By STEPHEN KINZER
Published: January 20, 2004
ISTANBUL — Turks are among the world’s proudest and most patriotic people, and many feel an especially deep admiration for their army, without which the nation might never have emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire more than 80 years ago. But are they ready to see a film in which Ottoman Turkish soldiers shoot defenseless civilians and burn women alive? That question has set off a bitter debate here.
The film is “Ararat,” a 2002 release by the Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan in which the expulsion of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey in 1915 is depicted in scenes of horrific brutality. Although the film would certainly shock and outrage many Turks, the government has approved it for screening.
“Those who want to see the film can go,” said the minister of culture and tourism, Erkan Mumcu. He said showing it would “prove that Turkey is a democratic country.”
This was a remarkable step in a country where open discussion of the 1915 massacres has long been taboo. Turkey is loosening many restrictions on free speech as part of a reform project aimed in part at persuading the European Union to look favorably on its application for membership.
After Mr. Mumcu’s decision to allow “Ararat” to be shown, however, an extreme nationalist group earlier this month threatened to attack any movie house where it was shown. That led the distributor to “indefinitely postpone” plans to release the film in Turkey.
“Would you want to watch a movie in a theater that could be stoned or where there could be violence?” asked the distributor, Sabahattin Cetin. The group that made the disruptive threats is the youth wing of the Nationalist Action Party, which was part of the government until it was voted out of power in the November 2002 election. “I dare them to show it,” the group’s president, Alisan Satilmis, said in a television interview.
Devlet Bahceli, the Nationalist Action leader, who until 2002 was Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said he agreed with his youth group. “It would be in our interest to investigate why a film that is against the Turkish nation has been imported into Turkey,” he said.
This view appears out of step with the intensifying desire of many Turks for broader democratic freedoms. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government are arguably more committed to full democracy than any government in Turkish history. Nationalist forces fear that Mr. Erdogan is preparing to make a historic deal to end the long dispute over Cyprus, and they may be forcing a confrontation over “Ararat” in an effort to portray him as unpatriotic.
Even some Turkish commentators who pride themselves on their nationalist convictions have urged that “Ararat” be shown here.
“Every Turk should see this film,” one of them, Omer Lutfi Mete, wrote in the mass-circulation daily Sabah. “Otherwise how can we respond to their accusations?”
Another Turkish commentator, Etyen Mahcupyan, who is of Armenian descent, said the Nationalist Action Party, known here as M.H.P., was using this controversy to regain its lost visibility.
” `Ararat’ was a very good opportunity for them,” Mr. Mahcupyan said. “They are on TV again, waving the nationalist flag. Trying to prevent the film from being shown is mainly a tactic of M.H.P., but we also know that they are in coalition with other forces, like the nationalist left and the deep bureaucracy. Their timing was good because they sensed that the government was not strong enough to resist on this issue.”
Turkish and Armenian historians have given widely differing accounts of what happened in 1915. They agree that Armenians were chased from their ancestral homeland in eastern Anatolia, and that hundreds of thousands perished. Armenians say this action was planned and organized by the Ottoman government. Some Turks, however, insist that Armenians, backed by czarist Russia, were rebelling against Ottoman rule, and that what they call “the events” of 1915 were tragic but must be seen against the background of World War I and the crumbling Ottoman Empire.