After his wife leaves him, a photographer has an existential crisis and tries to cope with his cousin’s visit.
A cockerel crows and a Man From The Country traipses through a field covered in deep snow, a small silhouette making its slow, unsteady way across the white. Behind him the thin white tower of a minaret stands out against the greys and browngreens of an Anatolian hillside dotted haphazardly with uninspiring downbeat houses, unfinished building-works and untended stone terraces, a bland landscape of rural conventionality from which this solitary black figure is seeking to put some distance. Dogs bark, sheep bleat and cars can be heard driving by, all unseen as the Man From The Country walks further away from the village until, for a few moments, beneath the lip of an embankment he too disappears, briefly, only to re-emerge first just as a bobbing head of curly black hair and then as a thickset leather-jacketed 27-year-old climbing up the snowy verge. Breathing heavy from his exertions he stops in front of the static camera and takes one last look back at the same landscape that we ourselves have been contemplating this past minute-and-a-half and then, hitching his faux-American athletics bag over one shoulder he walks off-screen and out of the crisp chill of the tableaux. After a moment or two more at rest on this rural vista completely devoid now of human presence, the camera pans slowly left to reveal more of the ramshackle village nestling in the snowy foothills, finally coming to a stop framing a shot of a tarmac road that snakes its way back into the snow-covered distance, flanked on its left side by a leafless black tree reaching up to touch a pale and clear morning sky.
The Man From the Country is Mehmet Emin Toprak, a manual worker from a provincial ceramics factory who has once again been given leave by his bosses to help his cousin from Istanbul make another film. This the third time in four years that Toprak has taken a sabbatical from his job manufacturing tiles to join the man in the blue puffa jacket bent over the Aaton 35mm film camera by the side of another rural Turkish highway. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is photographer, screenwriter, director, cameraman, editor, producer and devotee of that poetic realist strand of Slavonic high culture epitomised by Chekhov, Dostoevsky and by Tarkovsky the Russian cine-literateur par excellence of impressionistic space and time. Toprak plays Yusef, The Man From The Country, recently laid-off from his factory job and heading for the big city to find work on a merchant ship and to make his fortune on the high seas far away from this empty backwater. The provincial migrant plans to stay for a few days in Istanbul with his cousin, the metropolitan Mahmut, a commercial photographer of ceramic tiles who once harboured dreams ‘of making movies like Tarkovsky’ and whose bookcases are decorated with portraits of the bearded authors of Ward No.6 and Crime and Punishment. Mahmut is played by Muzaffer Ozdemir, an architect not an actor and a friend of Ceylan’s who, with his sullen, jaded demeanour and hangdog expression behind a permanent beard of stubble exudes ennui both here and in Clouds of May (1999), the preceding film in Ceylan’s autobiographical trilogy.
Ceylan’s first three features, in each of which Toprak enacts variations on the same restless country-boy archetype yenning for release from his small-town confines, form a loose triad of melancholy and starkly beautiful films meditating lyrically on the theme of nostalgia. The films detail rural life through a stylised and contemplative high art mode, an aesthetic embodiment of the cosmopolitan cineaste Ceylan’s return to those intertwined provincial social realities and personal histories that, as a successful art cinema auteur, he has since left behind. Ceylan’s cinema of nostalgia, both stylised and sad, subdued yet celebratory, abstract yet at times emotionally brutal, has something of Terence Davies’ painful and poetic return to the working-class neighbourhoods of his Liverpool youth in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). For Davies and Ceylan nostalgia is not a longing for some lost, imagined past, whether in the sing-song communality of Northern pubs or the night picnics shared in Anatolian fields by three generations of a village family. It is instead, an etymologically faithful pain (algia) upon having to return home once again (nostos = homecoming), it is the experience of an exilic state at the very site one most expects, or rather is most expected, to experience a profound sense of affective belonging. Uzak, we could argue in line with Turkish film scholar Asumen Suner, is visually, as well as thematically, ‘a film not so much about mobility and displacement, as the sense of getting stuck in an engulfing place where one is supposed to belong’ (2006, emphasis added).
Eschewing flamboyant camera movements, le travelling of Theo Angelopoulos and the filigree cinematography of Davies’ ornamentalism, Ceylan’s gaze on the run-down mise en scène of provincial life is pared down, minimalist. The basic unit of his austere aesthetic is the achingly poetic long-take-instasis, the perfectly balanced static composition taken with his photographer’s eye for leading lines and layers of pulled focus, an aesthetic of quotidian beauty that partakes in what Jonathon Romney calls the ‘haunted ruralism of Tarkovsky’s Mirror’ (2004), while simultaneously attending to the melancholy lyricism to be found in the rusted detritus of urban living and post-industrial decay as pointed to in Stalker. For Yusef, Istanbul is The City, the national destination of choice of post-war migration from the countryside, a place that accepts all newcomers, regardless of their ugly sweaters, stinking shoes and naff leathers, but a place that very quickly becomes for The Man From The Country an extension of the cold and lonely snowfield he seeks to escape. Ceylan’s opening shot is a portrait of isolation, a lone figure shod in inappropriate shoes leaving behind friends and family without fanfare or farewell, and when Toprak’s Man From The Country re-enters the frame to flag down a passing car the screen cuts to black before we even see him negotiate the hitch in silence, leaving the audience to read the film’s opening credits to the sound of car doors opening and closing and an engine revving up and pulling away but without a single word being exchanged. This image of a man completely isolated, unable either alone or in company to connect or communicate is one that Ceylan repeats throughout the film, both in Yusef’s interactions in the snowy streets of Istanbul and mirrored in the icy misanthropy of his cousin Mahmut’s world-weary cynicism. ‘
The winter wonderland of Distant could be a snowy park in Moscow,’ writes Diane Sippl, ‘if it weren’t for the minarets of mosques in lieu of crosses on golden cupolas’ (2005). Ploughing through the whiteout and chill winds of a snowbound Istanbul in a cramped jeep with his skeleton crew of family and friends in tow, Ceylan is able to imbue his Photographer of Ceramics and The Man From The Country with the tragi-comic emptiness of a Levantine Chekhov or the naive aimlessness of a Dostoevskian Idiot as they both seek out some impossible warmth in the solitary city. Just as this accident of freak weather conditions draws out the film’s Russian antecedents, Ceylan’s filmmaking announces both explicitly and more allusively its cinematic influences, as noted in the oft-made citing of the inspirational example of Tarkovsky. Both in name and through clips of his films watched within the diegesis, references to Tarkovsky abound, but there are more oblique intertextual allusions dotted within Ceylan’s text to the work of the Russian filmmaker. The opening shot recalls the first view of the provincial doctor making his way slowly across a grassy field in Mirror and Yusef’s hypnogogic vision of a light emanating from his bedroom radiator is a Tarkovskian manipulation of film speed to create a moment of temporal disquiet. Mahmut’s dream of the falling lamp recalls the dreams of deluge and collapse and the falling apart of domestic space in Mirror, while the slow peregrinations of a ceramic egg rolling on the floor of Mahmut’s studio has the unsettling beauty of Tarkovsky’s famous shot of the fading imprint of an arm on a polished tabletop. Reading Diane Sippl’s description of Yusef’s first foray to find work on a ship, echoes of Tarkovsky’s Stalker are clearly discernible:
“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.” (Sippl 2005)
The dockyard, like The Zone in Stalker, has become an uncanny site of huge almost extraterrestrial artifice abandoned to the vicissitudes of awesome nature, and even for Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, whose reading of the scene is that Yusef ‘hardly notices’ the overhauled ship, Lane too recognises its uncanny presence, ‘like some relic of a forgotten civilization, or a frozen mammoth’ (2004). The strangeness of this image, however, goes beyond its transformation in Ceylan’s masterly tracking shot from beached shipwreck to unheimlich behemoth, his bricoleur’s virtuosic appropriation of found objects on an epic scale. The strangeness of this image is its precise literalness, its actuality as an image of material catastrophe otherwise glossed over in the film. After all, the inciting incident of Ceylan’s narrative is the closure of the factory where Yusef, his father and a thousand other men were formerly employed, a factory closure that has put an entire community out of work. The creaking hulk caked in ice is an index of Turkey’s economic collapse, of the 2001 financial crisis that left the country in a state of social ruin teetering on the verge of total submersion. The ship stands in for the manipulation of the stock markets and banking sector, the rapacious privatisation of public services and the imposition of damaging welfare reforms by the International Monetary Fund. As Ceylan himself notes in conversation with Geoff Andrew when discussing the urban alienation that economic self-sufficiency engenders:
“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.” (2004)
Despite its obvious artistic debts to a cosmopolitan intellectual culture, Ceylan’s filmmaking praxis is testimony to a more communal, more parochial culture of shared doing. City friends and family from the country double up as cast and crew, the Art Director Ebru Yapici (who will go on to marry Ceylan) playing the neighbourhood girl or Feridun Koç in the dual roles of the diminutive caretaker of Mahmut’s apartment building while also caretaking each day’s shoot as the film’s Line Producer. This artisanal mode of production is both a matter of economic and artistic necessity, of keeping down costs and maintaining control, as well as a lived corrective to the isolation of urban existence and the atomism of intellectual culture. Ceylan’s austere approach is as much an aesthetics of austerity and a collective mode of co-operative interdependence that look back to rural ways of working, of barn-raising, of shared olive presses and communal harvests. It is an economy of reciprocal exchange, a mutuality of kindness rewarding kindness in which neither Mahmut nor Yusef are able to feel truly at home.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Turkey. Production Company: NBC Ajans. Producer, Director, Cinematographer: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Editors: Ayhan Ergürsel and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Cast: Muzaffer Özdemir (Mahmut), Emin Toprak (Yusuf), Zuhal Gencer (Nasan).]
Geoff Andrew, ‘Beyond the Clouds: An Interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’, 2004. Available at http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/nuri_bilge_ceylan/ (accessed 9 April 2013).
Anthony Lane, ‘Men’s Secrets’ The New Yorker Magazine, 15 March 2004. Available at www. newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/15/ 040315crci_cinema (accessed 9 April 2013).
Jonathon Romney, ‘A Silky Sadness’, Sight & Sound, June 2004. Available at www.nbcfilm.com/ uzak/press_sightsoundjonathan.php (accessed 9 April 2013).
Diane Sippl, ‘Ceylan and Company: Autobiographical Trajectories of Cinema’, CineAction, June 2005. Available at www.nbcfilm.com/uzak/ press_cineaction.php (accessed 9 April 2013).
Asuman Suner, ‘Outside in: “accented cinema” at large’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 7, Number 3, 2006. Available at www.nbcfilm. com/uzak/press_screenasuman2.php (accessed 9 April 2013).
Asuman Suner, New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity and Memory, London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.