ANKARA, Turkey — Shortly after telling his parents he was gay, Ahmet Yildiz was gunned down inside his car by his father in Istanbul. It was Turkey's first officially recognized gay "honor killing."
An award-winning film partly inspired by Yildiz's story, which opened in dozens of cinemas across Turkey last week, is putting the spotlight on gays in a Muslim country that is seeking European Union membership but remains influenced by conservative and religious values.
The film "Zenne Dancer" — or male belly dancer — is not the nation's first gay-themed movie but is the first to explore the little-known phenomenon of men killed by family members for being gay. So-called honor killings in Turkey usually target women accused of disgracing the family.
"Our main aim was to convey Ahmet's story, but by doing so we also wanted to expose the pressure the (gay and lesbian community) faces from their family, the society and the state," said Mehmet Binay, who co-directed and produced the film with his partner, Caner Alper.
"Zenne Dancer" won four awards at Turkey's coveted Antalya Golden Orange film festival this year, including best First Film and Best Cinematography. Erkan Avci, who plays Yildiz's character, won Best Supporting Actor. The movie was also recently chosen a Best Film by an association of Turkish film critics.
Yildiz, a physics student at Istanbul's Marmara University, was shot dead on July 15, 2008 after he went out for an ice cream break while studying at home for his final exams.
An arrest warrant has been issued for his father, Yahya Yildiz, who has been charged in absentia for the murder. The father, who has been on the run for three years, is believed to be in hiding in northern Iraq.
Yildiz, who was a close friend of Binay and Alper, came from the conservative, mostly-Kurdish Sanliurfa province, where homosexuality is taboo and where officials have been struggling to stem the practice of honor killings of women. Women there have been killed for flirting or having a boyfriend without the family's consent.
Gay honor killings are believed to be common in Turkey's conservative heartland. But Yildiz's murder was the first in Turkey to be reported by authorities as a gay honor killing.
Binay said Yildiz's family suspected his homosexuality but believed he could be treated by imams and were pressuring him to return to Sanliurfa.
"He was killed shortly after he told them he would not be cured, would not return and that he was considering leaving for Germany where he might marry (his boyfriend)," he said.
In "Zenne Dancer," Yildiz's life is intertwined with the stories of two other male characters — a flamboyant Zenne dancer named Can and a bisexual German photographer, Daniel.
A stranger to Turkey's conservative traditions, Daniel encourages Yildiz to come out to his parents, insisting honesty was the best way to deal with his family.
"You don't understand," Yildiz responds in one scene: "Honesty would kill me."
Binay said he and Alper were filming a documentary on male belly dancers when Yildiz was killed. Shocked by the murder, they put the documentary on hold and decided to create a feature film that blends the story of the Zenne dancers with Yildiz's tragedy.
Turkish attitudes toward gay and lesbians are more relaxed compared to the 1980s and 1990s when police routinely raided gay bars, detained transvestites and banned gay festivals. Gay sex is not considered a crime in the country, and some bars and clubs in major cities openly cater to gays.
But a majority of gays still choose to hide their lifestyle in a country where liberal views have yet to make inroads in rural areas and many urban settings.
Last year, a former government minister described homosexuality as a biological disorder that needs to be treated, while municipalities have some leeway to introduce laws safeguarding "morality," which gay activists view as a potential threat to their freedom.
Some gays openly acknowledge their sexual orientation, including poet Murathan Mungan and the late singer Zeki Muren. Zenne dancing itself harks back to the Ottoman Empire, a time when there was a degree of tolerance toward gay sex among some sectors of the elite.
Hebun LGTB, a gay and lesbian group based in the conservative city Diyarbakir that neighbors Sanliurfa, described the film as an opportunity to break ingrained attitudes toward gays in traditional areas.
"There was a piece of us in each of the characters," said a group member, Arif, who declined to give his surname because his family does not know about his sexual orientation. "I am in the same situation as Ahmet Yildiz: If I was honest, I would be killed by my family."
"If out of all the people who watch it, just 10 are able to change their attitudes, then the filmmakers should be happy," he said.
Despite one article in a pro-Islamic newspaper that branded "Zenne Dancer" a "film for perverts," Binay says he and Alper have not received any threats or hate mail, and that some 35,000 people have seen the movie in its first week.
Gulsah Simsek, a 23-year old student, watched "Zenne Dancer" in Ankara.
"Some of the swearing and some of the scenes shocked me," she said. "But there must be so many people like (Yildiz) and it's good that the pain they suffer is being told."
Binay and Alper have been same-sex partners for 14 years and openly came out as a couple during one of the film's early screenings. They regularly attend showings where they hold discussions on attitudes toward homosexuality.
The film is showing in 50 cinemas in 16 out of Turkey's 81 provinces, including conservative Diyarbakir.
"The (positive) response we got in Istanbul wasn't much different to the response we got in Diyarbakir," Binay said. "We are encouraged by the attitudes in (traditional) regions."