Nuri Bilge Ceylan puts Turkish cinema on the world map with his nuanced explorations of the human condition

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a wonderful coming-of-age film The Wild Pear Tree, which was in a list of best films of 2018. I enjoyed it so much that I looked for other films by its director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and was amazed to discover that he has been Turkey’s most celebrated filmmaker for years and is also highly regarded by cineastes around the world. Over a 10-day period, I worked my way back in time through his other 7 films, ending with his debut effort Kasaba from 1997. It was an extraordinary experience and I felt even more guilty that after all these years of reading about and watching international films, I had never noticed his name. Now of course, when I do an internet search there are all sorts of glowing reviews and insightful articles about this remarkable filmmaker.

Film critics consider Nuri Bilge Ceylan to be one of the world’s leading contemporary humanist filmmakers, in the same league as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Todd Haynes, Asghar Farhadi and Pedro Almodovar, although he does not get the global press coverage that some of them do. He has been crafting slow-burn explorations of the human condition for more than two decades, with each of his last six films nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes (Winter Sleep won in 2014). His last four films have been co-written by his multi-faceted wife Ebru Ceylan, who is also a photographer, actress and art director. Their collaboration began with Climates (2008) in which they were the lead actors and she has also been the art director for three of his films. Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki completes the triumvirate, skillfully using both the beauty of the Turkish countryside and the tedium of its urban jungles to accentuate the moods and experiences of Ceylan’s protagonists.  

Capturing the eddies, swirls and vortices of everyday conversations is what Ceylan and his collaborators do best. Whether intimate or casual, conversations are the building blocks of Ceylan’s narratives; frequently they become verbal fencing matches, as protagonists thrust and parry at each other with words. Often, a character refuses to let go of a point of view or says something that he or she need not have said. As a viewer, it’s like watching an accident take place in slow motion…you can see it coming but feel powerless to stop it!

These discussions, debates and disagreements are what make Ceylan’s films so engrossing. The notion that a movie filled with conversations can be ‘fast moving’ seems counterintuitive, but indeed, the pace of Ceylan’s films never lags even though his recent efforts typically clock in at 150 to 200 minutes.

Ceylan’s films are all male-centric and I wonder if these men are ‘dark echoes’ of himself. In almost every film, his male leads are intelligent, self-centered men who are somewhat aloof and occasionally condescending. But for that matter, all Ceylan’s characters are flawed and this is what makes his films so unpredictable and engaging. There are no good or bad people and so it’s difficult for viewers to ‘take sides’ with any one character. Instead, it’s our own experiences and biases which colour our reactions to (and alignments with) the different characters in different situations.

His first film, Kasaba (1997) feels like a student film, shot in B&W with non-actors, several of them friends or family. Prominently featured are his father, M. Emin Ceylan and his cousin, M. Emin Toprak, both of whom have a natural screen presence. The film is a docu-drama about a typical winter’s day in a remote village. It starts off with some charming slice-of-life scenes at the local school, after which we follow two of the students – a brother and his elder sister – as they explore the nearby woods and culminates in a long third act with the kids and their family around a campfire…the grandfather reminisces (probably for the umpteenth time) about his wartime experiences, mild disagreements break out among family members, women cut vegetables and the kids laze in the grass. There is no plot, but somehow one is just mesmerized watching and listening to this average family pass time on a winter evening.   

Clouds of May (1999) showcases a significant jump in scope and production values. Muzaffer Özdemir plays an independent filmmaker who comes to his hometown to make a film, enlisting the help of his parents and cousin. This is a meta-narrative about the making of Ceylan’s first film Kasaba with some of the same actors – Ceylan’s relatives in real life, who are acting in this film playing the filmmaker’s relatives, who are acting in his film! In one scene, the director’s factory worker cousin, played by Emin Toprak, discusses the possibility of moving to Istanbul to find a better job…which pretty much sets up the plot of Ceylan’s next film Distant, starring the same two actors. I love the cinematography in Clouds of May; Ceylan operated the camera in his first three films and has a natural talent for framing and composition. It’s a fine second effort with some whimsical moments that any audience could relate to.  

I think of Ceylan’s next three films (Distant, Climates and Three Monkeys) as his ‘urban trilogy’, investigating the sense of isolation and alienation that people feel in a big city – never alone, but always lonely. In contrast, the last three (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree) are his ‘rural trilogy’, using the serenity and beauty of the countryside to highlight the inner conflicts and ugliness of human behaviour.

Distant (2002) tells the story of a divorced photographer Mahmut, living in Istanbul who puts up his younger cousin Yusuf, who has come to the city seeking employment. The urbane Mahmut is mildly condescending to the unsophisticated Yusuf, explaining the rules of living in a city apartment, scolding him for not flushing the toilet, smoking in the living room and so on. Both men suffer different forms of isolation – Yusuf struggles to bridge the physical distance from his elderly parents in the village; and Mahmut seeks to fill his existential vacuum with home visits from a prostitute (he asks Yusuf to stay out late that evening) and by watching porn on his VCR after Yusuf has gone to bed. Eventually, Yusuf takes the hint and moves away, leaving Mahmut back to where he started, silently contemplating the wreckage of his life on a bench by the dockside. Tragically, M. Emin Toprak, who played Yusuf, died at the age of 28 in a car accident on his way back from the Ankara Film Festival. He was posthumously awarded Best Actor at Cannes a few months later, along with Muzaffer Özdemir, who played Mahmut.

Climates (2006) introduces a theme which is repeated in subsequent films – a younger wife feeling suffocated by the stuffiness of an older husband, who is caught up in his own (obscure) intellectual pursuits. The woman’s frustration soon mutates into resentment and contempt. Eventually, even well-meaning comments made by the husband are misinterpreted as condescension. The lead actors here are the director himself and his wife. Nuri Ceylan plays Professor Isa, a man who is outwardly sophisticated, but is to varying degrees selfish, uncaring and insincere in his dealings with other people. Ebru Ceylan produces an emotionally devastating performance as his wife Bahar, a woman in her prime who can sense her life going nowhere and is helpless to change her destiny. This is the film which brought Gokhan Tiryaki into the fold as Ceylan’s camera operator. I loved Tiryaki’s photography, especially in the film’s second half using the harsh winter weather in the remote eastern province of Ağrı, as the perfect setting for the denouement of the relationship.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan in Climates (2006)

Three Monkeys (2008) is a psychological thriller and the most conventionally plotted of all Ceylan’s films. A wealthy Istanbul businessman who is running for politics is involved in a hit-and-run crime. He asks his driver to take the fall in return for money, to be paid at the end of the jail sentence (a scenario which I know has played out several times in real life in India). This sets in motion a chain of events with tragic consequences for all concerned.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) represents another big leap in Ceylan’s ambitions as a filmmaker. A larger budget is clearly visible on screen – multi-camera setups, a large cast of characters and a wide range of outdoor locations. The verdant and undulating countryside of the Kırıkkale province in central Turkey is the setting for an intriguing (and sometimes farcical) night-time expedition involving a district prosecutor, a doctor, a group of local policemen and two suspects, as they try to locate the body of a man murdered during a drunken altercation. The suspects have confessed to the crime, but are now struggling to remember the exact location, as the hills, trees and aqueducts all look the same in the dark. This stop-and-start journey through the night becomes a cinematic device for a series of conversations among men of different hierarchies and social standing, covering topics both mundane and metaphysical. A simple scene where the men stop at a village for a late meal, becomes an exposition about bureaucracy, ethics and generational divides. This is as unique a story as one can ever expect to see on film.

Winter Sleep (2014) uses the strikingly beautiful Cappadocian cave dwellings as a backdrop for another exploration into the politics of marriage, echoing the dynamic of Climates. Aydin is a retired actor turned hotel owner, who thinks of himself as an important local personage but is essentially a big fish in a small pond. The film follows him through a series of interactions – with his poor tenants, with his recently widowed sister and with his significantly younger wife. As a viewer, I experienced my sympathies shifting from one to the other and back again as I was witness to class inequalities, unprovoked criticisms, brutal retaliations, condescension, contempt and colossal errors of judgement. This may sound like a very unpleasant way to spend more than three hours watching a movie, but in fact most of it played out in a civilized tone; there are no raised voices or unseemly melodrama. This is the highest order of filmmaking – minimalist acting in a visually stimulating setting – and deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin and Demet Akbağ as his sister Necla in Winter Sleep (2014)

The Wild Pear Tree (2018) is set in the Çanakkale province in Western Turkey, which though geographically close to Istanbul, feels worlds away from the bustling capital. It’s a coming-of-age story of Sinan a young man who has just returned to his home town after graduating from college. He is at a loose end, considering multiple options for employment. He is frequently at odds with his school teacher father and during these exchanges, it’s easy to empathize with Sinan and share his contempt for his father’s eccentricities and gambling addiction. But as the story progresses, it’s Sinan’s own naïveté and callowness that comes through in his interactions with others. He gets into a series of unnecessarily combative conversations with ex-schoolmates, his mother and sister, a couple of Imams and even a local writer, who he approaches to review his manuscript. Eventually, by the end of the three-hour run time, he has completed his military service, some of those rough edges have been worn down and he seems more capable to seeing past his own needs and feelings.

An interesting aspect of Ceylan’s films is that they do not have a background music score. All sounds are ambient, and there are no music cues to manipulate the audience’s emotions.

These synopses probably make Ceylan’s films sound depressing and pessimistic. On the contrary, I found them to be fascinating, thought-provoking and for the most part, filled with natural beauty.

For those interested, the films are all available on Vimeo on demand, and most of them are also on Amazon Prime or iTunes. Amazon also sells a DVD Blu-ray box set containing all 8 of his films, (although the last 4 films are Region B discs).

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