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Building a Documentary Culture in Turkey

By Karen Cirillo

Film still from Can Candan’s ''My Child'

Stories, exposure, education, networks, funding: Around the world, these things are not a given, nor are they easy to access.

In Turkey, the cultural and political context has made it difficult for documentary filmmakers to survive as working artists, despite their energy and interest. In a country with such a strong history, culture and language, there are many stories to be told. A national preoccupation with politics, however, means that even art is never completely free from responsibility.

Shifting Goals of Filmmaking

Before the 1990s, documentaries in Turkey tended towards nature, historical and anthropological films. But people started to notice that there were many stories in the fabric of Turkish life and history that weren’t being told. While there have always been sensitive topics in Turkey (especially those related to Armenian and Kurdish communities), they had not yet become completely taboo. So filmmaking became more political, especially in the east, where Kurdish filmmakers started to see the art form as a new option for raising their voices.

“Documentaries began digging into a hidden reality,” notes Necati Sonmez, director of Documentarist Film Festival. “People started to do films about stories that are untouchable.”

Many filmmakers in Turkey feel a responsibility to make political films. Part of this arises from the shrinking space for independent journalism. As the government cracks down on media freedom (it has the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world), and media channels are increasingly pro-government, there is a need for independent voices to share the hidden stories. Documentary filmmakers feel the need to be citizen journalists first, filmmakers second.

The problem with this approach is that it often comes at the sacrifice of story development and cinematic quality. The urgency means a quick in-and-out to tell what needs to be told, leaving little time to develop a more nuanced narrative or creative approach.

“These issues are so vital and current; we need to deal with them,” maintains Aslı Ertürk, filmmaker and BSB (Association of Documentary Filmmakers) board member. “So filmmaking, beautiful storytelling or imagery are always second or third. The first thing is the emerging matter that needs to be told,”

This responsibility can make some feel guilty if they’re not telling a human rights tale. Erturk remembers a conversation with Ceyda Torun, filmmaker of Kedi (a 2016 film about cats in Istanbul, which was distributed worldwide by Oscilloscope); she was born in Istanbul, but she attended high school in New York and college in Boston and she now lives in Los Angeles. “She said, ‘A Turkish filmmaker could not have made this film.’ And she was so right, because we can’t just make a film about cats. We’re too preoccupied with politics.”

This obsession with politics (which is at the core of Turkish life in general) can backfire in how society is portrayed. But a new generation of filmmakers is starting to take these topics and frame them through a lens of family and personal transformation. “If we’re only looking for the obvious stories of struggle, then we’re missing the chance to see the smaller, but just as important stories,” says Taylan Mintas. Mintas’ film Brothers of Silence portrays two mute brothers along the eastern border of Turkey. The lyrical film, which was filmed over four years, features a Kurdish community, but not in a political way.

“One of the problem with many Turkish documentaries is that they just go in for a few days or a week and film and make interviews,” Mintas explains. “Those issue films with talking heads aren’t entirely true; they are just opinions. But when you see the people in their homes drinking their çay, eating their food—this is when you see the real life, the real situation. When we only tell the obvious story, which is surface politics, we actually do a disservice to the issues or causes.”


This is also a result of the lack of funding, which is extremely limited. Who can spend time creating something unique if there’s no money to support it? The only established funding has come from the Ministry of Culture, Meetings on the Bridge and Yeni Film Fund.

While the Ministry can give significant grants, many filmmakers don’t feel this is an available option due to the political nature of their films. And as the political climate has tightened, so has the content considered acceptable for funding.

Primarily for fiction films, Meetings on the Bridge, Istanbul Film Festival’s industry program, has awarded four documentary projects in development over the last two years.

The biggest option for many independent filmmakers was the Yeni Film Fund, an initiative of Anadolu Kultur Foundation and !iF Istanbul Independent Film Festival. The fund supported filmmakers who shared a unique voice and films that reflected freedom, peace and social justice, and also helped them to make internationally acclaimed documentaries from the point of their localities.

But Anadolu’s director has been in prison for two years awaiting a trial and verdict on alleged coup-related charges; the fund’s main funder, the Open Society Foundation, no longer has offices in Turkey; and the festival has been shut down. With the fund on hiatus, filmmakers are at a bit of a loss; there’s no other traditional funding mechanism.

So it falls to filmmakers to either self-fund their films (hindering significant film development) or seek funding abroad. European networks have been supportive, but to access these funds, filmmakers have to know how to pitch and write compelling proposals. Without the traditional role of producers, and few opportunities to learn these necessary skills, only select filmmakers have had success. While there are possibilities in the Middle East, many of these do not consider Turkey eligible.

Many also say that foreign funders expect political films from Turkey, and are not interested in just general human stories, which only perpetuates the human-rights-focused films.

Support Is Not Just Financial

Another challenge among the documentary community in Turkey is the lack of networks and training opportunities for filmmakers, and a fragmented industry that has left filmmakers disconnected from a community.

BSB has been supportive of filmmakers, fighting for laws and codes to benefit filmmakers and providing training opportunities, screenings and a festival. But over the last dozen years, filmmakers have perceived the organization as “old-guard” and not adapting with the times. They don’t necessarily feel welcome, but unfortunately there are no other official networks as an alternative.

BSB’s new chairman, Yasin Ali Türkeri, is trying to refresh its perception and open it up so new generations of filmmakers feel welcome. With one recent initiative, the Istanbul Cinema Network (ICN), BSB partnered with the US Embassy to bring US industry leaders to Turkey for panel discussions, screenings and one-on-one meetings with filmmakers. “We’re trying hard to be inclusive, and give everyone a chance to talk about their project and get feedback and ideas and see what’s possible,” says Peri Johnson, an international relations consultant for BSB.

Istanbul Cinema Network’s panel discussion with Jonathan Skurnik, New Day Films, and Lucila Moctezuma, Chicken and Egg.

Johnson was also part of the group that started DocIstanbul, a more academic alternative for those wanting more opportunities to watch and discuss films. They organized conferences, workshops and film series, but as working filmmakers, production took a front seat and DocIstanbul currently operates as more of an online network connecting filmmakers.

So people primarily connect at film festivals, such as Documentarist (which also has an active email and Facebook group) and the few documentary events that occur.

It is clear that filmmakers are thirsting for these types of gatherings. For several years, Yeni Film Fund and !iF ran DocDays as part of the annual festival. Panel discussions with the festival’s documentary filmmakers and industry sessions gave filmmakers a rare opportunity to discuss issues and develop new ways of thinking.

The ICN events are also now filling that void.

During a recent edition, Lucila Moctezuma, program director at Chicken & Egg Films, stressed that it’s not just about the funding, but also the learning, support and knowledge of an industry.

This is something that many Turkish filmmakers are lacking. The struggling economy makes it cost-prohibitive for many filmmakers to cover submission fees for festivals, let alone attend them. So they miss out on opportunities to watch a diverse range of films, experience pitching events, and network among the industry—all of which could contribute to filmmakers’ success.

Zeynep Güzel, the most recent coordinator of Yeni FF, works hard to connect the international industry to Turkey. “Funding a project is just a start and is meaningless if you don't help the filmmaker find the right platforms to make the project more rich,” she explains. “International networking and its outcomes are directly related to a film’s outreach. It also changes the quality of the cinema and makes the story more developed;  filmmakers here struggle to tell their stories to the people who don't have a clue about that subject matter.” 

Where To See Films?

One of the biggest challenges for the documentary community in Turkey is the lack of opportunities to watch films. At the moment, film festivals are the only option.

Istanbul Film Festival now has a program for international docs, as well as a national documentary competition, which provides one of the few platforms for Turkish documentaries to show and be seen by audiences.

Documentarist, focusing on less familiar, more experimental docs, was launched by a group of filmmakers who, having seen the diversity of documentaries at festivals abroad, wanted to share them with their friends.

BSB used to produce the 1001 Film Festival as well as regular screenings in municipalities, but a censorship issue suspended the festival and lack of funding stopped the screenings. BSB hopes to resume both in the near future.

TRT, the national broadcaster, runs an international documentary awards program and festival with an impressive slate of finalists and a national competition. Turkish films selected for the competition have their films screened on TRT.

But there’s no formal distribution network in Turkey for domestic films. Any films showing commercially need to secure registration from the government, a law that over the last years expanded to include film festivals as well. Recently, a cinema owner was jailed for screening a documentary that was banned in festivals.

Filmmakers can organize local screenings, but if the point is to shed light on these stories for a wide audience, the only real option is to put films online (which could make filmmakers vulnerable to government criticism). 

Documentary filmmaker and educator Can Candan, one of the organizers of DocIstanbul, sees film distribution as a necessity for documentary to thrive. He distributed his last film, My Child (an intimate feature about the parents of LGBTQ individuals in Turkey) himself, selling it to universities and organizing screenings across Turkey and abroad.

The only documentary channel in Turkey, also an arm of TRT, airs a strong slate of international films, but does not really support or buy independent domestic documentaries.

Professional education or training is also not very institutionalized. Film schools in Turkey are known for their high level of production, but where the visual element is impressive, the quality of storytelling is not as strong. And there is no formal documentary program, just courses within media and communication departments, at schools like Boğaziçi University or Bilgi University.

Many filmmakers have good ideas with big potential, but with little money and no exposure to learning opportunities, the films often can’t be realized in ways that can be successful inside or outside the country. “We need to educate the people and give them a chance to make a better film with their story,” says Sonmez.

How Does a Documentary Scene Thrive?

So with no producers, no independent production, no open TV channels and no distributors, how do you develop an independent community?

“Pitching is an important issue, the main problem,” says Sinem Dirlik, a TRT producer who also works on the TRT Documentary Awards. “When I look at IDFA, Hot Docs and other festivals, these pitching sessions are the most important for films. But it’s an art; you have to impress them.”

Filmmakers in Turkey increasingly need to be looking outside for funding, but many films are too localized and without context for an international community. And without the experiences of how to pitch or make a film that transcends local borders, it’s difficult to get attention.

“I think one of the problems here is that because everyone is working with basically little to no budgets, trying to do everything themselves, they get really obsessed with their subject and don’t have the distance to see if it means anything to the viewer, if it’s engaging,” says Johnson. Which is why those behind many of these organizations have to be applauded for their dedication to local filmmakers. One way is helping them access opportunities abroad. For example, Mintas—a Yeni grantee—went on to be a participant in the Greenhouse Development Program, which helped him shape his film. Beyza Boyacıoğlu, currently in production with her experimental film A Prince From Outer Space: Zeki Müren, was also a Greenhouse participant and a 2018 Chicken & Egg Diversity Fellow.

And the other way to help foster a documentary culture is to recruit established filmmakers back to Turkey to help nurture the emerging community by enhancing its skillset and creating learning and networking opportunities. BSB, for instance, hopes to organize a workshop on interactive film.  With a prominent gaming development industry, film schools teaching high-level production, and a non-linear storytelling culture, Turkey could be a fitting place to develop more interactive and augmented reality film.

Creating an independent network is challenging in a landscape where everyone is struggling just to realize their films. There is definitely a need for an online platform and a gathering place for networking and watching films. “We would love a permanent location to be connected with each other,” says Sonmez. “A place where we could show films every week. But I don’t think anyone is interested; they are struggling for their own projects. They don’t have the energy.”

But because everyone is in a difficult situation together, there is great potential and momentum to come together and support each other.

Karen Cirillo is a multi-media creator and documentary programmer and producer, specializing in short nonfiction. She is currently based in Istanbul, where she programs documentary events and is a writer and multi-media specialist for UNDP. She founded and curates Doxita, a traveling program of short nonfiction cinema. She was shorts programmer for True/False Festival, associate director of programming for Full Frame Documentary Festival, and has programmed for other festivals and organizations.