala in Diyarbakır, but invited everybody instead to come and see the film at the screening in Istanbul.”
“The screening was canceled”
“They called me on the phone, someone from Istanbul Film Festival, one day before the screening at about 6 p.m. and said ‘we have to talk immediately.’ I said I was at the hospital, that it could wait, but they said it was an urgent matter and asked me to go in person. Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, Koray, our director of photography and I went to the İKSV building together. Görgün Taner, general director of İKSV, and Azize Tan were waiting for us. They showed us the letter sent by the Ministry of Culture. What I mean by showing is, Mr. Taner was holding a piece of paper in his hands, and he said ‘we have a situation: we can’t show the film to our regret.’ We later learned that police had gone to Atlas Cinema, where the screening was to take place, and said they had found out about such and such screening, warning them not to show the film.
“In short, they told us the screening was to be canceled. I was very clear in expressing my thoughts and concerns, saying that it was simply unacceptable, that it was outright censorship, and that it would cause a huge scandal; I said ‘Don’t let it happen.’ They were having none of it, they weren’t going to pull back and it was a particularly delicate time for me, so I got emotional and said: ‘Please, don’t do this now. Çayan is in intensive care and I can’t deal with this right now. It will be a huge scandal.’
“We mulled over what we could do, of sorts, but it was very clear that they weren’t willing to do anything. I said, ‘If you are afraid of the Ministry of Culture, give me some time and I’ll see if I can get to some people.’ It was just about showing the film at the time, and we were ready to be tried afterwards, if that was what they really wanted to do. When you make a documentary like Bakur, you naturally take certain risks. None of our efforts paid off. And it was all because of that one initial mistake, I can admit that much.”
“Free cinema movement began”
Çetinbaş claims the refusal of Istanbul Film Festival to stand with the documentary against interference from state actors set a dangerous precedent and paved the way for a climate of censorship and oppression thereafter, and that many more festivals from then on were forced to throw in the towel:
“Bakur was accepted to many festivals by then. It was to be screened at Antalya Film Festival one month after the one in Istanbul, for example. They had to cancel it, too, because they were subjected to the same pressure.
“Film festivals couldn’t take place, let alone the screening of Bakur. Directors far and wide were subjected to a sort of community pressure. People were forced to choose between being for or against censorship. It was downright censorship, so everybody stood with us at the time. It set off a free cinema movement called Platform for Struggling against Censorship.
“Had Istanbul Film Festival chosen to adopt a different manner at the time, had they backed us, we wouldn’t see other festivals go through a similar path, we wouldn’t be having any of the problems the cinema sector is facing today. It is that simple for me. Yes, things have changed in Turkey, everything is much harder now, but we are still talking about March 2015.
“Things were different in 2015. Therefore, we were able to show the film in numerous provinces such as İstanbul, Diyarbakır, Mardin, Batman, mainly Kurdish cities, even though we couldn’t screen it at the festival. We had multiple screenings and didn’t have any troubles. Çayan was still at the hospital. He couldn’t attend any of the screenings.”
“Çayan was tried for a screening he couldn’t attend”
Çayan Demirel, following his discharge, would divide his time between his mother’s place and his own place with Çetinbaş. He was staying with his mother Nedime Demirel, when police knocked on the door and demanded to take him in for his statement. The arduous trial process started thus:
“Police goes there when Çayan is staying with Aunt Nedime. Çayan’s brother İbrahim is at the house. He says, ‘he is not in a position to give his statement,’ and sends them on their way. He called me to inform me of the situation, and I went to the police station at once to update Çayan’s place of residence. Thank God, Çayan’s brother was home. Aunt Nedime is somewhere around 70 years old; had he not been there, things could turn really ugly.
“I found out about Çayan’s situation at the police, and handed in his medical reports and updated our most recent address. Then, two months later, they came to our place. I did the same thing: I told them my husband was handicapped and therefore couldn’t give his statement. This was the investigation stage.
“There had been a screening in Batman in May 2015. Çayan was still in intensive care then. We found out that the local public prosecutor had launched an investigation into the screening, saying ‘They made propaganda for the PKK.’ Ertuğrul came in and gave his defense statement. Then, nothing happened for some time. All of a sudden, I guess it was in 2017, we learned that they had filed a criminal case against us at the Batman 2nd High Criminal Court.
“It’s total nonsense. Why do they file the case in Batman, for one thing? If we were charged with making propaganda at the screening, Çayan wasn’t there at all. The whole case was absurd in terms of both legality and technicality. At the time, we didn’t highlight Çayan’s medical condition in our defense statements in any shape or form. We were always diligent in framing our statements from a certain viewpoint: that the film should be considered within the context of freedom of expression, which is our constitutional right. We were simply exercising our constitutional right when we made this film.”
“The judge didn’t let me help Çayan”
Çayan Demirel appeared before the court in Batman for the first hearing of the trial. Ayşe Çetinbaş had their attorney file Demirel’s medical reports under the case file and written a petition to explain the situation by then. The hearing didn’t go exactly according to the plan. In Çetinbaş’s stark words:
“The idea was, we go there, give our statements, and deny the accusations; besides, the judge would see Çayan, and know who they were considering to sentence in prison. They saw Çayan all right. The court panel was so rude. It’s not always easy to make out what Çayan is saying, and at the time he needed somebody to interpret for him more often; so I made a move to sit next to Çayan and interpret what he said. The judge barked at me at once, saying ‘You go back to your place.’ I tried to explain the situation, that my husband was handicapped and he needed interpretation. ‘No,’ they said, ‘if he can make it to here, he can explain himself.’ Hence I went to the back row. The judge let Çayan speak sitting down, thankfully, and he gave his statement: ‘I am a documentary filmmaker. I did my job. I don’t know why I am here but if you are going to arrest me, then I am here, arrest me,’ he said.”
“Çayan was imposed an international travel ban”
“We went there twice for the whole trial. The two directors were sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison each, which is quite something for a propaganda charge. As you know, sentences for propaganda usually amount to one or two years. Two years threshold is significant in being eligible to ask for a deferment of the announcement of the verdict, as you know. The case is at the regional court of appeals currently pending review. By the way, they imposed an international travel ban on both of them because of ‘flight risk.’ Yes, that’s true, they imposed an international travel ban on a 99% handicapped person because he was considered a flight risk.”
“You are guilty right from the start”
It has been more than 18 months since the court delivered its judgment. Çetinbaş describes the repercussions of the staggering process as:
“For one thing, it is extremely exhausting, costly, and burdensome to go back and forth to courthouses. Just think about it, we had to bring someone like Çayan from here all the way to Batman, and for how many times. Buy plane tickets, go back and forth, then there is accommodation... And you see the treatment we get. We got to see three judges in Batman 2nd Assize Court. It’s like they were all specifically chosen. You say to yourself, this is the place where we claim our rights, where we seek justice; we will defend ourselves, this is my right as a citizen and look at the treatment I get. Sit down, stand up...
“We have seen many things in İstanbul when academicians were on trial, and in other criminal trials; I’ve been following them for years. I’ve known how judges act ever since there were state security courts, but I had never seen anything so horrid as this. You are guilty right from the start. Defense statement, this and that, nobody cares about any of them. They don’t even do it for procedure’s sake.”
“We were denied a disability pension”
Demirel’s poor health and the trial process, along with economic distress in the country, drag Çetinbaş to a financially precarious situation. She can only go to work for three days a week, when Demirel stays with his mother. Çetinbaş applies for a disability pension in Demirel’s name, but nothing goes smoothly:
“Before it comes to my personal situation, Turkey in general is at a low ebb. Documentary makers have always been struggling in dire situations, but many of our friends either left the country or swerved into different fields by now. It is all very bleak.
“Because our families and our friends always had our back, we didn’t really think ahead at first, but there comes a time when you start asking: how are we going to support ourselves, what are we going to do? I mean, Çayan is not able to work, and I can’t work, either. The family is completely miserable. I applied for a disability pension. Did you know that there are such wonderful things like disability pension and home care pension in Turkey? So, we applied for them. We couldn’t get either. Why, you might ask. Because we live in our own house, because we have a car registered under our names...”
“Our petition to retire due to disability was also denied”
“As a last resort, I applied to the Social Security Institution (SGK) for Çayan to retire due to disability in August 2016. We went to see medical boards in full-fledged public hospitals countless times. They kept us waiting in horrendous hospital hallways for three days. Nope, nothing comes of it, they refer you to other hospitals, they don’t admit you, and all that jazz... They really lean over backwards to frustrate you and make you say you don’t want it anymore.
“Consequently, after rushing around hospitals for who knows how long, we received a notice that our application for retirement due to disability was denied. The reason being: Çayan did not appear to be in need of round the clock care. They accepted his handicapped status as truth, but he didn’t need constant care, according to them.”
“We were granted pension, SGK intervened”
“I thought it had to be a mistake and filed an objection to the SGK, whereupon the file went to a high board for review. Again, the same with the high board, they denied our application; 10 professors had signed the high board report. When it comes to that, there is nothing more you can object to. This was in 2018. That means we went from one board to another, always waiting in between for one and a half year. Then I filed a lawsuit. We appeared once again before a board, this time at a forensic medicine institute and they didn’t admit us, so we went to a high board again.
“To cut a long story short, the file for retirement due to disability went on for more than two years, and we just received our first ever pension. We have a monthly salary of TL 1,500 (approx US$ 215) now. We have just gotten our due in November 2020, six years after Çayan became ill. But now SGK made an objection against the court’s decision. The file will go before an appeal court. Should they decide against us and overturn the judgment, there will be a retrial. Then, there is the process of Court of Cassation. The worst case scenario is the Court of Cassation decides against us; then we will have to give back all the salaries we have thus far received with interest.”
“The landlord didn’t rent their flat to us"
“I’ll be honest, if 10 professors come out and claim that someone like Çayan did not require any nursing or attentive care, there must be an ulterior motive there,” says Çetinbaş, and reflects on how the judicial harassment has taken its toll on differing aspects of their lives:
“When you search for Çayan Demirel, the first thing that comes up is that he was sentenced to prison for 4 and a half years. We used to live in Beşiktaş at the fourth floor, but climbing up and down the stairs constantly was a real problem. It was our own house, that’s why we had never thought about moving, but after a certain point, I couldn’t carry Çayan anymore. And so, we decided to move out. We were looking for a flat in Kadıköy, more spacious, on the ground floor, where Çayan and I could move freely, and after a long search, we finally found just the house we wanted.
“We were just about to sign the lease contract when the landlord suddenly backed down. I had done the interviews, I hadn’t even mentioned Çayan’s name, but at the last minute, they checked out my name, saw that Çayan was sentenced to prison and didn’t want to let their house to us. Unfortunately, this whole trial business has unpleasant effects on different aspects of our lives.”
 Halil Dağ (born as Halil İbrahim Uysal) (1973-2008) Journalist, writer, guerilla fighter, and autodidact filmmaker, widely credited as among the first to work within the Kurdish insurgent movement, Halil Dağ was killed in a clash with the Turkish army in 2008. Popular among Kurdish activists, Dağ’s work is often described as “mountain cinema.” Berîtan is his last and best-known film.