DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Talks About The Truths of “Distant”
by Howard Feinstein
[EDITORS NOTE: “Distant,” which opened in theaters one year ago, will available on DVD this week (March 22).]
A conflicted intellectual is the main protagonist in “Distant,” Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s third feature, winner of both the grand jury prize and best actor accolades for its two leads at this past Cannes Film Festival. In one of the few funny scenes in this otherwise earnest film, he puts on a tape of a Tarkovsky film. “He loses patience in the middle,” says Ceylan. “So he puts on porno.”
Like his earlier films, “The Small Town” and “Clouds of May,” “Distant” is autobiographical. Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) is a successful, middle-aged photographer in Istanbul who has fallen into the chasm between youthful idealism and a state of quiet resignation. He isolates himself. His sporadic contacts are with women, who quietly glide in and quickly out of his home, and a few pals, who badger him about his withdrawal from life. He channels his energies into repetitive rituals like a beer at the same time in the same cafe every day and an obsession with neatness in his apartment. Everything there is so ordered that he even sprays the inside of his shoes daily and places them in just the right spot in a cupboard.
“There is a lot of me in this character,” Ceylan affirms, while we were sitting outside the Turkish Pavilion in Cannes. The 44-year-old filmmaker is handsome, with short gray hair and wire rims from another age. “I used to live like Mahmut before my first marriage of seven years and for four years after my divorce. (He remarried a year and a half ago.) And that’s my flat in the film.” The film’s veracity, not to mention astonishing beauty, has elevated the director from obscurity into a world-class player. He was even the subject of a retrospective at the last Toronto International Film Festival.
“My intention was to make a film about the meaninglessness of my life, but that’s a hard subject because nothing happens,” he says. “So I decided to put an opposite character up against Mahmut.” Yusuf (Mehmet Demin Toprak) is Mahmut’s country-bumpkin cousin and unwelcome house guest. When he shows up after the factory in his village has closed down, Mahmut’s anal-retentive world is threatened.
“Mahmut’s house is his prison,” says Ceylan. “Many intellectuals are like him. A simple man might marry. If you are rich, intellectual, and alone at 45 or 50, your life begins to be like his. He doesn’t like things to be out of order. He rarely watches television. He just likes another sound in the house, almost a friend.” The involuntary host has cultivated an urban detachment, while Yusuf is brawny, overbearing, and crude. He shows little respect for his relative’s universe. “If I had not portrayed him as a pig, it would be too obvious how selfish Mahmut is.”
Ceylan’s film debut, “The Small Town” (1997), shot in resplendent black and white, takes place in the his native Anatolian village. He, his parents, and Toprak, his real-life cousin (who tragically died in a car accident soon after “Distant” premiered in Istanbul) play themselves. Much of the film takes place around a fire, where the family members discuss their individual and group concerns. The sense of community is palpable. Among the most affecting scenes are one of a young girl attending school with a spoiled lunch and one of her and her brother playing in a cemetery.
In “Clouds of May” (2000), Ozdemir, again a surrogate for Ceylan, portrays a filmmaker who returns to that same village to make a movie about his family. Ceylan’s parents play the leads in both the film and the film-within-the-film. His father can barely concentrate on the camera: He’s too concerned with the impending destruction of the abundant large trees on his ancestral land. The director is too focused on his own project to care. The film is ingeniously self-reflexive. It captures nature’s rhythms and the cycles of rural life. Not surprisingly, Ceylan dedicates it to Chekhov, another master at integrating family and landscape.
He shot each of his movies for less than $100,000. He claims he wrote the script for “Distant,” then used his own money to finance the project (with assistance from the Hubert Bals Fund in post-production). “Turkish television isn’t very interested in my films. I could probably have applied to Eurimage and private investors for money and probably received it, but I would have had to wait. As soon as I finish a script, I want to shoot.” He never had more than five crewmembers at any one time. In addition to director and screenwriter, he is credited as producer, cameraman, and co-editor.
“The Small Town” and “Clouds of May” are both highly accomplished, yet they do not prepare one for “Distant”‘s longer takes, longer silences, increased use of natural sound, more poignant ending, and stylistic enhancement. Ceylan has trekked for a long time to hit paydirt. He was accepted to the London Film School, but lacked the money to attend. (He did study filmmaking in Istanbul.) He moved there anyway and became exposed to the works of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Ozu, Bresson, and Bergman. (Kiarostami is a more contemporary influence.) He told Screen International that he saw three films a day.
Perhaps the roots of Mahmut’s isolation began during Ceylan’s visits to the National Film Theatre. Regardless, his world-weariness is far from Ceylan’s pre-Istanbul life. “Mahmut stays away from other photographers and, most of the time, from his old friends,” he says. “Those others have a lot of shared activities. In the small towns and villages where I grew up, though, you don’t need an activity to get together.”