Debate is underway in Turkey’s film community over similarities between the award-winning 2019 Turkish feature “Passed by Censor” and Elvira Lind’s “The Letter Room,” which is nominated for the Best Live Action Short Oscar. Both films revolve around similar lead characters: prison guards tasked with scanning inmates’ mail for objectionable content. Now the Turkish filmmaking team has lawyered up and wants to negotiate with their American counterparts.
Financed by Topic, the streaming service owned by First Look Media, “The Letter Room” stars Lind’s husband Oscar Isaac and Alia Shawkat. After debuting at Hollyshorts in November 2020, it appeared on the Oscars shortlist in February; several more distribution deals followed.
On April 11, a column by film critic Vecdi Sayar of the Turkish newspaper BirGün cited the similarities between “Passed by Censor” and “The Letter Room” as the latest example of a Turkish film that hasn’t gotten its due for influencing other productions. Prominent Turkish paper Cumhuriyet also took up the charge, as did Posta critic Kerem Akça, who derided “The Letter Room” as a cheap copy of “Passed by Censor.”
Amerikan sinemasının kopyalama ezberi sınır tanımıyor! #Oscar2021'de En İyi Kısa Film dalına aday olan #TheLetterRoom, Serhat Karaaslan'ın 2019 tarihli ilk uzun metrajı Görülmüştür'ün bayat bir kopyası. Isaac'in Richard'ı, Ateş'in Zakir'inin ruhsuz bir kara komedi temsili gibi. pic.twitter.com/671MKkeNCL
— Kerem Akça (@kerem_akca) March 24, 2021
“Passed by Censor” director Serhat Karaaslan and his production partners offered this statement to IndieWire: ”We found out about this situation through the social media posts and film critics. We’re considering our legal options with our co-producers in Turkey/90 Film Production, Germany/Departures Film and France/Silex Films as we were also in the process of discussing an English version of ‘Passed by Censor’. We did not have any financial bargaining attempts. Here’s what our lawyer told them: Beyond a reasonable doubt, this is not just an issue about the breach of moral rights; it is also damaging financial rights of the movie.”
“Passed by Censor” stars Berkay Ates as Zakir, a prison censor and aspiring writer tasked with reading inmates’ letters and blacking out objectionable passages. The sensitive Zakir finds himself inspired and straying further and further from his job description when he becomes obsessed with an inmate’s wife via her letters to her husband.
Karaaslan developed the film in several labs, including Cannes Cinéfondation in 2015. During a 2016 Film Independent lab in the US, he shot a scene from the film in English. It premiered in 2019 at Karlovy Vary, where Karaaslan won an award from Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean.
When IndieWire reached out to Lind for comment, a Topic representative offered this statement: “‘The Letter Room’ is an independently conceived original work. No one involved with ‘The Letter Room’ had seen this film, nor were they aware of it, until Turkish lawyers asked for financial compensation.”
“The Letter Room” is the first narrative short for Lind, who is best known for directing the documentary “Bobbi Jene.” It won three jury awards at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, including best documentary feature, and was acquired by Oscilloscope.
In “The Letter Room,” all letters going in and out of a death-row facility go through Richard (Isaac). Though the warden makes clear he’s not meant to read the letters in full, Richard finds himself immersed in the lyrical love letters written to one inmate from his girlfriend on the outside, Rosita (Shawkat).
Karaaslan said he got the idea for “Passed by Censor” after receiving censored correspondence from a relative who was a political prisoner in Turkey.
“Afterwards, I felt as if I were being monitored by someone every time I wrote letters and that maybe this led me to practice self-censorship, a thought that disturbed me,” he wrote in a Cannes Cinéfondation statement of intent. “Because of this, I developed a strong curiosity about the people who read all those letters.”
Lind shot “The Letter Room” in 2019. In a December 2020 profile published on Free the Work, an online database of underrepresented creators that was launched by fellow filmmaker Alma Har’el, Lind said she was inspired by an episode of an unnamed podcast.
“It told the story of different men who were all unknowingly writing love letters to the same woman. She started to ask for money and help with rent, but the letters she wrote were so wonderful and all these men were very in love with her. These very lonely men felt like magic had entered their lives. They all eventually found out that the woman was actually a man writing to different people trying to get their money. They were all heartbroken, but one of the men said that the worst part was losing these letters and that the fantasy was gone,” Lind said.