Netflix cancels Turkish drama ‘If Only’ in row over gay character

Netflix is embroiled in a row over censorship and LGBT rights in Turkey after cancelling production of a drama that featured a gay character.

In an example of the challenges the streaming service faces as it expands worldwide, Netflix decided to abandon a Turkish production rather than yield to government complaints over its perceived immorality.

Ece Yorenc, a Turkish screenwriter who wrote the script for the planned Netflix series If Only, revealed that her drama was cancelled last week on the eve of filming because the government refused to grant a licence.

“Due to a gay character, permission to film the series was not granted and this is very frightening for the future,” she told the Turkish film news website Altyazi Fasikul.

Netflix on Monday insisted it remained “deeply committed” to the country’s creative community after rumours that it was halting all productions in Turkey, an important growth market and creative hub. The company said it had several original Turkish series in the works, with more to come in future.

The decision to pull If Only is a significant moment for the US streamer, which has championed a diverse slate of shows as it has expanded to almost 200m subscribers around the world, most of whom are outside the US.

Netflix has complied with nine government “takedown orders” since 2015, removing specific titles from its service in Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Germany and New Zealand. Stopping productions is a rare step, but one that might become more common as Netflix develops more local content for non-US markets. 

Mahir Unal, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), acknowledged on Sunday that authorities had raised issues with some Netflix scripts. 

“Must we collectively apologise to Netflix?” he said. “What do they want from us? Do we have to bless everything Netflix makes, find it proper and sanctify it? Is there no subject where we have a right to raise reservations?”

Ilhan Tasci, a member of Turkey’s main opposition party, who sits on the board of the government’s broadcasting regulator, condemned the interference in a private artistic production and accused the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “trying to impose [its] world view on the whole of society”.

“They want all of Turkey, a country of 83m people, to think like them,” he told the Financial Times. 

The dispute comes at a time when human rights campaigners have warned of deteriorating LGBT rights in the country.

Turkey was once seen as a relatively safe haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from nations across the Middle East. But in recent years, gay pride marches that once attracted thousands of participants have been cancelled. Senior officials from Mr Erdogan’s party and from government institutions frequently rail against homosexuality. 

Netflix has been ramping up production in Turkey, where it had 1.5m subscribers at the end of 2019, and If Only was one of three new original series commissioned this year. 

The company’s first original Turkish series, The Protector — a fantasy drama about an Istanbul shopkeeper who discovers he is descended from an ancient secret order charged with guarding the city — was watched by 10m subscribers. 

If Only tells the story of Reyhan, an unhappily married mother of twins, who is suddenly transported back 30 years to the night her husband proposed.

Ms Yorenc said that there were no gay sex scenes, nor even any physical contact, between the gay man and any other characters. 

Confronted with the government’s objections, Netflix executives concluded that they would rather cancel the entire production rather than write out the gay character, according to a person familiar with the row.