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Al Jazeera Film Festival To Screen RFE/RL Correspondent's Documentary

RFE/RL correspondent Zafer Karatay sits with the subject of his documentary, Crimean Tatar novelist and poet Cengiz Dagci.
RFE/RL correspondent Zafer Karatay sits with the subject of his documentary, Crimean Tatar novelist and poet Cengiz Dagci.
A documentary movie produced by RFE/RL correspondent Zafer Karatay will compete this weekend at the eighth annual Al-Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha.

The film, “Cengiz Dagci,” explores the life of renowned Crimean Tatar novelist and poet Cengiz Dagci. Born in Crimea in 1910, Dagci grew up in a Tatar community that faced persecution and discrimination from both the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. Drafted to fight for the Soviet Union in World War II, Dagci was captured and placed in a German labor camp. After the war, he settled in Great Britain. Though he never returned to his homeland, he told Karatay, "There has been no day, no morning and no evening when I didn't remember my Crimea."

WATCH: The film trailer for Zafer Karatay's "Cengiz Dagci"

Karatay’s movie is a landmark portrayal of the culture and life of Crimean Tatars, a relatively small ethnic group estimated to number around 1.5 million people worldwide. The Tatars are descendants of Mongol invaders who swept across Eurasia in the 13th century. Predominantly Muslim, Crimean Tatars lived in their own state, the Crimean Khanate, which became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire in 1475, and was notorious among Slavic Russians for its participation in the slave trade.

Following Russian annexation in the late eighteenth century, the Crimean Tatars became an endangered minority; in the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Tatars were deported, starved or killed in Slavic colonization and Soviet collectivization programs. In 1944, the bulk of the Crimean Tatar community was deported to Siberia and Central Asia for its alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany, despite the fact that many Tatars had fought loyally alongside other Soviet troops during the war. Up through the 1980s, Crimean Tatars were prevented from returning to their homeland.

Dagci’s works focused on the struggle of the Crimean Tatar community between 1932 and 1945. Widely read all over Turkey -- a major center of the Tatar diaspora -- his books are understood by many to be the glue holding Crimean Tatar culture together. One of his more famous poems reads, in part:

Since the day that they
lost their independence,
there wasn't any day
passed without
chopping the branches
of this tree, but
again new branches
came out of its body.

Karatay filmed his documentary during Dagci’s lifetime, before the poet passed away in September 2011. The 59-minute movie brings back Dagci’s memories of growing up under the regime of Josef Stalin and also his testimony of the misery and wretchedness of life in Nazi labor camps. The film first premiered in April 2011, but Karatay emphasizes that, at that time, the movie was not quite finished. He explains that the documentary actually was not complete until Dagci’s funeral -- “a wedding with his much beloved homeland” -- which saw the poet’s body returned to a gravesite in Gruzuf, Crimea after 72 years of homesickness. His burial fulfilled a wish captured at the very end of the movie: "Gurzuf wait for me, I will come back."

Dagci himself did not see the April premiere, five months before his passing, because he was already very ill. Karatay recalls that in 2009, Dagci watched some scenes that were shot in Crimea and it was very emotional for him. “He suddenly saw his village, his home, the coast of Black Sea and even an interview with his sister Ayshe, who he hasn’t seen since 1939. He was very excited and cried,” Karatay says.

Karatay, who hosts a weekly radio show on Radio Azatliq, RFE/RL’s Tatar-language service, has worked with RFE/RL for more than 20 years. From his base in Ankara, Turkey, he frequently covers issues relevant to the Crimean Tatar diaspora living in Turkey, Romania and the United States.

After Karatay’s movie premiered last year, it was screened in movie theatres all over Turkey, where Dagci is considered a national hero, and on Turkish national television. Viewers agree that the movie, now available on YouTube, connects with the emotional experience of Crimean Tatars.

Together with the popularity of the documentary, the demand for Dagci’s books has increased as well. Karatay himself has already been invited to give multiple lectures about the movie at conferences, universities and even municipalities. He recently traveled to Doha with producer Nese Sarisoy Karatay and editor Cantekin Cantez to prepare the weekend screening of “Cengiz Dagci.”

Al-Jazeera’s film festival, staged annually since 2005, screens movies from all around the world and aims to encourage intercultural understanding and tolerance through shared experience. This year, nearly seven hundred movies were submitted for review, of which 168 made it to the finals. Karatay’s ‘Cengiz Dagci’ will be screened at 1 pm at the Doha Sheraton, on Saturday, April 21.

-- Kristyna Dzmuranova