Creating Art in the Face of Censorship
During late 2016 I decided to write a short film script to the Warner Bros Emerging Directors program. The film was inspired by my activist organizing roots as well as a dream I had one night. My film centered two siblings who accidentally violate forbidden grounds controlled by government watchmen and their journey takes shape with their escape and encounter of fellow revolutionaries in a semi-realistic dystopia.
Letting the magic take over, I poured myself a glass of scotch, dimmed my lights, put on headphones and opened Final Draft a cliche, yet nonetheless the method that works for me. By the end of 9 intense hours - at 6am, I had a 15 page first draft of the script. The application only required general information and not the completed script, so confident I had it all- I made my submission the next day. In the end I was not selected to the program. But I knew, despite not having the funding and resources I initially hoped for, this film needed to me made to be shared with people who thought and felt so strongly about creating awareness of corrupted politics.
In late 2016 due to my US visa expiry, I had to move back home to Istanbul- almost immediately after writing the script. I knew I would be stuck at home for a while so I decided to rewrite my script in my native language which is Turkish and shoot it there. And this, in a way open the gates of hell.
Not having any clue about the local film industry, I decided to start probing the theatre community first. Coming to my rescue, a friend and my boyfriend took on the hats of the producers. We led our first official meeting shortly after with our small pack and it was incredible. It was all so clear: we were going to make this film and it was going to be amazing. We started working heavily on pre-production. Around the same time, I witnessed some abnormalities in politics and saw that Turkey was growing even more corrupt than before. It got to the point where many people feared arrest due to violating government controlled media rules and regulations. Soon many of the members of my team were opposed to having their name appear in a project with such deeply rooted activism that challenged the current conservative government policies and treatments. Despite me purposefully creating a fictional ambiguous world, many whom shared interest initially, started dropping out of the project one by one.
During our pre-production stage, exactly three weeks before production was set to shoot- our child actor lost his father to a heart attack. We had no backups as no family was willing to permit their children to act in such a “bold” film. His mother decided to continue with the film as a distraction as well as to honor the last thing they did as father and son- rehearse his lines.
By the end of our 2 month pre-production, only the heroine of the story was casted, but the script demanded 10 more supporting roles and a couple dozen extras. It was devastating to get calls from people backing down and trying to “warn” me about the dangers of going through with this project. Many assumed I was just pushing this project because I was “safe” and could always run back to the “US”. Unbeknownst to them the total irony of it all, I was stuck back home in ways they couldn’t imagine. Political disturbances causes that made three of our supporting actors to drop out. On the 5th day of our shoot, we didn’t had the cast members for the 6th day scenes. We found the 6th day talent the morning of the same day and that evening we found the other cast member for the 7th day of shooting. Incident after incident occurred and tested our strength as a team- our props got stolen, our rental lens kit got switched by the production house, and more drop outs.
This social pressure that the regime created, started to build up more frustration in me, so I decided to push harder. As we were battling through finishing production I came to the sudden realization that this film was a manifesto to the current political ways of my country and because of that, the story mattered more than the overall production value. The film was becoming to be a film made by the people for the people and that’s what mattered the most.
In the end, the majority of the actors in my film had no prior film experience- they were simply friends and family who were willing to help out in my time of need. Locations where almost as equally challenging and devastating to lock in. Many parks and “green areas”, my essential ingredients to a dystopian society, were government owned. Fortunately for me, the only major loophole we discovered was that since we didn’t include nudity or drugs in the script, the government could not directly censor our work. Our main themes were government control, child brides, censorship and revolutionism. All taboo subjects but we made it work as the officials never suspected nor asked about these subjects.
In the heat of the moment we kept thinking we were so unlucky and the timing was off for this film. But thinking it through afterwards, I saw that; most issues we faced were due to the government oppression, media censorship and the lack of support and understanding of indie films in my country; which was mind blowing.
Everything I learned in pushing myself to make this film happen wasn’t anything I could've experienced on any other set. It’s not fun to own up to a project that you know you could have done better. Trusting, pushing and following your calling can sometimes make you fall pretty hard. But it can also make you a stronger filmmaker. This film made me a stronger filmmaker. In the end we made a pretty badass 25 minute film that audiences in my country and worldwide can look up to and hopefully eventually not fear- as changes happen.
Arsal Asal is a filmmaker, writer, director and photographer from Istanbul, Turkey. She graduated from the New School with a degree in Media Studies with a concentration in digital filmmaking and a certificate in screenwriting in 2016. She currently resides in San Francisco, CA where she is continuing to make films. Having a background in both psychology and business along with her passion for travel, she has been using all of these elements to explore and execute visual projects to represent the moving image and storytelling as a medium. Arsal is currently at the pre-production stage with her upcoming mumblecore horror feature film; Last Girl, as the co-writer and director making this film her feature debut.