Once-barred film on Kurds now allowed in Turkey

'Yol,' showing Kurdish conditions, opens even as Kurd leader Ocalan iscaptured.

The island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea, where Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is being held for interrogation and trial, has been turned into one of the highest-security prisons in the world. But two decades ago, when Kurdish filmmaker and writer Yilmaz Guney was imprisoned there, Imrali was an open prison whose inmates were occasionally allowed out for short periods.

Now Turkey's past has been brought face to face with its present. Mr. Guney's acclaimed film "Yol" (Road), written during his stay in Imrali and banned in Turkey because of its politically controversial content, is being shown here for the first time - just when Mr. Ocalan's capture has made headlines.

"Yol," which tells the story of five convicts given a week's leave to visit their families in all corners of Turkey, has drawn enormous interest here. The film, which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, was seen by more than 100,000 people in its first week of release, despite being shown at a limited number of cinemas.

"Yol" portrays Turkey after a coup in 1980 when the whole country was under martial law. But in the Kurdish southeast, the Army's grip was particularly harsh; 81,000 Kurds were detained in the two years after the coup, according to the International League of Human Rights.

While the rest of the country returned to civilian rule in 1983, much of the Kurdish southeast of Turkey has remained under effective military rule. The opportunities for peaceful expression of Kurdish demands were limited by the post-coup Constitution, which prohibited political struggle based on language, race, religion, or class. While some rebels insisted on an independent Kurdish state, many were prepared to accept a degree of autonomy and regional self-government.

It was grinding poverty, however, that enabled the movement to gain a broad base of support. And since the capture of Ocalan, Turkey's rulers have emphasized the priority of economic development in the southeast. "Yol" shows the dimensions of this task, with its portrayal of what Guney called "feudal conditions" in Kurdish villages.

As late as 1979, horse-drawn carts outnumbered cars in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish southeast. Per capita income in the region has consistently fallen below half of the national average. While material conditions have improved, serious deficiencies remain in health care, education, housing, and water provision.

"The scenes in 'Yol' which take place in the southeast still reflect reality in many ways," says Zeynel Abidin Kizilyaprak, a member of the Kurdish intellectual group Demos. "This is the main reason why 'Yol' is still contemporary."

Guney's wife, Fatos, who was responsible for restoring "Yol" for release, echoes this, saying the "the things highlighted in the film haven't changed in Turkey in the past 17 years."

The 1990s have seen a relaxation of Turkey's laws in areas such as the speaking of Kurdish. Together with the personal efforts of Guney's wife, this has enabled "Yol" to be shown in Turkey.

Though films like "Yol," which contains many scenes in Kurdish, can be shown, there are limits to the new freedom. It remains difficult to publish or broadcast in Kurdish, and it cannot be taught in schools. The word "Kurdistan" is still taboo, and Mrs. Guney removed it from "Yol" subtitles rather than risk another ban.

"The state gives Kurdish people some rights with one hand, but with the other hand tries to isolate those rights from the Kurdish struggle," says another Demos member, Ahmet Onal.

Guney himself, although a passionate advocate of the Kurdish struggle, believed that it could not be separated from the broader struggle for political rights in Turkey. "My origins are Kurdish ... but I am for unity. I want to be the standard-bearer for all the oppressed people of the country," he wrote.

Today he is a heroic figure for many Turks as well as Kurds. Guney, like Ocalan, was a self-declared Marxist revolutionary and advocate of Kurdish rights; unlike Ocalan, he chose peaceful means to pursue his political aims. In between 12 years of prison, he almost single-handedly created a new and politically engaged Turkish cinema.

Guney's films were banned after the 1980 coup, and in 1981 Guney - like the characters in "Yol" - took a week's leave from prison to visit his family. He then slipped out of the country and lived in Europe until his death in 1984 - the year Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party launched its uprising in Turkey's southeast.

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