Can Candan is an independent filmmaker and faculty member at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. Since 1989, his films have been screened internationally at festivals, conferences and galleries. He is most well-known for Duvarlar, Mauern, Walls (2000), a film about the Turkish immigrant community in post-wall Berlin, and My Child (2013), a feature documentary on the parents of LGBTIQ+ individuals in Turkey. Candan is the co-editor of the volume Kurdish Documentary Cinema in Turkey (2016). In 2016, he was one of 2,212 signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration calling on the Turkish government to end the violence against the Kurdish population in the southeast of the country. He was tried under the anti-terror law and faced a minimum jail sentence of 15 months. Following the constitutional court’s ruling in favor of freedom of speech in 2019, he was acquitted of all charges. Kenan Behzat Sharpe spoke with Candan on March 25, 2020 about his latest film project Nuclear alla Turca, a documentary on the history of atomic energy in Turkey, a country on the verge of building its very first nuclear plant despite a growing anti-nuclear movement. The interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Your current documentary project is Nuclear alla Turca. How did the idea for this project develop?
In a certain sense, this project began for me in April 1986, after the Chernobyl disaster. I was a student in Istanbul when it happened. The fear and uncertainty stuck with me. If you ask people in Turkey what they remember from that period, they will probably say tea. At that time, radioactive clouds from the Chernobyl reactor incident reached Turkey’s Black Sea coast, a major tea-producing region. Turkey’s industry and trade minister appeared on TV drinking a glass of tea and telling people not to worry. I was 17 years old then and this image stuck with me. There was a widespread sense that we were being deceived, that we weren’t being properly informed by the authorities. A similar thing is happening today with COVID-19. The authorities are telling us that everything necessary is being done and not to worry, but they are also downplaying the number of cases.
Then in 1987 I went to the United States for my undergraduate studies. There I learned more about the anti-apartheid, women’s rights and LGBT movements. I also became more informed about environmental issues and began learning what was happening with the environmental movement in Turkey. In the summer of 1995, I visited Turkey for the summer. I was finishing graduate school in Philadelphia at that time. While back home I decided to meet with environmental activists in Istanbul and in Akkuyu in Mersin province, a city on the Mediterranean coast that was hosting an anti-nuclear festival. There I met with Melda Keskin, project director of Greenpeace Turkey at the time, and Özgür Gürbüz, a student activist walking backward from the city of Mersin to Akkuyu to raise awareness. I brought my video camera with me then and shot some footage. That was the moment I first had the idea of making a film about Turkey’s environmental movement.
In 2000, the nuclear power plant project in Akkuyu was finally shelved. We thought this was the end and saw it as a victory for Turkey’s environmental movement. But in 2002 the AKP [the Justice and Development Party] came to power and within a couple of years the minister of energy began talking about nuclear again. They were resurrecting this dead nuclear power project. By 2009 I decided that the film had to be about this quest for nuclear power in Turkey. I started a Facebook group for sharing news and archival materials on this topic. Then in 2015, the government began an expensive publicity campaign for the Akkuyu project. Billboards were put up in Istanbul and all over Turkey. Whereas previously the project was something that might happen in the vague future, now Akkuyu became a reality in our own backyard, on our streets and next to our homes. Advertisements promoting nuclear as a new, safe, clean form of energy could be seen on TV, the Internet and in movie theaters.
This was a strange time for a nuclear renaissance since only four years earlier the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan. In this post-Fukushima period, countries with nuclear power plants were already reconsidering their nuclear futures. Germany was at the forefront of this energy transition movement. While post-industrial countries were moving in this direction, Turkey was moving in the opposite direction. I felt that this was the time to move beyond just having a Facebook group and start working on the film itself. Amidst this highly visible publicity campaign we needed to have our voices heard. By the end of the 2015, we had begun.
Is there something particularly alla Turca about the approach to nuclear energy in the country?
Alla Turca has two meanings. The first is more neutral and means “in the Turkish style,” as in Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca.” The second is the more everyday use in Turkey, meaning backwards, unprofessional and untrustworthy. This describes the way the Chernobyl crisis was handled and how COVID-19 is being handled now.
We live in an increasingly post-nuclear world. It is now more expensive to produce nuclear power and the safety issues are well known, so it is no longer ethical to produce it. Just look at Austria. In the 1970s they decided not to produce or invest in nuclear energy. Or look at Germany after Fukushima and the way they decided to gradually shut down all its nuclear power plants. So in this sense, we are not following in the footsteps of these countries but rather moving backwards and taking an unprofessional approach to the country’s energy needs.
To what do you attribute the government’s insistence on going ahead with these plans?
There are two reasons for their insistence on nuclear projects. The first is that they are going to make a lot of money—they already are. However, as with all these big projects, we do not know who gets the money and how much. Whether it is bribes or the specific companies that are chosen to be part of the project, I do not trust that the government is doing everything lawfully or that they will be accountable for the money going in and out of this project. This is problematic because private companies will be making money off of a public project. In addition, the many square kilometers of land destroyed for the project harms the environment.
The second reason is the logic that if Turkey is both a regional and world power, it thus needs access to this technology. People in Turkey say that if India, Israel, Russia and Pakistan have nuclear, then why can’t we? But having the radioactive elements and technology needed for nuclear power also means you might be able to produce nuclear warheads: these go hand in hand. That’s the path that powers like the United States, Russia, France and so on all followed. Turkey wants to be part of that nuclear club and that’s why they’re so adamant about moving in this direction. Yet having nuclear military capabilities means depending on other powers—they won’t just let you do it. It’s simply a myth that you can do this without other countries knowing.
So, in terms of the financial aspect, the environment and diplomacy, this project is something the public would probably not accept if they knew exactly what was going on. We as citizens need a say as to what direction our country is taking.
According to some polls, a majority of people in Turkey oppose nuclear power plants in Turkey. Why is this? Does it stem from the strength of the environmental movement?
Polls conducted by Greenpeace after Fukushima showed that a significant majority of the public was against nuclear power. The more people know, the more they oppose this kind of energy production. This is not due to the environmental movement, however, which has been quite weak in Turkey. The real reason is that people experienced Chernobyl here. They know that radioactive isotopes can travel for thousands of miles and they are scared of this, as they should be.
At the same time, we do not have a free press in Turkey and much effort was spent repressing oppositional voices. The local environmental movement suffers from this as well. As soon as activists in Mersin begin to take public action, the police came and prevented them from being on the streets. There is not much media left that is mainstream enough to reach a lot of people, so we are left with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but these are limited avenues. On the brighter side, though, the movement against climate change is growing across the world, so the environmental movement is gaining new blood. We still do not entirely know how the current pandemic will affect society and the environmental movement. I hope that people will realize that things cannot continue going the way they were before. We need to think about the future we want to build together. And that future undoubtedly cannot include nuclear.
Could you describe the film in more depth? And what has the process of working on it been like?
We began working on the documentary in late 2015, but then the state repression that I mentioned affected the process. In January 2015, many of us signed a petition for peace [against violence in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast]. Then all hell broke loose. Our colleagues were imprisoned and the [July 15, 2016] coup attempt happened. They decided to try us for making propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization. All of a sudden my priorities as a filmmaker and academic changed when I got involved with the Academics for Peace struggle. My time was taken up with legal court cases and doing all of the related solidarity work. For three and a half years, from 2016 to August 2019, instead of doing my filmmaking I was sidetracked with other things. It has only been during the last academic year that I have been able to get back to the project.
As for the film itself, it will look at one main issue: the fact that we are at a nuclear threshold right now. If the government goes ahead and finishes constructing the nuclear power plant, we will be a country that produces nuclear power and waste for the first time in our history.
There are also animated segments in the film, which we will use to inform the audience about nuclear science. To really understand what’s going on, one must have a basic idea of what nuclear power is, its effects and how Chernobyl affected us. We will do this through little atomic lessons spread throughout the film. These will be funny but informative. We also use a lot of archival material in telling this nuclear history, including narratives from different experts, activists and witnesses. It will be an eclectic film that I describe with the metaphor of the necklace. When you lay it out flat, it looks like a linear entity, but each bead will be different. But then between this variety of beads there are smaller ones connecting them that look identical: these will be our atomic lessons.
What is the timeline like for completing the film? Have the funding campaigns been successful?
If the government goes ahead with the current nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, the first of four reactors will be opened in October 2023. Our goal is to finish the film before this so we can have a public discussion about whether or not we want to go in this direction as a country. The film will contribute by being a tool for creating debate about our possible nuclear or non-nuclear future. The goal is to finish the film by the end of 2022.
In terms of fundraising, we received some seed money from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation of the German Green Party. We then organized two crowd funding campaigns. The 450 contributors on the site Indiegogo allowed us to do research and archival work and go on four research trips. The first was to Akkuyu, then Sinop (the site of the second planned nuclear project) and İğneada in the Thrace region of Turkey (the site of the third project). We also went to Germany to make connections with anti-nuclear activists there. We now need to fundraise once again so we can move from the development phase to the production phase.
One problem now is that Indiegogo no longer supports projects from Turkey. This might be related to the same [Turkish government] regulations that prevents PayPal and Uber from functioning in Turkey. So in addition to these international connections we are losing, we have already exhausted our crowd funding potential in Turkey. With the pandemic ongoing and people being stuck at home, it is a good time for us to continue archival research and work on the creative aspects of the film so that as soon as the time comes to go out on the streets, we will be ready to come together as a team and shoot.
In addition to your work as a documentary filmmaker, as an academic you also write on the topic and have co-edited a volume about Kurdish documentaries. In your opinion, what role can documentary film play in social struggles?
In my experience, documentary bears witness to certain times, places and events. Through the act of documentation, they create a resource for public and personal memory. This enables the public to focus on certain issues and helps people remember what has happened. Documentaries also raise awareness. In my first feature-length documentary, I called attention to the situation of immigrants from Turkey living next to the Berlin Wall when it fell. That perspective was missing from mainstream representation and this was a time  when self-representation was quite problematic because the internet was not yet widespread and video was not so widely available. It has been 29 years since I interviewed people in Berlin and 20 years since the film was completed, but it is still shown and appreciated. It became a time-capsule that allows people to understand what was happening then and reflect on what has happened since. And this allows them to have a discussion regarding where they want to go now. In the case of that film, this is relevant in terms of the growth of right-wing racism in Germany. So the function of documentary is bearing witness and raising awareness. It allows one to intervene in dominant narratives and create an alternative space for reflection. The experience of documentary film can even be transformative. For example, in my film about the parents of LGBTIQ+ people in Turkey, feedback from viewers made it clear that the stories affected the way they approach these issues.
What are the challenges of being a documentary filmmaker in Turkey?
The biggest challenge of being a filmmaker and academic who is concerned about what is happening in Turkey and the world is that there is a continuous assault by the government on oppositional voices. This assault is quite tiring. It takes a lot of time and energy away from our other work, so people have not been as productive as they could have been if they lived in a more democratic society, one where we didn’t have to wonder whether the police will come and knock on our doors early one morning. It is a unique situation and it is difficult to explain to others who do not live under similar conditions exactly the toll that it takes. You have to stay alive and survive under this assault and keep yourself motivated enough to do your work—be it teaching, researching, writing or making documentaries. In my experience, the biggest challenge is finding the mental space to focus amidst this assault.
What is the status of your own legal process?
I have been acquitted now, but my case was still being tried before the constitutional court’s decision in October 2019 that our freedom of speech was being violated. My case was closed, but other colleagues have yet to be acquitted. Others have had the charges dropped but were fired from their academic jobs without any trial or sentence, so we are struggling to make sure they get their jobs back and are compensated for loss of income. The struggle still continues, unfortunately.
[Kenan Behzat Sharpe has a PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and lives in Istanbul, where he teaches and is an arts/culture columnist for the independent Duvar English.]