Vanessa H. Larson
Feb 04 2018

Can Turkey truly reckon with Dersim massacre?

Director Kazım Öz’s “Zer” is the first feature film to deal with Turkey’s 1938 Dersim massacre, in which government troops brutally suppressed Alevi Kurds in the course of putting down an uprising led by Seyit Rıza. The film is also in the unusual position of having received financial support from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, only to have been later subjected to censorship in Turkey by the same government agency.

After premiering at the Istanbul Film Festival in April, followed by a commercial release in Turkey, “Zer” is currently on the international film festival circuit, where it has screened – and picked up several awards – at festivals such as Edinburg, Thessaloniki, Mannheim-Heidelberg, Haifa and Dhaka. The filmmaker – who previously made the 2008 film “Bahoz” (“The Storm”), about Kurdish student activists during the 1990s – spoke to Ahval after the recent debut screenings of “Zer” in Washington, D.C.

What is known as the Dersim massacre is a particularly painful chapter in Turkish history, in which the military killed as many as tens of thousands of Alevi Kurds – both rebels and civilians – through aerial bombings and firing squads, obliterating entire villages. Many of the survivors were forcibly displaced to other parts of Turkey, among them young girls who were adopted by Turkish families – including by some of the same military officials who had overseen the operation. Dersim was also renamed Tunceli (“land of bronze”) as part of the Turkish government’s program of Turkification.

It is no surprise that it took until 2017 for a feature film to be made about Dersim: The incident was for decades rarely acknowledged in Turkey, much less portrayed on the big screen, with the sole exception of a few documentary films.

Öz, who grew up in Tunceli, says it is only in recent years that the area’s fraught history has been more openly discussed. “Those from Dersim who survived wanted to forget about [what happened]. … The first generation was the silent generation. In Turkey, the first generation remains silent, the second generation rejects it, and the third generation starts to speak about it.”

The beautifully shot “Zer” brings that past alive through the story of Jan (Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj), a young student of music, born in France and raised in the U.S., who travels to Turkey in search of the origins of a song his grandmother (Güler Ökten) sang to him on her deathbed in a New York hospital. In Turkey, his aunt tells him a weighty family secret: that his paternal grandmother was not only Kurdish but a Dersim survivor, adopted at age 8 by a Turkish colonel and raised in Afyon with a Turkish name and identity.

Öz applied for and received funding from Ministry of Tourism and Culture and began making “Zer” a few years ago. At the time, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was still promoting its so-called “Kurdish opening,” a political effort launched in 2009 to address Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish issues. In November 2011, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first Turkish leader to apologize for the Dersim atrocities.

In that atmosphere, Öz says, the government was willing to support the making of a film on Dersim, even if the decision was largely motivated by a political agenda. “[The government] had to make these sorts of concessions because of the opening, but actually they were all in a sense political decisions; they were not sincere decisions.”

It was also politically advantageous for the AKP to recognize the Dersim massacre because it showed the Republican People’s Party (CHP) government which was in power during Turkey’s early republican era in a bad light. “The AKP wanted to project to Turkey and the world that Dersim in 1938 was a crime by the CHP, which it saw as its rival. And by doing this, to attract the support of Kurds and people from Dersim,” Öz says.

By the spring of 2017, however, the Kurdish opening had fallen apart in 2015 and the political winds in Turkey had changed. The Directorate General of Cinema ruled that “Zer” could only be shown if four minutes of the film were cut. For the film’s Istanbul Film Festival premiere, Öz replaced the banned footage with a black screen with these words in Turkish: “You cannot view this scene because the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Supervisory Board of the Directorate General of Cinema finds it objectionable.”

Filmgoers were not pleased. “Showing the film with blackouts sparked lots of reactions – people were shouting slogans and jeering,” Öz says. And so, after the festival, for the first time in its history, the Supervisory Board revoked its earlier permission for the film and decreed that it could only be released commercially in Turkish cinemas with the problematic sections completely removed.

The excised footage – which can be seen in the uncensored version of “Zer” being shown outside Turkey – includes politically sensitive images of graffiti on a village wall saying, “All states are terrorists,” and a scene in which a group of PKK guerrillas help Jan when he is lost in the mountains. Another section involves a photo exhibit of perpetrators and survivors of the Dersim massacre.

Ultimately, whether audiences see “Zer” with or without the censored minutes, the film’s message comes through clearly: Only by examining troubling events like Dersim can Turkey truly reckon with its past.