As Turkey Turns Inward, Cultural Exchange Falls by the Wayside

The 23rd annual Turkish-German Film Festival began in Nuremberg on Friday without one of its usual backers: the Turkish Culture Ministry.

The festival had been funded by both governments for about a decade, its director, Adil Kaya, said in a telephone interview. But the Turkish Culture Ministry informed him that this year it would not fund the event.

It was a sign of an increasingly inward-looking Turkey that is “no longer open for cultural dialogues with other countries, especially with Germany,” Mr. Kaya said.

The festival has been screening German and Turkish movies for over 20 years, and this year is scheduled to run until March 18, showing 43 films. Mr. Kaya stressed that in spite of government funding from Germany and, formerly, Turkey, the festival was independent.

It was not particularly political, Mr. Kaya said, but he added that a few of the documentaries being shown had a political slant, and the inclusion of Kurdish-language films was a statement in itself because of the ongoing tension between the government and Kurdish independence groups.

The content of the films, he said, might be less of a factor in the funding cut than the festival’s premise — which he said was “to support the intercultural exchange between two cultures” — at a moment when Turkey is increasingly suspicious of the West. The Turkish Culture Ministry declined to comment for this article, explaining that the minister was traveling abroad.

Without the expected support from Turkey, the festival scrambled for funding, making up its shortfall through various organizations including the German Foreign Ministry and the Goethe Institut, a worldwide organization that promotes the German language and culture.

Cultural events have often been used as chess pieces in diplomacy between the two countries. Turkey withdrew from the arts funding body Creative Europe in November 2016 to protest money being used to fund a concert at the German embassy in Istanbul that dealt with the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman government. Germany had passed a resolution earlier that year labeling the killings a “genocide,” which angered Turkey.

Sinan Ciddi, the director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Turkish Studies, said in a telephone interview that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey “makes quite a lot of electoral gain out of vilifying the West,” adding that Mr. Erdogan believes that “Western cultural norms are imports alien to Turkish culture.”

At the end of February, the Turkish state broadcaster TRT was revealed after an inquiry by an opposition politician to have blacklisted 208 Turkish and Kurdish pop songs. In a statement on Twitter, TRT denied censorship, and said it was blacklisting songs that promoted alcohol, tobacco or terrorism.

The Turkish government has in the past declared support for cinema, and funds feature films and other work at home, but has reduced funding for some film festivals in recent years. In 2014 the government said it was doubling state funding for domestic films, spending almost $7 million. It announced $1.5 million in funding for the first quarter of 2018 for 155 film projects, the bulk of it for documentaries, but also including support for cartoons, short movies and script writing.

Mr. Ciddi said Mr. Erdogan had always sought to promote an Islamic culture in Turkey, separate from foreign influence.

Mr. Erdogan has been explicit about wanting to uncouple Turkish and Western culture: he gave a speech in January decrying foreign influence at Turkish universities. The country’s culture and tourism minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said in a speech at a short film contest in February that Turkey’s main problem for the last two centuries “in culture, art and literature, even in thought, politics, and economics” had been “achieving cultural independence.”

He said that Turkey’s artists needed to stop thinking that “by using and imitating products from Western civilizations we are going to become men and get stronger and somehow join the race of civilizations.” Artists who departed from Turkish tradition, he said, were like branches who believed they could grow when broken off from a tree.

Mr. Kaya said that the ministry had given no reason for no longer sponsoring the film festival in Germany. But he suggested that in Turkey, the idea of the government giving funds without getting back some control over messaging was alien. “If they give money, they do not understand,” he said, why they might get criticism in return.

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