My Lonely and Beautiful Country: On Nuri Bilge Ceylan

January 20, 2022   •   By Kaya Genç

NURI BILGE CEYLAN’S renown as a storyteller of modern Turkey is perhaps matched only by that of the novelist Orhan Pamuk. Like Turkey’s Nobel laureate, Ceylan — the director of one of just two Turkish films to have won the Cannes Film Festival’s top honor, the Palme d’Or — has challenged Western perceptions of Turkey as a country defined more by its bathhouses, rugs, and bazaars than by its people. In his nine films, Ceylan has focused on lonely wanderers and put Anatolian locals at the heart of his work.

Tulips, roses, and other flowers associated with an orientalist idealization of Turkish culture are not to Ceylan’s taste. In his latest film, The Wild Pear Tree (2018), Ceylan uses the common, if unattractive, plant from the mountains of Turkey as a symbol of the aloofness of the film’s hero, a penurious writer named Sinan (Doğu Demirkol). Sinan has a diploma, but that helps little in landing him a job in a country undergoing a political and spiritual crisis. He is a solitary, angry young man who disdains his father (Murat Cemcir), a teacher, for his poverty and his mother (Bennu Yıldırımlar) simply for marrying a man he considers a loser. Sinan projects his insecurity and precarity onto his parents, even becoming paranoid that they are stealing from him.

Sinan dominates The Wild Pear Tree, appearing in every single scene of the film: he is constantly walking toward the viewer or in the other direction, always discussing a serious topic with a fellow writer or a young imam. Ceylan sometimes films him from behind, allowing the viewer to look at the world with him; other scenes are shot directly from his point of view. Though there are occasional moments of light comedy — when Sinan’s grandfather, an elderly imam, complains that his trousers are too loose, Sinan assures him that “low cut pants are in vogue among youngsters these days” — one inherits his anxious gaze, even after leaving the film theater.

Sinan is right to be worried about his future in Turkey. Following a coup attempt in 2016, thousands of teachers lost their jobs in government purges, and, on the orders of Turkey’s autocratic government, hundreds of top scholars have been either sacked, exiled, or imprisoned. In the first nine months of 2018, the Turkish lira lost 70 percent of its value against the dollar; over the next three years, the economy tanked and poverty skyrocketed. As a result, the already small community of book buyers has shrunk further, the price of books soaring with the rising cost of paper. Early in the film, Sinan chats with a high school friend who works as a riot policeman about the working conditions in Turkish law enforcement. Sinan considers training as a policeman in case he fails as an author.

Like Ceylan himself, Sinan is from the Aegean town of Çanakkale, whose tourist attractions include the remnants of the ancient city of Troy and the battlefield of the Gallipoli campaign of World War I. And like the author, Sinan writes to unearth the “authentic voice” of this town. He scorns writers who allegorize their nations’ struggles (a self-effacing joke that Ceylan is making at his own expense, since the pear tree is a kind of metaphor for Turkey) and admires a fictional author for never giving interviews. He searches for an honest tone for his book, also called The Wild Pear Tree, which he describes as “confessions,” “ravings,” and “a meta-novel.”

What is Sinan’s main role in the film? To gaze, notice, and see. Bülent Diken, Graeme Gilloch, and Craig Hammond, the authors of The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Global Vision of a Turkish Filmmaker, contend that Ceylan presents “an exhaustive capturing, an encyclopedic cataloguing of ways of seeing” in his films. Such a catalog includes a man watching his cousin from a window as he smashes a pesky mouse’s head against a wall (Distant); a melancholy woman observing her lover from a distance, her facial expression signaling something is amiss (Climates); a group of policemen and an accused murderer, savoring the beauty of an angelic young girl serving tea on a tray after the electricity goes out (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia); and the wife of an actor gaping at her impoverished tenant in disbelief as he throws thousands of liras into the fireplace, simply to show that certain things in life can’t be bought (Winter’s Sleep). In these scenes from Ceylan’s most celebrated films, the authors say, “[W]e look at lookers, we look at what they are looking at; we look at the fact of looking; we watch watchers, observe observers, stare at starers, look at the looks people give each other.”

The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan is the first English-language book devoted to the director’s work. Three scholars’ voices converse “as equals in a collective dialogue” in this philosophical monograph. They reference the Deleuzean notion of the “time-image,” and they employ Denkbild (“thought-image”), a concept used widely by Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Siegfried Kracauer, to ponder Ceylan’s approach to image-making. Their objective, in their own words, is to examine the “acute tensions and seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes, contrasting and contradictory tendencies that are best understood as moments of dialectical interplay” that Ceylan’s films encapsulate. They read Ceylan’s films as part of “a transnational imaginary, undergirded by classic European (especially French, German and Russian) thought, literature and film.”

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Turkey has long captivated American and Western European filmmakers with its hotels (Journey into Fear, 1943), belly dancers (From Russia with Love, 1963), imperial palaces (Topkapi, 1964), seaside mansions (L’Immortelle, 1963), prisons (Midnight Express, 1978), neighborhoods that saw Soviet and British spies clash during the Cold War (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2011), and its Blue Mosque (Argo, 2012). Turkish directors based in Germany (Fatih Akın), Italy (Ferzan Özpetek), or France (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) have sometimes perpetuated these stereotypes, and been criticized for catering to Westerners’ romantic fantasies of Turkey with “reverse-orientalizing” films such as The Turkish Bath (1997), Crossing the Bridge (2005), or Mustang (2015).

But in The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan treats his own frustrations about Eurocentric cultural interventions with a light, humorous touch. In the film’s funniest scene, Sinan has a nightmare in which he takes refuge in the Trojan Horse prop from Wolfgang Petersen’s blockbuster 2004 film Troy, left behind in town as both a gift and a reminder of how Hollywood treats Çanakkale as a trash heap. In another scene, a village elder advises Sinan to describe the world’s best-preserved World War I battlefield in his book about Çanakkale, arguing that “Westerners are interested in it for a reason.” This guidance leaves Sinan frustrated, as similar suggestions must have irked Ceylan when he set out to become a filmmaker 25 years ago.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has emerged as the most important Turkish film director since the 1980s, but Turkish cinema begins almost exactly 100 years earlier. In 1896, a clown tasked with entertaining Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid organized the earliest cinema screening for Turks at Istanbul’s Yıldız Palace. In 1907, the Manaki brothers, who pioneered photography and cinema in the Balkans, shot the first film on Ottoman soil. France’s Pathé Cinema opened a theater in central Istanbul in 1908. Six years later, shortly after Turks entered World War I, a German-educated director named Fuat Uzkınay documented the destruction of the Russian monument in Istanbul and became the first Turk to make a film.

By the time the Republic was founded in 1923, Turks had inherited a rich dramatic tradition fostered in imperial Istanbul’s theaters by Ottoman Armenians and Jews. Over the next two decades, a leading theater director named Muhsin Ertuğrul adapted Ottoman plays and stories to cinema in Kemal Film, Turkey’s first private film company. Ertuğrul’s 1934 film, Leblebici horhor aga, scripted by Marxist poet Nâzım Hikmet, adapted the 1875 operetta by Tigran Tchoukhajian, the founder of the first opera institution in the Ottoman Empire.

In the 1960s, as Turkey experienced the influences of Marxism, Third World–ism, and French auteur cinema, a generation of politically committed directors emerged. Dry Summer, Metin Erksan’s social realist film about water ownership, inequality, and illicit love in the provinces, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964. (A restored edition of Erksan’s film was released as part of Criterion’s new World Cinema Project in 2013; in his introduction to the Criterion edition, Martin Scorsese described Dry Summer as a “rich, sensual, physical picture.”) Around the same time, the Turkish Cinémathèque opened its doors with a variety of films by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, and Luchino Visconti. Over the course of a decade, the Cinémathèque brought more than 3,000 art films to an expanding audience.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s film industry, referred to as “Yeşilçam” after the street where several film companies had their offices, was booming. In 1965, when Turkey’s population was 31 million, Yeşilçam sold more than 34 million tickets in Istanbul cinemas alone. Movie theaters became dating venues for Turkish couples and spaces of solitude and security for young women, while cheap ticket prices attracted urban wanderers. Yeşilçam took advantage of these changes, and its production reached a peak with 239 Turkish films in 1966 alone.

While Yeşilçam earned the largest profits, independent directors started what they termed a “National Film” movement, fighting against the demands of the market and what they considered the “foreign influence” on Turkish culture. But intellectuals organized around the Cinémathèque favored a more internationalist taste, which they found in the works of the Turkish actor-director Yılmaz Güney. Masculine, tall, and assertive, Güney starred in numerous Yeşilçam melodramas in the 1960s; his nickname was the “Ugly King.” Hope (1970), co-written, directed by, and starring Güney, brought neorealism to Turkish cinema, and presented a grim picture of life in provincial Turkey.

In the wake of a military coup in 1960, Turkish military generals were particularly alarmed by Güney’s popularity, as Güney was a Kurd who described his films as “the first steps toward a cinema of Turkey.” Turkey was a multiethnic society, he asserted, referencing the country’s millions of unacknowledged Kurdish citizens: “We should acknowledge its class conflicts and ethnic differences, and make films of Turkey rather than Turkish films.” Güney was imprisoned twice for political reasons before 1974. A lover of guns, he received another jail sentence of 19 years for shooting a public prosecutor who visited a nightclub where Güney entertained his friends.

After the 1980 coup, the Turkish state banned the release of all Güney’s films. But he continued to write new scripts in jail and relied on other directors to realize his vision, including detailed instructions for his director friend Şerif Gören, who coordinated the filming of what many critics consider the masterpiece of Turkish cinema, 1982’s The Road (Yol). This realistic portrayal of Turkey under military rule captured the nation’s despair and included Kurdish-language scenes that documented the oppression of Kurds in eastern Turkey.

In 1981, during a furlough from prison, Güney fled to Paris, where he brought the negative of The Road with him to produce its final cut. By the time The Road was released in Europe, Güney had become a voice of Turkey’s imprisoned dissidents. He dedicated his Palme d’Or to the victims of the Turkish junta, raising his right fist as he received the award in 1982. As late as in 1989, university students were arrested for watching The Road on VHS tapes smuggled into Turkey from Europe. Those were the years when the Yeşilçam system began to collapse. Ticket sales waned, sex films dominated screens, and producers turned to video for profits. Leftist directors were jailed or exiled, and those who continued to work produced arthouse films with limited reach.

By the time Nuri Bilge Ceylan became a filmmaker in the 1990s, around 90 percent of all films released in Turkey came from Hollywood. Turkish cinema was almost dead: in 1993, only 11 of the 154 films released in Turkish theaters were produced domestically. Ceylan’s obsession with images began in 1975, when he saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. He was 16. His father, an agricultural engineer, had just brought Ceylan, his mother, and sister to Istanbul from their hometown Çanakkale. His father’s idealism about transforming Çanakkale, the town where he grew up in poverty in the 1920s and 1930s, had given way to disillusionment after he witnessed the machinations of Turkish bureaucracy. “The village’s values, rights and wrongs were clear cut,” Ceylan remembered in a 2007 interview. “In this environment, my father’s world view was quite different from his townsfolk.”

Ceylan studied electrical engineering in college but dreamed of becoming a photographer for National Geographic. After graduation, he pursued that passion in London while working as a dishwasher and watching films by Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu. But he was broke and often shoplifted his meals. One day, after a shopkeeper caught him stealing and threw him out, he decided to leave London and go on a 400-kilometer trek in the Himalayas. Gazing on the scene from the top of a Buddhist shrine, the thought struck him that while countries resembled one another, every person was radically different. He decided to be a storyteller.

But first, he had to save money. For a decade, Ceylan worked as a commercial photographer in Istanbul and sustained his interest in fine art photography. His panoramic photographs contrast vast landscapes with lonely protagonists, and herald Ceylan’s style as a filmmaker. His pictures included portraits of a village boy posing near Mount Ararat, a ferry captain on a rainy day, country roads at dusk, Istanbul’s Golden Horn in winter, and pedestrians walking on snow-covered streets, sometimes captured in the fashion of traditional Japanese paintings. Turkey Cinemascope, printed by Kingsbury Press in 2015, features examples of Ceylan’s exhibited photographs.

Meanwhile, Ceylan made enough money to buy an Arriflex movie camera. He was 36 when he finished Cocoon (1995), the first installment of a “village quartet” about the boredom of small-town life. Cocoon has a bucolic tone, supplemented by Johann Sebastian Bach’s music and shots of villagers lying in fields and wandering in woodlands. This was a home movie made in the style of an Andrei Tarkovsky film: Ceylan used his hometown as the setting and his parents played the main roles. The Town (1997) is more dramatic. It introduces the character of Saffet (played by Ceylan’s cousin, Mehmet Emin Toprak) — young, jobless, and desperate for a life elsewhere. He is the heart of his early films that dramatize Ceylan’s restless relationship with his sleepy hometown.

Clouds of May (1999) is about an Istanbul-based photographer (played by Muzaffer Özdemir) who shares many traits with Ceylan: self-centered, obsessed with work, willing to use people around him for personal gain. He comes to Çanakkale to film what will become The Town, and he uses his unemployed cousin Saffet (Mehmet Emin Toprak) as his aide. During the production, the director feels guilty about the way he treats Saffet and other local people. While he realizes his “cinematic vision,” he ignores the concerns of those around him. But to his cousin, the director represents hope of a new life. At the end of the film, Saffet asks if he can live with him in Istanbul. In contrast to the moralistic Hollywood, or even the gloomier arthouse traditions, Ceylan gives us an ambivalent ending, where there is no punishment or redemptive arc for the film’s flawed, self-involved hero.

Distant (2002) picks up the story where Clouds of May leaves off. The same young cousin, now inexplicably called Yusuf (perhaps to remind us of the artifice behind Ceylan’s autofictional project), takes a bus to Istanbul to realize his dream, but his move is not without friction. He can’t adapt to the big city, spends his time wandering the streets, and annoys his host with his shiftlessness. Meanwhile, the director disdains this interruption to his solipsistic existence. But when his cousin finally leaves the apartment, he seems ashamed of his failure to help him. Being so self-absorbed again fills him with guilt. Filmed in Ceylan’s own apartment, and with his cousin in the main role, Distant blurred the line between fiction and documentary.

Many Turkish critics found Ceylan’s work amateurish and dull. “The Town can’t be said to have a story,” one critic wrote, “it can only be described as a narrative, and maybe a photo album […] it is a failure of a film made with good intentions.” Only a handful of people watched Cocoon when it came out, and Distant sold just 700 tickets in its first week.

Then, over the course of six months, two life-changing events occurred. In December 2002, Mehmet Emin Toprak, the actor who played the young cousin character (he was newly wed and had plans for a honeymoon in Cannes, where Distant was selected for the official competition) was killed in a car accident. Ceylan was devastated and, like the film director in his quartet, filled with a sense of guilt. Then, in May 2003, Distant received the Grand Prix and Toprak, the award for Best Actor posthumously, at Cannes.

Up to this point, Ceylan’s ideal crew had only three people: the lighting and sound technicians and himself as cameraman. But in his next four films, he changed this minimalist approach. Climates (2006) had a producer and a crew of 27, excluding the actors, and for the first time Ceylan gave up his role as cameraman. The film’s hero was again a depressed photographer silently suffering in self-absorption. Then, with Three Monkeys (2008), the symbiotic relationship between the auteur and his protagonist ended. This claustrophobic drama delved into the psyches of a politician, his driver, and the driver’s family. Three Monkeys was a welcome shift toward lives different from Ceylan’s own.

With the police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Ceylan’s engagement with Anton Chekhov moved to the center of his cinema. Its hero is an intellectual, a lonely, sensitive surgeon in search of meaning. He is an acute observer of human behavior in small towns, and Ceylan renders the film through his consciousness. Ceylan had discovered the works of Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky while performing his mandatory military service at the age of 29. He had been surprised, he said, to find “similar souls, people like me, with problems like mine” in their stories and novels. In particular, Ceylan savored the psychological penetration of Chekhov, finding similarities between the people around him and Chekhov’s characters, who live in provinces away from Moscow but still under its influence; Chekhov’s 1898 story “Concerning Love” inspired the selfish photographer’s character in Climates.

In Winter Sleep (2014), he adapted two Chekhov stories, “Excellent People” (1886) and “The Wife” (1892), to a Turkish setting. The film’s main character is a retired actor who is preparing to write a history of Turkish theater. A rentier who seems to come straight out of Chekhov’s Russia, he owns a hotel called the Othello and has numerous other properties in Cappadocia. He considers himself a benevolent and enlightened man, qualities that are tested when the frustrated son of an impoverished tenant smashes the windshield of his car and refuses to apologize or appear grateful when the tenant, who is a retired actor (played by Haluk Bilginer) forgives him. The tenant oppresses his wife with the same pretentious benevolence, saying he forgives her for “her shortcomings,” so that he can hear kind words about himself in return. The tenant’s financial deep pockets sustain his psychological stratagems, which Ceylan observes calmly and at great length. Over the course of 196 minutes, he reveals economic inequalities and class distinctions in Cappadocia, resisting the photographer’s urge to aestheticize a village famous for its cave churches and lunar landscape.

“Nothing happens, yet everything happens in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s brilliant film,” was the verdict of the Financial Times; the Cannes jury gave it a Palme d’Or. “I would like to dedicate the prize to my lonely and beautiful country which I love passionately,” Ceylan said in his acceptance speech. The next day, a photograph of Ceylan raising his right fist appeared on the front pages of all major Turkish newspapers. The gesture was widely interpreted as a nod to Yılmaz Güney. “I wouldn’t mind such an association,” Ceylan later said. “I like his films a lot. I like The Road a lot. I find his life interesting. I’ve read a lot of his writings.”

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In an interview with Libération in 2007, Ceylan likened his filmmaking to “observing a couple of strangers in a café, trying to figure out their relationship, their problems.” In The Wild Pear Tree’s most sensuous scene, he films Sinan from behind, as he appreciates the beauty of a high school friend. She talks of the boredom of her small town and her impending marriage, and we can only speculate about Sinan’s thoughts as she takes off her headscarf.

The most memorable scenes of Ceylan’s films feature little dialogue, placing viewers inside the minds of their subjects. Politics filters into Ceylan’s cinema as background noise. In both Clouds of May and The Wild Pear Tree, voices of Turkish prime ministers (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the first, Binali Yıldırım in the second) echo in apartments from television sets, but Ceylan’s characters don’t comment on their content. The absence of dialogue in his films, the authors of The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan argue, “concentrates the ear upon the gently restless landscape.” In his meticulous observation of the landscape, Ceylan shows how Turks living in small towns take refuge in solitude while witnessing Turkey’s authoritarian modernization.

Compared to Güney, Ceylan’s politics is muted and restrained, but his cinema of looking is political in a different, crucial sense. In The Wild Pear Tree, he shows how his characters are locked inside their minds solely through camera movements and cinematography. Using a wide-angle lens, he presents Sinan’s body in relation to the landscape and his townsfolk, capturing how out of place and precarious he appears when considered from outside. “I don’t even like people, I don’t know how such a person can become an author,” Sinan confesses toward the end. His self-absorption stops him from seeing the pain of others: his sorrowful father, his disillusioned high school friend, his supportive mother. In his failure to notice other people’s tragedies, he seems to suffer from intellectual astigmatism.

A big blow comes at the end of the film, almost destroying Sinan: not a single copy of his novel has sold, a year after its publication. Only one person has read The Wild Pear Tree besides its author, and that is Sinan’s father. Years ago, he taught Sinan the beauty of the wild pear trees he has loved since his own childhood. Now he keeps a copy of the only newspaper article on his son’s book in his wallet. He has worked out all the references of the novel and devoured it numerous times. Discovering that he has distrusted and scorned the man who loves him most dismantles Sinan. The last scene of this lyrical, elegiac film is shot from the father’s perspective, and shows Sinan digging a well, desperate, exasperated, and hopeless.

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Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.