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Ceylan and company:

Autobiographical trajectories of cinema.

Diane Sippl, Cine Action, Issue:67, June 22, 2005


The sky ... is the opposite of the eye: it is its immense rarefaction.
If the eye focuses, the sky blurs. If the eye is clearly, albeit
arbitrarily, the point of departure, the sky is an impossible
destination, or better still, the dilated point of an impossible
destination--the veil behind which everything is hidden ... an
iconostasis, a disfiguration, the place of the clouds.
The more the eye scrutinizes and deciphers what lies before it and
above it, the more the structure of the sky--or the universe, with which
it often coincides--becomes cloudy and loses its shape. It was once a
vault, and now ... a saddle ... In any case, even when the eye knew how
to see correctly, it only found partial animations in the sky: bears
(Greater or Lesser), tails, scales, cancers, Venuses, lions, lanterns,
torches and lights in such an exaggerated number that they could
demoralize and confuse even a shepherd wandering through the Asian
deserts, steppes (or are they tundras?)
--Luigi Ballerini, "Eliseo Mattiacci: Gazer of Skies and Horizons of
Expectation" (1)

The truth lies in what's hidden, in what's not told. Reality lies in the
unspoken part of our lives.
--Nuri Bilge Ceylan to Geoff Andrew in "Beyond the Clouds ..." (2)

I speak out of the deep of night out of the deep of darkness and out of
the deep night I speak.
If you come to my dwelling, my friend bring me a lamp and a window I can
look through at the crowd in the happy alley.
--Forugh Farrokhazad, "Gift," in Remembering the Flight (3)

My eyes move around the three circles that make up the figure standing before me just taller than the tallest of us. Circle within circle within circle, each connects with another but at opposite sides. The mid-sized one meets the largest, and directly across, the smallest touches the mid-sized. Autonomous yet connected, the first shares a center with the last. Each one a metal ribbon the girth of my finger and the width of two hands, the circles draw me in, luring, framing, and ushering my gaze. A strong wind is enough to sway the piece though it's anchored more than my feet to the ground. And its surface will change over seasons as I return, its corten curves rusting with time. Like me it will age, but behind me live its slow and secret life in company with its habitat that colors its atemporal form. There stands the Eye of the Sky, looking at me as I look out with it. (4)

And now let's meet the sky-gazers, for I have been dwelling in their company, looking at them and with them, and I feel I know them well. There are Grandmother Fatma Ceylan and Grandfather Mehmet Emin Ceylan, "actors"; nephews Turgut Toprak and Mehmet Emin Toprak (call him "Saffet" or "Yusuf"), also "actors"; Havva Saglam as "Hulya" and both Cihat Butun and Muhammed Zimbaoglu as "Ali," playing the sister and brother who are younger cousins; Sadik Incesu as the "film producer"; Muzaffer Ozdemir, playing "Mad Ahmet" or Muzaffer the "film director" or Mahmut the "photographer who aspires to make films," who could be representing the real man behind the scenes--producer/director/screenwriter/cinematographer/editor of all four of the films to be explored here, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His sister Emine wrote a story used for the script. Fatma and Mehmet are their real parents. It all starts with them.

Most critics, in discovering the potent beauty of Ceylan's work over the last decade, stress how rewarding it can be to move forward from Cocoon (1995) to The Small Town (1997) to Clouds of May (1999) to Distant (2002) in order to trace the evolution of this new voice. (5) But just because what characterizes him for me is his quiet lyricism in revering his family and kin, I prefer to inch backwards, and little by little we shall then see how Ceylan has both admired and distinguished himself from the luminaries who surround him--Ozu, Tarkovsky and Kiarostami, for example. Mirror (1974), based on the events and poetry of Tarkovsky's own family, offers an apt comparison with Cocoon and The Small Town; while Close-Up (1990) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), both about the role of the filmmaker by a writer/director who rarely veers from that theme, shed light on Clouds of May. And even more telling is the inspiration of Chekhov, who haunts Ceylan's work like the Wood Demon himself. (6) Now let's see how Ceylan navigates the dreams that bridge illusion and reality in his most recent film.


In the foreground a single freight hook, crusted with ice, swings like a pendulum as a man in the distance traverses an empty stretch of snow in astonishment. Half-sunk against the embankment on the Sea of Marmara, an enormous ocean vessel is tipped on its side like a beached whale ignored and abandoned. Hoping for work as a sailor, Yusuf walks by the ship, caked with snow and white as a phantom as it creaks and groans. A loud splash caps the spell, and Yusuf runs off, suddenly overwhelmed. "You'd be away on long journeys," Mahmut has told him. "Can you take that kind of loneliness?" As for traveling, "every place looks the same."

But that's according to Mahmut, who came to the city years ago, and established as he is, can show for himself mostly photos of tiles. Photography's finished, the mountains, too, he tells himself, but his cronies taunt him that he used to want to make films like Tarkovsky's and go off to White Valley in search of the best shot. "Money doesn't make you happy, and here you're really looking for your past," they tell him. But that is not what irks them. "Maybe it's you who's done for," they jeer. "You're announcing your death before it happens. You've no right to bury your ideals!"

No wonder Mahmut looks for a victim in Yusuf, his cousin from the village, who could never be humble enough for Mahmut but who needs to share his space. And Yusuf, vain enough in the village, here behaves like the mouse who's under attack in the household, lurking behind corners and walls to get a look at the pretty women of Istanbul, but without the courage or experience to make a move. Not that Mahmut has found any more fulfillment: in deliciously ironic parallel actions, the two deceive each other. Tired of the endless tracking shot of the metaphysical adventurers in their rail cars to the Zone in Stalker, Yusuf gives up on Mahmut's esoteric video "entertainment" and says good night. Finally alone, Mahmut pops in a porn video. By contrast, Yusuf "retires" to sneak in a call to his mama, and he tells her he's whispering because Mahmut's asleep. The jaded city artist and the country cousin green with both innocence and envy can find no peace with each other.

Yusuf and his dad have lost their jobs in the factory since a thousand people were laid off. Mahmut's losses are less visible. A woman visits him at night but they don't acknowledge each other in public. Even at his home we see her across the room in a remote, unfocused field of vision. In-focus is Mahmut in the foreground, his back to us in silhouette. And then there is his "ex." They meet one last time as she departs with a new man for a new country far away. What happened between her and Mahmut we can only piece together through stitches of dialogue: their marriage, pregnancy, abortion, and divorce--perhaps all a matter of bad timing--seem to have resulted in her infertility. "I don't blame you ..." she reassures him.

Like Tarkovsky, Ceylan gives us stories that hinge on elisions of the main events. Yet we come to share the characters' outlooks and feelings through an elliptical language all the more poignant. Take, for example, a key scene from Mirror that Mahmut curls up on his bed to watch moments after saying good-bye to his former wife. Tarkovsky's Mother character, ready to faint from fatigue, is asked by a neighbor queasy from pregnancy to chop off the head of a cockerel if she and her son (suggesting the young Tarkovsky) would like to stay for dinner. With some reservation the Mother manages the action, and in the next frame she and her estranged husband walk on parallel, tragically separate paths. Ceylan, mirroring the emotional import of the sequence, cuts to parallel scenes of Mahmut and Yusuf separately watching the snowfall outside, each from his own window but with matching profiles, not only of the two men looking out but also of what they see. Mahmut, with Artemiev's score from Mirror still lingering in his ear, in his mind's eye sees Tarkovsky's actress walking directly to the right of the frame; Yusuf gazes down upon the neighbor woman he's had his eye on, who walks directly to the right of our frame on the street below. Yusuf walks out to the balcony and strikes the wind chimes. Mahmut goes to the window that separates them and assumes a parallel profile in a two-shot, then closes the balcony door.

"I would now happily cut out of Mirror the scene with the cock," wrote Tarkovsky years later.

We shot (Margarita Terekhova) in close-up at high speed for the last ninety frames, in a patently unnatural light. Since on the screen it comes out in slow motion, it gives an effect of stretching the time-framework--we are plunging the audience into the heroine's state ... We deform the actress' face independently of her, as if it were playing the role for her. We serve up the emotion we want, by our own--director's--means. Her state becomes too clear, too easy to read. And in the interpretation of a character's state of mind, something must always be left secret. (7)

Those secrets might be retained in cinema not so much through the subtleties of acting or dialogue but by the director's feel for the character's interior as expressed in the rhythm of the narrative. Mahmut, after another interlude with his lover who leaves him with a sense of detachment, flares up at Yusuf when he returns a moment later. Mahmut lets all his resentment fly. "You smoke here when I'm out, you don't flush the toilet ... and you want it all on a platter...." The tirade goes on, until Yusuf exits and sends a wound-up toy down the hallway--a soldier in combat khakis creeping along on his stomach swinging a rifle! We laugh out loud at the uncanny wit, at Yusuf's audacity and resilience and bad taste, at the incongruity of it all, for we have not been expecting humor. What's more, when the generally sober Yusuf lets out a "Ha, ha, ha!" that is so forceful it seems bizarre, we shake with a belly laugh.

Yet this humor, running so close to the nerve, is of a piece with the film in its entirety--with its minimalist restraint, its associative content all but squeezed out of the story that nonetheless evolves with parallels and balances of images and compositions, repeating themes in minor moods and keys. In Distant the symmetrical narrative (book-ended by Yusuf's arrival and departure, coinciding with Mahmut's two trysts with his lover), the intermediate shots of objects and cityscapes that are part of the story (the mouse strip on the floor, the pouring snow outside the window), the off-screen sounds (whistles of ships and cries of gulls) that open up the frame, the graphic matches of contiguous editing (that both link Yusuf with, and separate him from, the women who attract him--or link Yusuf and Mahmut watching the same TV fashion show in separate apartments) all fuse the primary elements of Ceylan's film with the precision and economy noticeable in Ozu (8) (as well as in Tarkovsky and Kiarostami, influenced by the same artist). The passion is in the whole: at the heart of the story is the structuring principle of growth. From the subjective arc (the view from the "ground") of characters who know that in their deceptions they are sinning against themselves, to the objective tale (as if from "above," an omniscience generally missing in later Ozu works) that clouds over one character as it shines a ray of light on another, emerges a story of truth: the mystery and danger in life reside in us.

Privy to the hidden habits of Distant's characters, we are still left with plenty of questions. We may see Mahmut tormenting Yusuf over a pocket watch he never stole, but what of the watch? What does it mean to Mahmut, and to the story? What about the eggs Mahmut rolls across the mat in his photography studio? What of his dozing dream in which the lamp falls over as it does in Mirror? Let's look to the other films, presumably the ones Mahmut goes on to make--more ripples and waves in the cosmos of images that is Ceylan's.


When the cinema escapes from the power of money (I mean production
costs), when they invent a way for the author of a work to capture
reality with his own hands (paper and pen, canvas and paint, marble
and chisel, "x" and the filmmaker), then we shall see. Then film will
become first among the arts, and its muse the queen of all the muses.
--Andrey Tarkovsky in Maya Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry (9)

You believe that you can capture reality. But it is impossible. You
can always go further.
--Abbas Kiarostami, press kit for Through the Olive Trees (10)

Using cameras and equipment he owns, available light whenever possible, amateurs who are kin or friends playing the main roles (which are close to their own lives), improvisation from the actors, and his own apartment as the location (for shooting and also for editing), Ceylan made Distant, his most autobiographical film (11) (he guesses 40%) with a budget of $100,000. (12) The result is the kind of film he prefers to make, often with long takes of enticing in-frame movement or details before a camera fixed at a "golden point" (13) or panning from it, with many sequences (even long and consecutive ones) using no dialogue and generally, ambient sound making its own "score" except on the surprising occasion when music comes from an on-screen source. The shots are frequently long or wide, and they make use of a combination of landscapes, natural elements, and symbolic objects specific to the setting to render a situation with hardly any narrative but laden with quiet tension. The goal is to make a film close to the inner lives of the characters. That Ceylan has been exploring the mechanics and art of photography since he was fifteen and became an electrical engineer--all the while devouring Dostoevsky and Chekhov--shows immensely. His frames are exquisite, and in the ways that he lets them breathe, he offers a poetic realism like no other. Now let's see what this mode of production and code of values would look like at another site.

A pre-credit sequence for Clouds of May shows Mehmet Emin Toprak--Yusuf from Distant, but here he will be Saffet--in a "two-shot": Saffet's face, at once tender and opaque, accompanied by its vivid reflection looking in a different direction in the adjacent window as he stands in a doorway waiting for someone to drop off his test scores from his college entrance exams. At a cafe he sits and slowly opens the news, the camera giving him long moments to register the results that fill his face with dismay. A pan to a transition shot with two older women nearby in peasant clothes chatting before an old wall that could have stood for centuries takes us back to Saffet sitting at the same table in his logo-stamped sweatshirt as young men on motorbikes speed past him. There is his doppelganger once again, this time his dark shadow reflection looking away in the window behind him, his perplexed face in close-up for us.

The scene tacitly introduces a theme of doubles--in images, roles, and worlds, that undergoes various permutations throughout Clouds of May. There is the duality of acting, then the flow between the dream world and the real world, sleeping dreams and waking dreams. And there is the anthropomorphic environment--wind and rain, animals and skies that shadow and foreshadow the human predicaments but also reveal "minds" of their own (recall the pesky mouse in Distant). There are dual interpretations of the law, between land owners such as Mehmet Emin Ceylan and the region's forest authorities. All of these dualisms make for the question as to what kind of cinema is to materialize before our eyes, because the fact is, Muzaffer, a director from Istanbul, arrives in the village where he grew up to shoot a film about his family. "Is it going to be a documentary?" his mother asks. "Do they make movies with such small cameras?" quips his father, referring to what Muzaffer brought with him that day to do test shots. Little do they know that he expects them, Mehmet Emin and Fatma Ceylan, to be at the center of it all.

"We can't act," Fatma retorts. "Go find someone else." Emin is too consumed with protecting his tall poplars and oaks from the land administration to be bothered with his son's project. When Muzaffer coaxes them into looking at old videos he shot of them to see how beautiful they are, his parents gasp at themselves on the TV screen and ask if the video camera adds wrinkles to their faces, as if a movie camera might catch them as they "really are." And when she hears thunder, Fatma asks, "Is it going to rain? Oh, it's from the TV!" she laughs. They sit watching for what seems the longest time because we are kept from seeing what they see, our eyes trained on the warm glow of their faces after work in the sun, of their sienna clothes and flowered couch against the sky-blue of the wall behind them. An elderly couple, they are radiant with youth. Muzaffer asks Saffet (Toprak) if he would quit his job at the factory once he started working on the film. "Of course," he replies, "Take me back to Istanbul with you ..." as if that's what Muzaffer wanted. The intermingling of worlds (not only between cinema and reality but from one of Ceylan's films to the next) has already begun to transpire.

And not without duplicity, it seems. "All my friends have gone to the university, and they're all dumb ... something fishy's going on," Saffet sighs. He detects a red light shining from his friend's camera. "Don't worry about it," responds Muzaffer, as he did to his father when the old man was about to trip on the cord of the microphone his son secretly set up near his parents' room one night. "Do you know what cheating is?" he later asks his young nephew, Ali. "That means tricking someone" is the answer the boy gives.

It's interesting at this moment to recall that in Mirror Tarkovsky used the doubling theme quite audaciously. The children's conflicts mirror those of the parents, the film itself being a mirror of the break-up of his own parents' marriage with a pre-credit documentary sequence of a young man's therapy for stuttering and his successful endeavor to break into speech. There is the doubling of the mother and the wife, "double exposures"--one actor playing two roles, and two actors for one role, including the on-screen presence of Tarkovsky's real mother, quite elderly. And while lgnat is both himself and the author when he was a child, the voice-over poetry is read by the real-life father/poet. Arseniy Tarkovsky, and is laced with the narration of the author as an adult, read by actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky. Tarkovsky's wish in making the film was to "convince others ... of (his mother's) individuality and uniqueness ... and to prove her immortality." (14) So he sought to present memory as a "fourth dimension" in which time could flow in any direction. A young mother's face in a densely clouded mirror is revealed as old "from the other side of the mirror's glass." (15) As Maya Turovskaya has observed, Tarkovsky's desire to show the facts of his childhood led to the disintegration of his narrative structure, which in turn led (perhaps even against the author's original intentions) to an abundance of all kinds of rhetorical devices--metonymy, ellipse, simile, aposiopesis and other, purely cinematic figures--all of which demand an effort of interpretation from the audience. Mirror is the most concrete, but also the most indirect of Tarkovsky's films; the most documentary, while also the most poetic. (16)

Compare this result with that of another director also seeking to show the "facts" of the case of a real individual because he found them so enigmatic and yet so "telling" of the need to dream and the power of cinema. That director is Abbas Kiarostami, who seized the moment to make Close-Up, a recreation of real events played by the real participants. Ali Sabzian served a jail sentence for posing as the renowned Iranian filmmaker, Moshen Makhmalbaf, because he so admired him. Out of work for some time, Sabzian had ingratiated himself with the wealthy Ahankhah family, promising to make a film in which they could be the actors on the set of their own beautiful home. Flattered and buying into the dream, they took him at appearances for the role he played, fed him, allowed him to scout out their rooms, and even gave him bus fare.

The ease with which Mrs. Ahankhah was duped at the outset is reminiscent of Chekhov's "The Kiss" in multiple directions: not only does Sabzian's life take on a whole new zest for all its possibilities in filmmaking, but the Ahankhahs suddenly feel invigoratingly talented, useful, and even "necessary." Sabzian urges them to go see Salaam Cinema (17) before it leaves the theater. This vitality is so overriding that even when the son and husband catch on to Sabzian and set up a "bust" in their home, Mrs. Ahankhah wards off the arrest and insists, "Well, let him have his lunch first." Nonetheless, the family brings a law suit against him for fraud and the intent to rob them. By reconstructing this series of events with the actors playing themselves, especially by using close-ups of Sabzian in the courtroom, Kiarostami fulfills the man's promise. Everyone gets to participate in making a film after all. What's more, Kiarostami even arranges and incorporates into his fiction film a meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf. And characteristic of Kiarostami's own elisions in storytelling is the drowning out of their conversation by Makhmalbaf's motorcycle noise as Sabzian, humbled with awe, holds onto him while he drives through the city. In a circle of ironies, this sets off a dizzying series of reflections:

... one knows one is watching a fiction film (Kiarostami's Close-Up)
that is based on fact (Sabzian's real story) that is based on fiction
(Sabzian pretending to be Makhmalbaf) that is based on fact
(Makhmalbaf as a leading Iranian filmmaker) that is based on fiction
(Makhmalbaf making fictional stories in film) that is based on fact
(the reality Makhmalbaf transforms into fiction). (18)

Kiarostami sees Close-Up as an anti-cliche film: "Something actually happened in the film that was inspired entirely by the subject matter and the characters involved." (19) The real people, from opposite social strata, came to accept each other through the cinema. Yet what was it that had attracted the characters to each other in the first place? Fascinated by the interplay between fact and fantasy, Kiarostami wanted to explore all that Sabzian was seeking. The director has his own answer:

He wasn't a fraud, rather he was infatuated by an image. That's why
what a filmmaker could do for him was to rehabilitate him, to portray
him as a young man in love with the cinema ... Sabzian is a martyr, a
man in love, although many are convinced he's an impostor. The truth I
am eagerly trying to pull out ... is that deep down, he's a good
man. (20)

Some might take issue with Kiarostami's concept and method of rehabilitation, yet he insists that the "culprit" must be regarded through the eyes of an artist and not judged by a court of law because, at a loss for what the society should have been able to provide him when he needed it, he has resorted to his imagination, though there is no space for him to express it. (21)

What a different character Kiarostami offers us in The Wind Will Carry Us--a filmmaker sent from Teheran with a small crew to the Kurdish countryside, near Urumiye, to a place named White Village that they call "Black Valley," to document the burial ritual of an elderly woman "about to die." To some extent the situation is analogous to that in Clouds of May, with filmmaker Muzaffer and his assistant, Sadik, the producer, arriving from Istanbul to impose on the Ceylan family their desire to make a film in western Anatolia enlisting Muzaffer's parents. For example, one of the most successful patterns of repetition in The Wind Will Carry Us is the routine by which the camera eye adjusts with sensitivity and wit its angle, distance, and frame for capturing the villagers--young and old, men and women--relentlessly at work, tending to the harvest or the babies or the digging beside the idle filmmaker whose human subject, one of the village elders, is too healthy and steadfast to become exotica dished up for the consumption of urban dwellers by way of her funeral.

"Are you always going to sit in the shade like this?" Emin jibes Muzaffer, who is parked at a table on the grass with his tiny camera like a fifth appendage, leaning back in his chair, contemplating his production as the wind blows the leaves of his notebook up against his raised feet and then blows the leaves of trees along the ground. The father has cut hay with a scythe, filled buckets from a well and watered his young trees, hauled kindling, and finally resists his son's offer to chop it because Muzaffer doesn't know how and has to be shown. Emin sprays his trees with pesticides from a tank on his back and our camera (after an intermediary shot to a tadpole fleeing through the stream) tracks him in real time, in his old shorts and mud boots and wide-brimmed straw hat, all the way back to the tool shed. "Are films shot with a small camera like this?" the father asks repeatedly. Muzaffer, all but dozing in the warm wind, looks aloof to the old man, but our camera shows him watching, with a mindful eye, and listening, to his father's elaborate explanation of the natural history of his woods and the land survey team's heedless policies. It's worth noting that this scene immediately follows a glorious establishing shot of the golden meadow and rich green forest, in which Ceylan's 35 mm Aaton pans across the horizon from the village to the hills to the woods and then, with a point-of-view shot shared by father and son, creates a nearly circular shooting space that returns to them and their seamless vista.

While The Wind Will Carry Us, also a handsomely mounted critique of the self-willed filmmaker, speaks with a visual language of awe-inspiring landscapes, its human interactions are truncated, and Kiarostami restricts his lens to very few faces, mostly those of the director (endlessly shaving on his balcony and thereby drawing even more attention to his face, or driving to "higher ground" to talk on his cell phone to the people in his production office in Teheran, whom we never see) and his schoolboy informant, unreliable as he may choose to be. The camera (as in earlier and especially subsequent Kiarostami films) presents most of the other faces as structured absences within the frame or just outside it, some upstaged by the director's body, others obscured by the bundles of grain they transport or the ditches they dig or the walls of their abodes (as is the case with Mrs. Malek, the occasion for the documentary to be made, who lives--conveniently--below the director so he can spy on her hovel), even though these people are vital to the life of the village (for example the school teacher's mother whose history-scarred face we never get to see) and to the parable of the larger film--which tells us, among other maxims, that life renews itself and is too precious to be spent waiting for its end. For proof, the director kicks over a tortoise in exasperation and the animal, left to its own devices, turns itself over using the edge of a plant and keeps right on going!

Ceylan's approach to a similar theme is nearly antithetical in its lingering on faces that may be expressive or impenetrable, on gestures and activities, allowing them their natural time and rhythms, favoring middle distances to close-ups in order to bind the living form to its animate space, even for perusing the family photographs that are a motif of the film-inside-the-film. An un-self-conscious fondness for the subject emerges organically from this shooting style (to the extent, for example, that in Clouds of May the tortoise actually pushes the frame as it motivates the camera into its own screen space leaving Muzaffer to fend for himself in the rain, and in The Small Town the tortoise is personified in Ali's guilty dream as his mother rolls off a window ledge trying to turn herself upright, after earlier that day the boy left the tortoise on its back). Native to the region and known to live long lives, the tortoises in each film are suggestive of the elders who stubbornly resist death, but if Kiarostami's director vents his frustration on the animal, Ceylan's child is merely testing his own curiosity, as his sister does when she stands on the creature's shell. Life in all its peculiarities is astounding.

If Kiarostami himself is drawn to the particulars of village life in "Black Valley," the bored director and film crew in The Wind Will Carry Us become preoccupied with the "fruits of the land"--literally strawberries, and figuratively speaking, the local "berries" in comparison with "those of Teheran." Likewise, the distracted banter of the film team centers on the quest for "country milk" until the director finally finds it from exactly the right source. In contrast to Mirror's cameos of Tarkovsky's mother and its poetry by his father (let alone vignettes of the filmmaker coming of age as a "guiding light"), Kiarostami's centerpiece scene here offers a curious homage. First, it is separated from the larger fiction film's pursuit of the documentary that never gets made by a cut to a long moment with a black screen. Then the scene's esoteric setting of a cellar barn reached via a dark staircase and the chiaroscuro lighting that selects and excludes images for the composition of the shot are used to illustrate allegorically the director character's monologue, which is his recitation and seductive "teaching" of Forugh Farrakhzad's celebrated poem (after which Kiarostami entitles his film). (22) The entire scene is structured, it would seem, to evoke and honor the beloved poet, to sustain the tenor of her poem, which suggests a longing for human connection and the frail beauty of that wish.

What Kiarostami achieves by inserting the poem into his film in this way is both questionable and controversial. It's worth more than a footnote here to direct further reflection on the matter to Hamid Dabashi's thoughtful and articulate discussion of the film in relation to issues of gender, ethnicity, the potential of the camera, and the global uses of cinema. (23) Beyond this, though he claims he doesn't like metaphors, Kiarostami's entire film is a metonymic interpretation of the poet's poignant stanzas and his own figuring of them as a critique of insensitive ethnographic filmmaking (which is enterprising enough, and invites a whole new layer of reflection on "films about filmmaking," given the poet's fame for her own ethnographic documentary of a leper colony not far from "Black Valley" near Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, The House Is Black). For the sake of focusing this discussion on Ceylan, suffice it to say that one of the final shots of The Wind Will Carry Us, the panorama of White Village/Black Valley perched in the twilight as lamps are lit in each hillside home, is spellbinding. The lights shine suspended in the air between heaven and earth, and the sensation is as memorable and emblematic of the film as any of its artful moments.

Nonetheless, what we see in Ceylan is another approach to the quiet magic of human connection altogether--in the narrative, the characters, and the wordless poetry of his creation of space and time. In all his films, Ceylan is not an outside intruder (as if Kiarostami's "director" had the capacity to emanate this effect, given the village's relative indifference to him); Ceylan is going home, to the people and place where he has spent all of his childhood (Kasaba or Turgutlu) or youth and adulthood (Istanbul). Muzaffer's motivations are not expressed in dialogue in Clouds of May, and he may yawn with boredom on occasion or deride his cast, but their positions regarding his seeming obsession to film them are the fiber and texture of the story. Emin's determination to stake his ground against the land administration and devote twenty more years to the regeneration of the forest, little Ali's perseverance to carry a hen's egg in his pocket for forty days without breaking it to prove the responsibility Fatma demands of him in exchange for a musical watch, and Saffet's predisposition to dream of a bigger life rather than to make it happen are the rituals of daily life that obstruct Muzaffer's filmmaking.

"Boil the egg," the director tells the child.
"That would be cheating," responds Ali.
"Well, it's going to hatch with the heat of your hand," the adult informs the child.
And would that be so bad? Ali holds the egg up to his ear to see if he can hear it. "It's the birds," he realizes. But it could be the chick, or the film, in Ceylan's loving hands.

Not only are the characters' preoccupations the pulse of the narrative--just look at their gait as they march off on their missions--but their dreams are the heartbeat that allows each of them to suffer Muzaffer's whim at all. And suffer it they do, reluctantly, but gracefully--not at first, and not at all like professionals, but like the characters Muzaffer wants. "Things that happen behind the camera are more fascinating, more life-like, more down-to-earth," says Kiarostami, who made Through the Olive Trees to address the process of shooting a film, his own film, And Life Goes On. (24) Muzaffer's parents play along with him, indulging his wish, chiding him or goading him from time to time--"You put me in these peasant clothes ..." grumbles Fatma--or just being their inquisitive, reasonable and good-natured selves.

Unlike Kiarostami's key scene in the barn, in Ceylan's scene at the campfire the director actually shoots the film-inside-a-film, alluding to the real Ceylan film, The Small Town. Rather than silencing a main character in a keyhole point of view with the director character's nearly disembodied voice reciting someone else's poetry, Ceylan unspools the minor anti-climaxes of Chekhovian characters with all their foibles adamantly vocalizing their needs.

"If God permits, I want to live at least another twenty years," Emin repeats flatly.

"Papa, you look at the camera too much ... Saffet, the pauses between your prompts to him are too long. We can't solve this in the dubbing ..." Muzaffer harps.

But his father is distracted, and grabs the klieg light to shine it up at the trees. And to our delight, a gleaming reverse shot gazes from a tree-top angle down on all of them. "They've marked every tree, like a string of pearls," announces Emin. "And you're wasting my time with a film!"

After an impasse the son agrees to fix the father's type-writer for him so he can complain to the authorities, and they begin again. "Try to laugh a bit more," Papa. And Emin finally gets the lines right and punctuates them with a loud, outrageously forced, "Ha, Ha, Haah!" It seems to run in the family, even from city to city, and from film to film.

In a world of such precarious emotions, no parables are fitting. For example, Ali can't learn the lesson of responsibility properly because he cheats with a stolen egg when his breaks, because he switches his goal to a watch that has a torch and a pen knife as well as music, and because, as Fatma has indicated to Muzaffer, Ali could have been taught it without the egg in the first place. So likewise the film's larger "lesson," on the value of life's fleeting days, doesn't work as a parable either. The closing shot of old Emin putting the campfire out at dawn, alone under a tree in his beloved woods with Ali's discarded egg in his pocket, fades to a white sky after he falls "asleep." We are moved not by what we know, as with the funeral in The Wind Will Carry Us and a director who is not shooting it, but by what we feel and can never know, the movement between sleep and dream, or, perhaps, between this world and a hereafter, a somewhere beyond.

And then there is memory, which rekindles time, and we can notice that Ceylan achieves it in Clouds of May as matter of rhythm in handling his theme of doubles. Earlier the boy has sat waiting for Fatma, unwittingly raising the bile of his Uncle Emin by tapping a rat-a-tat-tat with his feet that echoes the pecking of the elder on his typewriter. "Sit properly!" barks Emin. Then Ali, bored, takes an heirloom photo off the wall, one of Emin and Fatma in their early days, and holds it up to his squinting eye as he blocks out Fatma to compare Emin's current face with his younger one. It doesn't help that Emin can see him do this from the other room, but which is worse--that, or the nagging, pronounced passing of time as Ali waits, which is exacerbated by the swinging, creaking door he leaves open once he gets kicked out? Time is passing, Emin knows, in years and in moments, and it shapes the film we are watching but mostly within each frame; it is this quiet rhythm, within the moments, that breathes life into Ceylan's films.


And so there opens up before us the possibility of interaction with
infinity, for the great function of the artistic image is to be a kind
of detector of infinity ... towards which our reason and our feelings
go soaring, with joyful, thrilling haste.
--Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (25)

Just as the winter wonderland of Distant could be a snowy park in Moscow if it weren't for the minarets of mosques in lieu of crosses on golden cupolas, as The Small Town opens we could be seeing Dostoevsky's Idiot or Ivan the Fool from any Russian village, but he's Mad Ahmet (Muzaffer Ozdemir, once again), and Ali Kayaci's clarinet improvisation is exotic in its soulful solo. While Clouds of May is dedicated to Anton Chekhov, The Small Town is scripted from Emine Ceylan's autobiographical short story, "The Cornfield," and Chekhov gets a writer's credit along with Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his sister. The film's themes can be stated simply enough: children evolve from the rather wild and ruthless creatures they themselves discover in nature into compassionate human beings capable of kindness and forgiveness. At a gathering of three generations, they hear of war, death, hunger, and work, and as we do, they come to see their place in the family, the society, and the world. Yet as with all attempts to summarize poetry, this account tells nothing of the magic and wonder of the film in its everyday reality.

As is characteristic of Chekhov's work, at the core of The Small Town is the potential for growth, and it radiates outward. The use of space in the film follows circular patterns. Like pebbles tossed into the pond, the children, Hulya and Ali, and the adolescent Saffet as well make "waves" splashing up against parents and teachers, codes and laws. But at the center of it all--and somewhere in the sky--are their dreams. Clouds roll over the hills. Snow falls, and the cycle begins.

Two sequences are unforgettable in The Small Town and offer what could be called "signature scenes" of Ceylan's fascination with the revolving image through air and light. Together they set the pattern for an extended sequence later in the film in which flickering light structures a rotation of soliloquies around a summer night campfire. But first let's see what happens between the outdoor roll call at school, as children recite their patriotic vows of respect, support, and successful work, and the teacher's arrival in the classroom. One child, the last one in, gets the impulse to knock over a snowman standing just before the entry. Another, in the "dead" of winter, has launched the flight of a feather with his warm breath and enticed his classmates to join him. The feather floats from current to current aloft the puff of each new breath like an immortal snowflake looking for mischief--or adventure, or fantasy, but not the stove pipe that traps it near the ceiling before it makes its descent past the teacher's nose and onto his desk.

What is it that saves the scene, actually one long shot-sequence, from looking pretentious or gratuitous or being just a "flourish of style"? There is the time it takes as it lures the camera--the lens itself and the point of view--the reverie of each individual child as the feather, with its own inherent and organic time as opposed to that which is metered and monitored by the teacher, takes up its path, not unlike the fellow classmate Ismael who, as one child watches with fascination from the window, trudges down the hill from afar, knee-deep in snow with each boisterous step, dripping as he arrives, placing his icy boots near the fire at the room's center, hanging his wet socks on the stove pipe above it, and bashfully-brazenly setting a desk next to the cast-iron furnace where he sits with his bare feet, ready to join the ongoing lesson.

"The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame," Tarkovsky tells us. And this rhythm of the movement of time is the organizing force of a film's dramatic development.

The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit--perhaps that is what Pushkin meant when he said that 'Poetry has to be a little bit stupid.' (26)

So we feel the pressure of the time that runs through each frame, the living and breathing of what is visibly recorded, and we sense something happening beyond the events in front of us. Each moment arrives "independently and with dignity," and its ideas "find their place ... without fuss, bustle, haste." (27)

Ponder a sustained shot of Saffet, the angle low so as to place him in the sky, in stasis amidst a dozen chairs flying by in the clouds, carrying youths on a carnival ride as they whirl past him in their own orbit, dangling, kicking, laughing, screaming in the heady vocals of a loudspeaker's songs. The swirl of bodies could be a dream--muted in color, light, and line--for we see it in the shadows of the moving clouds, reflected in the water of a well. Saffet is there, too, only he's in focus. Right away we're inside his heart, but we wait a whole season to hear his feelings, at a summertime corn roast by the fire:

I've got no home, no friends, no job. I'm a loser. You're fed up with my discontentment. I've no talent for anything. I'm like a useless cigarette butt. My best years were wasted stuck in this town. My manhood and my heart are melting away before my eyes. There were deeper ties binding me ... when I was away in the service--the scent of pine, oaks, quiet mornings, stray dogs ... what's wrong with wanting to go some place where something serious is going on?

And around the fire, Grandfather Emin telling of his battles and feats in Turkey and India, the little ones filling in when he forgets and asking for the parts with elephants or Alexander the Great in times of old. The father segues to tales of the town and its needs, and family feuds open up to personal memories and dreams that flicker in the flames or rustle in the leaves--Fatma's tears, little Ali's guilt, his father's resignation, Saffet's alienation, Grandfather's hope, and the bard's sense of renewal, for we are hearing Emine Ceylan's "The Cornfield" all the while we see the elements--fire and snow, water and sky, the earth and the heavens--that make up Ceylan's "small town."


So much, after all, remains in our thoughts and hearts as unrealized
--Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (28)

A man. A woman. First separate, then together. First younger, then older. First photographs, then moving faces. The rumble of a drum, a bell, a chime, a gong, the sound of a closing door. Then a wipe to a black screen. And an opening to a world with all that now becomes ours: cornfields, a tombstone, the wind making a ruckus in the trees, clouds darkening in the sky. The woman crosses the water by boat. The man falls asleep as she fades away in a television dream. Their photo on the forest floor, buried in foliage, soil, and rain. A duckling struggles in the current, minnows swim against the flow of water reeds ... an empty house with only the ropes that once held a cradle from the beams, swinging. A boy kicks over a beehive, a tortoise pulls back inside his shell, the man chops down a tree. A cat lies dead, face-up, a white feather flapping on his belly. Drops hit window panes like falling tears, and outside falls the snow. The man sleeps by a bonfire, alongside heavy shadows.

We could describe the same film--Ceylan's 20-minute short, in luscious black and white without a word of dialogue--in the language of Ozu, with its eye-matched frames of photographed faces, circular mise en scene, transition shots to the cat or the stove, elided scenes, and sounds from somewhere near. Or in Tarkovskian terms of mirrored dreams, or in Chekhovian dualities. But we know it as Ceylan's, as it always was--life in all its astonishment, vanishing before our eyes, for it is perishable. And it is eternal.

The image, embodying life in all its uniqueness, stretches out into infinity, Tarkovsky tells us; it is the form that comes closest to expressing the filmmaker's world, to "making incarnate his longing for the ideal." As such it is an impression of the truth, or a glimpse of it, for we can never see to the end of all it points to. What's more, it generates the most embattled and mutually exclusive of feelings. Therefore, the image is not "a certain meaning ... but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water". (29)


A poet is something you are allowed to be, but not allowed to become.
--Herman Hesse (30)

Like Tarkovsky, Kiarostami was attracted to drawing as a child, and while Tarkovsky studied cinema, Kiarostami studied fine art and went on to discover the Italian neorealists. Preferring to shoot on location, to work with children and non-professional actors, and to improvise rather than relying strictly on a formal screenplay, he works as Ceylan does. Using the camera as an unobtrusive observer in art and in life, Kiarostami has given audiences verite-like representations of the naked, palpable, sensual, real world. Likewise he has taught filmmakers how to explore that world, spend time in it, respond to it without requiring it to mean something else, something bigger. That is, he brings us life before it gets named and boxed and super-scribed, before it is coded with conventions for looking at screens. Kiarostami has come to see cinema as a non-didactic way of teaching.

Ceylan, however, indulges his camera gaze on his parents, cousins, and friends with all the devoted attention with which lgnat scrutinizes Da Vinci's drawings or Tarkovsky conjures Breughel in Mirror. The details of Ceylan's films may be tiny and subtle, but each illuminates a larger view. The dualities in his world shift from doubles to rhymes to dreams as seamlessly as clouds, pregnant as the month of May. Ceylan comes to film, and film to Ceylan, without barriers. It's as if he etches his colors on glass, each stroke delicately distinct but of a piece with the others, moving and growing as we look at them, with their own moods and tones but Ceylan's loving light shining through them.

Ceylan has discussed making Clouds of May as a way of repenting for his own disinterested behavior toward his family in filming The Small Town. (31) Likewise he has pointed to a relation between himself and the photographer in Distant, explaining him as an intellectual whose habits are problematic because, earning money, he feels he doesn't need other people:

... So you don't want anything from other people, and in return you
don't give anything to people. It's as if you've earned the right not
to help others, by having become economically strong enough not to
need the help of others. (32)

At the same time, not working toward his ideals, Mahmut dislikes himself and "turns that dislike onto others ..."

I was like that, before finding cinema. With film I could create a
peace in my soul. It's like therapy; you put the dark aspects of
yourself into films, and get rid of them--or at least control them
better. (33)

Kiarostami has talked about himself in relation to Close-Up. but in a somewhat different light. In watching it from the projection room as it premiered at a festival:

I was drawn to what was happening in Sabzian's head. The film was like
therapy. I was so much like Sabzian and the Ahankhah brothers--I also
cheat and get cheated, I also need respect. The identification I felt
with Sabzian was something I thought only I felt because we have the
same social background, but at the festival people related so deeply
to him, they came up to ask me how he was doing today ... (34)

Interestingly, Kiarostami looks at the receiving end, Ceylan at the making end. And Tarkovsky, we can say, enters at the point of theory. Striving to make a film about a man who was tormented by the feeling that he hadn't loved his family enough, he made Mirror to address the sorrow, anxiety, and pain. "When I finished (it) ... childhood memories which for years had given me no peace suddenly vanished, as if they had melted away." (35) At last he stopped dreaming about the house where he had lived so many years, where something always prevented him from entering. And in Mirror the adult narrator tells us,

When I dream of the log walls and dark pantry, I sense that it's only
a dream. Then joy is clouded, for I know I'll wake up. Sometimes
something happens, and I stop dreaming of the house and the pines by
the house of my childhood. Then I grieve and wait for the dream ...
that will make me a child again, and I'll be happy again, knowing ...
that all still lies ahead ... and nothing is impossible.

Each artist, we see, holds up illusions for what they are--the looming response to the need for them. And each knows full well the cost of losing them.

And so each is master in his own way (often in spite of himself): Tarkovsky the Messiah, Kiarostami the Teacher, and Ceylan the Good Doctor, at our disposal. (36) The surrealist, the neorealist, the impressionist administering spirituality, morality, and compassion, in turn, for the sake of one's art, one's fellow citizens, one's family. Offering neither proofs nor explanations but ambiguities and contradictions, they confound us with questions--how did we get here and where are we headed, how do we live with our ideals and our limits, how can we be intimate when as the world grows it slips away? We look at these questions from one author's works to the next, for we find a dynamic interplay among these artists and within their own works as well. Ceylan as case-in-point, we find Cocoon to be at the core of each subsequent work, linking their images and characters, settings and motifs with resonance and warmth. As a whole Ceylan's oeuvre at once dilates and focuses our world with perspectives and experiences that point to but are not the same as the myriad ones before them. The Eye of the Sky looks on--through and beyond the clouds, to the truth in you and me.


Diane Sippl is a Los Angeles-based scholar, critic, and programming consultant of contemporary world cinema and American independent filmmaking. She holds a PhD in Comparative Culture from the University of California Irvine and her teaching includes positions at UCI and UCLA. She also serves as American correspondent to the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg.

1 Ballerini, Luigi, "Eliseo Mattiacci: Gazer of Skies and Horizons of Expectation," Mattiacci: Occhio del Cielo, Danilo Montanari Editore, Ravenna, Italy, 2005.
2 Andrew, Geoff, "Beyond the Clouds: An Interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan," www.sensesofcinema.com, June, 2004, p. 5.
3 Farrokhzad, Forugh, "Gift," Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Ed., Nik Publishers, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada, 1997. The volume also contains her poem, "The Wind Will Take Us Away," and both poems are recited in their entirety in Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999.
4 Eliseo Mattiacci's Eye of the Sky was installed as a gift of the artist in the Sculpture Garden at the University of California, Los Angeles on May 26, 2005.
5 Andrew, Geoff, "Beyond the Clouds ...", p. 1.
6 "If I like my heroine ... then I don't hide it in the story ... the important thing for me (is) the falsity of the heroes against their own truthfulness. Peter Dmitrich lies and plays the clown in court, he's dull and hopeless, but I cannot conceal that by nature he's a nice gentle man. Olga lies at every step, but there's no need to hide the fact that this lying is painful for her," Chekhov tells us in The Party and Other Stories, p. 8. Duality, duplicity, and self-delusion are only some examples of all the themes that Chekhov and Ceylan share, let alone their poetics of nature, time, the seasons and all their accompanying images.
7 Tarkovsky, Andrey, Sculpting in Time, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1987, p. 110.
8 Bingham, Adam, "The Spaces In-Between: The Cinema of Yasujiro Ozu," CineAction Magazine, Issue 63, Spring, 2004.
9 Tarkovsky, Andrey in Turovskaya, Maya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 71
10 Kiarostami, Abbas in Rohani, Omid, "Interview with Abbas Kiarostami, Film, Teheran, 1994.
11 Ceylan, Nuri Bilge, interview included on DVD of Distant, NBC Film, 2002.
12 Thomas, Kevin, "Mismatched Pair Connect," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2004, p. E14.
13 Ceylan, Nuri Bilge, interview included on DVD of Distant, NBC Film, 2002.
14 Tarkovsky, Andrey in Turovskaya, Maya, p. 61.
15 Tarkovsky, Arseniy in Turovskaya, Maya, p. 68.
16 Turovskaya, Maya, p. 66
17 Salaam Cinema is Makhmalbaf's fiction film about the havoc that acting in cinema can wreak on one's life. The casting for that film is documented in his mock(?)umentary, Cinema, Cinema, for which 100 actors were needed and 50,000 showed up at auditions.
18 Dabashi, Hamid, Close-Up: Iranian Cinema, London, Verso, 2001, p. 67.
19 Kiarostami, Abbas, interview included on DVD of Close-Up, 1990.
20 Catalog for International Film Festival, Locarno, Switzerland, 1990.
21 Kiarostami, Abbas, interview included on DVD of Close-Up, 1990.
22 See "The Wind Will Take Us Away," Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad.
23 Dabashi, Hamid, Close-Up: Iranian Cinema, London, Verso, 2001. As a hint at this discussion, two quotes: If Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, and (prior to this) Abbas Kiarostami had "restored a universal dignity to the people they redrafted for the world at large," in the stable scene of The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami does precisely the opposite of universalizing Iranian dignity; he begins to particularize a universal indignity" (p. 255); "What is particularly disturbing about the stable sequence is that Kiarostami's camera is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is not even aware of its power, and in this oblivion, he exerts this power against the weakest, most vulnerable, and mutest subject" (p. 254).
24 In the end, three films by Kiarostami came to be known as the "Rostamabad trilogy": Homework, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees; each subsequent one after the first one alludes to the process of making the film before it.
25 Sculpting in Time, p. 109
26 Sculpting in Time, p. 114-116
27 Sculpting in Time, p. 120
28 Sculpting in Time, p. 22
29 Sculpting in Time, p. 104-111
30 Quoted in Sculpting in Time, p. 29
31 Franklin, Anna, Screen International, September, 2000.
32 Andrew, Geoff, "Beyond the Clouds: An Interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan," www.sensesofcinema.com, June, 2004, p. 2
33 Ceylan, Nuri Bilge in an interview with Geoff Andrew, Time Out London, May 19-26, 2004, p. 73.
34 Kiarostami, Abbas, interview included on DVD of Close-Up, 1990.
35 Sculpting in Time, p. 128.
36 Tarkovsky, Andrey, in Sculpting in Time, "Art has the capacity, through shock and catharsis, to make the human soul receptive to good" (p. 50); "Art acts above all on the soul, shaping its spiritual structure" (p. 41); "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plow and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good" (pp. 43).


Citation Details
Title: Ceylan and company: autobiographical trajectories of cinema.(Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Author: Diane Sippl
Publication: CineAction (Magazine/Journal)
Date: June 22, 2005
Publisher: Thomson Gale
Issue: 67 Page: 44(14)