Kavil: In the Ruins

On March 21, 2013, Abdullah Öcalan’s letter calling for peace was read out during the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır. Later on, PKK declared a ceasefire on March 23, 2013, and announced that it would withdraw from Turkey’s borders on May 8, 2013. This was the beginning of the process which was started to end the armed conflict that has been going on between the Turkish state and PKK for more than thirty years, and was called the “resolution process.” On February 28, 2015, the negotiations reached an important milestone as the parties for the first time got in front of camera in what is called as the Dolmabahçe Agreement”. However, after this very important meeting when texts prepared by both parties were read, resident Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made negative statements about the meeting, and said “I don’t approve it”. Following the general elections on June 7, 2015, the armed conflict restarted, ending the two and a half year-long dialogue process. After the failure of the process, clashes moved from the countryside to cities, intensified in a manner that had not been seen for a while and resulted in a very serious humanitarian and spatial devastation.

On August 10, 2015, the Democratic Regions Party made a statement in Şırnak “From now on, we declare to self-govern.” This was the first of self-governance declarations that would follow in the coming days and months. After a while, the government declared curfews in provinces that had declared self-governance. This was followed by intense clashes in many provinces and districts with civilian populations. According to the data gathered by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), between August 16, 2015, and March 18, 2016, there has been at least 63 officially confirmed round-the-clock and open-ended curfews in at least 22 districts including Diyarbakır (34 times), Şırnak (9 times), Mardin (11 times), Hakkari (5 times), Batman (2 times), Muş (1 time) and Elazığ (1 time). In this period, at least 310 civilians, which include 72 children, 62 women and 29 people over 60 years old lost their lives during the clashes. (TİHV, 2016) Many people were forced to leave their homes and relocate to other districts or cities. In addition to the loss of lives and enforced displacements, there has been huge damage to property. Districts such as Cizre, Silopi, Sur and Nusaybin were largely destroyed in a way that would require reconstruction. In the Counterterrorism and Rehabilitation Action Plan announced by the government, the 10-article Master Plan’s Article 6 was about the reconstruction of residential areas in the cities that were destroyed and there was an emphasis on the district of Sur in Diyarbakır which saw the destruction of its historic fabric. (bianet, 2016)

The movie Kavil: In the Ruins was shot in this political context, as part of a group-film project called Gure oroitzapenak, inspired by the life and work of Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia. Director Özcan Alper accepted to participate in this project in which 12 short films would be shot by 12 directors. He wanted to shoot the film in Kurdish in Diyarbakır’s Sur district in the alleys where Gelecek Uzun Sürer had been shot. Joseba Sarrionandia, who knew about the similarities between the people of Bask and Kurds gladly accepted the proposition. Özcan Alper arrived in Diyarbakır with Joseba Sarrionandia’s poem in mind to find filming locations. However, during these days, blockades were set up in 6 neighborhoods in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. His attempts failed and he returned to Istanbul. He then decided to use photographs that had been shot in these cities under blockade to make an animation movie.

Scope and Purpose

Kavil: In the Ruins is a 12-minute animation/documentary about the destruction in people’s lives and places caused by the curfews declared in many Kurdish provinces between August 2015 and March 2016. Written by director Özcan Alper and writer Murat Özyaşar, the film was directed by Vrej Kassouny and Özcan Alper. The film was produced by Nar Film. The film premiered at the 66th San Sebastian Film Festival. 

“Young Kurdish poet Lal (32) is spending his days immersed in his thoughts in his small cell. He embarks on a voyage suspended between dream and reality with the sudden appearance of a sparrow in his cell, which is not clear if it is real or a figment of his imagination. The poet returns to the streets of the city he spent his childhood only to find his dreams crushed and his people dispersed in frozen time.” Synoposis (Filmloverss, 2018).

In the film, photographs taken from the archives of the Dicle News Agency and Nar Photos are used, in addition to photographs taken by anonymous people. These anonymous photos were widely disseminated in social media by citizens who had no way of receiving trusted news and information from mainstream media. However, in contrast to building a collective memory, the prevalent use of such photos of crude violence can lead to a hardening and numbing of emotions in people who become subject to them. This can lead to forgetfulness as a coping mechanism. Precisely to prevent this, Kavil: In the Ruins transforms truth in an artistic effort and strives for a longer term visual memory. Close to 100 visuals selected among an archive of around 1000 were turned into animation using water color painting. In the film, young poet Lâl is accompanied by excerpts from “Hard Times”, a poem written by Basque poet Jose Sarrionandia.

The film’s director Özcan Alper says that they made a special effort to choose the best shots that would convey the experience of the period of conflict in Cizre, Sur and Nusaybin. He adds that they’ve chosen this method so that in the future, it would bring a certain memory to mind about the period. Co-screenwriter Murat Özyaşar defines the events as a nightmare and adds that: “We cannot escape it, where are you going to go? This is a way of narrating a disaster… We cannot forget what happened. This is mourning… We cannot muster the words that would convey what happened. The destruction is ongoing.”

Film takes its name from Zabel Yesayan’s book In the Ruins: The 1909 Massacres of Armenians in Adana, Turkey. One of the leading figures of Armenian literature, Zabel Yesayan wrote this book based on his three months’ time in Adana as part of an aid committee sent by Istanbul Armenian Church following the 1909 Massacre. The choice of name helps Alper highlight the continuity in the destruction and disaster lived through 100 years in this geography.


In Turkey, animation as a filmmaking technique is not widely used outside of short-movies. Particularly those with interest in political cinema have a weak relationship with animations. The movie can help shorten the distance between the orthodox political cinema lovers to new means of storytelling and signal different ways for seeing and showing “difficult topics”. Likewise, the impact of the film is said to be strong among those who were actively monitoring the curfews. Efforts of this sort that transform the witnessed truth without running away from it help our mind and memory to give new reactions. This helps us establish a new relationship with a past that is stabilized and frozen, and revive a collective memory through our personal awareness.  Furthermore, the use of animation as a tool to bypass political pressure also received interest. A number of people and collectives who were stuck with their fictional or documentary projects due to policies of censors and bans asked the director about how they could use animation as a new medium. Alper says in the future he can organize a workshop on the topic.


Dissemination requires extra effort since short-films in general can hardly find an audience in Turkey. However, there are other obstacles as well. Alper says his movie has been overlooked by people involved in film industry as well, which he claims has to do with the film’s topic.  Kavil: In the Ruins hasn’t been invited to any national film festivals in Turkey, which are quite important venues for promotion and discussion of new films. 

Mounting pressures on dissenting groups after the start of the conflict hasn’t remained limited to censorship. Many directors were charged with lawsuits, some of them being detained and arrested. Video activist Oktay İnce’s 20 years of video archive was seized during a police raid to his home on October 16, 2018. Journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and director Çayan Demirel were each convicted of 4 years and 6 months prison sentence on charges of “terror propaganda” for their production of the documentary “Bakur”. In an environment of such pressure, Kavil: In the Ruins didn’t have the opportunity to freely meet the audience. 

Another difficulty had to do with shooting a political film as animation. In Turkey, people competent in animations typically work in advertising industry. Alper had difficulty in finding support from this sector due to the political nature of his film.