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thestar: Turkish extremists pull plug on Ararat screenings

PETER HOWELL

MOVIE CRITIC

Terrorist-style threats in Turkey are preventing people there from seeing Atom Egoyan’s Ararat and learning the truth about the country’s violent past, the Armenian National Committee of Canada says.

Egoyan’s film, which premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and later opened the Toronto International Film Festival, examines the history and cultural impact of the 1915-23 genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey has long denied the genocide, and mention isn’t made of it in Turkish school textbooks. Extremists in the country violently oppose any discussion of the mass deportation, starvation and torture of Armenians, which began during World War I.

Despite this history of official denial, Ararat was scheduled to finally open Jan. 16 in the major Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul, as part of a democratization campaign by the Turkish government, the AKP Islamist Party. Erkan Mumcu, the minister of culture, permitted the screenings.

But extremist allies of the Turkish military establishment and the national intelligence service, two groups that have long opposed freedom of speech, have effectively overturned the government’s pro-Ararat stance by threatening the film’s Turkish distributor.

“The people who dare to show the movie … should not forget that there is a price for enmity towards the Turks,” says a press release on the Web site for Ulku Ocaklari, a far right national party allied with the Grey Wolves, a paramilitary group with close ties to the Turkish military and intelligence sectors.

“We call on the AKP government, Minister Erkan Mumcu and the film distributing company to take our warning seriously and make the right decision.”

The group doesn’t specify the consequences for anyone screening or even viewing Ararat in Turkey, but a column on the same Web site warns that “whoever wants to destroy the unity of this nation and the will of our existence should be ready to pay the price.”

Aris Babikian, a Toronto spokesman for the Armenian group, said last night the Turkish distributor of Ararat has bowed to the intimidation and decided not to show the film. The reaction isn’t surprising, Babikian said, given the history of violence in Turkey against people who challenge the extremists, who still hold influence over the country.

“Turkey is searching for its soul,” he said. “There are some elements who don’t like what’s happening in Turkey: the democratizing of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They don’t want the healthy discussion and dialogue a film like Ararat would bring.”

Babikian said the Armenian National Committee of Canada is calling on democratic governments and media to fight the muzzling of Ararat. The failure of the pro-democracy movement could cost the country entry into the European Economic Community.

“The only thing we can do is ask the international community to join us in protesting this. Freedom-loving people and the press should help us make an issue out of this, by forcing these people to allow the government to continue on its path to democratizing Turkey.”

Egoyan was unavailable for comment.

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