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Filmmakers You Should Know: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish Master of Understatement

Filmmakers You Should Know: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish Master of Understatement

Editor’s note: Filmmakers You Should Know is a new column about working filmmakers who have amassed a significant body of work. This inaugural installment focuses on Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose seventh feature, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” opens at New York’s Film Forum today. Let us know about other filmmakers you would like to see featured in this column in the comments section.

The most acclaimed Turkish filmmaker in contemporary cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan nevertheless faces relative obscurity among American moviegoers for a typically superficial reason: His movies are slow, pensive experiences, filled with long pauses and hushed conversations instead of simple exposition. Patient viewers, however, will delight in the opportunity to soak in the complex moods of Ceylan’s elaborate character studies, which have grown to encompass a variety of themes and genres over the last 14 years.

With each film, he expands his repertoire: In his 1997 debut, “The Small Town,” he demonstrated his ability to make the world come alive with a heavily atmospheric orchestration of sights and sound, while only relying on a sliver of a story as backdrop; his later string of Cannes-acclaimed features, particularly “Distance” and “Climates,” expanded on this ability by applying it to the emotional reality of Ceylan’s troubled protagonists.

In Senses of Cinema, Geoff Andrew describes Ceylan’s artistic evolution as an “organic enlargement occurring from film to film.” Even without consuming his entire oeuvre, one can get this impression from his latest effort, the police drama “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year. The two-and-a-half hour procedural is visually lush and hypnotic in that distinctive Ceylan fashion, but also littered with inferences in place of plot specifics: It’s a murder mystery without a solution, leaving it to the audience to engage in endless guesswork. The movie encourages the same intellectual involvement at the heart of its plot.

All of Ceylan’s films are marked by stillness, but his oft-static camera usually rests on gorgeous, mesmerizing landscapes. With an Emersonian fixation on nature (particularly ominous cloud formations), Ceylan frequently turns his environments into personalities alongside his cast. But he never strays far from his characters, rooting them in the concerns of modern Turkish society with an attentiveness to nuanced behavior. While often compared to Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, Ceylan has now developed a style that’s entirely his own.


“The Small Town” (“Kasaba”) and “Clouds of May”

Ceylan’s first two features comes as a package. The 1997 “The Small Town” is a black-and-white, highly expressionistic look at two young children exploring nature and listening to the existential debates of their elders. With his 1999 follow-up, “Clouds of May,” Ceylan returned to the setting of his debut with a loosely autobiographical plot in which a filmmaker (Muzaffer Ozdemir) returns to his hometown to make a film with marked similarities to “The Small Town.” The cast of “Clouds of May” includes Ceylan’s parents as the unwilling participants in their son’s vaguely defined project. The movie concludes with a dedication to Anton Chekhov, whose subtext influences many of Ceylan’s films, particularly “Anatolia.”

Although “Clouds of May” might be seen as a neurotic comedy of errors (the filmmaker’s attempts to get his father to deliver lines on cue provides one of several moments of deadpan levity), it’s still a relatively muted, thoughtful analysis of the personal and cosmic concerns driving Ceylan’s filmmaking. Viewed sequentially, the movies demonstrate two key aspects of his work: The visual and aural qualities that contribute to a deeply felt world, and the reflexive approach to narrative that forces you to interpret the proceedings even while becoming immersed in them. “Clouds of May” provides a peek inside his method and a fascinating application of it at the same time.

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Both “The Small Town” and “Clouds of May” can be viewed for free on YouTube.

“Distant” (Uzak”)

Ceylan’s first major arthouse success, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2003, contains a more straightforward narrative than his previous two features by honing in on a conflict between two men: Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak, who had supporting roles in Ceylan’s earlier films) and Mahmut (Ozdemir, now a Ceylan regular). The men are cousins, but their similarities stop there. Yusuf is an unemployed wanderer exploring a random wish to become a sailor when he crashes with Mahmut, an established photographer suffering from his own sense of alienation from the world. While still loaded with beautiful imagery and slow-going, “Distant” also introduces a lively comic tension between Yusuf and Mahmut, as each appears to envy the other’s state of affairs while pretending to feel disdain for it. Mahmut’s elitist mindset provides a particularly fragile Ceylan creation, as the character memorably flips from porn to Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” when his cousin wanders into the room. A heartfelt portrait of universal yearning, “Distant” is Ceylan’s most accessible work.

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? “Distant” is available to subscribers on Netflix Instant.


Even more personal than “Clouds of May,” Ceylan’s intimate 2006 relationship drama stars the filmmaker and his wife (Ebru Ceylan) as a hardworking couple whose jobs frequently keep them apart, firmly placing their marriage on the rocks. For that reason, it could also have been titled “Distant,” but “Climates” is an equally appropriate description that relates to the film’s seasonal structure. As the marriage dissipates, the exes cope with the passionate connection they still share, leading to the first instance of genuine heartbreak in Ceylan’s filmography. An early long take involving a falling tear might be the single best moment in the director’s career.

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? “Climates” is available for streaming rental and purchase on Amazon Instant Video.

“Three Monkeys”

On the surface, Ceylan’s ominous noir is his weakest film, if only because it has the most conventional plot, but the drama has a terrific flow. An opening scene follows a politician (Ercan Kesal) involved in an accidental hit-and-run that could demolish career. He quickly enlists his lower class chauffeur (Yavuz Bingol) to take the blame and go to prison in exchange for a higher salary that goes to his struggling family. Years later, the driver is still behind bars, while his teenage son grows increasingly rebellious and the wife launches into an affair with the politician responsible for the family’s debilitating situation. The conflict gradually dissipates rather than exploding into chaos, as one might expect from Ceylan, but the movie is particularly notable for the way the filmmaker’s style encroaches on a fairly straightforward story, particularly with the arrival of a spectacularly biblical final shot.

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? “Three Monkeys” is available for streaming rental and purchase on Amazon Instant Video.

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”

When he made “Three Monkeys,” Ceylan said he wanted to try out a different kind of story than he had explored in his previous films. But “Anatolia” is something even more impressive: An elaboration on the interests and motifs from the majority of his work that also expands its ambition. Ceylan keeps the details scant and instead turns up the atmosphere: Most of the story unfolds in heavy shadows punctuated by bright patches of light. The effect is akin to a noir rendered in oil paints. Ceylan has made an analytical brain teaser, rendered in patient and sharply philosophical terms–in a word, Ceylanian.

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? The Cinema Guild releases “Anatolia” at Film Forum today ahead of a limited national release.

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mohamed samir el-falal

i want to work in film making OR CGI in turkey WHAT SHOULD I DO ??

Semih Tugay

Cagan Irmak is another very talented filmmaker to follow

Eris Akman

I totally agree with you Ron. Being a Turkish Film Maker, I do not critisize Mr. Ceylan as a principle because I also know that he is not the party to be critisized but the European Elitist Group of Film Critics. There is a group of film critics in Europe (Unfortunately a majority, led by the French) who constantly say to the audiences and the film makers that they are ignorant, they know nothing about films, and they should see and make the films in accordence to the taste and leadership of their elite club of film critics. The members of this group is in every corner of the major festival scene in Europe and in every European country they have their henchmen. All the selection comittees of almost every European Film Festival is dominated by them, every jury is dominated and/or strongly influenced by them. They are so strong that they can influence a jury to award a factory worker, who has no idea of acting, no ideals or career planning of ever acting, probably a middle school graduate, who just happened to work in one of N.B.Ceylan's uncle's factories with "the best actor" award at Cannes Film Festival. And they are so insistant (Ceylan's multiple awards at Cannes despite the appauling audience reaction in every country) that audiences are still thinking that they must be missing something and keep going to his films trying to find out what they are missing. In fact his audience in Turkey went up from under 5000 admittances to over 100 000. N.B.Ceylan is not the only one. From every country they have their candidates. We have only two from Turkey yet. So I used to think that US critics were quite free of this dogmatic influence but reading this in Indiewire makes me think again.

Ron Merk

I honestly do not understand Ceylan's reputation as a master filmmaker. I simply do not like his films. To me, watching his films is more boring than watching paint dry. These "slow pensive experiences" as you describe them are only in the mind of the director. He does not let the audience know what he's thinking. His camera resting on beautiful landscapes would be fine, if he was a still photographer. But we call these motion pictures for a reason. Taking ten minutes to provide two minutes worth of exposition is a painful experience, and frankly I believe that it totally disrespects the audience and fails to meet the emotion needs of the audience to contact with Mr. Ceylan's characters. Alienation is one thing, but boredom is another. I have seen all his films, and every time I watch one (after hearing all the rave reviews like yours) I can only ask myself, "What's the fuss about this director?" He is a still photographer with a vague script. How he came to enjoy the reputation of being the "most acclaimed director of current Turkish cinema" is a total mystery to me. I think reviewers are afraid to say what I'm saying, for fear they will not be taken as "serious." Come on! Antonioni did this kind of film best, and I hated his films for boring me to death. Alienation is better dealt with in prose. If you want to make a film about boredom and alienation, make it exciting, and remember that there's an audience out there waiting to be touched in some way by what's up on the screen.

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