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Legend of the Croisette: The Slow, Pure Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan



Nuri Bilge Ceylan likes to take his time. The Turkish director is one of the greatest living practitioners of slow cinema. The filmmaking ethos — pioneered by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky and taken up by the likes of Theo Angelopoulos, Albert Serra, Béla Tarr, Kelly Reichardt and Lav Diaz — eschews the rapid editing and relentless nonstop forward-driving plots of the Hollywood blockbuster (looking at you Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) for a more contemplative, metaphysical approach.

The characters in a Ceylon movie don’t do much. There’s little action or traditional suspense, and the storylines are fairly basic. In the 2002’s Distant, a rural factory worker visits his cousin in Istanbul. Homicide police unearth the body of a murder victim and take a long drive back to the city for the autopsy in 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. An old actor, his wife and his sister sit around in a hotel talking in Ceylon’s 2014’s Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep.

The filmmaker’s visual aesthetic — mainly wide shots, with long takes and minimal camera movement (Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu is a major influence) — forces viewers to slow down and focus on subtle movements or turns of phrase that reveal details of character and place. His films don’t go broad, they go deep, exploring the big questions — the nature of existence, the meaning of life — by putting the audience in a contemplative state of mind, where they stop thinking about where the story is going and reflect. on what the world actually is.

“I always feel that there is a huge gap between real life and the reality we meet in cinema,” says Ceylan, in an interview with The News84Media ahead of the Cannes premiere of his new film About Dry Grasses (which clocks in at a brisk 3 hours 17 minutes). “My cinema hopes to be kind of a voyage which tries to investigate these differences.”

Instead of trying to excite or distract an audience, Ceylan will often embrace boredom as an
artistic strategy.

“The films that bore me most at the beginning have become the most important films of my life,” he says. “The biggest decisions of our lives generally come right after the biggest boredoms. Boredom has the potential to put the people in the right mental state to be able to sense the hardest truths. As [German-Jewish philosopher] Walter Benjamin said: ‘If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’”

In a society that feels like it is rushing to bring about its own demise — with social media and digital technology decimating attention spans and fostering a culture of instant gratification and rapid dopamine hits — the movies of Ceylan can feel literally out of time, the cinematic equivalent of slow food.

The 64-year-old director is among the most acclaimed and praised filmmakers to have walked up the red carpet steps of Cannes. About Dry Grasses marks his seventh time in Cannes competition, eight if you include his 1993 short film debut, Cocoon — and he rarely goes home empty-handed. Distant won the Grand Prix for best actor honors for the two leads, Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak; Climates (2006) took the FIPRESCI international critics award; 2008’s Three Monkeys won Cannes’ best director honor; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia earned him his second Grand Prix; and Winter Sleep the Palme d’Or.

Winter Sleep

But, appropriately, Ceylan took his own sweet time getting here.

He was in his mid-30s before he picked up a film camera, and 36 when he made his first short.

“I spent at least 10 years without doing anything after university, thinking about what to do for a living,” Ceylan told an audience at BFI Southbank in London in 2009. “When you’re young, you’re braver, and it’s better. to make mistakes.”

Born in Istanbul in 1959, Ceylan studied chemical and electrical engineering but never practiced the trade. “When I graduated as an engineer, I realized it’s not for me,” he says. “I started traveling
the world to understand what I really want. After spending some time in the West and hiking in the Himalayas in the East, I returned to Turkey and went to compulsory military service. That was the place that really made me decide to go into the cinema. I was so alone in that period and read tons of books. Mostly Russian literature. That made me try blending literature with artistic imagery. Actually, when I first read [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] Crime and Punishment at the age of 19, I felt my life would not be the same afterwards.”

Ceylan has said he has a “Russian soul,” and his reflective, often mournful, narrative style owes much to Russian literary masters, particularly Anton Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Winter Sleep is an adaptation of Chekhov’s short story The Wife.

But, initially, in Ceylan’s films, literary inspiration did not translate into talky scripts.

“I didn’t feel confident, at the beginning, writing dialogue scenes,” he says. “In my first feature [1997’s The Small Town], the dialogue scenes were a disaster. When I first watched it with an audience at the Berlin Film Festival, I just wanted to disappear. After that, my entire career has become a kind of struggle to solve the dialogue problem. Your weak sides shape your destiny in a way. Your cinema, your style and even your personality as a human. All my life was perhaps spent desperately working hard on my deficiencies.”

It seems to have worked.

Ceylan’s recent films — Winter Sleep and About Dry Grasses in particular — are almost excessively chatty, with long arguments and philosophical discourses, even if Ceylan tends to use language not to discuss the matter at hand and leave meaning in the moments in between the words.

“Dialogue, for me, only works if they talk nonsense, anything unrelated to the film,” he said on the BFI stage. “I try to tell the meaning of the film without dialogue — with the situation, the gestures and so on. … During a shoot, I end up taking dialogue out here, and finally, there’s no dialogue.”

Ceylan took his second film, Clouds of May, a quietly comic tale of a filmmaker who returns to his hometown and struggles to make his movie, to Berlin in 1999, this time in competition. But his
International breakthrough would come three years later in Cannes when Distant premiered in competition. The film contains one of the most emblematic scenes in the director’s canon. Laid-off factory worker Yusuf arrives in Istanbul from the countryside to live with his older relative Mahmut Özdemir, a once-promising photographer who is now forced into boring commercial hack work.

On one of the first nights they spend together, Mahmut, perhaps trying to engage with his cousin, or perhaps trying to show off his artistic credentials puts in a VHS copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Yusuf soon gets bored and goes to bed. Soon after, Mahmut switches tapes and starts watching porn. When Yusuf bumbles back into the front room, Mahmut scrambles to switch off the filth and return to Tarkovsky. All the elements that would become known as the Ceylan style — the contrast between Turkey’s rural and urban societies, the focus on family relationships, the nuanced character development and subtle use of humor, even the references to slow cinema pioneer Tarkovsky — are all there, in a single, unbroken shot.

When Distant screened in Cannes, it was hailed as the arrival of a major new voice in cinema. But for Ceylan, the moment was bittersweet. Toprak, Ceylan’s real-life cousin, played Yusuf and, like his character, he was a factory worker from rural Anatolia. He used the money he earned from the film to buy a second hand car and, after Distant‘s world premiere at the Ankara film festival, was driving home when he died in a crash. His Cannes best actor honor was posthumous. Ceylan was hardly responsible for his death, but it cast a shadow over his success. “I feel so bad, so guilty,” the director said in 2004.

Guilt and personal pain are also at the center of Ceylan’s second Cannes competition film, 2006’s Climates, an icy dissection of the disintegrating relationship between a middle-aged couple, Isa and Bahar, played by Ceylan himself and his real-life wife (and regular co-writer), Ebru Ceylan. In his more recent films, the director has expanded the scope of his stories, occasionally slipping, subtly of course, into more genre territory. Three Monkeys from 2008 is a psychological drama with a neo-noir plot involving a smarmy politician who, after he accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian, tries to get his chauffeur to take the fall for the crime. The arrangement tears the driver’s family apart, but when the driver’s son takes revenge, murdering the politician, the chauffeur tries to find another patsy to take.
responsibility and the cycle of guilt continues.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ostensibly a police procedural. Homicide detectives and a medical examiner, with the aid of two prisoners, search for the body of a murder victim in the Anatolian countryside. They find the dead man, file the report and perform an autopsy. Not much else happens, but over the course of the slow-burning drama, the audience’s empathy shifts as the confessed murderer becomes more and more sympathetic and the investigators appear increasingly morally corrupt.

There are no crimes — or at least nothing illegal — in Winter Sleep, but the film, about a former actor and would-be public intellectual who now runs an Anatolian hotel, is an insightful study of the misuse of power. It also looks at how Turkey’s supposed elite have abdicated their moral responsibility to their fellow countryman. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) sees himself as an artist and benefactor, when in fact, he is an exploitative landlord who gets others to do his dirty work. A small act of violence will shatter the façade, and his life comes crashing down to earth.

Presenting Winter Sleep With the 2014 Palme d’Or, Cannes jury president Jane Campion called the film “honest,” “relentless” and “mesmerizing.” As with all his films since Climates, the script was co-written by his wife. “The tears in my wife’s eyes when the [Palme d’Or] was announced is my favorite moment from Cannes,” says Ceylan.

In his 2018 Cannes entry, The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan used the prickly, unattractive but hardy and omnipresent plant from the mountains of Turkey as a symbol for his main character: An unpublished writer undergoing a political and spiritual crisis who, unable to find work in the city, returns home to his family and the village where he grew up, which he still despises. “If I were a dictator, I’d drop a fucking atomic bomb on this place,” he snarls.

There’s some implied social criticism here, but Ceylan discourages reading his films as a direct comment on the political conditions in his country.

“Although my films are rooted in some political and social realities of Turkey to some extent, I hope they rather try to explore themes of existentialism, alienation and the human condition to create a sense of introspection and philosophical inquiry,” he said.

Cannes - In Competition - KURU OTLAR USTUNE

‘About Dry Grasses’

Cannes Film Festival

Pure cinema, in other words.

It’s what is promised in About Dry Grasses, the filmmaker’s latest Palme d’Or contender. The story — being a Ceylan film, one needs to use the word loosely — follows a young art teacher sent to serve his compulsory social service in a remote village.

“It is loosely based on the notes and diaries of our co-scriptwriter, Akin Aksu, that he wrote during his compulsory social service in the east of Turkey,” says Ceylan. “At first, it didn’t interest me that
much, but there were some clues to the astonishing qualities of human nature here and there
the text. With time I realized I am unable to forget this text somehow, and I began to think that
we could widen and enrich those details through the scriptwriting process.”

Initial boredom gave way to fascination, resulting in a film that’s part love triangle, part ethics lesson and part critique of the Turkish education system. It’s unlikely to please everyone — Ceylan’s films rarely do — but if history is any guide, it could find favor with the Cannes jury and help further spread the church of Ceylan’s slow, pure cinema.

“Cannes is still the strongest castle of the art of cinema,” says Ceylan. “My films start here and
travel all over the world. [Cannes] has helped my films leak into souls and find a place in some of them

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