If such a thing may be said with regard to a filmmaker with just three features (and one short) to his name, I came a little late to the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan; my first encounter with the young Turk’s work was at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, at the press screening of Distant (Uzak). I was very impressed by the film, and was later very pleased when it picked up a couple of major prizes, but it was really only some months later, when I was preparing for an interview with Ceylan (an edited transcript of which follows below), that I fully realised what a remarkable filmmaker he is. My appreciation of his achievements was deepened not only by the discovery of his unusually modest working methods, but – more importantly – by my then having had the opportunity to catch up with his first two features, The Small Town (Kasaba) (1998) and Clouds in May (Mayis Sikintisi) (1999). To watch these two films and Distant in the order of their making is not merely to witness a filmmaker developing his already considerable skills and refining his art; since the second and third films reflect back on and develop upon their predecessors in various ways, it is also a question of seeing a kind of organic enlargement occurring from film to film, so that while each film succeeds perfectly well in its own right, they all acquire even greater resonance by being part of an on-going series that is quite simply the step-by-step progress of Ceylan’s career.
The Small Town has a gentle, even meandering narrative, the first half of which focuses on the seemingly inconsequential experiences of a teenage girl and her younger brother as they go to school and play about in the fields and forests around their small Anatolian town; the second half has the children listening in to what becomes a slightly heated discussion between different generations as their family camps out for the night during a harvest festival. Little happens, but Ceylan subtly ensures that we become acutely aware not only of the children’s perceptions of the world around them – the weather, the pace of life, the places where they can feel free – but of the social, economic and historical factors that have shaped this family and its experience of life: most notably the lure of a better, or at least, more profitable and less provincial life in the city.
Clouds in May, set in the same town, centres on a filmmaker (Muzaffer Özdemir) now living in Istanbul who returns to visit his parents and, it transpires, to make a film in which he eventually persuades them to play the leads. Again, not a great deal happens: the filmmaker mopes around, his father worries about his orchard, a cousin (M Emin Toprak) bored with life in the provinces helps out on the movie and asks the filmmaker to try and find him work in Istanbul. But what is so interesting is that the filmmaker’s parents (M Emin and Fatma Ceylan) – besides being Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s own parents – are the same people we saw playing the grandparents in The Small Town; that the cousin also played a dissatisfied youth in the earlier film; and that we now see a recreation of the shooting of the night-picnic scene from that movie. The effect is in some respects not unlike that in Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994) when we see (a fictional recreation of) the filming of a scene from his earlier And Life Goes On… (1991); also reminiscent of the Iranian’s work (most notably The Wind Will Carry Us ) is Ceylan’s less than flattering (self-)portrait of the filmmaker, who quite happily exploits all around him to further his film while barely registering that they too have needs and concerns of their own.
Though Clouds in May boasts a slightly tighter narrative than its predecessor and is shot not in black and white but in colour, it clearly inhabits the same world as The Small Town. On the surface, then, Distant would seem to entail something of a change in tack. Set in a wintry Istanbul (except for its opening shot of a young man – Toprak – crossing snow-covered fields to catch a bus), it charts the growing tensions in the relationship between a clearly disenchanted Istanbul photographer (Özdemir) and the country cousin who’s staying in his apartment while he looks for work on the ships that might enable him to go abroad. Save, then, that the city sophisticate is now a commercial photographer rather than a filmmaker, the film might be seen as to some extent a sequel to Clouds in May – and, indeed, given that the restless cousin is in all instances played by Toprak, to have originated in The Small Town, too. But we are not simply talking linear progression here: precisely because the films cannot quite be reduced to being a series of films that follow on one from another in narratively straightforward fashion, there is a resonance which not only echoes some of the self-reflexive and formal concerns of Kiarostami but which also gives the films a certain universality. Precisely because he could be but isn’t quite playing the same character in every film, Toprak (who was indeed Ceylan’s cousin and who died, tragically, in a car accident shortly after Distant was completed) to some degree takes on a near-archetypal status as a figure representing all those country cousins who were left behind by their peers to get bored at home and who, when they eventually made it to the city, didn’t fit in that well anyway. Likewise with Özdemir (who appears only very briefly in the prologue to The Small Town – as a village idiot!); his characters eloquently evoke the disappointments of all those who had no small talent but who for one reason or another never lived up to their initial promise or fulfilled their dreams, instead – almost without noticing – selling their souls to Mammon.
Ceylan achieves this universality of reference and resonance in several ways. First, in his own unusually quiet, understated way, he does confront the big questions: what are we doing with our lives and why, how does the past influence the present and future, how may we reconcile our needs and ideals with the disappointments of reality, how can our relationships with family and friends survive when the world is changing so quickly and people are forever being encouraged to move on in search of something better than what they already have? In this respect he has rather more in common with the great masters of art-house cinema than with most of his contemporaries. But he also does it by an extreme (and, of course, in many ways deceptive) simplicity of narrative, and by focusing closely on specifics. It is frequently the case that the stories which resound most widely are those firmly rooted in the particularities of a filmmaker’s environment and experience. Ceylan takes this to an extreme, using narratives clearly inspired in part by his own experiences, casting family and friends, using unusually small crews and producing, writing, shooting, directing and editing all his films himself. It’s clear from Ceylan’s films that he knows exactly what he’s talking about, because he has rich personal experience of such people, places and situations (which is rather more than can be said of most filmmakers and their subjects); and since that knowledge is so profound and precise, he’s able to communicate it to us in such a way that we feel we know them too.
Not that Ceylan’s work could adequately be described as in any way “realist”. Agreed, there is an honesty, an authenticity that serves as a wonderfully sturdy foundation for the artifice he creates, but as with Kiarostami’s beguiling blends of “reality” and “fiction”, Ceylan’s methods are essentially poetic. Both his narrative and his visual style might be termed “impressionistic”; he favours ellipsis, discreet metaphor, repetition, rhyme and rhythmic flexibility; and he is acutely alert to place and time, as expressed by the seasons, by changes in sound and light, and to how they affect our moods. But besides Kiarostami there are two other points of comparison I’d like to suggest. Ceylan’s awareness of how the experience of individuals is affected by changes in the world around them recalls the work of Edward Yang; and then there is the humour, so droll, so deliciously deadpan, so inextricably tied up with a view of life as darkly absurd, maybe even tragic, that one can’t but think of Keaton. My advice, if and when you manage to see these films, is twofold. First: try to see them in the order in which they were made. Second: remember that, while they are serious, they are also often very funny, and most definitely meant to be enjoyed.
What follows is an edited and slightly abridged version of an interview conducted in London in October 2003.
Geoff Andrew: How did the idea for Distant come to you?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: (laughs) It’s a mystery, actually. I don’t know, because after I finished my second film, my intention was to make something completely different in the city. But fate… When I looked at the finished script, it was again quite closely related to the second one. Since I like to make films that are quite autobiographical, they turn out quite connected in some way. First, I’d wanted to make a film about the photographer – a melancholy man, who had lost his ideals through a lack of motivation; who has plenty of opportunities to achieve his ideals but doesn’t have the urge to do so. I lived this in quite a problematic way before I started making movies. But then the second, younger guy came into the story; I thought he would help me to show the first character better.
GA: And they could, in a way, be two characters from Clouds in May, the filmmaker and his friend. It could be that now the filmmaker has given up directing for photography, and his friend has come to join him in Istanbul. There’s quite a strong continuity between the films.
NBC: Yes, I think so. But that’s by chance.
GA: And you yourself were born in Istanbul?
NBC: I was born there, but after two years we went to the town, and I was there ’till I was ten. After that, I still had relatives living there, and used to visit them very often, so I know these people very well – both in the country and the city.
GA: The problem between the two guys in Distant is very typical of people who’ve been living in the city a while and of people who are new to the city. Is that the reason for the distance between them, or is it just that as they’ve grown older they’ve grown apart?
NBC: I think it’s mostly because the photographer is leading an intellectual life, along with his friends, and the values of intellectuals are different; their habits change a lot. Most people in Istanbul are not like this; they’re more normal, they’ve come from the country. But intellectuals’ habits are more problematic – especially when they earn money, they don’t need other people. So you don’t want anything from other people, and in return you don’t give anything to people. It’s as if you’ve earned the right not to help others, by having become economically strong enough not to need the help of others.
GA: And one can become very accustomed to being alone, only seeing people when you want to.
NBC: Yes, you control your life much more. And the photographer is angry at the young guy partly because his lover has just left him, which makes him more nervous than usual. But also because he doesn’t like himself. He had strong ideals when he was younger. Then he went into commercial photography, and earned money, so he had all the opportunities to reach his ideals, but he doesn’t have enough belief for that. So he has pain and anxiety, and doesn’t like himself much. So he’s ready to reflect that on to others. I have many friends like that, and I too was in that situation – before I found the cinema. With cinema I was able to create a kind of peace in my soul. It was like therapy; you put all the dark, bad sides of yourself into the films, and so you get rid of them – or at least control them in a better way.
GA: It’s interesting that he’s stopped watching Tarkovsky and started watching pornography! This is something I wanted to talk about, because your film is in many ways poignant and melancholy, but it also, like all your films, has quite a lot of humour: for instance, when the photographer plays Stalker on the video to make his friend go to bed. But also there is the obsession of the father with his land and trees in Clouds in May. Is it important to you to have humour in films that are otherwise quite sad?
NBC: Yes. I don’t make my films in a very analytical way, but I do see humour in even the most tragic situations. I think humour is always the brother of tragedy or sad things; and I think that with humour tragedy becomes more convincing. I like Chekhov very much; maybe he taught me this. If you read Chekhov a lot, you begin to see life through the filter of Chekhov in some way. So it may be his influence, though I think I’ve always found life quite tragic, at the same time as seeing the funny side. Maybe that’s what makes life bearable.
GA: You like using the same actors in your films a lot?
NBC: Actually, my ideal would be to change them. As Bresson says, once an actor plays in a film, he’s not a virgin any more… or something like that. But these stories are connected a little bit, even though I wanted to change that for this film. And I wanted to change the actors this time, but after many tests I chose the same ones again. Actually in the tests the photographer was the worst one, but I selected him anyway!
GA: He is very good and he has such a great face.
NBC: Yes; the test was a dialogue scene, and he’s not very good on dialogue. But in the silent scenes he’s very good, and he’s suitable for the character.
GA: In your films that’s important, as you seem to like telling the story with very few words, with long stretches without dialogue, so that we only discover slowly about things. Do you dislike using words?
NBC: Yes, because in life also, I don’t like… no, I don’t believe in words. In general, people lie, they don’t tell the truth. The truth lies in what’s hidden, in what’s not told. Reality lies in the unspoken part of our lives. If you try to talk about your problems, it’s not that convincing. People try to protect themselves; everybody has something they want to hide. They try to hide their weak side. When they tell you a story, they make themselves the hero of that story. So without words is better, and it allows the spectator to be more active; he should use his own experience in trying to solve…
GA: That’s why I like Kiarostami’s films, or Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness (2002). You have to work a little… But that’s quite difficult for you, surely, in these days when people generally see films where they are told and shown everything. How are your films received in Turkey?
NBC: I think it’s pretty much the same as here; critically, it’s good; otherwise, some people like the films, others don’t. It’s basically the same, thanks to globalisation. Many countries feel the same now, and everyone is under the influence of American films, all over the world.
GA: But now that so many films from Hollywood are really bad, I think people are becoming a little more adventurous, and watching films from all over, and smaller films. Which leads me back to your first film; wasn’t it from a story written by a member of your family?
NBC: My sister wrote the story. Actually, I’ve been very happy to work with my family on these two films, because I always felt guilty about not seeing them enough. In this way we could be together, and we had many happy times. But also, I think they’re good actors. They don’t pay film much mind, you know – if an actor has in his mind the probable success of the film or of himself, it distracts him. But if you pay no mind to such things, it makes you more natural. First, in my short film I started working with my father and mother because I was afraid to work with professionals; I didn’t know what to do, I wanted to try out some things, I wanted to be open and available to people. But when I worked with them, I liked it, and wanted to try it again. And working with amateurs started like that, too, because I didn’t trust in myself; but now I like using amateur actors. Only in Distant, for small roles like the ex-wife, did I use professionals, but I do think using amateurs is better.
GA: In Clouds in May you show a film scene being shot – it’s a sequence from The Small Town, actually – in which a crew member reads out the lines and the actors – the director’s parents – repeat them. That’s a very strange way of filming; did you yourself actually shoot that way?
NBC: Only on my first film. We didn’t have a good quality camera; it was very cheap and sounded like a machine gun, so we had to film that way. And it’s a pity, because amateurs often create very nice words from their own language; but they can’t post-dub, so we had to use professionals for the dubbing, and it wasn’t very good. If you know Turkish, you’ll find there are some problems.
GA: After making The Small Town you decided to change your methods?
NBC: Yes. I decided definitely to shoot a film with sync sound. But nothing else really changed that much. I still like to have a small crew; for The Small Town we were only two people: no sound, just me and a focus-puller. For the second film there were four of us, and for this film five people. It helps a lot, I think; I don’t like having many people around while I’m shooting, and with amateur actors, they feel more relaxed. It’s more intimate. Also, you can take your time.
GA: So do you tend to do many takes?
NBC: (laughs) No – film is very expensive! But generally the first take is the best one. Generally I do at most three takes. Sometimes I do some rehearsals, sometimes not at all. But before shooting, we never rehearse lines or do any readings or things like that. And generally I don’t show the script to the actors.
GA: So they just see the scene when they’re about to do it?
NBC: Yes. I tell them the situation and sometimes tell them what they have to say. But first I want to see what they will give me. If I don’t like it, then I begin to adjust it. I write a script but I don’t show them it. I write for safety, so as not to forget.
GA: But don’t you have to have a script to get money to make the film?
NBC: (laughs) Actually, I never asked for any money from any place – up to now. I’ve funded myself, and all of my films made a profit, fortunately. So I don’t have to finish my scripts, fortunately, if I don’t want – although in this case I did finish it because I feel safer that way. But I still don’t have to obey the script!
GA: Your films suggest that you seem very aware of the seasons, of time. Two of the films start with snow, and there’s a very strong sense of the weather, of the time of day, of a quality of light…
NBC: Yes, I think that’s my way of connecting things to a more cosmic state. We live in the universe, and I think we should be more aware of that reality all the time. At least, that’s my way of making the world more meaningful.
GA: You seem to have a strong feeling for the world of nature: trees, animals, birdsong…
NBC: Yes, but actually in real life I’m not that connected to nature. I can understand that seasons are changing in Istanbul through one thing only – I can see one tree out of my window. One day I see lots of leaves; another day there are no leaves at all. So when I go to the country I like it very much – but after three days it sometimes feels like death.
GA: You sound like Woody Allen!
NBC: I lie under a tree, look at the sky, the birds, the leaves in the wind… Sometimes I feel it’s unbearable: very beautiful but at the same time… oppressive. And city life, the human relations there – it can make you like that. It’s difficult to go to the country from Istanbul, because it’s very big, and there’s no nature nearby…
GA: You’ve shot all your films yourself – why?
NBC: It’s not because I don’t trust anybody, but because I have ideas. I know what I want, so why have one more person in the crew? DoPs like to use lots of lights, lots of equipment. And I can understand things better if I’m looking through the viewfinder. I was a photographer before, so I’m used to it. Maybe one day I’ll try to work with a DoP – sometimes you can miss the acting if there’s a camera movement you’re attending to. But most of the time I used fixed shots, so that’s not really a problem!
GA: Why did you decide to go into filmmaking?
NBC: Because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to do more. I studied electrical engineering, but after university I didn’t want to work as an engineer. I was a photographer too, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So to decide – which is the most difficult thing in life – I started travelling. I thought at that time that I wanted to live in the West, and I came to London. I stayed here six months, and worked as a waiter, things like that. At the same time I was thinking about what to do in life, trying to find an answer, and so every day in my free time I’d go to the bookshops to read about different subjects. I was very lonely and going to the cinema every day, and by that time I knew I didn’t want to live in the West. So one day in a shop I found a book about the Himalayas, and I thought the answer could be there! So I went to Nepal.
But one day, after some months, when I was sitting in a Buddhist temple looking at the mountains, I suddenly missed my country very much. It was maybe a year that I’d been away, and I thought I should do my military service. So I thought: What a brilliant idea! This way I can go back but I don’t have to decide; I can postpone my decision. But military service actually enthused me a lot. I think man needs an authority – freedom is a very difficult thing – so having an obligation was the best thing for me at that time. And whereas in my school I’d been very separated from society (it was a very Westernised education), in military service I met people from all over Turkey, many different kinds of people. And that created in me a kind of love for my people again.
Anyway, I was still reading many books, and I came across Polanski’s autobiography Roman. And it fired me up, this life that started out in the ghetto but changed a great deal, and I began to think: Maybe I could go into filmmaking. So I started reading books about the technical side of cinematography. And that’s how I decided to become a filmmaker. And (laughs) I came back to London, this time to study at film school. But it was very expensive, so I went back to Turkey and studied there for two years instead. But after that it took another ten years to get started – because starting out is the most difficult thing of all. Everything about it seems hard – human relationships, organisations…
GA: And you’re from an artistic family? So many of them seem to be involved in your films.
NBC: Actually, up to a certain age there was no art around me at all, but about four years after I started photography, my sister also started photography. Later she began to write stories. I have difficulty in starting my films and I thought one of her autobiographical stories would make a good starting-point for me: in The Small Town the maize field part, especially, is from her story. And I added other scenes to that.
GA: It’s a very confident film. I love the scene with the boy playing with the tortoise.
NBC: Yes, we were not so kind to it, as they are so easy to catch. One woman was very angry with me about that scene! It’s funny; later I saw Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, and there’s a guy kicks a tortoise on to its back. That’s one of my favourites of his films.
GA: And isn’t there some similarity between Clouds in May and Through the Olive Trees – both have sequences in which the shooting of a scene from an earlier film is recreated?
NBC: And there’s a similarity in the landscape, too, I think. Yes, with Kiarostami’s films I really felt as if I was seeing my country. Iran and Turkey are quite similar in appearance, at least in terms of the people and countryside. But Kiarostami is one of my favourite filmmakers. He gave many new things to the cinema, I think. And he has great compassion for his characters. He makes films not about intellectuals or sophisticates, but about simple people, ordinary people – and he adores them. He’s very special…