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from “kasaba” to “uzak”

Pinar Ogunc, Turkish Time, No:16, May-June 2003

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a candidate for The Golden Palm in The Cannes Festival, with his latest film. We had an enjoyable chat with him “from here to Distant”.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most original names in the Turkish Film industry. He resembles a child playing silently in a corner of the house, and then emerging from the corner with a magnificent painting in his hand, surprising the whole neighborhood. “Kasaba (The Small Town)”, “Mayýs Sýkýntýsý (Clouds of May)”,”Uzak” (Distant)… We started the chat with short sentences, and the conversation deepened. Ceylan is a candidate for the Golden Palm with his latest movie, “Distant”; he is such a person that if he were a painter, he would have painted differently, same if he were a shoemaker…

TURKISHTIME: You do not give interviews frequently; do you not like talking about your movies?

NURI BILGE CEYLAN: The real danger is starting to repeat the same things, I guess, then a person gets bored with himself.

The same way you do not enjoy award ceremonies, either?

No, the stage is not my ‘scene’. But of course awards advertise the movie. For example, someone who gets an award in the Cannes Movie Festival can find a producer for his next movie very easily. There is also the issue of finance; it makes the person feel very comfortable for the next project. The awards are not holy judgment, on the other hand, if four-five people change in the jury, the results also change. One must not exaggerate this event….

Is your biggest “gain” the awards you won?

There are also some box office revenues, but foreign sales are the really important part. There are commercial sales, as well as sales to televisions. I can say that I have always made enough money left for my next movie.

Recently when you were accepting your “Best Director” and “Best Film” awards, you mentioned that you donated part of the monetary award to two young short-film makers. Who are these people?

Last year, I was the only one selecting the winner in the short film competition that was organized by IFSAK (Association of Istanbul Photography and Movie Amateurs). After some deliberation, I did not select these two young people for the award of their movie. I thought they had some technical problems. They entered in the documentary category; their story was about a family that had to be split through no one’s fault. In time, this movie affected me deeply; it was very touching. I could not forget it even after one year. I felt guilty and asked for the movie from IFSAK again and liked it very much. That is why I wanted to share my award with them, to be a contribution for their next project. They found out through the newspapers and they thanked me. They were about to make a new movie and they had financial difficulties. So it looks like it was very timely.

In your movies most of the cast are your acquaintances, relatives, close friends. This must have advantages for sure, but are there any disadvantages on the set?

Of course there are; firstly you can conduct a more systematic work with professional actors. Your friends and relatives may be recalcitrant because of your closeness. I end up allowing things that I would not allow others to get away with. For example, just when we are getting ready to shoot, my mum would say, “I will not act now”.

Working with professional actors does not seem to match your cinema language. Are you always on the lookout scouting for actors within your own circle? When you run out of your friends, will you “discover” someone new?

I truly want to discover. I am sensitive to people whose gestures and movements I find meaningful, like all other directors, I guess. For example, recently my sister was having her house renovated. She told me about the master workman doing the work; I wanted to meet him so I went immediately; and I was really impressed when I met him.

While you are bringing people from your life into the foreground of your movies, how autobiographical is, say, “Distant”, your last movie?

Believe me when I say I do not know, either. If I sit down and think about the scenes individually, perhaps I can discover some autobiographical events; there is a lot of it but it is difficult to differentiate. Lives of my friends, my own past, observations, feelings, they all come together and their sources are forgotten. Çehov used to do this, as well as Sait Faik. Both wrote about the lives of the people around them. They never contained very interesting issues. If we know how to look, life is very colorful; human scenery is the richest scenery in the world. Look at the next table, there is definitely a story there.

Do you like eavesdropping on people you do not know?

My favorite! I can even say that I enjoy it more than watching movies. Tragedies of my own life never make me cry, but my eyes water when I look at a mother-daughter walking together. It is more touching. Also I think people are more impressive from behind. I saw a person the other day, someone I never liked and I thought I never would; he was walking in front of me by coincidence one afternoon. The way his shoulders stooped, the way his head was held kind of crooked, was so touching that I forgave him for everything. People definitely look defenseless from behind. So you can watch them with a free conscience.

In 1989, in the Argos magazine your photographs were published; a series with the caption “Naked and the Sea”. You wrote a foreword and you defined your purpose as, “providing a new and bearable form to authenticity and trying to organize chaos”. On the other hand you had a cautious approach that said, “you may be indifferent to these, they may not concern you”. Is this an entry sentence that goes well with your cinema language as well?

Perhaps. Those sentences really smell of youth; now they feel a little exaggerated to me. It feels as if there is also a self-protecting instinct in that cautious stance. Let me say that I do not like assertive and exaggerated statements.

We know your mother, your father, a lot of details about your childhood places, about your life; we can even imagine sections from your life. But personally you say so few words yourself, about yourself, that we never can get close to Nuri Bilge Ceylan….

Truths are not revealed in interviews. An interviewee certainly behaves protectively. I am sure a more honest conversation will start when this tape recorder is turned off. Let me also say this; I try to be as honest as possible. Because I like reading interviews; I prefer the ones with a higher ratio of truth. I try not to lie as much as I can. Really, I am ready to expose my weaknesses when the time comes.

Is it easy to create a lie sitting in the Director’s chair?

I believe, lies in movies can be caught very easily by a smart audience. In movies, dishonesty and mistakes are revealed very easily. One must think that the audience would catch everything and make a movie for an audience at least as smart as you are.

If independent cinema was born out of an understanding, a tradition, as well as out of necessity, why has it worked so slowly in Turkey?

There are too many people trying to do it; everyone I talk to has a scenario. Digital technology provides justice on production equality, even though it takes away a lot. There will be more people with scenarios. People who cannot find in movies their perception of life, will have the desire to reflect their own world. Variety is borne out of this. Maybe there is a history to this that we do not know of. For example Yýlmaz Güney felt that the existing cinema (then) did not meet the cinema of his dreams. I do not think it has a lot to do with money. I saw that everyone who reached that stage managed to somehow make a film. It has more to do with intentions. There is a myth as if making movies is very difficult. Unfortunately, people who make movies also encourage this myth, to have what they do be perceived as important. It is a separate thing to shoot good movies, but shooting movies is no big deal. It really is not difficult at all.

You manipulate the light, the darkness, filters, but you are also talking about a Çehov filter. What does the Çehov filter do to the image?

Oscar Wilde said, “Nature imitates art”. Then he said, “Are you aware of this, but recently the nature started resembling the landscape of the chorus”. Really when the artist offers a new appearance of the world, it looks contrary to the viewer at first. In time nature starts changing shape under the influence of this work of art, and we start looking at the trees, the outside world, our neighborhood with this view. You look differently at the people and real life after reading Çehov stories. Thanks to characters like Çehov, Sait Faik, even simple human relations started looking very colorful to me. The Çehov filter is something like that. Sometimes a friend can also give you glasses like that.

Do you also dream with these filters? Are clouds, for example, huge and darker than everything else as in your movies?

I am very sorry to say that I see very few dreams anymore. I dream, but I think I forget. Of course those gloomy skies always felt more meaningful to me. I did not want the sky to look white, when I was a photographer. I like gloomy weather.

In “Distant” being “from the small town” is underscored the most. One is moved by the feeling of meekness about being from the small town in the big city. Is Turkey in a way “from the small town” of the world? In the “big city” does the Turkish person, the Turkish movie, the Turkish music get that sense of meekness?

It is absolutely correct that Turkey is from the small town of the world. I started going to Europe when I was 17; the disparity of those places is startling. They also make you feel somehow the extent to which they view Turkey as the small town. I do not know how they view what we produce, but personally I do not feel meek. In the beginning I used to feel strange when I responded to questions about my movies abroad on a stage. There was a feeling of something missing, some sort of danger, but this has today gone away.

What do you think the Cannes Movie Festival jury liked about “Distant”?

I cannot know that. The Cannes selection committee was familiar with my work. They were undecided as to whether to include “Clouds of May” in the competition. I had chosen the Berlin Movie Festival then, because I could not wait for them to decide. Maybe their reason is not only “Distant”; maybe they did not want to have it snatched by Berlin, either.

Are you nervous?

No, I am used to it. Only this is a good opportunity for selling this movie, we must prepare for it. Preparing brochures, renting mobile phones, thinking about subtitles,…

Do you prepare answers to possible interview questions?

No, when I go for an interview, I would want my head to be clear. Otherwise new ideas do not surface.

Is there anything new in this interview?

I think so; you delved into some things well. The same questions will get the same answers.