Film Fans in Istanbul Are Fighting for Their Cinemas

Tear gas and water cannons aren't going to distract Turkey's cinephiles.

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15 April 2013, 4:30pm

Turkey's cinephiles are a militant bunch. While the imminent closure of Brixton's Ritzy or Edinburgh's The Cameo might just about provoke an op-ed in the local press and a morally outraged but ultimately futile hashtag campaign, the people of Istanbul have been going up against tear gas, water cannons and excessive police force in a bid to save their favourite cinema.

City developers are planning to knock down the historic Emek Theatre to make room for a new shopping mall, transforming a piece of rich cultural heritage into a vacuous, strip-lit husk. Which I suppose is handy if you live in the area and are hung up on having to walk more than five metres to get from the discount Gant store to that place where you can pay three-times extra to custom stuff a teddy bear, but not particularly welcome if you're interested in maintaining some of your city's cultural identity.

The last demonstration against the proposed plans for the cinema involved thousands – including many prominent members of the international film industry – marching to the Emek Theatre in a peaceful protest, before police used tactics so heavy handed to disperse the crowd that Amnesty International have called for an investigation into their actions.                    

I spoke to film critic Ali Deniz Şensöz of Altyazi Magazine about the demonstration and his involvement in the campaign to save the cinema.

VICE: Hi, Ali. Can you tell me a bit about the Emek Theatre?
Ali Deniz Şensöz: It's the oldest cinema located in the heart of the city and was the centre of culture and entertainment. But now – one by one – these buildings are being shut down and turned into shopping malls; cultural heritage transformed into commercial areas. The Emek Theatre, as well as the Cercle D’Orient building, is being demolished in order to build a shopping mall. We already have the Demirören Shopping Mall next door, which replaced an old theatre called Saray. 

That seems a little much.
Yeah, they want another shopping mall on a shopping street next to a shopping mall. As a result of the neo-liberal politics of the AKP government, historical monuments like Emek are being gentrified and the spaces of art and culture in Istanbul are being wiped off the map. Emek Theatre belongs to SGK (Social Security Foundation), which means that it's public property. But it was leased to a construction company called Kamer Inşaat for 25 years and they claim they're renovating the theatre and will "move" it to the fourth floor of the building they're planning to construct, but they're refusing to share their plans with the public.

How long have the protests been going on for?
Almost three years. Legal methods were tried to stop the demolition at first. Three experts surveyed the project and two of them said that it will harm the cultural heritage, but the court didn’t care about the majority and trusted the word of one expert who said the project is sustainable. Protests have been going on for three years and, because of public pressure, the company couldn’t start the construction. But last month, they began to demolish the building and consequently there were two protests on the 31st of March and the 7th of April against the project. The last protest ended with police attacks.

Who's organising the protests and who’s involved?
The Emek Bizim Istanbul Bizim Initiative (Emek is Ours, Istanbul Is Ours) organises the protests, but there's no organisational structure, and people from every section of society have been attending the rallies, including actors, screenwriters, directors and film critics. Also, the people who are against the destruction of culture in this city protest the project and see Emek Theatre as a symbol of the resistance against the ongoing transformation in Istanbul.

What have the police done and why are they defending the developers' interests?
Thousands gathered together on Taksim Square on the 8th of March and marched to the street where the Emek theatre is located. The police were waiting to block us off when we got there, but we continued to protest peacefully until the police started to attack us with tear gas and water cannons. The Ministry of Internal Affairs said that there were provocateurs among the crowd, which is a lie. We were only trying to defend the culture, memory and authenticity of the great city of Istanbul.

Why have you been taking part in the protests?
As a resident of Istanbul, I don't want the last historical movie theatre of the city to be transformed into a shopping mall. I don’t want my memories and those of the city to be erased. I can’t be honest to myself if I don’t stand against the cultural destruction going on in the city. Young people in Turkey are going to be imprisoned in shopping malls and fast food restaurants. Cinema will be perceived only as an entertainment activity if it's stuck in malls. 

Independent films won’t find a single theatre to be shown. I want a movie theatre that is directly connected to the street and stands by itself, just as a theatre. As a member of the public, I don’t want my property to be sold to a company without asking me what I demand. I don’t want to see the cultural heritage of this city transformed into a consumer’s temple without a soul, without a heart, without a memory.

Follow Beatrice on Twitter: @brighttyger

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