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Racy university film project divides Turkey

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The film was meant to push the limits of university freedom.
But when three academics were fired, the film department at Istanbul’s Bilgi University was closed and possible criminal charges were leveled, what began as a student

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The film was meant to push the limits of university freedom.

But when three academics were fired, the film department at Istanbul’s Bilgi University was closed and possible criminal charges were leveled, what began as a student’s dissertation became headline news.

The crime? Approving a student’s “porn project.”

The incident has struck a chord in a society with profound divisions between a secular-orientated elite and religious conservatives who still adhere to strict codes of social morality.

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Film student Deniz Ozgun pitched the idea of the pornographic film, saying only that it was meant to show that there “are also professional productions which simulate the look of an amateur, individual and/or homemade movies.”

His professors were less than enthusiastic, approving the thesis but advising him to strengthen his intellectual argument. When the film was completed it included footage of two people having sex, but his argument doesn’t seem to have been greatly reworked — Ozgun failed the class.

The story might have ended there had the Turkish magazine Tempo not covered the incident in an expose six months later. Other media outlets picked up the piece and the phone calls started raining in from parents wanting to know what went on behind closed doors at Bilgi University, one of the country’s most prestigious private schools.

Their reaction was quick and severe. The founder of the visual design department, Ihsan Derman, and lecturers Ali Peksen and Ahmet Atif Akin, were deemed responsible and fired, and criminal complaints were filed under an anti-obscenity law that can carry prison time.

Ozgun, along with the former student who starred in his film, have gone into hiding.

His blog gives clues to Ozgun’s diverse influences and interests, prominently displaying images of him photographing scantily clad women in erotic positions, a sight not unfamiliar in the world of high fashion. His influences seem to range from popular Diesel ads and fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh to Terry Richardson, whose soft-porn aesthetic put smut back on the agenda of the fashion industry.

Ozgun explains in his biography on the site that, “making the women he photographs love themselves in turn makes him love photography.”

Provocation has long been a part of both art and fashion, and the argument over where to draw the line has grown heated long before the Bilgi incident. Mix in a debate on academic freedoms though, and it becomes a volatile cocktail.

While some side with Bilgi, a mixture of students, columnists and academics have come together to protest the university’s reaction, calling it “draconian” and a “violation of student rights.”

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“Academic freedom is not the freedom to drink coffee in your office,” said mathematician Ali Nesin at a protest earlier this month, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet. “It is [being able to] swim in dangerous waters.”

Protesters have hit the streets outside the university, demanding that the three academics be reinstated and that “an unbiased committee” investigate the situation. Graduates and former staff of the visual design program have used the web as their platform of protest, launching a signature campaign against the sackings that has more than 2,500 names.

Several columnists have tossed the word “hypocritical” into their barrage of protests, pointing out that the school’s founder, Oguz Ozerden, owned a company that operated a variety of call-in telephone lines — including those offering phone sex.

Istanbul is a city where pockets of conservative Islam coexist, at times uneasily, with liberal and occasionally permissive lifestyles. From the clubs to the art museums, Istanbul pushes the limits as far as any European city. But, come Friday, it’s the mosques that are spilling out onto the streets.

While the paradox of these often opposing ways of life is part of what makes Istanbul unique, when they come into conflict the result can be explosive.

Last September, the presence of alcohol on the streets of an art opening in Istanbul’s Tophane neighborhood led local toughs to attack with pepper gas, broken bottles and frozen oranges. Windows were smashed and dozens were injured.

A month later authorities put a Turkish publisher on trial for publishing a classic erotic novel by Guilliame Apollinaire, a French writer. Irfan Sanci, the publisher, was prosecuted under the same anti-obscenity law that might be used against the Bilgi academics.

Turkey has previously been censured by the European Court for Human Rights after it convicted another publisher, Rahmi Akdas, for publishing “obscene or immoral material liable to arouse and exploit sexual desire among the population.” On this occasion, the offense was another translation of a different Apollinaire novel called “Les Onze Milles Verges” (The Eleven Thousand Rods).

(The novel, which tells the story of a depraved Romanian aristocrat and his sexual adventures, was banned in France until 1970.)

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How to reconcile such divergent values is a battle that Turkey was always going to have to fight. But Ozge Genc, head of the Religion, State and Society project at Tesev, an Istanbul-based think tank, said that, despite the bumps in the road, as Turkey’s exposure to outside influences grows in line with its prosperity, it is moving on a trajectory to greater tolerance.

“The growing wealth and exposure of Turkey’s middle classes to global opportunities will not bring conservatism but rather more openness and exposure to liberal ideas and to the world,” she said.