“Hello, good evening everyone. The Golden Globes is being watched in 199 countries, including my country, Turkey. I grew up watching this ceremony and it is a great honor to be here tonight. Peace at home, peace in the world”. On the night of January 15th 2012 at the 69th Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles, Meltem Cumbul quoted Atatürk to 199 countries in English. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that this short presentation at the Golden Globe Awards, distributed by the representatives of the foreign press in Hollywood, has been the closest Turkey got to the Oscars.
Not Even a Nominee
Turkey has never received an award in the history of the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category, seen as the biggest and the most important award of the film industry, let alone receive a nomination. The category, which started in 1956 for the first time, requires countries to submit an official application to the Academy. There are two conditions for the approval of the application: the films must have been screened for at least a week, between the previous year’s October 1st to September 30th, in the country of application, and the dialogues of the film should be predominantly in a language that isn’t English. The process in which five candidates are chosen from the applicant pool and the selection of films and countries deemed to be worthy of an Oscar have changed many times over the years. Turkey made its first application for the 37th Academy Awards in 1964 with Metin Erksan’s movie titled Susuz yaz/ Dry Summer. The second application was made in 1989 with Tunç Başaran’s film titled Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar/Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite. Between 1989 and 2005, Turkey has applied nine times and since 2005, it systematized its nomination process for the Oscars. So far, the directors whose films were selected for the Oscar’s application include: Reha Erdem, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Erden Kıral, Kaan Müjdeci, Ümit Ünal and Yavuz Turgul. But, the most preferred director is the Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan who managed to promote Turkish cinema with his achievements at the Cannes Film Festival. Ceylan’s Uzak/Distant (2003), Üç Maymun/Three Monkeys (2008), Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da/Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Kış Uykusu/Winter Sleep (2014) and Ahlat Ağacı/The Wild Pear Tree (2018) films were selected as Turkey’s Oscar nominees. In 2008, Three Üç Maymun/ Monkeys (2008) became the first Turkish film to make it to the shortlist of eight films.
All this aside, there were times when Turkey got close to the Oscars: Xavier Koller’s 1990’s film titled Reise der Hoffnung/Journey of Hope is about a family of Turkish origin who try to immigrate to Switzerland illegally. Koller won the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Oscar’s for Switzerland. In 2015, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film titled Mustang received an Oscar for France. In 1982, Switzerland chose Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören’s film titled Yol/The Road, which was banned in Turkey, as their official nominee. In 2007, Germany selected Fatih Akın’s Auf der Anderen Seite/The Edge of Heaven, and in 2010, it selected Feo Aladağ’s Die Fremde/When We Leave as its nominee. While in 2014, the U.K. chose Nihat Seven’s film titled Uzun Yol/Little Happiness as its official nominee.
Is the Government Making the Decision?
The process of identifying candidates varies from one country to another. Turkey is probably using the most common method, which is based on a selection by the committee. Cinema writer Ali Ercivan describes the path Turkey follows as: “[As Turkey] we make the decision through a voting system done by the representatives of ministries, SIYAD and other institutions. Every country has its own system. Some send the film that won their national film award directly to the Oscars. But in general, there are boards formed by the state, like ours, and the state’s role in the decision-making mechanism can vary”. Some countries disclose who was in the selection committee, which films applied that year, what were the percentage of votes received by each one and the reasons behind their choice, while others, like Turkey, keep all this information confidential.
The Selection of Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Film Created a Mess
On August 24th 2019, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Artistic Activities Commission announced its twenty-sixth nominee for the 92nd Academy Awards as Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Commitment, which sparked controversy among filmmakers and cinephiles. The first reason for the controversy was that during the couple hours that followed the announcement there was no available information, news, websites, trailers or movie posters about the film. Moreover, the film wasn’t included in any of the national or international film festivals throughout the year. Instead of Commitment, Turkey was expecting two other films to be nominated: Guillaume Giovanetti and Çağla Zencirci’s film Sibel. After its screening at the Locarno and Toronto Film Festivals in 2018, Sibel started getting screened in France and other European countries, winning awards for Damla Sönmez’s performance. At the Adana Film Festival in Turkey, it won three awards, including the Best Film. Among the films that entered local cinemas, Emin Alper’s film Kız Kardeşler/A Tale of Three Sisters was the only local production to have its first screening at one of the third biggest international festivals. After taking part in the main competition section of the Berlin Film Festival in February, it won five awards including the Best Film at the Istanbul Film Festival. Sibel and A Tale of Three Sisters were the only films to make it to the shortlist at the European Film Awards, days after the announcement of Turkey’s application to the Oscars. Ercivan says “I thought A Tale of Three Sisters or Sibel would be chosen as a nominee”, and adds, “A Tale of Three Sisters is the only film that got screened at one of the biggest international festivals’ main competition section. The members of the Academy watch the screening of the film knowing that it was shown in the main section in Berlin, which is an advantage. Sibel […] toured many festivals of varying size. Its thematic comparison with Mustang could have worked in its favor at the Oscars”.
Kaptanoğlu at Erdoğan’s Palace
The second and the more salient reason why the committee’s choice of the Commitment was controversial was related to the director’s personal identity and political stance. Semih Kaplanoğlu is a director who has made many important films such as Meleğin Düşüşü/Angel’s Fall and the Yusuf Trilogy consisting of Yumurta/Egg, Bal/Honey and Süt/Milk. In fact, with Honey, he won the Golden Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and also became the first Turkish film to be an Oscar nominee. Kaplanoğlu, praised President Erdoğan in recent years, attended Erdoğan’s events and finally held the premiere of his previous film Buğday/Grain at the Presidential Palace with Erdoğan’s participation. Doing so, he made people question whether it’s appropriate for artists to be close with their governments.
Meltem Cumbul, who gave a message of peace at the Golden Globe’s many years ago, said: “I refuse to shake hands, which is a ritual of greeting and rapprochement between equals, with those who estrange the different, divide the rich and the poor, hold the powers and look down upon the weak” at the Adana Film Festival in 2017 and would not shake Kaplanoğlu’s hand.
Why Can’t Turkey be an Oscar Nominee?
After a process devoid of transparency, even when the selection of a surprise candidate causes confusion, the fact that the selected film’s director has ties with the government was rightly criticized. Given the fact that Commitment is elected as this year’s Oscar nominee, another question comes to mind: Why can’t Turkey be an Oscar nominee, what can we do to change that this year?
Is Distribution the Problem?
The films that settle a deal with an American distributor, after being shown at international festivals, have a greater chance to be an Oscar nominee. But unfortunately, during the election process in Turkey this detail is often ignored. Ercivan says: “We’re talking about a process where the nominees are chosen according to the votes of the committee, not with the choice of the Academy. The members of the committee should watch all the films in a special screening made exclusively for them. Therefore, even if a strong film doesn’t have a distributor in North America on paper, it is (still) possible for it to influence the members’ opinion and infiltrate the list. But, let’s be honest. […] In the current climate where the Oscars have turned into a race of popularity, a strong film in such a race is unlikely to remain without a distributor at the end of the year. Another issue is that the lobbying and the events organized by the distributors in America are essential for the film to be considered as an Oscar nominee. The editor of Oscarboy, Umur Çagın Taş who has been following the award season closely says: “the Oscar race is a game in which the goal is to get the films watched by a large number of the Academy members”. Taş adds: “if films that don’t have distributor in America, if they do not organize events before the screening at the Academy, then, they don’t have much of a chance. Organizing events depends on having funds and connections and it’s hard to reach somewhere without a distributor”. Commitment doesn’t have a distributor in the U.S., the government or foreign representatives aren’t organizing any screenings or events for the film either. It seems like Turkey will have to wait longer to realize its Oscar dream.
The Academy will announce its shortlist for the Best International Film category on December 16th 2019.