"Artists Should Firmly Stand Against Neighborhood Pressure in Turkey": An Interview with Kutlug Ataman

September 11, 2018

During an interview with Isa Tatlican from Sabah, Kutlug Ataman emphasized that artists should not bow down to neighborhood pressure in Turkey.

Director and screenwriter Kutlug Ataman, who was subjected to a lynch campaign by those hegemonizing the cultural industry during the Gezi Park provocations, gives some advice to the artists blacklisted by the left-wing only because they expressed hope about the future of the country, respect to the country’s values and lift the morale of the ones ruling the country: “They should stand up without minding the lynch attempts and be thankful for that they will see their true friends at the end of it. In a nutshell, I suggest all the artists subjected to lynching to trust “Ayse Teyze” (Aunt Ayse), for she knows and understands everything the best.”

You have been away from Istanbul for a while. How does Istanbul look when viewed from Anatolia? What are you doing lately?

Anadolu was once so far away from Istanbul. When I was a child, we used to have 2-3 days of train travels to Anatolia. Then buses came up and the travel time went down to 16 hours. Now, Istanbul is only 2 hours away. I still imagine a Turkey that will necessitate the formulation of this question differently. In other words, I imagine an order in which there is no difference between Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. Big cities have so far survived and made progress thanks to the labor of the locals of Anatolia. And now, the tendency to continue this progress in the east is manifesting itself. Before the FETO (Gulenist Terror Group) insurrection, the idea of Anatolian Tigers sounded very exciting to me.

What has changed with the FETO atrocity?

As already known, even though there has been a decline in the bourgeoisie of other cities with FETO, we are currently in a recovery process and thankfully the threat has been eliminated to a great extent although not yet eradicated completely. Another problem, particularly in the eastern cities, was that they could not develop due to terror and therefore the liberalization seen in big cities was not experienced by them.

What has changed in the east in the recent period?

With the elimination of the FETO threat, it became more evident that a great deal of progress has been achieved in the fight against terror. But it is not yet possible to see a full recovery. The most challenging task of the following period might be instilling the dynamism of big cities to the eastern cities and enabling this dynamism to flourish in an organic way rather than imposing it. In the east, the state is considered the most important locomotive of this change. But I do not think that the state has such a mission. The most important locomotive in this context will be businesspeople with entrepreneurial spirit, whereas the state should function as a regulating and facilitating body.

You moved to Erzincan, but you are still quite active in shooting and producing films. Will you promote any new work in the coming days?

I shot a feature film “Hilal, Feza ve Diğer Gezegenler” (New Moon, Space and Other Planets), which depicts my personal experience throughout the February 28 process, but it is not completed yet. It is a project that seeks to fathom our culture of polarization that is stuck in-between and aligns itself with neither the West nor the East.  Since we did not curry anybody’s favor, we shot it with mobile phones without receiving support from anyone. It was a very demanding process, but the final product is very genuine and exciting. Me and my collaborator Sercan Tevs are now endeavoring to remunerate this support given by our crew. Aside from that, we are making a documentary named “Wild New World,” which is an essay film depicting the neoliberal world and scrutinizing how we ended up with Trump’s America and rising racism in Europe.

You were subject to oppression in Turkey way before February 28, which dates back to the 1980 coup d’etat. Can you talk about those times?

I was not an artist, but a student at the time. On September 12, 1980, fascists staged a military coup controlled by the imperialists, which made everyone’s life miserable, including both nationalists and socialists. Of course, the period leading up to the coup was also very chaotic, but fascism and coup were not the right solution to that. Only imperialists could defend the mindset “set a thief to catch a thief” and Turkey was subjected to a great injustice because of the conniving Turkish oligarchy and the foreign-dependent state. Had the country looked at the past with courage as from the first coup that shook the spirit of the constituent assembly of the Republic, the July 15 coup attempt might have never happened.

I always saw you hopeful in the difficult period between Gezi Park protests and the July 15 attempted coup.

This difficult period will hopefully come to an end. I am hopeful and keep believing despite all the ups and downs. After all, we are all on the same boat. And this situation is not peculiar to our county. All countries face ups and downs through their history. We must stay calm and proceed on our way.

While mainstream political tendencies were in a different direction, you supported students wearing headscarf during the Feb. 28 process. What was your motivation in your support?

It is always prescribed that an artist must be dissident. First of all, I do not act with ready-made prescriptions. My outlook on life does not necessitate being dissident only for the sake of being dissident. I have my own conscience, beliefs and stance. That’s it.

So, what is your stance?

What are my principles? Don’t be a hypocrite, be honest. You must have the courage to frankly express what is right and what is wrong to you. If there is a prerequisite for being an artist, it is nothing but honesty. You do not have to be an artist to be honest, being a decent human being is enough. During the February 28 process, I just spoke out what I believed in and what I found wrong. As I was in Galatasaray High School, I resisted getting my hair cut and I insisted on wearing my colored trousers despite being beaten up for this reason. There was already no difference between my own experience and the people whose futures were darkened due to their headscarf or religious beliefs. Others were being subjected to what I went through at the time. I did not care whether they would jail me, I stood up.

We know your opinion on coups. What do you think about the July 15 coup attempt?

Every cloud has a silver lining. So, we must also be grateful for the bad things happening to us. The biggest difference of the July 15 from the previous coup attempts was that the source of the danger was outside the country, which was quickly grasped by the people and the enemies could be thwarted thanks to that. I must admit that I also suspected the military in the first place due to our past experiences since the military has always been the first institution that comes to mind in Turkey if a coup is in question. But it turned out in a short while that it was a terrorist insurrection organized against and despite the military.

What would have happened had FETO achieved to stage a coup?

If we could not have repelled the July 15 attempt, we might not be here today. Turkey would either be in a deep and desperate darkness or had already been dissolved. But we have overcome the threat by growing stronger. Thank goodness! Today, every segment of society including pro-government and dissident groups are explicitly using the word FETO. Of course, a complete purge could not be achieved yet whereas many people were subject to unjust treatment. But since 250 people were killed in the incident, I do not want to underline the unjust treatments I have been subject to.

After July 15, the U.S. and the EU abruptly changed their approach to Turkey? What do you think about the motivation behind this sudden change of behavior in the West?

The word “West” is actually self-explanatory. The “West” according to whom? No matter whether they are right-wing, left-wing, or liberal, the Western people have a perspective in their cultural codes that distinguishes the “West” from the rest. This perspective is deliberately not scrutinized even by their “intellectuals” since they like to use it to their advantage. As a person who has lived in Europe and America for 30 years, I even felt this cultural code in my own case.

Can you open this up a bit more?

This is the first group. And now place the identity of a Turkish intellectual who imagines him/herself as a component of the West for years but could not achieve it, who is not wanted by the West and therefore does not feel comfortable. This segment, which is local but still domineering the country, has always looked down on their own people due to a serious inferiority complex caused by this feeling of incompetence against the West. How could the relation between the West and this segment be?

Who is this intellectual segment?

I am afraid the “enlightenment” who domineered the country for years was actually pitch-black darkness. Of course, this is a rough generalization. There have always been exceptions, but some of these exceptions were not considered “intellectual” enough as they even attempted to lynch a Nobel laurate. This segment’s relation to the West consists of unquestioning submission. This country may be the only one in the world unquestioningly assuming that what comes from the West is always right. Are they any different from those thinking that everything about the West is wrong? I do not think so. This is a serious inferiority complex, and their approach turned into a “complaint industry” in time due to the coups and other kinds of oppressive practices in the country. Complaining has been regarded as an art form. Everyone touching on any other theme was blacklisted and played down for “making art for art’s sake.”

Isn’t it problematic to narrate the unjust suffering of only one side while complaining about the country to the West?

Does Turkey not have problems to complain about? Of course, it does. But in the context of unjust suffering, they were always asked to tell only one side’s suffering and experience. For some reason, Western liberal values like questioning, discussing and being impartial only applied to the West as they turned a deaf ear to one side in our country. Opposing every discourse that criticizes the West was prescribed as a duty of our intellectuals and artists.

And those not conforming to that were blacklisted.

Exactly. Those who did not conform to that were blacklisted as “libos” (a Turkish slang word used for liberals in a derogatory way), “pro-government” and “nationalist.” As of late, even foreign funders started saying that they would support us only if we make a film against the government in Turkey. They recklessly ordered me to do this. What they mean is: Either you become our supporter, or we do not make any co-production. Of course, we refused to obey this and shot our film with mobile phones. But there is also the other side of the coin. From right-wing to left-wing groups and the state, this is the fault of everyone making us need the West. Hopefully, we will turn into a society that respects and supports artists of every opinion and bring an end to this vicious circle. In short, the approach of the West did not change after the July 15 attempt, they only started to speak more frankly.

You were stigmatized for various reasons in Turkey. In that sense, you are among the first victims of peer pressure. How did this pressure affect you?

In fact, I did not understand much when the lynch campaign started. I love working and sometimes I scarcely have time to breathe. And that incident coincided with such a period. During the Gezi Park protests, some names who acted as mouthpieces of certain groups tried to defame me by claiming that I opposed to the protests since I could not sell my art. The institution I spoke about threatened to sue me, but of course they couldn’t since I kept the e-mails they formerly sent me about their “prescriptions”. They tried to denigrate me but ended up being the losing party. During that period, some professional jealousies that I had not noticed before started to surface to my surprise. The next thing I remember was everyone’s organizing petitions against me. I must admit that I had not known they cared so much about me until then.

What did you do against this lynch campaign?

You must above all protect your self-esteem. I openly express what I believe in and no one can intimidate me. They tried to beat me up but failed. The “dissident” artists who received multi-million TL worth funds from ministries tried to label me as “pro-government,” and they failed too. But I am still here, working both in the East and the West even more than before while these people are either hiding or ashamed of their actions. It was like a flood that hit me. I could not understand what exactly was happening at that moment. But it had a good side since it cleared away the useless and insincere burdens in my life and when it was over, only real friends standing beside me were there. I have to say that I was distressed a little, but this is how a flood comes. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And what if it killed me? I would only say that my time has come.

Recently, some others have also been subjected to peer pressure. What do you suggest to them?

There is a saying I like very much: If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. Our country is undergoing a series of radical changes. If you are an artist in such a country, being confronted with such things is unavoidable. Of course, peer pressure, exclusion and lynching are fascistic practices. It will be more relevant to call them pathological conditions. Can you imagine what would happen if these people come to power?

Why did they grow so aggressive?

These fascists formed a republic of fear in their own power domain, which is on the wane. As their power domain declines, they get more aggressive against the “other” while making life unbearable for one another. I prefer to stay calm by trying to be sympathetic because I learned to be unperturbed since I am afraid of my own anger. So, I just say that we must look at them from the perspectives offered by sociology. A segment who thought themselves as ruling power came to lose their grip as they started to see that their self-perception was not accurate, and they did not actually have a function in society. The West also does not support their attitude any longer. They utter threats like leaving the country, but no one cares, and European countries they want to go to don’t grant them visas. The political party who organized the lynch campaign is about to dissolve.

What do you think a person subjected to lynch should do in the first place?

They should stand up without minding the lynch attempts and be thankful for that they will see their true friends at the end of it. In a nutshell, I suggest all the artists subjected to lynching to trust “Ayse Teyze” (Aunt Ayse), for she knows and understands everything the best.

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