Autobiographical trajectories of cinema.
Diane Sippl, Cine Action, Issue:67, June
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.
THE CITY: DISTANT
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
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.
THE FILM: CLOUDS OF MAY
When the cinema escapes from the power of money (I mean
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
become first among the arts, and its muse the queen of all the muses.
--Andrey Tarkovsky in Maya Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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 ..."
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
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.
THE SMALL TOWN: KASABA
And so there opens up before us the possibility of interaction
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
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."
THE PARENTS: COCOON
So much, after all, remains in our thoughts and hearts
--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
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
--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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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,
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"
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.
Title: Ceylan and company: autobiographical trajectories of cinema.(Nuri
Author: Diane Sippl
Publication: CineAction (Magazine/Journal)
Date: June 22, 2005
Publisher: Thomson Gale
Issue: 67 Page: 44(14)