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Nuri Bilge Ceylan: An Introduction and Interview

Author(s): Rob White


Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 64-72
Published by: University of California Press
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64 WI NTER 2011
NURI BILGE CEYLAN:
AN INTRODUCTION AND INTERVIEW
ROB WHITE TALKS WITH THE TURKISH DIRECTOR
OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Nuri Bilge Ceylan was born in 1959 in Istanbul and grew up
in the town of Yenice in the far west of Turkey. (A biographi-
cal summary can be found at www.nuribilgeceylan.com.)
Having graduated in electrical engineering prior to military
service, he studied lm only in his thirties. Koza (Cocoon,
1995) was selected for the Cannes Film Festival competition,
the rst Turkish short ever to achieve this distinction. Ceylan
has been acclaimed at Cannes ever since: Distant (2002)
won the Grand Prix in 2002 (and many prizes at other fes-
tivals too), Climates (2006) the FIPRESCI prize, and Three
Monkeys (2008) the Best Director award. In his brief accep-
tance speech in 2008, Ceylan said (in English): I would like
to dedicate the prize to my lonelyand beautifulcountry,
which I love passionately. This year he won the Grand Prix
again for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
DISTANT
After two features about provincial life, Kasaba (The Small
Town, 1997, black-and-white) and Clouds of May (1999),
Distant begins with cocks crowing at dawn as, in a long shot,
a man trudges through snow. Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak),
who wants to nd work on a ship, is on his way to Istanbul to
stay in (and mess up) the apartmentstudio belonging to his
fastidious cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer zdemir), a commer-
cial photographer with artistic ambitions. By contrast with
the expansive depiction of the outset of Yusufs journey the
rst shot of Mahmut is a gloomy close-up prole. A woman
in a red jacket undresses on a bed across the room but she is
out of focus in the background, and when Mahmut gets up
to join her the entire image is blurred. Such play with scale,
focus, and minimal depth of eld recurs in Ceylans lms:
a brief scene in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in which
the protagonist revives himself at the baths is initially all a
blur: to exhausted eyes the environment looks indistinct
the observers incapacity or unhappiness distances the world.
Mahmut is stuck in ruefulness, to quote Anthony Lane
(The New Yorker, March 22, 2004); his life has gone wrong.
Interviewed by Geoff Andrew in 2003, Ceylan calls the char-
acter a melancholy man, who had lost his ideals through a
lack of motivation; who has plenty of opportunities to achieve
his ideals but doesnt have the urge to do so (www.sensesof-
cinema.com/2004/feature-articles/nuri_bilge_ceylan/). The
Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2, pps 6472, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic, ISSN 1533-8630. 2011 by the Regents of the University of California.
All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Presss
Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2011.65.2.64
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
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FI L M QUARTERLY 65
director frequently acknowledges Chekhovs stories, and
apathetic Mahmut resembles the rather more loquacious
Alyokhin in About Love, of whom it is said that he is like
a squirrel in a cage, showing no interest in ... anything that
could have made his life more agreeable (translated by
Ronald Wilks; Penguin, 2002, 94).
The photographers predicament is encapsulated in
a much-discussed scene in which he watches the trolley
sequence from Tarkovskys Stalker (1979). Yusuf dozes, pre-
sumably unused to Tarkovsky. When he goes to bed Mahmut
puts on a porn tape which he watches indifferently. Writing
about this scene in the fall 2011 Paris Review, Geoff Dyer
remarks that it is probably the most deadpan sequence I
have ever seen (Into the Zone, 1389), and he has a point.
Ceylans account of Mahmuts alienation here, given in a
2009 interview with Geoff Andrew, is more downbeat: in an
earlier scene, the photographer has a discussion with friends,
and one friend criticises him for losing his ideals and they
blame him. So when he gets home, he tries to create a bond,
to nd his ideals again. Thats why he watches Tarkovsky. And
he thinks that maybe he can regain his re and enthusiasm.
He doesnt mind the other guy at all, but as a side-effect the
cousin is bored of course. So when the other guy leaves to go to
bed, the situation changes and something triggers in him and
he loses his enthusiasm again and he shifts to porn because
its easier. And he wants to get rid of the violence inside him-
self. Thats why he switches to porn (www.guardian.co.uk/
lm/2009/feb/06/nuri-bilge-ceylan-interview-transcript). The
only discernible trace of this burgeoning aggression, however,
is Mahmuts evident disaffection, the obvious fact that he is
so little engaged by his viewing choicesor anything else for
that matter, unless it is his obsessive tidying or perhaps the
related low-key power game that develops with Yusuf after the
visitor overstays his welcome.
The pain which aficts Ceylans characters seems to
be basically inexpressible. The out-of-focus woman in red
appears again later, sitting dejectedly in the bathroom, and
the image epitomizes a pervasive sadness which is perhaps
best understood in terms of an idea of emptiness. Asuman
Suner in New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity and
Memory (I. B. Tauris, 2010) quotes Gilles Deleuzes idea of
characters suffering from their absence from themselves
before considering Yusuf, who nds no job and instead spends
much of his time shambolically and a little menacingly trying
to pick up women: Now there is no longer another place to
go to. His dream has already been realized, without giving
him what he had expected. He is emptied now, deprived not
only of a fullling life, but also of the anticipation of it (96).
This self-absence is intense in Distants penultimate scene,
a variation on the earlier Tarkovsky-watching. Mahmut is
In the shadows
Distant. NBC Ajans. DVD: Articial Eye (U.K.).
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66 WI NTER 2011
in front of the TV but there is nothing on. The white-noise
icker is as devoid of content as the lost look in his glazed
eyes and the sound made by wind chimes just outside.
Ceylan holds on his numb face and then cuts to a delirious
shot of the TV with a standing lamp next to it. Breathing and
nondiegetic drone sounds build to to a high-pitched whine
as, in slow motion, the lamp falls. It is a highly stylized shot
in a movie that mostly tends toward minimalism, but what is
achieved by the artfulness is an erasure. Mahmuts late-night
torpor of consciousness is a condition of negation, vacancy;
such altered mental states, somewhere between wakefulness
and oblivion, in which personality dwindles to a shadow,
haunt Ceylans lms.
CLIMATES AND THREE MONKEYS
The director has expressed reservations about the truism
that his country is a crossroads nation, mediating between
Europe and Asia, especially when the idea is promoted as a
positive aspect of Turkish intellectual life. Gnul Dnmez-
Colin in Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging
(Reaktion Books, 2008) quotes a 2004 newspaper interview
in which Ceylan dismisses this supposed mediator role as a
consolation prize, preferring instead an identication with
artists of the underdeveloped world: Imperialism has suc-
ceeded in making the underdeveloped countries feel slightly
ashamed of their culture. The inuence is more obtrusive
on the third world intellectuals who have better possibilities
to communicate with the West. Those who assimilate the
point of view of the other see their own customs and tradi-
tions as extremities created by ignorance. This remark sheds
light on the malaise that aficts Mahmut in Distant as well
as on the discontentedness and frustration of Isa, the male
protagonist of Climates, an architecture professor with an
unnished dissertation. Dnmez-Colin claims that Distant
was the rst Turkish lm to skeptically portray an uncommit-
ted breed of neoliberal intellectuals that felt autonomous
[yet] in practical life gave all their creativity to the service of
capitalism (200).
Mahmuts carefully organized solitude may be debilitat-
ing but it at least protects him from the painful intimacies
examined in Climates and Three Monkeys. The spouses in
Climates, Isa and Bahar, are engrossingly played by the direc-
tor himself and his wife Ebru Ceylan respectively. (Writing
in the November 2006 Artforum, the only precedent the
late Robin Wood could think of was the casting of Claude
Chabrol and Stphane Audran in Chabrols segment of
the 1965 New Wave portmanteau lm, Six in Paris.) Their
ctional marriage is falling apart. Near the beginning an
extreme close-up shows Isa kissing his wife and saying I love
you before playfully scooping sand over her body while she
laughs gently. After an out-of-focus image of him the mood
of the sequence changes: he covers her face with sand and
she cries out, waking from her daydreams mix of romantic
yearning and burial fear. Other sequences also involve a
fusion of love and brutality, including a notorious sex scene
between Isa and a friend in which they struggle and writhe
clumsily on the oor. Isa hopes that a violence can be got
rid of by another violence, explains Ceylan in the Articial
Eye DVD interview, but it brings the character no solace.
Later Isa and Bahar have spaced-out breakup sex. More unfo-
cused shots and close-ups combine to produce an effect of
dismemberment: temporarily reunited, the spouses faces are
fragmented into shards.
The point of view of the female partner, her feel-
ings and her dilemmas, are felt through her silences
(16667), writes Dnmez-Colin aptly about Climates in
Turkish Cinema, and this statement accords with some-
thing Ceylan says in the 2004 interview with Geoff Andrew:
The truth lies in whats hidden, in whats not told. Reality
lies in the unspoken part of our lives. If you try to talk
about your problems, its 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. In Three Monkeys (the title refers to the
Confucian idea of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil),
Ceylan develops this premise by shifting narrative focus and
viewpoint between characters. The lm begins with a man
taking the fall for a hit-and-run death in return for payment
by Servet (Ercan Kesal), an Istanbul politician. While the
man languishes in prison his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) vis-
its the politician and the two of them become interested
in each other during an encounter that starts in his ofce
and proceeds in his car. The narrative focus then moves
to Hacers son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat ungar) who returns
home unexpectedly to discover his mother and Servet in
bed together. The adulterous couple is, however, not vis-
ible (and nor do the partners see their observer): all we see
is a shot of Ismails eye framed by a keyhole, followed by
his indignant and then quietly furious reaction. (Asuman
Suner discusses Ceylans representation of an absent eld
of vision as an allegory of historical denial in A Lonely
and Beautiful Country: Reecting on the state of oblivion
in Turkey through Nuri Bilge Ceylans Three Monkeys,
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, March 2011.)
Hacer is moved to the edge of the story, partly blocked
off in favor of Ismail. It is the young man who subsequently
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FI L M QUARTERLY 67
endures the vision that shows us the anguish at the familys
core. He is slumped feverishly on his bed. Wind blows the
curtains while a door creaks open. There is a little glissando
of chimes and then in the bright doorway a small blurred
gure steps forward like an alien emerging from the hatch of
a spaceship. The gure comes nearer. The whispered word
brother is heard and we see Ismails sweaty face contorting
in distress. He turns into his pillow and then looks back and
a reverse shot shows a goblin-like little boy with water run-
ning off his bruised-looking face. The apparition of Ismails
dead sibling is the phantom inside the young mans silence
and rage. Whereas the lamp-falling scene in Distant sug-
gests the strange emptiness of a depleted or ruined mental
space, the half-dream in Three Monkeys evokes particular
psychic content; it discloses a traumatic primal scene rather
than the blankness of alienation. But the two sequences
converge in depicting characters distressed remove from
the world: their inaccessibility, their locked-away hurt.
According to Ceylan in the New Wave Films DVD edition
of Three Monkeys: The characters in the lm live in pain.
In vain, they are looking to protect themselves, and to hide
the truth, to buy into their own lies. His characters are bur-
dened and isolated: I wanted to give the impression that
they were alone in the world, something which is unmis-
takably conveyed in a desolate late shot in which we see the
damaged family sitting together, each person in the same
bedeviled, downcast posture of the woman in Mahmuts
bathroom.
Altered states
Left: Climates. 2006 CO Production, NBC Film, Pyramide Productions. DVD: Articial Eye (U.K.).
Right: Three Monkeys. 2008 Zeyno Film, NBC Film, Pyramide Productions, BIM Distribuzione. DVD: New Wave Films (U.K.).
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68 WI NTER 2011
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Ceylan is also a photographer. He achieves a painterly effect
by printing his work using archival pigment ink on cotton rag
paper. The most recent series, viewable on his website, is For
My Father (200608) and perhaps even more so than his lms,
these portraits show the inuence of Bergman and Tarkovsky.
Close-ups of an inscrutable face such as Sleepless Night
(2008) are in the vein of Persona (1966), while the image of
Emin Ceylan (who also has roles in Cocoon, The Small Town,
Clouds of May, and Climates) standing by a meager river in a
barren gray-brown landscape in Before the Rain (2006) could
easily be taken from Stalker. Even when they show automo-
biles, motorbikes, and electrically powered trams, Ceylans
photographs often depict a wasteland world that seems far
from modernity. Indeed one of the most modern elements of
the Turkey Cinemascope series (200309) is the widescreen
format itself (the aspect ratio varies, increasing to as much
as 3.5: 1). The bleakness borders on post-apocalyptic in the
sepia-toned Dog Crossing the Road (2005): in front of distant
snowy mountains framed by rickety power lines, the animal
(which again evokes Stalker) seems a creature all alone.
When we see another dog outside a ramshackle garage in
the prologue to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the impres-
sion of despoliation is somewhat less pronounced: a man who
in the next scene will prove to be a murder suspect feeds the
canine, but as thunder is heard in the darkness there is none-
theless an ominous and anachronistic atmosphere. The long
lm that follows takes place in a region remote from any city,
an old and windswept land. The urban travails of characters
like Mahmut and Isa are left behind and the narrative struc-
ture is different from its predecessors: after the prologue the
rest of the action is conned to one night and the following
day. Although the aesthetic is recognizably Ceylans own, the
modernist lm language of the faces-in-fragments sequence in
Climates is less conspicuous and the temporally compressed
story of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia relies much more than
the previous three lms do on long scenes of dialogue.
There are nearly eighty minutes of night at the start of
the lm as a group of public ofcials escort two prisoners in
search of their victims shallow grave. The main characters
are the reserved and intelligent Doctor Cemal (Muhammet
Uzuner), the condent and slightly vain Prosecutor Nusret
(Taner Birsel) who likes to be compared to Clark Gable, and
the volatile Police Chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdoan) who does
not disguise his contempt for the principal suspect, haggard-
faced Kenan (Firat Tani). It is a protracted, frustrating quest.
In the darkness Kenan cannot get his bearings and the site
is only found when morning comes. While the suspects
ineffectively search hillsides illuminated by headlights, the
ofcials have time to converse. The doctor discusses the
district with Arab (Ahmet Mmtaz Taylan), a policeman
who comes from the locality but dislikes it. Ceylan here
uses a technique familiar from the automobile conversation
between the politician and Hacer in Three Monkeys: words
are heard but the character to whom they apparently belong
has stopped speaking. It is a disassociating, isolating device.
When Arab describesor thinks aloud aboutthe lawless-
ness of the territory, his face is so severe and withdrawn it is
hard to integrate it with the rest of the scene. His expression is
not a sociable one. It is like we have momentarily been taken
to some other time or place of his solitude even though his
words are still being addressed to the doctor. As Arab winds
up, we cut to a shot of the back of the doctors head and hear
his weary, resigned words: Its raining on Igdebeli. Let it. Its
been raining for centuries, what difference does it make?
Well, as the poet said, Still the years will pass and not a trace
will remain of me. Darkness and cold will enfold my weary
soul. The effect is uncanny, but we learn something about
the characters somber frame of mind.
Three other encounters are signicant. First there is a con-
versation between the doctor and the prosecutor in which the
latter recounts an anecdotea story he will return toabout
the wife of a friend who said shed die on a specic date ve
months later after the birth of her child, and did, though the
doctor rejects the other mans supernatural explanation.
The second incident occurs after the doctor goes to the
despondent Kenan and offers him a cigarette. The police
chief intervenes: Hang on, doctor, dont give it to him.
Then he addresses Kenan: What do you want with that ciga-
rette, huh? The doctor tries to answer for the prisoner, but
the chief cuts him off again: If you want a cigarette, rst you
have to earn it. Nothing comes for free anymore. To cap it all
he belittles the medic: Doctor, you dont know these guys.
Theyre such bastards theyd rob you blind, the assholes. Hes
seen youre a pigeon. Hes plotting now as we speak. (When
the doctor sits in the car next to Kenan afterwards, the suspect
whispers thanks to him.)
The prosecutor
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
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FI L M QUARTERLY 69
The third event takes place in the village where the
group has a meal. Drinks are served by a beautiful teenager.
The sight of her reduces Kenan to quiet sobs, and triggers
Once Upon a Time in Anatolias half-dream: with a look of
perplexity he sees in an hallucination the man he has killed.
After the corpse is stowed away in a cars trunk at the end of
an often comic scene, the men return to town. Outside the
courthouse, the dead mans son, standing with his dauntingly
impassive mother, throws a stone at Kenan. Later the police
chief tells the doctor that this event made the suspect weep
because (Kenan claimed) the boy is in fact his own son.
It becomes clear that this is above all the doctors story.
The long night has taken its toll and he is pensive when he
looks at old photos of himself and his ex-wife. He goes to the
baths and then, lmed in a high-angle shot, strolls around
town to the sound of birdsong. He speaks to some neighbors
about the murder before Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
culminates with the dead mans autopsy. At the climax the
physician chooses not to record a crucial piece of informa-
tion about the condition of the corpse and, after a moments
hesitation, the technician defers to his authority. This deci-
sive assertion of moral autonomy is the act of a protagonist
ultimately unlike Mahmut or Isa. The line of reasoning that
has brought him to this point is obscure; whatever its exact
cause, in that little provincial room of death there is a strange
and sudden moment of change like a lightning ash in the
cold, rainy world that burdens Doctor Cemals mind.
The interview was conducted on October 17 during the
London Film Festival (October 1227). Thanks to Lizzie
Frith and Sue Porter for arranging the interview, and to Bora
Balci for expert interpreting.
::
Rob White: You have said of the characters in Three Monkeys that they
live in pain. Is this the theme of your lms?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: [Laughs] I dont know. It changes, of
course, though some subjects were always important for
me. There are primary themes but also I can go sideways
sometimes as well. But in each lm Im wondering about the
human, whats happening inside humanswhat is the mean-
ing of life. Things like that. Of course these are big questions
and maybe they never have answers. But Im working around
these big questions. Above all my lms are about the inner
world of people.
I wonder if an idea of suffering and isolation can make sense of several dif-
ferent cinematic techniques that you use repeatedly. There are, rst, shots in which
there is almost no depth of eldonly a gure in the foreground is in focus.
Yes, its one of the ways of showing the isolation of the
subject. Technically speaking, in order to achieve this with
a digital camera you need a camera with a large chip [or
sensor] size. The depth of eld is directly dependent on the
physical size of the chip. Actually on my last two movies, I
used smaller-chip-size cameras, which were all that avail-
able. But with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia the chip size
of the camera, a Sony F35, was equivalent to 35mm lm
and so such techniques are easier. To increase the effect,
you can also adjust the aperture of the lens: generally we use
the widest possible aperture in order to increase this effect.
Cinematographers like such a camera because it can get rid
of the video effect. Most amateur video cameras have an
innite amount of depth of eld (because of the very small
chip sizes). So this effect is a way of getting as close as possi-
ble to 35mm using a digital camera. But, yes, its a technique
that emphasizes isolation.
Second: what about moments when speech is heard but the person on
screen is no longer seen to be speaking?
I wanted the audience to be unsure about whether the
characters is thinking or speaking. This allows me to indicate
the inner psychology of the character by showing something
else in the face of the character than what is being said. Its
a way of economizing in my lms. But generally in the next
shot its clear whether this is thought or actual speech. I feel
that this method allows the audience to understand several
things at the same time, especially if there is a contradiction
between a characters expression or thought and whats said.
So youre told two things at the same time. And I believe the
audience is educated enough to understand such methods.
Cinema has the liberty to use such methods and I trust the
audience.
Third: the delirious half-dreams in all your recent lms.
In dreams at rst you never think youre in a dream. You
think that its real. I want the audience to have the same sen-
sation: to think that its happening in real life and then, at
the end of the dream, to understand. In that way I think its
more effective. But also I see life like this; it happens to me
a lot when Im awake. I think this type of dream, which is
mixed with real life, is more horrifying. So I dont like to sepa-
Arab
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
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70 WI NTER 2011
rate dreams from life. I want to make them more connected
because dreams are part of the reality.
I like to show the things that we hide, and that has to
involve anguish or stress. These dreams are the kinds of
dreams that we even hide from ourselves. They represent
the characters subconscious (which makes them very help-
ful to me as a storytelling device). Generally there is a guilty
conscience behind it. In Three Monkeys, I wanted to show
that Ismail was there when his brother drowned in the sea.
The boy is his drowned brother, wet and naked, coming out
of the sea. Ismail has a guilty conscience: he was there and
he couldnt protect his brother. So I showed this ghost as a
manifestation of his guilt about the drowning.
Is her sons drowning also the cause of Hacers pain?
It could be something else also. It has been years of
course since the drowning, although its never forgotten. But
in a family, of course, its a very complex structure and there
could be many things. That shouldnt be the only reason why
the couple has problems.
Would you say that the female characters stories are more unknowable
than the maleas with the woman in Mahmuts bathroom?
The character in the bathroom in Distant is a married
woman who is having an affair with Mahmut. Actually we
see her in the bar with her husband, who is carrying shop-
ping bags, while Mahmut is drinking beer. Its the same
woman seen at the beginning, and afterwards she comes out
of the apartment and the janitor watches her. (The janitors in
Istanbul are the witnesses of everything!)
I would say that the womens stories are thereif you can
guess and ll in the gaps. The audience can empathize them
them if they like. They arent unllable gaps. I understand
these women. I can explain even the smallest expression or
gesture. I have the answers in my mind. Take Hacer: she is
not in love with the politician. But she responds to his author-
ity and power. When she gets into his luxurious car with its
leather seats, she feels the politicians power. Its quite dif-
cult for her to deny in terms of her emotions. She feels her
existence within this power because she hasnt felt any such
power in her life before. And I know that feeling very well. I
would say, though, that its the same for the men in my lms.
Its not an easy world in my lms. Do you think that the situa-
tion for her husband is easy? Its not easy. This is a family in a
difcult situation. Im merciless to the men as well.
The woman in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is, how-
ever, unknown. When I selected the actress the important
thing for me was that we shouldnt understand her feelings.
The situation shes in is balanced on a razors edge, on the
borderline, and theres complete exibility about how its to
be interpreted.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolias setting seems disconnected from modernity.
We tried to create a timeless feeling. The original story
which the lm is based on is set in the 1980s. It was written
by a doctor [Ercan Kesal, who also has a role in the lm,
having previously played the politician in Three Monkeys],
who witnessed such an investigation at that time. But when
we went to the area, we saw that nothing had changed in the
province since then. You feel sometimes that life is frozen.
The basic roots of this life are always there and easily seen.
So although the lm is set in the presentwe added mobile
phones and things like thatwe still needed this timeless
feeling because I wanted to deal in Once Upon a Time in
Anatolia with eternal properties of human nature. The crew
of investigators is the same as in the original story, although
we rewrote all the details and the characters. We also took
Night-time
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
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FI L M QUARTERLY 71
some injections from Chekhov, but I wont say what the
Chekhov part is because I dont want to harm the integrity
of the lm. Also I forget the exact details because I take thou-
sands of ideas from different places and then try to integrate
them; scriptwriting is a kind a collage really. Whatever you
write, Chekhov wrote something about it: every aspect of
life, every kind of character. So if you have read all of the
Chekhov stories, you remember them when you write the
script and you like to inject it somewhere in the script. He
gives you ideas like thunder in the mind.
There are a couple of references to morgues and I wondered if a mortu-
ary is a metaphor for provincial life? Is this a dead place with no hope?
Nobut death is always within life in the provincial
areas, and we wanted to show that. People there dont really
isolate death and they dont hide it like we do in the cit-
ies. For the autopsy technician its normal, its his job. But,
like everybody, he wants better things. I wanted to show that
death has different meanings. An autopsy technician doesnt
feel pity for the body in front of him. Its something he sees
every day. For somebody else, its something different, and it
surprises me sometimes when I see the point of view change.
Everybodys relationship with death is different but I like the
attitude in the provinces and it inuences me. They are
right: death is within life. And it should be. There should be
many rituals around death.
At the center of the lm is the relationship between the prosecutor and
the doctor, but the balance between them changes. At the end of the lm, its
the doctor who seems to have authority.
Life is like that. Sometimes you have the chance to see
the vulnerable side of somebody. And there is always vio-
lence inside us, waiting for a suitable time. I think everybody
has that. What guides the prosecutor is, again, a guilty con-
science. Deep inside him he knows his wife killed herself but
he wants to convince himself somehow that there could be
another explanation of her death. He wants to tell this story
to people he senses have some dark potential to change his
mind. He uses this chanceonce again: maybe he has done
this many timesto try to convince himself that another
formulation can by magic rid him of his guilty conscience.
But the doctor is too much of an analytical, rational person
for this. The result is just the opposite of what the prosecu-
tor wanted and instead he has to face the reality. And (who
knows?) maybe it will be better for him like that.
Everybody has a life and a secret violence inside them.
Everybody has guilt at many things. When these feelings
come together nobody knows what can happen. Even with
myself, I dont know how I will behave in certain situations.
When I become violent, its always unexpected. Its so sud-
den. A feeling comes from somewhere and it takes over my
whole body.
The conversations between the doctor and the prosecu-
tor were a good game and a good investigation for me into
the inner world of people. They had many dramatic side
effects as well. For instance, the doctor feels humiliated by
the police chief in the cigarette scene and that also creates a
kind of violence hidden inside him.
Incidentally, there are maybe some nuances here that
foreign people might not understand. Everybodypolice
chief, prosecutorcalls him just doctor, not mister
doctor. Whereas everybody says mister prosecutor. We
thought about this a lot. We dont know the reason why.
Maybe its because the prosecutor is a law-enforcement of-
cial and so people are respectful and afraid of him; theres
some sort of feeling of fear toward the prosecutor. Its true
The police chief (left) and Kenan (center)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
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72 WI NTER 2011
that the doctor is a public servant as well and they need him,
but theyre not afraid of him. In small-town bureaucracy,
there is a constant small amount of humiliation. My father
was a small-town ofcial and I remember this. Everybody
is trying to humiliate each other. So I put some details of
humiliation in the lm, especially toward the doctor, to cre-
ate a kind of potential in him which will emerge during the
autopsy scene, which may affect his decision to lie.
Why does the doctor decide to lie?
I wanted to show that this man has a potential to change,
even though actually he is the kind of person who is actually
dead inside. He has a nihilistic attitude; its hard for him to
create meaning in life. He senses life is meaningless. But a
nihilistic person is also in a position to create his own mean-
ing, not accepting any other meaning from outside himself.
At the end of the night, in the morning, I carefully tried to
put that in the walking scenes in the town, which show that
he has the potential to change. He looks at the town like hes
seeing the details for the rst time in his life. Meaning is cre-
ated from zeroand at certain important moments I have
myself felt this happening. I look at the street where I live
every day but most of the time I dont see anything. Then
suddenly Ill see the details, but generally its only after some
important, changing event. So I wanted to show this potential
for change in the character during the town scene: the birds
and the smoke and the shutters on the shop windows. And
also the sounds, which are the same every day but sometimes
your ear selects different ones in these moments.
The decision the doctor makes benets Kenan because
if he doesnt lie then maybe Kenan will get more time in
prison. Maybe ten years not ve. And so this is also a benet
for the boyif, that is, Kenan is the father. The possibility is
great that he is the father, judging by what the police chief
says about him crying in the car to the courthouse after the
stone-throwing. But in small towns in Anatolia there are
always rumors and suspicions and its better not to trust the
tales and gossip. The doctor takes Kenans side, but we really
dont know his real motivation. Someone may come up with
a different formulation of what happens and I dont really
want to underline any one of them. Maybe he does it for
the woman. Maybe he just wants to get revenge on the other
bureaucrats because the police chief humiliated him in the
cigarette scene by saying to him that he is unspoiled, too
innocent. So maybe its a response to the humiliation. Or
maybe its because Kenan said thank you after the cigarette
thing. We dont know exactly what the motivation is but it
could be one of these. Even though I do have the answers,
the audience should guessshould select whichever expla-
nation is most suitable to themselves.
ROB WHITE is editor of Film Quarterly.
ABSTRACT An interview with Turkish lm director Nuri Bilge Ceylan about his lm Once
Upon a Time in Anatolia, which won the 2011 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ceylan discusses his cinematic technique as well as his characters inner violence and
complex motivations.
KEYWORDS Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Turkish cinema, Distant,
Three Monkeys
CREDITS Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Director, writer, editor: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Pro-
ducer: Zeynep zbatur Atakan. Writers: Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan. Editor: Bora Gk-
singl. 2011 Zeyno Film, Production2006 d.o.o.Sarajevo, 1000 Volt Post Produc-
tion, Trkiye Radyo Televizyon Kurumu (TRT), Imaj, Fida Film, NBC Film. U.S.
distributor: Cinema Guild.
The doctor rests
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
PARIS NOTEBOOK EVAN CALDER WILLIAMS
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