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Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Observation as Poetry
© Dimitris Kerkinos
First Publication: Nuri Bilge Ceylan 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival Publications 2006.
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Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not only one foremost representatives of the new generation of Turkish cinema, he is also one of the foremost auteur directors who have surfaced in the last decade in international cinema. His “manual” way of working, relies on small budgets, small crews, and amateur actors in combination with his personal approach and gives his work a distinctly personal style through which develops an experiential  subject matter “focusing on the ordinary stories of ordinary people”. Systematically drawing from his personal life and experience, his cinema is deeply autobiographical, constructing a means of artistic expression and personal introspection – from which irony is not missing – through which he manages, as he himself has said, to keep his psychological balance. His childhood, his native land, his family relationships (and the members of his family who take part in his films), his feelings and existential questions, are interwoven with fiction in an impressionistic style of narrative and filmmaking, and are knitted to a national point of reference, as they develop and change through events in his country’s contemporary reality. In this context, Ceylan transforms the personal and national to the ecumenical, examining the human condition, the distance that exists between people, life in the countryside and the relationship of man with nature, urbanization, and the modern way of life in the city, spiritual (intellectual?) decadence and personal alienation, and the ethics of an artist. 

Starting with the conviction that “people lie and that the truth is found in that which they hide, (with) reality “to be” found in the silent part of our lives”, Ceylan makes a minimalist cinema based on discreet observation and economy of narrative, virtues that demonstrate the influence of Chekhov, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Antonioni.  Refusing to say too much or to get emotionally involved, Ceylan prefers to imply rather than show his characters’ feelings, emphasizing, through long takes and steady middle shots with extraordinary depth of field, the small details, the gestures, the expression, the movements, discovering their psychology through silence and seemingly trivial everyday moments. At the same time, he avoids background music preferring the use of an expressive natural sound in order to highlight their feelings, while also using the weather as added commentary. Thus, the study and exploration of the lives of his characters is done in undertones, without dramatic climaxes or confrontations. His effectiveness in large part is due to his striking photographic vision and his aesthetic severity, which lend his compositions incomparable atmosphere and lyricism, and render the image as one of the core components of his narrative expression. The photography of the landscape, particularly of the countryside, is always organically incorporated into the story and takes on a leading role driven as it is by the expressionist quality of painting, functioning as a metaphor, as the illustration of the characters’ inner lives. 
His first short film, Koza (1995), consists of a sample of the method and interests of the director, both thematically and stylistically, echoing the motifs of his latter work. In this film, Ceylan, based on images and natural sounds of the environment, “returns” to his birth place in order to refer to his parents, the connection between man and nature, the passage of time, to reevaluate his childhood and offer the imprint of his psyche to the viewer. 

The Small Town

Based on a novel by his sister, his first feature film The Small Town (1998), takes place in the land he was raised in and narrates incidents from his childhood, through the changes of the seasons and his family’s experiences. Ceylan relives with poetic sensitivity the rural atmosphere and the rhythms of his village, using black and white photography to give a feeling of nostalgia for those times. The narrative is through the point of view of two children, Houlia and Ali, and transports us to the way they perceive the world that surrounds them and at the same time, shapes them. 

In Clouds of May (1999), Ceylan returns to his birth place and to the subjects of nature, family, and the relationships between them, that he developed in his previous film, in order to meditate on its creation and to critically comment on the cinematic process. This deconstructionist approach to the cinematic process and also the demystification of the director brings to mind the films of Iranian “ fellow traveler” Abbas Kiarostami, Under the Olive Trees [1994] and The Wind Will Carry Us [1999], respectively. Ceylan, like Kiarostami, draws from the wellspring of reality and recounts with a similar poetic and painterly sensitivity simple stories, without a script or professional actors, redolent of a deep, ecumenical humanism.


Picking up where he left off with Clouds of May, Ceylan completes the trilogy with Distant (2002), as each film echoes the others as it develops and in some way refers to the previous one. Using the same amateur actors but playing other characters, the film continues the story of Muzaffer [Muzaffer Özdemir] and Safet [Mehmet Emin Toprak], relocating to Istanbul and building a dialectical relationship between the village and the city, the past and the present, the successful but spiritually sterile intellectual and his unemployed relative who also comes to seek his fortune in the metropolis. Penetrating the inner world of these two characters, Ceylan creates a portrait of the contemporary way of life in the big city (and also of his own Istanbul, which he creates as a character in his film), and speaks to us about alienation and loneliness, the lack of communication, disillusionment and the distance between ideals and reality. 

In the latest film, Climates (2006), Ceylan once again focuses on the emotional distance that divides people, this time by examining it through the relationship between a man and a woman, mainly from the point of view of the man, showing us the final stages of the relationship of the couple through the metaphor of the changing of the seasons. The presence of the director himself and of his wife Ebru in the leading roles, as well as that of his parents (who are present in all his films) not only gives an extra dimension to the already personal tone but highlight proximity between reality and fiction in his work once again. 


Filming in high definition video and the careful handling of sound in the film’s soundtrack highlight the director’s photographic artistry and expressive exactness, as well as his focus on small details through which he succeeds in shedding light on the inner world and psychology of his characters. 

This present monograph, combined with the presentation of his entire film and photographic work in the context of the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival and the Balkan Survey section, is an attempt to be a presentation as comprehensive as possible of the great Turkish director’s work for Thessaloniki’s younger generation of cinephiles, and to reaffirm that cinema is a bridge of friendship and communication between the two neighboring peoples.  

  Three Monkeys
  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  Clouds of May
  The Small Town
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  Muzaffer Ozdemir
  Emin Toprak
  Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
  The Represantation of the Borders in the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
  The Balkans, A Spiritual Space and Less a Peninsula
  Goran Paskaljević, a Balkan humanist
  Thessaloniki IFF Official Site
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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