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First Indictment of Turkey

In his 2008 film Three Monkeys, Ceylan first ‘threw the stone’ at the Turkish society. It is his first film about a contemporary issue. He clearly points out his vision to make the film:

It’s quite a Turkish subject. Actually, we have many of these types of films with the Turkish background. I wanted to see myself on this type of subject because I actually like Turkish subject method, but I think they should be shot in a different way; that was my idea. And I wanted to test myself in way on such a subject; what comes out if I apply my style to it.”

The outskirts of Istanbul, the poky rundown building right by the railway line where trains pass by making a shrill noise thus preventing any normal conversation from being heard. Ismail, the drifter of downtown Istanbul and renegade son of Ayup and Hacer, spends his days roaming around in train. Hacer, the matriarch of the dysfunctional family, seldom speaks and this silence slowly becomes contagious. The dream sequence in the film of a naked boy as seen by Ismail takes up the space created by this absence of dialogue. Sometimes, the silence is broken by physical violence but Hacer is mostly at the receiving end. Ayup, the driver of a rich politician, finds out that the family he is trying to protect against the corruption of modern Turkey is actually based on falsity, lies and broken promises. Ceylan shows the contrast of the slum and city life. The audacity of accomplishing a guilt-free crime is paid off by perpetuating the same crime, and the corruption goes unnoticed in Turkish society. The Mephistophelian bargaining by Servet, the rich politician of modern Turkey, pushed the entire family into a dark abyss where there is no look back. The film explores the dynamics of a working-class family being totally flung upside down by the misdeeds of upper-class rich urban elite. Ceylan does not shock us with graphic violence. His ultimate aim is to “… make a film about uncontrollable plight of human nature.”

A still from Three Monkeys (2008); Zynofilm, NBC Film, Pyramid Productions

The cold tone of the film and a washed-out feel provide an appropriate visual metaphor of the overall mood. We get a sneak peek into the heart of the characters. Ceylan creates the hypnotic landscape by focusing on little details that are generally lost in the bigger scheme of any such crime films: the cumulonimbus clouds hovering over the building bereft of any sunlight, waves lapping against the coast, characters breathing heavily, dogs barking etc. Even though he shies away from making any explicit political statement, the undercurrent of Three Monkeys picks up the issue of Turkey’s recent political debates around the idea of the Nation-state, which in turn revolve around forgetting, denial, and oblivion of traumatic events and a vicious cycle of violence that repeats itself. The sacrifice of an individual against the destruction of the prevalent status quo, a theme borrowed from Dostoyevsky, is first portrayed by Ayup and, at the end, by Bayram.

Anxiety in Anatolian Steppe

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), which is a deeper look into human suffering, morality, guilt, and alienation, Ceylan goes back to rural Turkey – to stage a murder mystery, but only uses the plot as a red herring and we get to see less blood and action-driven motifs, and more silence. Ceylan subverts the murder mystery into a character study. An entourage of cars, serpentine Anatolian roads, some gentry folk from urban space on their nocturnal picaresque adventure to find a dead body, wind blowing over the highland bushes, and haunting close-up shots of it all, creates an atmosphere which only gets tightened with the filmmaker’s use of long philosophical dialogues. The class divide amongst the searchers is evident in the way they carry themselves throughout the night. The search is going on, and simultaneously, the interiors of the characters come out. All the characters not only look at their interior landscape to compensate for the failed adventure going on in the unknown exterior setting, but they also carry their angst throughout their journey even after reaching the city. The nature of Anatolian steppe sometimes gets overpowered over time, and vice-versa. Ceylan wants us to focus on time as he uses a different method to extend it: the slow-motion of falling leaves, apples rolling down, hair flowing in the wind, etc.

The Anatolian terrain is a foreboding character, its rolling fields illuminated by the sharp piercing car headlights slicing the night, like snippets revealed about each character. Yet, the whole picture remains hidden until the post-mortem of the dead body, the elusive object of the long night. A storm is sensed coming, both literally and figuratively, the expectant howling winds like ghosts of the dead and the memories of the characters across the unforeseeable terrain. The mood is poetic, rhythmically blending with the sounds of the whistling winds, the crunch of icy gravel, pattering of rain, and fluttering of pigeons, all in the emptiness of night. All the characters are under a dark cloud and sometimes remain invisible with the low car light, but at the mayor’s home, where group gathers for drinks and refreshments, some of them start revealing their true selves.

The film comprises of cosmopolitan men totally sunk in their inner angst, unable to vent out their ramblings. But they suddenly get astonished at the pristine beauty of Jemila, the youngest daughter of the mayor who, according to the prosecutor, is condemned to perish in this godforsaken Anatolian steppe despite being the most beautiful . Ceylan remains economical while dealing with philosophical discussions. According to him, “The essence of life is melodramatic, especially in Turkey!” But the way he captures the emotions of village folks leaves no space for any kind of sentimentality.

A still from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011); NBC Film, Production 2006, 1000 Volt

The Liminality of Old Turkey

Having peeled off characters’ layers in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan again returns to his favourite space, Anatolia, in his Winter Sleep, with more vivid and taut themes: bourgeoise angst, lovers’ guilt, relationship falling apart despite the lovers trying hard to maintain it, social differences, etc., that are unique themes in Turkish cinema. He manages to outgrow his obsession with long dialogue, which began in his previous film. He himself acknowledges, “I just write like how the novel writers write; they don’t care how thick it is.” Ceylan’s epic style of filmmaking not only gets defined by the running time of Winter Sleep, but also carnivalesque narratives. Highly influenced by Russian literature, he takes germ of the story line loosely from a Chekov story, ‘The Wife’. He owes much to Chekov –

This story was written for Turkey actually because humans are same everywhere.”

Aydin, a representative of old Turkey with crumbling aristocracy, looks after a tourist place that he inherited from his father. Finding refuge from the megacity, he devotes his time to writing a book on the history of Turkish theatre. He dabbles in art and intense intellectual discussions with his sister Necia. He marries a rather astonishingly beautiful woman, Nihal, much younger than him. But she soon grows impatient with the Aydin’s eccentricities. The contrast of modern and old Turkey is visible. Nihal takes the initiative to bridge the gap between the ruler and the ruled, but the gap has gotten too wide for any chance of reconciliation. But in this utopian world, the first literal stone is hurled at Aydin by the young child of the tenant without any warning and the peace is destroyed. The gulf between Aydin and Nihal grows wider and wider as they suffer from guilt. Aydin also plays the role of a landlord and unabashedly his aide gets rough with the tenants if they fail to pay rent. So, all the pontifications he does on morality, Shakespeare, and religion is just a facade in modern Turkish society. In order to keep the literariness of the film, Ceylan uses symbols, dialogues, and sequences of the scenes in such a way that creates a breathing space within the film. In this space, we get to see the truth of the film. Ceylan deftly interweaves his auteur style and the socio-political themes peppered throughout his films:

We make these kinds of problems. But these are always important for me and my own films all the time. So, I’m also cruel to myself as well. I can find enough motivation only if I make movies about human and of course you can reflect to the social matters as well. My motivation is trying to understand dark side of human soul and that means human nature as well.

A still from Winter Sleep (2014); NBC Film, Memento Films Production, Bredok Filmproduction

The filmmaker uses the landscape to create a contrast within. The beautiful tourist spot of Cappadocia, steppes of Anatolia, snow drenched highlands, empty railway tracks, all create a mood of anguish, guilt, and redemption. The compelling harsh exterior landscape contrasts with the near claustrophobic interior scene. The magnificent topography of the locale is able to lull the sense of any wanderlust, but Aydin falls asleep, unable to wake himself from his conflated ego.

Patrimony Around the Pear Tree

The follow up to Winter Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree (2018) is another long narrative dealing with a youth embracing manhood. Set in a provincial town, Sinan, an aspiring writer brimming with potential, traverses his entire locality and meets different kinds of people from different strata in society. Ultimately, he becomes like the people around him, something he hated throughout his life. Sinan is one of those Ceylan characters who . . .

Migrate from the small town to the big city or return to their rural roots . . . but whenever they may happen to do so, wherever they chance to find themselves, they are dissatisfied, disenchanted, disillusioned, dislocated, and desirous of only being where they are not.” (The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Global Vision of a Turkish Filmmaker; Diken, Giloch and Hammond, 2018)

The central theme of the film is the father-son relationship between Sinan and Idris. Ceylan points out the crux of the relationship -

“Whether we like it not, we can’t help but inherit certain definite feature from our fathers, like a certain number of their weakness, their habits, their mannerisms and much, much more.”

A son who tries to cut off the umbilical cord from both the unknown province and the infamous father, must face the same fate as his father. The dread of being forgotten, like Hatice, gives Sinan nightmare. He hides himself in the mythological ‘Trojan Horse’. Sinan struggles to surmount the dilemma posed by a gambling father who failed to embody the paternal functions, similar to the shame which the son felt upon seeing his father’s public humiliation in Bicycle Thieves. Ceylan portrays the reality of the youth who must choose oblivion in the struggle against a one-dimensional life. Being a first generation aspiring to accrue cultural capital by publishing the book “Ahlat Agaci”, he must abandon his lingering dream to take up a job. He knows the liminality, the entrenchment of living in a small city. He is a romantic who takes up with a local novelist, one who doesn’t share the same approach towards literature. The long conversation between Sinan and two imams, regarding faith and religion, foregrounds Turkey’s fraught consciousness about civilisation. Sinan, being malcontent, knocks at every door of confusion. He is the incarnation of modern Turkey that must make their voices heard. The old order is changing and Sinan, trying to keep himself sane amidst the chaos, loses the road and the curve of his life gets stuck at the well, which his father has been trying to dig against the wishes of the villagers. Emil Ciaran, in his Anathemas and Admirations, whose photograph is seen on the cupboard in Sinan’s room, once said about the struggles of life -

“The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live - moreover, the only one.” (Anathemas and Admirations)

A still from The Wild Pear Tree (2018); Zynofilm, Memento Films Production, Detailfilm

The landscapes captured in the film are sensuous, more liveable, and expresses the mood of both the story and the character. The Tarkovskian dream sequence gets heightened by the exterior landscape. Even in the most private moments of Sinan and Hatice, Ceylan wants us to focus on the falling leaves and fluttering branches. Nature and the character get mixed up. It’s the location of the film, where the context picks up the mise en scene. The use of landscape is visible through the symbols, signifying Sinan’s famished dream, be it ants eating up a toddler or Idris lying against the backdrop of a dead wild pear tree.

On being asked about whether his films are more European than Turkish, Ceylan elaborates his stand:

“It’s a mixture of everything. We are under the weight of huge history.”

Ceylan is aware of this burden of history and the county he is portraying on screen. In his films, he shows the Turkish landscape without any foreign gaze; it is a humanistic approach to portray the landscape faithfully. He is not on a mission to familiarise us with the unknown Turkish landscape, rather he mixes them with evocativeness, metaphor, and symbols, and it perfectly becomes his signature style. Being an auteur, Ceylan’s way of using landscape certainly has become his own quintessential style, second only to Antonioni and Abbas Kiarostami. Ceylan himself accepted that:

“Cinema is changing. Turkish cinema is also changing; of course, when I started making movies I was more alien in Turkish cinema.”

Ceylan’s cinema with his global vision and the Turkish landscape deftly meets the national expectation of Turkey. His film would lose their essence if they were shot in any other country following the same European style. He remains true to its landscape, portraying the characters with much sympathy and humanistic values . In the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, while accepting the Best Director award for Three Monkeys, Ceylan dedicated the award to “lonely and beautiful country Turkey which I love passionately”. The two words “lonely” and “beautiful” succinctly apply to the side of Turkey which he projects in the films.

According to Bulent Diken, Graeme Gilloch and Craig Hammond (The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Global Vision of a Turkish Filmmaker) the filmmaker depicts “an exhaustive capturing, an encyclopaedic cataloguing of ways of seeing”. The way characters look at each other in his films brings out the inner tension, irreplaceable guilt, coherent ironies and gentle restlessness, simmering discord always under the tip of iceberg but never shown explicitly. From the outset, Ceylan has been resisting the age-old western interpretation of looking Turkey through stereotypical images: smoky hammam rooms, whirling dervishes and blue mosque, etc. But in doing so, he also brought himself to the loggerheads of the present political dispensation of Turkey even though his politics in films is always implicit.

Ceylan let the camera show the gentle flows of Turkish countryside while the hurly-burlies keep disrupting the larger socio-political lives of present Turkey. Like Tarkovsky (a filmmaker whom he idolises), his obsession with the question of the nationality, which side of Turkey truly should be represented and what is the fate of young Turks in modern world, remains the focal point of his films . Many Cassandras critique and pass off his films as typical slow ‘European arthouse films’ devoid of any Turkishness. But he gives the answer to this accusation through Sinan in The Wild Pear Tree.

In Mirror, we get to hear the recitation of a letter (written by Pushkin to Chadayev) by young Ignat where Andrey Tarkovsky goes to the telos of the Russian identity and what is truly means to be Russian in a Christian Europe. Ceylan, a lonely boatman in the Bosphorus strait, instead of heading to Europe, anchors his boat in Turkey. He places Sinan inside the horse of the Troy and when the local construction manager advises him to write about his native Canakkale (a place famous for first World War cemetery) for tourism advertisement, Sinan says “Westerners are interested in it for a reason”. Sinan, the mouthpiece of the director, searches for the “authentic voice of Canakkale”. But in this search, his novel becomes “quirky auto fiction meta novel”. Multiple narratives take a headlong and merge together but finally no one reads ‘Ahlat Agaci’ , the book, except his father.

A still from The Wild Pear Tree (2018); Zynofilm, Memento Films Production, Detailfilm

The pear tree becomes a symbol of Turkey. It is the most personal film by the filmmaker, which more than anything else is a deep, forlorn contemplation on what it truly means to be at home or a child of Turkey.


Ceylan’s Landscape - Part 2

After three films based on autobiographical elements, Ceylan ventured into a zone which was more of a homecoming for him. The issues and themes which he deals with post his 2006 film “Climates”, are more contemporary, relevant, and Turkish in nature. Ceylan is ironic, juggling between implied pessimism and sanguine temperament.

Feb 2, 2022
Shekhar Sarkar

About the Author


Shekhar Sarkar

Shekhar Sarkar's hobbies are watching films, reading, and collecting books. Sometimes, he thinks of making films. He lives in Cooch Behar. He loves the Torsa.

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