Among the Ruins


On March 21, 2013, a letter by the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, which called for peace, was read out at the Newroz celebration in Diyarbakır. Following this, the PKK declared a ceasefire on March 23, 2013, and announced on May 8, 2013, that it had started the process of withdrawing from Turkey's borders. This was the beginning of the so-called reconciliation process, which was initiated with the aim of peacefully ending the armed conflict that has been ongoing for more than 30 years between the Turkish state and the PKK. The dialogue and peace process, which lasted more than two years, continued amid myriad reservations. Negotiations reached an important threshold with the meeting on February 28, 2015, which produced the Dolmabahçe Agreement. After this extremely important meeting in which the statements prepared by government officials and Abdullah Öcalan were read, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded negatively, saying, "I don't find [the agreement] to be proper." Following the elections of June 7, 2015, armed conflict reignited and the dialogue process that had lasted for two and a half years came to an end. After the collapse of the reconciliation process, conflicts moved from the countryside to urban centers, intensified on a scale not seen for many years, and caused severe destruction.

The statement that the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) made in Şırnak on August 10, 2015, in part read: "From here on out our self-government is based on the people." This was the first announcement of self-government, which would then be followed one after another in the subsequent days and months. People erected barricades in the streets of their cities. The government then declared curfews in many cities due to the statements concerning self-governance. Intense clashes then erupted in city and town centers that were residential areas. According to data from the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), the government declared a total of 252 indefinite, 24-hour lock-downs between August 16, 2015 and August 16, 2017, in 45 districts of 11 provinces, including 136 times in Diyarbakır, 13 in Şırnak, 42 in Mardin, 21 in Hakkari, seven in Bingöl, five in Batman, seven in Muş, six in Dersim, one in Siirt, and two in Elazığ. Between these dates, at least 338 civilians—78 of them children, 69 of them women, and 30 of them over the age of 60—lost their lives in the violence. Seventy-six of these civilians lost their lives because state forces prevented them from accessing their right to required healthcare. The TİHV announced in 2016 that at least 200 civilians were killed in homes and other enclosed areas due to bombing by state forces and their use of heavy artillery. Cizre experienced the most civilian deaths with state forces killing 177 people in the basements of the houses where they were taking shelter (HDP, 2016). Throughout the course of the curfews, in addition to the great loss of life, state forces also inflicted near total destruction of the cities and towns, which forced many people to leave their homes and move elsewhere. Areas such as Cizre, Silopi, Sur, and Nusaybin were decimated to an extent that they required rebuilding nearly from the ground up. In the Anti-Terrorism and Rehabilitation Action Plan the government announced, the sixth article of the Master Plan, which consists of ten headings, was devoted to the reconstruction of urban areas that were destroyed, with a special emphasis placed on the Sur district of Diyarbakır, the historical fabric of which was completely devastated (Bianet, 2016).

This is the political background to the film, Kavil: Yıkıntılar Arasında (Kavil: Among the Ruins), which was part of a collection of short films together titled Gure oroitzapenak (Our memories), inspired by the life story and work of Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia. Özcan Alper participated in the project of 12 short films by 12 directors and wanted to shoot his part in Kurdish in the narrow streets of Sur where the movie Gelecek Uzun Sürer (The Future Lasts Long) was also set. Sarrionandia accepted his proposal with knowledge of the similarities between the issues faced by the Basque and Kurdish peoples. Six neighborhoods in the Sur district of Diyarbakır were under siege by state forces when Alper arrived to shoot the film and it was clear the conflict would not end anytime soon. Alper then decided to make his film an animation, using photographs taken in the blockaded cities.


Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı (2016). 6 Ağustos 2015 – 21 Ocak 2016 Tarihleri Arasında Sokağa Çıkma Yasakları ve Sivillere Yönelik Yaşam Hakkı İhlalleri. Curfews and Violations of Right to Life Against Civilians Between 6 August 2015 – 21 January 2016. Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı Yayınları. 

Halkların Demokratik Partisi (2016) - HDP Cizre Çalışma Ekibi. Cizre Raporu. Report of Cizre.

Kavil: Among the Ruins is a 12-minute, animated documentary film about the human and urban destruction experienced during the curfews declared in various Kurdish provinces between August of 2015 and March of 2016. The script was written by Alper and Murat Özyaşar, and directed by Vrej Kassouny and Alper, and was produced by Nar Film produced. The film made its world premiere at the 66th San Sebastian Film Festival.

In addition to the archive materials from the Dicle News Agency and Nar Photos, photographs taken by anonymous people were also used in the film. These photos had been widely circulated on social media by people who could not receive reliable information or news from the mainstream media in the country about the situation in the cities under blockade at the time.

Consistent, widespread exposure to such brutally violent images has the possibility to desensitize and numb those who view them rather than buttressing collective memory. As a coping mechanism, people then tend to forget atrocities more quickly. In order to prevent this from happening, Kavil: Among the Ruins turns reality into art in the attempt to create a more composed, longer-term visual memory. The animation for the film used nearly 100 images selected from an archive of around 1,000 photographs, which were then painted over with watercolors. In the film, the main character, Lâl, a young poet, is seen as sections of Sarrionandia's poem "Hard Times" are recited in Kurdish translation.

Director Özcan Alper explained that they took care to select the frames that best depicted what happened during the conflict in Cizre, Sur, and Nusaybin. He also said that in retrospect, they followed such a path so that memory of the events would be accessible. Co-writer of the screenplay, Murat Özyaşar, described the disaster: "We can't escape it, and if you want to escape, where would you run? [The film] is a way to explain disaster. We can't forget what happened. It's [a way] of mourning. We can't find a concept to explain what was experienced. Something is always being destroyed."

Alper was inspired by and named the film after Zabel Yesayan's book, Yıkıntılar Arasında (Among the Ruins). Zabel Yesayan is one of the most important writers of modern Armenian literature and was in the aid delegation sent to the region by the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate after the Adana Massacre in 1909. The book is a record of his impressions of the three months he spent in Adana. Thus, Alper emphasizes the continuity of destruction and disasters in the region that has been ongoing for over a century.

Animation is not used very often in Turkey outside of short films and filmmakers engaged with political themes have not been very involved in the genre. This film, however, has the ability to introduce new techniques and narrative forms to more politically orthodox filmgoers while also pointing to different methods of seeing and presenting difficult issues, which then transform the familiar reality without stepping back and can elicit new reactions in the mind and memory. The use of animation as a tool to overcome obstacles in an environment of political oppression also garnered attention. Alper has said that he is willing to do a workshop on the topic in the future.

Since short films generally do not find large audiences in Turkey, a special effort should be made for this film's dissemination. The obstacles standing before this film, however, are not limited to this phenomenon. Alper has explained that his work is ignored by actors in the country's film industry, which is highly likely related to the subject matter of the film. Kavil: Among the Ruins was not invited to national film festivals, which are important for the promotion and discussion of new films.

Pressure applied to opposition circles was not limited to censorship during and after the period of conflict that reignited after the collapse of the reconciliation process. Many directors had legal cases filed against them and some were detained and arrested. Video activist Oktay İnce's archive with material compiled over 20 years was seized in a police raid on his house in 2021. Journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and director Çayan Demirel were both sentenced to four years and six months in prison on charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization for the documentary Bakur (North), and a travel ban was imposed on them. Mavioğlu and Demirel's sentences were overturned on appeal in 2022. As for the directors of the documentary Nû Jîn (New Life), Veysi Altay was sentenced to two years and six months and Musa Anter's son Dicle Anter was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Anter's prison sentence was commuted to a fine and Altay's sentence was suspended. Kutbettin Cebe, who directed the documentary Roza: İki Nehrin Ülkesi (Roza: The Country of Two Rivers), was sentenced to two years and four months in prison. Cebe said that he was unable to document the human rights violations and destruction caused by the curfews and subsequent state terrorism in Cizre, Şırnak, Sur, and Nusaybin due to state pressure. Amid this environment of state pressure, Kavil: Among the Ruins was not freely allowed to find an audience.

Another challenge concerned making an animated political film. In Turkey, competent animators mainly work in advertising. As such, Alper struggled to find animators due to the content of the film being politically oppositional.