Saving Private Ceylan

SPARE-ribbed, close-cropped, tight-lipped, with stubble-chin gauntness, the sort who shuns crowds, he is a man you will pass by without a second look, as you smile warmly at the sweet wife beside him. But if you do catch his eye, you will feel the magnetism of a deep, leashed energy.

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan makes films like you paint, sculpt or write, with the control, precision and inflexibility of a private mission. He scripts, produces, directs, edits, handles sets and camera, with family and friends as actors. Just three films and a short, but his work is his own. (Shades of Theo Angelopoulos? "I prefer Tarkovsky, he moves his camera a lot more'').

Ceylan has admitted allegiance to Anton Chekhov, and Russian's broken chord echoes in his "Koza" (1995), "Kasaba" (1998, Caligari Prize, Berlin) and "Clouds of May" (1991, 18 international awards). This year "Uzak" (Distant) won the Grand Prix and Best Actor (jointly for Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Toprak), Cannes; Best Film, Best Director, Fipresci Awards, Istanbul International Film Festival, 2003; Best Film, Cinefan Festival of Asian Cinema, New Delhi 2003. Fipresci, the international federation of critics, has also awarded the Grand Prix to "Uzak" for "Best Film of the Year".

At the Cinefan screening, Ceylan's introduction to his film was cryptic. "My film is slow. Hope you are not sleepy." Definitely an art house film, its pace is torturous for those bred on Terminators, Matrixes and Crouching Tigers. Ceylan's earlier film "Clouds of May" had a poignant-genial humour. City man, Muzaffer, returns to small town Anatolia to make a video film with family and friends. The father is frantic about his legal battle to save his tract from being confiscated by the State, and denuded of trees. Failing college entrance exams, cousin Saffet gives up a lucky break of a factory job to help in the filming. Little nephew Ali wanders around with an egg in his pocket, which he must keep unbroken for 40 days to get the promised reward: a musical watch. The women have their own anxieties, alien to Muzaffer's film making.

Rarely have we empathised with innocence and folly as in this study of three generations of dreaming. The older characters are concerned with the larger good, while the younger are preoccupied with themselves. "Uzak" is bleaker, employs no musical score for emotional guidance, or cushioning. At one point, a bit of Mozart has a shock value. Orchestrated sounds heighten urban alienation — unbreakable and total. The squeaking mouse trapped in glue is the central motif ("Too obvious," Ceylan concedes) around which burgeon a whole nexus of oblique images. Despite the tortoise tempo, they demand acute attention. Seasonal landscapes and are linked to human inscapes. Falling snow and tossing waves become characters in their own right. No pathetic fallacy here, nature remains impervious to human crises.

Hick cousin Yusuf arrives from arid village to wealthy photographer Mahmut's city home, convinced that, as cabin boy on board, he will be paid in dollars to see the world. "Once you travel across the world, everything looks the same," grouches Mahmut, forced to welcome a clansman. How he hates the intrusion as he picks up shoes, clears the mess, switches off lights after his cousin, eavesdrops on his calls, and bans smoking indoors! Mahmut had once been an artist with ideals, now atrophied in couch-potatohood. No feminine comfort — sex is supplied by silent prostitutes, his mother is terminally ill, his ex-wife migrates to Canada with her husband. The most moving shots are when she is framed up-close; looking at Mahmut whose back is partially onscreen. The sparse dialogue flames when she says, "It's really hard when you don't have much to leave behind." You know they love each other — unbridgably. He lurks behind pillars to see her checking in at the airport; she almost, but not quite, glimpses him before walking away forever.

Mahmut is unable to connect with anyone; his disgust is palpable at Yusuf's glee over some toy soldier bursting into fusillades. Yusuf is forced to pretend he is on the brink of employment, hanging out all day at pubs and streets, trying in vain to make contact with the pretty girl who takes his eye. One day, he disappears as unexpectedly as he came, leaving a spotless house behind. Mahmut is back to total vacuum, sitting on the sea front, smoking impassively.

Saving Private Ceylan

Ceylan's cinematography is as taciturn as his protagonist. It takes in visual expanses in sombre, almost monochrome shades, with scrupulous care for sudden details in what could have been a totally silent movie.The lighting fascinates - it also makes visible things going on within minds. Does the limited viewership bother him? "Have to accept reality. Can't change my approach, I'm not that kind of person... Not a film for everyone, I know. I made it instinctively. I tried to hasten the pace in editing. But the pace of my soul is very slow, maybe..." He pauses to add, "If you are slow, perhaps you can show something you can't, otherwise. A part of reality is hidden in the slowness of life."

Ceylan drew from personal experience for the character who is bereft of motivations to live up to his ideals. You interpose that Mahmut's friends had criticised his loss of ideals at the dinner table. "Too direct," Ceylan says. "Maybe you're right. Yes, like the image of the trapped mouse. There I wanted to show how the city guy who can't do any dirty work says let's call the janitor to take it away in the morning. The village guy says we can't have it squeaking all night, and kills it before junking the corpse to the alley cats. More compassionate."

But Ceylan does not blame Mahmut. By tradition, Mahmut has to welcome his relatives; he forces himself to do the right thing, but is hampered by his success and urbanisation. "I know this feeling very well — mind and body are at loggerheads. The body rejects what the mind says." You wonder: Is this the problem of Turkey? Wanting to identify with Europe but unable to abjure Asia?

"Uzak" is a story about Turkey today, where the intellectuals find that their relationship with the world, and with their own souls, is distant. No philosophy can give answers. Says Ceylan, "Many turn to religion. My own beliefs are not strong enough to find answers anywhere."

That is how filmmaking became therapy, not a way of teaching, but a way of learning about life, people, reality, getting out of the ivory tower. "I feel good when I confess, do something problematic through my films," says the man who believes that honest conversation begins when the tape recorder is switched off; and finds eavesdropping on strangers at the next table more interesting than watching a film.

Attendants stacking chairs now invade the empty seminar hall, where he has been talking quietly, almost to himself. All shadow play to Ceylan, who recalls how he had visited India 20 years ago, gone trekking in Nepal, stopped at the Everest base camp, stayed in cheap hotels, skipped meals, ate an apple a day, came to Delhi with an empty pocket, sold his camera to return home by train through Pakistan and Iran, all skin and bones. "I'm staying in luxury now, but that was an adventure. I learnt what it is to be hungry, tired, sick, stranded, lonely, everything! Maybe someday...''

Does he have to say more?

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