Imrali narrated by Maxine Peake

On the eve of the release of the short film and documentary “Imrali” narrated by Maxine Peake, The Freedom for Ocalan campaign had the opportunity to speak with one of the filmmakers, Jon Spaull about his experiences making this important film.

Jon Spaull was invited to produce the film together with the writer and long-time international election observer John Hunt.

Jon has been a filmmaker and photographer for 20 years his work has appeared in film, television, international film festivals and the web. He’s worked in 50 countries with NGOs, trade unions and TV channels in Ghana and South Africa as well as Community TV in the UK. His photography has also appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Times.

Imrali international peace delegation 2019

The film follows the international peace delegation which included Ögmundur JónassonManuel CortesBeverly KeenePaul ScholeyMaxine PeakeTony BurkeConnor HayesJohn Hunt and Jon Spaull as they travelled through Turkey and Kurdistan with the intent of visiting Abdullah Öcalan to try to break his isolation.

The documentary takes its name from Imrali prison island, where Mr Öcalan is imprisoned in extreme isolation, in conditions regarded as torture under the international standards set by the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’ for the ethical treatment of prisoners.

Inspired by Kurdish democratic values

I asked Jon what had motivated him to join the delegation and he explained that two things spoke to his politics; the repression of the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere across the region which after the visit he realised was much deeper than he’d imagined and also their democratic values and the democratic socialist values of the Kurds where they had had a chance to run a region.

“What’s been happening in Syria and in Rojava, seeing this revolution that’s happened and how the Kurdish movement in Syria has been running an area where they’ve fought back against Isis. The Kurdish forces had repelled Isis in Syria and not only that had introduced these democratic structures that involve gender equality and those are two things that really impressed me.”

Jon Spaull

Turkeys war against its Kurdish population

Given the complexity of the issues, I wanted to know how they set about planning the film and Jon explained to me that the goal was always to tell the story of Öcalan and also the general repression of the Kurds in Turkey. Given their time constraints and the enormity of what they sought to document, the filmmakers had to use a mixture of new footage and some from the archives.

An example of this is the documentaries section on Diyarbakır where they only had half a day in the area of Sur, which was the epicentre of a curfew zone and violent reprisal from the Turkish state in March of 2016. A UNESCO recognized site the walled city of Sur has been half destroyed by the Turkish military. President Erdogan went so far as to encourage local security forces to act ‘outside the law’ in the crackdown and some have linked the reprisals in the region with the Kurdish forces military success against Daesh in Northern Syria.

Beyond Imrali, more stories to tell

The filmmakers hoped to be able to spend more time filming the level of destruction in Sur and talking to more people as to what actually happened there, talk to more of the politicians, meet some of the relatives of people who’ve been disappeared and the politicians, teachers, academics etcetera who found themselves in prison.

Jon also spoke of the Saturday Mothers in Istanbul who are featured in the film and his wish to spend more time with them.

“These are the women who’ve been holding vigils and trying to find out what happened to their loved ones who disappeared in the 1990s.

I’d like to spend more time with them as from the film you can see that they used to have these peaceful vigils in the centre of Istanbul and they’ve been prevented from doing that from the last of August onwards. These vigils have been banned and yet they’re for events that happened in the 90s.

You wouldn’t have thought that Erdogan would be worried about these vigils so why are they now stopping them having them in the centre of Istanbul? It really shows how much there are these connections between the authorities back in the 90s and what’s happening now so it’s all linked with the repression of today.”

Jon Spaull

The police state next door

The delegation was followed by several carloads of undercover police wherever they went and Jon explained to me that everyone they met was waiting for a knock at the door and to be taken away to a Turkish prison they may never leave. He described his shock at the clear evidence of secret police monitoring wherever they went and the feeling that this was akin to Nazi Germany. I asked Jon what he hoped to happen as a result of people seeing the documentary Imrali.

“This video hopefully will make people want to take more action, to put more pressure on their MPs and on the Labour Party and this government. Hopefully, if there’s more pressure on them they will start to do something and put more pressure on the Turkish government. Erdogan is not operating in a vacuum he still wants good relations with the European Union and with Britain”

Jon Spaull

Watch the Imrali documentary