Ece Yörenç, the screenwriter of Netflix Turkey’s series If Only one of the projects to be produced in Turkey, said in an interview with Altyazı Fasikül that the reason for the company’s cancellation of the series one day before the shooting was that there was a gay character in one of the side stories in the script. Yörenç also stated that she made some changes in the script, by consensus, so that the production could start. This short yet bold statement shows us that censorship starts operating even at the imagination period, let alone after being produced and circulated and found its audience. This also indicates how the TV channels have been shaped under the wings of the ghost of censorship and self-censorship while this ghost has already become stronger on digital platforms.
This interview made me think that screenwriters might have a lot to tell on the issue. I talked to the screenwriters about the censorship that has spread to the smallest point, violence that is constantly discussed over TV series, violence against women, what has changed on television screens, and the effect of the transformation of the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK). The first discussion that I prepared in two parts was with the script team of the TV series The House in Which You Were Born Is Your Destiny. Eylem Canpolat, one of the writers of many TV series we have followed for 18 years on television, was the first name I reached for this interview. Then, she brought Ayşenur Şıkı and former theater actor Defne Gürsoy on board. Hence, I talked with these women screenwriters who said, “you can write anything we say, we’re never going to ask you to remove anything.” What they told was an inventory of how censorship and self-censorship operate for series both on TV channels and digital platforms.
First, I want to thank you all. I always thought that screenwriters might hesitate to talk about these issues -I guess this is a form of self-censorship as well.
Eylem Canpolat: Actually, we say our word and express ourselves whenever possible. Also, we thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk because I’m emotionally hurt that screenwriters are the first to blame. And if so, I think more space should be allocated for screenwriters, in order to slow self-censorship down, I mean.
We saw once again during Ece Yörenç’s interview with Altyazı Fasikül that censorship has gone beyond cutting or trimming scenes from a finished artwork or blurring of a scene, and has now started operating even at the very process of imagination. What do you think about this network of censorship which mostly works through censoring sexuality and sexual identities?
Ayşenur Sıkı: Self-censorship has become an indisputable reality. This is not only manifested in sexual identities, but also in many things that you can use as an element of drama. For example, my biggest problem is not being able to write an anti-hero leading role. I actually like those types of stories, but it can be very difficult to sell and broadcast it on TV. Rating system also has an effect: TV channels do not usually lean towards buying them to begin with. Speaking about our TV series, The House in Which You Were Born Is Your Destiny, I think we maintained some consistency despite everything. At least we don’t write something we don’t want, and I think we’re writing valuable things too. But your pen is being rasped on its scale based on the TV channel you are writing for -and this is undeniable. And now you do it yourself automatically, before the producer, the channel, this or that does for you because you are racing against time. Obviously, there are things that we change by saying, “this will receive a note, I should not write it like that.”
E.C.: I am a student of Turgut Özakman, studied in creative writing. He always said this: “You can write anything. In every subject and in every way, but how you tell it is important.” Now we are going through such a period that we cannot explain everything. Although we try to alter it in some ways, it is not possible. The red lines are too strict to cross. As Ayşenur said, we do some things automatically -they have become reflexes, in a way. Of course, there are also main topics that we discuss. Based on our work, I can say that we check up on each other not to write scripts with a sexist point of view. If one of us crosses any line, the other warns. I can call our story a human story rather than woman or man story. Therefore, there is no situation where a woman is at the forefront just because of her female identity so that we can pour out certain stereotypes regarding womanhood. Of course, there are traditional people conforming to these stereotypes. We try to explain these in a different way, to write even classical situations in a non-classical way. The good part is that it has been rewarded in terms of our TV series.
While you are doing a job that you feel good about, what else can you not write other than Ayşenur’s example of “not being able to write an anti-hero?”
E.C.: Actually, there are many things in life -it is not only about a male and female identity in Turkey. There are other sexual identities and of course not being able to write about them makes any drama incomplete, because it is not real. Nobody told us not to write, but based on experience, we know that if we write, bad things might happen to us. This is sad, of course.
Defne Gürsoy: It makes me very happy to be a part of a work that I love to write. But as they say, nowadays, ratings and demand are at the center of any screenwriting job in the business. On the other hand, I think self-censorship has two points. The first is related to the country we live in and the situations we are going through. The second is related to the supply and demand chain the TV channels are part of and push for. We can’t say that people only want to watch series that conform to these elements -if so, they wouldn’t have watched our show. Thus, channels should take some risks by not only prioritizing ratings.
“WHY DID VIOLENCE INCREASE IN SCRIPTS? BECAUSE THERE WAS NO MATERIAL LEFT FOR US TO WRITE”
With the epidemic, we all tried to spend our days in quarantine by watching many TV series from Turkey and around the world, as well as creating wonders in the kitchen. In particular, most of us watched the old TRT series, for example, Yeditepe Istanbul, Şaşıfelek Çıkmazı and we remembered what we could not see on the television screen right now. And how much these stories are still loved. These are more solidarist, friendlier stories in which the sexuality of the women in the neighborhood are depicted, and these are discussed in doorstep conversations. This means that these TV series were watched and demanded for a while and the channels have also invested them at the time. However, many industry professionals now use the “the public wants it” argument to defend some bad TV series or artistic works. What do you think the public really want?
E.C.: And they broadcast those series by censoring. Of course, there were also those who watched then on the internet. For example, when I first started this profession, I was able to write about sexuality comfortably, the characters could also drink alcohol, they could also have that sorrow conversation. I’m not talking about drinking in a positive way.
The fact that you need to explain that “you are not talking about drinking in a positive way” is telling.
E.C.: Because we are always accused of promoting things. In the past, whatever bad happened in Turkey, the first football industry was blamed first, now it’s the TV industry’s turn. People now say, “violence spread because of screenwriters,” “problems related to sexuality increased because of screenwriters,” “violence against women increased because of screenwriters…”
But it is undeniable that elements of violence have increased in scripts in recent years, don’t you think?
E.C.: Of course. But when we think about why they have increased, I would say that there was no material left for us to write. Sexuality has been taken away from us, for one. The main problems in Turkey have become impossible to write on TV. For example, a love story based on sectarian separation between a Sunni and an Alevi was somehow written in the past, but can we write it now?
I don’t know. What is left when all these subjects, situations, or conflicts are taken from us? Also, this is business. What they expect from us is a spectacle, something that will immediately draw attention and connect the audience to the screen. What was realized is that audience reacts the most if people brawl or hassle a lot on screen. It worked well with the cowboy movies of Hollywood and that’s why they were so popular at the time.
Also, self-censorship is now prevalent that I don’t believe it is possible to produce a TV series now that you produced five years ago. This is heartbreaking and worth talking about. So, now we see that TV stories are getting more and more shallow. I wish people have discussed about these as well while criticizing (or rather beating) screenwriters.
How did it come to this point?
E.C.: People look for a scapegoat. Instead of discussing the constantly pumped male-dominated world, they say, “Oh, this is also screenwriters’ fault.” I also think society wants to soothe their conscience by blaming us. Also, wasn’t violence used as get more ratings? It was. I would be wrong if I said it was not. Nothing is that pure in life.
Violence is inherent in life. What you experience in life ultimately affects you and your writing -it is impossible not to be affected. Check out Netflix and other platforms -they use violence as well.
You say you’re lucky, but aren’t there people who have to write scenes that contradicts their stance in life? Let’s think of someone who has to write a scene of violence against women with a highly problematic language?
E.C.: But there, it’s not up to the screenwriters. Directors and producers might want to have these scenes. Something similar happened to us: We watched an episode that we wrote as a scene of passion, not violence, on the screen as a scene of tooth and claw and we quit that job as a team. So this is not a responsibility that only screenwriters to be burdened with. There are directors, actors, producers, and TV managers who watch the tapes before it was broadcast. Thus, if this issue is to be discussed in its entirety; I think our fellow actors who say “ask the screenwriters who write about violence against women” should also be part of the discussion so we can talk properly. For example, we try to write something where women are not subjected to violence or humiliation over the subject of virginity, but in Turkey, in general, even many modern women are still humiliated because of their virginity. What we do is actually rare compared to how common violence is in other TV series on TV. It has to change first so that that what we do can change a bit, as well.
D.G.: Actually, it is a situation like “Chicken and egg.” I do not believe that people see the violence in the TV series and consequently act violently. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many TV series involving violence if other topics weren’t taken away from us.
Yes, violence against women is shown in some TV series, but this is shown so that it “should not be done.” They exist not for them to see and practice, but to say, “look what a bad person this is.” We are in 2020, and while there are problems in every field from health to women, everyone should question themselves and their standpoint. If we expect the actors to say “we are not acting,” we should draw a line when appropriate, saying that “we do not write.”
Can screenwriters draw this line when they deem it necessary?
A.S.: We can.
E.C.: You may not get jobs to make ends meet, but you can draw it.
A.S.: Of course, there is such a reality, we can freely write whatever we want right now, but it is because our producer thinks like us. If we write something like that, he would read the script and say “let’s not do that.” In the past, code of conduct was a thing. I believe that the code of conduct should be discussed in its entirety at the beginning of every job by the writing team. We did it when we started. We made headlines and said “we will do this and not that” and we stick to it. But if we were just starting out in the profession and didn’t have the power to write we want to, we might have had to act by the code of conduct of the team we were in. It’s about whether it’s a humane or not, the choice. I should also say that, violence against women has never been praised in any TV series in Turkey -I watch all series-. Such thing didn’t happen. There are some series whose images are shared and we have some friends who have been targeted on this issue. When we looked at them, the main story is the following: There is a man who commits violence against a woman and a man who tries saving that woman.
“IF THEY ARE IDENTIFIED WITH BAD CHARACTERS, SCREEN WRITERS CANNOT FIX IT”
How the scene is handled and the way that violence is portrayed must also be effective.
A.S.: As I said, this is not a situation within the scriptwriter’s hand. No screenwriter writes “we must show violence for 15 minutes” to the script.
Perhaps, on the contrary, it is due to the language and discourses used in politics, on the street, in media, or on the third-page news that are reflected on the screen?
A.S.: A little bit like that. After all, we cannot say that there is only violence on TV and this is what drives violence in Turkey. When women or LGBTI+ individuals take to the streets to defend their rights, they are also subjected to violence by the police. It will have meaning when not only the violence on TV but also the violence on the street will be discussed all together. It is then the change will begin.
Maybe, additional to talking about showing scenes of violence against women, we should also discuss how manhood or the glorification of patriarchy is depicted on TV series. I am thinking of how women were depicted somehow subaltern in certain series (where a rich and feudal family in a a small town in Anatolia where men have more control over their brides and the family owns servants etc.) or the disparaging language used in series where “tough-guys” are the protagonists. Or, as you said, the lack of LGBTI+ characters, or depicting only the lives of certain -rich- communities…
A.S.: I don’t know if I can include producers, but I think as writers, directors, we have to take responsibility as people who produce these shows. Because what we call TV series is actually a phenomenon that contributes to the formation of popular culture. Thus, if you are dealing with delicate issues such as violence, if you are dealing with women’s issues, then you have to look out for ethical responsibility. As Eylem said at the beginning, how you handle it and what you handle is what makes the difference. Yes, it’s true, no one has praised violence against women. The characters who commit violence against women are already bad characters. If someone identifies with bad characters, then there is already corruption in society. TV writers cannot fix this either. Too late for everybody, including us. Apart from violence against women there, we also have some issues in the following: What does a character you attribute as hero do? How does this hero do what he do? By beating someone? By swearing? Does woman always need to be saved? Does she always have to be taken from the brink of the abyss? What could woman have done to save herself without that man? Did she have to? If you don’t write about these, then you are already writing from a traditional point of view.
Sometimes ‘lynching’ or ‘banning’ is pointed out when criticizing from the right point of view. What do you say about this?
A.S.: If you write about a woman as someone who needs a man to be saved, you are already defending a certain ideology. This has consequences, too, but that doesn’t mean ‘let’s censor it right away, not something like that shouldn’t be written.’ Who is censoring Breaking Bad? It is full of violence, but it’s a terrific drama. I think society needs to immediately blame someone and it’s not just about violence. For example, if you have been following the comments about TV series in recent years, cheating is a hot topic: A woman having an affair with a married man. Saying God damn him, People phone TV channels and ask for the series to be withdrawn. Thing are getting out of control now. It is a great topic for drama but I have reservations about writing on this issue in order not to be targeted. I think people are now trying to lynch anyone because they don’t know how to claim rights, where to claim it, and how to bring an order. This perpetuates another form of violence.
“WHEN I STARTED THIS JOB, RTÜK (SUPREME BOARD OF RADIO AND TELEVISION) WAS NOT THIS HARSH ON TV CHANNELS”
Eylem, you have been in the industry for many years. Have you ever had a subject, scene, character that you are directly told not to “write?”
E.C.: This is my 18th year in this industry and I have never been dictated to “write this, don’t write that.” Yet, Turkey is becoming conservative as a whole. Not only on television, but the whole country has become increasingly conservative and value judgments have changed. For example, Şaşıfelek Çıkmazı was a TV series that was broadcast on TRT, and TRT at the time and the private channels of today are in very different places.
So, the people at that time wanted Şaşıfelek Çıkmazı, but don’t they want it today?
E.C.: There is also the issue of the run time: We are writing shows that runs up to 160, 170, 190 minutes and I don’t think there is no such example in the world. We have to tell stories during these 190 minutes, and for these stories to be commercially profitable, you have to go on for seasons. In order to write a story for 190 minutes that will continue for seasons, you need to use many elements. And since there are less elements we can use (as we mentioned) to write stories about, you need to write more underlined scenes to draw attention.
There is an ‘Egg-Chicken’ situation again. If our TV series had lasted 45 minutes, it might have been different. And also, when I first started this job, there was not such a hard reality of Supreme Board of Radio and Television, but now a TV channel might be shut down (for some days) because of what you wrote and you may be held responsible. We were fined by the Supreme Board of Radio and Television for a kissing scene in a TV series I wrote. The fact that RTÜK fines scenes where people make love yet does not fine violent scenes is what we have to discuss. Is love and sexuality more dangerous than violence?
“I ALREADY LEARNED TO WRITE WITH SELF-CENSORSHIP”
How exactly did the change in the function of RTÜK affect you in these 18 years?
E.C.: I didn’t used to know the RTÜK rules, now I do, and that’s the rooted part of self-censorship. I know what will happen to us when I break these rules. In the past, either someone from the production company or the channel would say, “we may have a problem with this at the RTÜK level.” But now its scope has changed a lot. However, you can explain something that is forbidden in such a way that it becomes a social responsibility project. For example, alcohol is prohibited, but we cannot explain that alcohol is a bad thing either. You know that you will never be able to write this or that. You have lists of issues that cannot be proposed at story meetings.
D.G.: Just as it is said that the new generation was “born into the world of technology,” we were actually born to this censorship. I watched the old TV series too, but I don’t know exactly what Eylem is talking about because I was not in the industry at that time. I already learned how to write with self-censorship. Since I don’t know otherwise, I don’t even think of proposing to write that way. This is actually learned helplessness. I would not have been able to write at the very beginning if I said to myself, “I only want to write this or that” -I couldn’t be part of any team. Of course, I don’t feel that way about the work we do. But comedy, for example, cannot be written. Because, as Eylem said, you cannot write comedy for 190 minutes. You can’t make people laugh that much. Comedy would be 30 minutes -45 minutes maximum. I feel lucky in this particular job, but young, new screenwriters like us who work in other places have to write in a certain way. You begin this industry knowing this.
But creative maneuvers are coming from screenwriters against all odds and despite harsher censorship practices. For example, lately, it seems to me that graffitis shown in TV series do great job of saying what scriptwriters or directors cannot directly say.
A.S.: And they are very creative as well. And there is a difference too, not just as a TV industry. I see TV series as the continuation of Yeşilçam, but we do not see social and political issues depicted in Yeşilçam movies in today’s series. For example, we cannot write a movie like Züğürt Ağa (1985) right now.
“WHEN WOMEN IN THE COUNTRY CHANGE, THE COUNTRY WILL CHANGE”
Digital platforms become widespread, and offer a freer space, but the numbers still reveal that conventional television broadcasting is more massive. I suppose this is both a possibility and an impossibility?
E.C.: I think TV has great power. Anyway, I have remained one of the few people who have written scripts for TV for so many years. Others have fled to digital platforms. Ayşenur will also run away soon. (Laughters)
A.S.: It’s like a brain drain.
E.C.: But I really find TV channels very valuable. Because I saw that it is a medium that causes changes, even if they are small. After all, it reaches mostly women. And we all know that when the women in the country change, the country will also change. I say this in reference to the way of life in Turkey. The literacy rate is low, the rate of going to theater and cinema is low, opera and ballet are fields that only a certain group of people can participate anyway… Therefore, a large percentage of Turkey still watches TV and what you tell and how you tell is very important.
For myself, I am very happy about the fact that in all the TV series I have made so far, the main characters have always been women. Even in the series where the protagonist was thought to be a man, it was again the woman who drove up the emotion, the story and the drama. I can even say that I have made a positive discrimination in this regard. Because women watch, because I want to show them the power of women to change the world.
“I THINK SENARISTBIR’S WORK WILL BE REFLECTED ON TV”
They have the ‘Social Gender Equality Commission Studies’ that screenwriters are working on. Could it be a tool to find solutions to the problems we mentioned? What are your thoughts?
E.C.: I am also a member of SenaristBir. I’m in the Board of Directors and I find these works very valuable. Since screenwriters are too far apart from each other in the industry, the opportunity to speak has emerged with this new foundation.
Everyone started to talk to each other, to share their thoughts, to discuss. I believe these will be reflected on TV as well. That’s why I think it is very valuable. Not only gender equality, but also other topics are shared in other commissions. Of course, what we call change is something that happens in the long run. We will learn how or what this will change with experience and I believe it will happen. After all, communication and having a dialogue is always a good thing. Sharing knowledge and experience is good, so is the fact that people express themselves.