Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made it a point to discuss the matters closest to his heart – estrangement and stagnancy of human lives, especially in cities - with a certain intimacy and panache. No wonder, most of his films have garnered awards at Cannes film festival, and the Oscars. An engineer by degree and a photographer by profession, Ceylan turned to filmmaking in mid 90s. His first two films created quite a buzz but it was Uzak that made the world sit up and take notice of this man’s immense talent. Uzak, his tour de force, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes - exemplary achievement for a second effort!
Simply put, Uzak, or distant (as it is known in the English-speaking world), encompasses what can be best described as urban solitude. Its central characters are pretty much run-of-the-mill loners who’ve either accepted loneliness as a part of life, or are willing to accept it in exchange for something more important like, let’s say, money. They’re not much of talkers and making friends or having some fun seems to be the last item on their wishlists. In short, they’re not the kind of people one would want to pay much attention to, let alone watch a film on.
Let’s take Mahmut first. He’s a commercial photographer who’s clearly good at his work since he makes a good amount of money, but has seemingly traded off his artistic photography aspirations for more financially lucrative, but monotonous photography tasks like shooting tiles. He’s divorced, lonely and unexciting, and has no qualms about it. There is a mental and emotional stagnancy in his life that he’s accepted without the slightest desire to change. Then there is the country bumpkin Yusuf, who’s come to Istanbul scouting for a job since he was laid off from a factory back home. He wants to become a sailor in the hope of making money - understandable since he’s not doing so well. In Istanbul, he stays with his Mahmut, who’s richer, but definitely not any happier. Here they start their brief and what turns out to be fruitless association.
The film mostly revolves around the lives of the two as they try to bridge the emotional gap and bond with each other, only to realize that the distance has become unfathomable. Au contraire, the short association only deepens their own sense of alienation, so much that they can’t even communicate comfortably to decide on what to do with a trapped mouse. It’s not that they are unaware of their situation, it’s just that they don’t want to really change it, and that holds true especially for Mahmut. When Yusuf discloses his desire to become a sailor, he’s discouraged by his cousin who warns him that it is a life full of loneliness. Seems hypocritical coming from a man who’s all about that himself!
So what’s appealing about such a hackneyed subject? You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder. If you didn’t like the film the first time you watch it, you would be amongst the majority. As a matter of fact, many first time Ceylanians did not like his style of story-telling. But those who did watch it a few more times claim that his films gradually grew on them. It may take quite a few viewings, but loyalists insist that his films are among the best works around if you can get over the initial apprehensions about its painfully slow pace.
Perhaps it’s Ceylan’s treatment that makes them such masterpieces. His characters hardly talk; they communicate with their silences. Ask a sagacious filmmaker how difficult it is to make a film with hardly any dialogues and very few close-ups (as the only other feasible method to communicate would be to show facial expressions), and he’ll tell you that only a handful directors can really do that. Add to that long panoramic shots and monotonous characters and the task becomes almost massively difficult. If that weren’t enough, he employs amateurs to accomplish what would be difficult even for skilled actors.
But the immensely talented Ceylan pulls it off with aplomb. His own experiences also add a touch of intimacy and authenticity to the film. He admitted to hating Tarkovsky’s Solaris himself, before he appreciated it when he felt loneliness in a lean period of his life (in the film, Mahmut pretends to love Tarkovsky’s work, but secretly watches porn instead). So, essentially he was never alien to the feeling of loneliness, or to the idea that such cinema can be appreciated only when the time is right.
Ceylan’s movies are a lesson for aspiring cinematographers who may want to learn a thing or two on right composition. Every frame in the film is a work of art. His love for his country’s natural beauty, coupled with his photography prowess shows in his films – and that doesn’t hold only for Uzak, Three Monkeys scores on that front as well. The unapologetically long continuous shots certainly add to the film’s appeal, whether they are of the snow-clad field, or Mahmut’s living room. In a less capable film, they would have destroyed the narrative structure, but Uzak comfortably slips out of that trap.
Possibly to retain control and to cut back on the budget, Ceylan refrains from hiring professional actors, and sticks to amateurs (usually his own family members – his parents have acted in his works as well!). Surprisingly that doesn’t impact his films' appeal, even though they are extremely character centric. In Uzak, both the central characters are played superbly by Mehmet Emin Toprak (as Yusuf) and Muzaffer Özdemir (as Mahmut), the testament being their joint win in the best actor section at the 2003 edition of the Cannes film festival.
If you are a Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, or Bresson fan, you’d fall in love (maybe not at first sight, pun intended!) with this slow-paced but meditative piece of art. In case you are not, do take a look at this offbeat film – it just may start off a new romance with high art genre.