ISTANBUL, Turkey — The film featured on the billboard outside Istanbul's Yeni Ruya theater is “Min Dit,” Kurdish for “I Have Seen.” It's an unusual enough sight to see Kurdish — a language still forbidden in official settings here — on any streets in a Turkish city, let alone in the heart of Istanbul, on the famed Istiklal Boulevard.
Meantime, "Min Dit" is the first Kurdish-language film to receive a full theatrical release in Turkey.
While the political face of Turkey’s “Kurdish initiative” — a democratization program launched this past summer to address Kurdish demands for autonomy — appears frozen, culturally changes like this are beginning to appear.
In Turkish, the name of the theater — Yeni Ruya — means “new dream,” but for the 20,000 Kurds who call Turkey home, having the Kurdish language on display is an old vision.
“So much of the Turkish state has been built on lies; that there is only one people, only one language,” said Miraz Bezar, the director of “Min Dit," awarded with the jury’s special prize at the 2009 Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. “This can be a small step in the right direction.”
“Min Dit” tells the story of the survival of three children after witnessing the murder of their parents at the hands of the JITEM, a clandestine unit of the Turkish gendarmerie charged with "intelligence gathering and counterterrorism."
Though told through the eyes of children, the film draws the audience back to one of the darkest chapters in this country’s history. Set in the southeast in the 1980s and '90s, the children struggle to cope with the violence that surrounds their lives, as Turkish security forces wage a dirty war against supporters, and suspected supporters, of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.
“It was a real challenge to do this film because we never knew if it would make it through the censorship in Turkey,” Bezar said.
In an attempt to forge a national identity out of the multiculturalism of the Ottoman Empire the government for decades banned Kurdish political parties and denied them basic cultural rights, including the right to use their own language.
Such mistreatment has fueled Kurdish demands for independence and led to decades of bloody conflict between the government and the PKK that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Kurds are the most numerous and densely populated non-Turkish people in the country, making up roughly one-fifth of Turkey’s 70 million people.
Bezar’s politically active family left Turkey for Germany after the 1980 military coup. He grew up there, attending film school at the Berlin Humboldt University and acting in theater groups. “Min Dit” is his first feature length film.
The idea for the film came to him while still a student, but it was not until after graduating that he began to write. The film is a combined effort of Bezar and Evrim Alatas, a Kurdish journalist who worked in the southeast throughout the 1980s and '90s, and the wife of Bezar’s uncle. She died this spring, living just long enough to see the film’s release in Turkey.
Struck by cancer soon after the film was finished, Alatas’ health struggles were deeply entwined with the making of the film; her life provided a backbone of daring reportage.
“I think that through her stories she will still live on with this film for many people,” Bezar said.
With no backers, the film was financed through Bezar’s own savings and made possible by the support of his family. His mother sold their house, his uncle helped out where he could.
Despite some seemingly insurmountable hurdles, the young director remembers feeling that the film was somehow being protected: by god, or a sense of justice, or perhaps just his own unrelenting determination.
“Each time I felt like we were at the edge of the abyss some small thing would come and pull us back, a reminder of why it was so important to tell this story,” he said.
Bezar’s struggles are typical of Diyarbakir’s besieged filmmakers, where the city’s hottest young director hawks tea at a stand near the airport and its most respected auteur once worked as a garbage collector.
The film’s “actors” were chosen from the cities and villages where the story is set, their real life tragedies set in parallel to those they face in “Min Dit.” The role of an old, blind man with whom the children squat with in an abandoned Armenian church was filled when some villagers directed Bezar to a local graveyard a blind man frequented. He discovered the film’s 10-year-old heroine Gulistan at a local day school.
The closeness of the story to the actor’s own lives brings to the film the authenticity of cinema verite. Its release came at a time when the long-standing Kurdish issue is being debated in Turkey like never before.
The government’s Kurdish Initiative, announced last August, has come under fire from nationalists on both sides. Turkish right-wingers argue that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is caving in to Kurdish separatists while Kurdish activists say the plans fall far short of what is needed to satisfy Kurdish demands for more self-rule.
“I think that an opening is still too big of a word for what is happening,” Bezar said. “But it’s worth remembering that all the things that were taboo when we started writing and shooting the film are now beginning to be talked about.”
When asked what he wanted audiences to take away from his film Bezar hesitated, pausing to explain how little people know about the lives of Kurds, and how much there is still to tell.
“In the end this is a film about violence, the history of violence here in Turkey,” he said, the words coming slowly. “I want people to understand that violence produces violence. This is a story of why this violence needs to stop.”