And then Cigdem Mater stopped answering her texts. It is Monday, April 25, when the German filmmaker Adrian Figueroa suddenly can no longer reach the producer with whom he has made two films. Her phone has been confiscated after she was just sentenced to 18 years in prison. Mater’s offense: thinking about financing a film about the Gezipark protests, in 2013 in Istanbul. In the case, seven others, including a lawyer and an academic, are given the same sentence; the prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala is sentenced to life.
Together with Figueroa, Mater made the short film in 2020 Letters from Silivri and in 2022 Dear Osman. The films are about Kavala, who has been detained for more than five years. The films were shown on Wednesday at the Goethe Institute in Amsterdam, as a show of solidarity with Mater and the other prisoners. Figueroa was invited by fellow filmmakers who organized the meeting. The room was filled with about fifty culture lovers, stakeholders, friends and colleagues, mostly from Turkey.
Figueroa knew Kavala from previous film projects and had no doubts about what the subject of his film should be when he traveled to Istanbul in 2019 for a residency, he says in Amsterdam. Under Mater’s leadership, a film plan was developed for Letters from Silivri, in which Kavala’s letters to the outside world are read against the backdrop of a gentrification-stricken Istanbul suburb. Time stands still while Kavala muses on life, nature, the outside world. He sees sparrows on the prison wall and a sporadic gull.
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In Dear Osman the perspective is reversed. Friends and family read letters they wrote to Kavala, with Mater’s office in Istanbul as the backdrop. People struggle for words about the injustice done to their beloved Osman, “role model” in Mater’s words. Mater worked with Kavala on cultural exchange projects for the Anadolu Kültür he founded. Shortly after the release of the film, she, like him, would disappear behind bars.
Also in the room is Yigit Aksakoglu, who himself was imprisoned in another case around Kavala. He reminds those present that thousands of innocent people are being held in Turkey to “waste their time in a nonsensical way”. Aksakoglu managed to flee to the Netherlands after he was released in 2019. The Erdogan regime is primarily responsible, he says, but the Dutch and German governments are equally responsible for the Turkey deal they made in 2016 to keep refugees out of the EU. Approving nods from the room.
At the exit, the last word is up to Mater. In a letter printed on flyers distributed during the IDFA documentary festival, she addresses her audience from prison in Istanbul. “Your voice and support are tearing down the gray prison walls,” she writes. “I dream of the days when we can only talk about movies.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 18, 2022