Did Istanbul film festival trigger the Gezi Protests? - Guardian

When Turkish authorities began to demolish the historic home of the Istanbul International Film Festival in April 2013, they sparked a protest campaign that helped trigger a summer of nation-wide dissent, the Guardian reported on Wednesday.  

“News that the 875-seater 1920s building (Emek Theatre) was to be replaced with yet another shopping centre,” writer and Cambridge PhD candidate Sarah Jilani wrote for Guardian Cities, “politicised old and young festival-goers alike.”  

Istanbul residents, she added, “took to the streets to demonstrate against unchecked urban development in the district of Beyoğlu.”

These are the same cause and the same district that spurred the so-called Gezi Protests some six weeks later, in response to a government plan to raze Gezi Park and build an Ottoman-style barracks in its place. Sixteen civil society figures are currently on trial in Istanbul for attempting to overthrow the government via the Gezi protest movement. 

“What the 2013 Istanbul International Film Festival triggered was in many ways unique, but its political and social impact was not,” said Jilani, pointing out that the social power of movies has long bothered authority, from British rule in India to the Soviet Union in Africa.

In June, Beijing censored the opening film of the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival, swapping out 1930s war drama The Eight Hundred, which champions rebel Chinese soldiers, for “technical reasons”.

The Istanbul International Film Festival has found ways around such government restrictions. When a screening of the film “A Guerilla Documentary: Bakur” was banned at the 2015 festival, programmers organised an alternative screening for the public that they said was unaffiliated with the festival.

Jilani points out the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government did demolish the Emek Theatre, but gave in to public pressure and built a faithful replica, which opened in 2016. 

“The film festival enabled a grassroots progressive movement that allowed locals to vocalise long-held grievances about the destruction of Istanbul’s historic neighbourhoods, the co-optation of public urban space, and money laundering via ill-conceived building projects,” said Jilani. 

For Ege, an Istanbul graduate student, the film festival connects her to other engaged citizens. “It makes me think, ‘Oh ok, so there are a lot of people who care about the issues I do’,” she said.