‘Distant’ Voice… Still, Life

By Metin Alsanjak

uzak-nuri-bilge-ceylan.jpgUzak, 2002

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director of Uzak, in conversation

The most stylish and critically applauded Turkish film of 2003 (and most likely 2004), is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak. After winning the Grand Prix du Jury, and a joint Best Actor award for Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak at Cannes 2003, Uzak has since won nine other international awards.

The film is a powerful study of loneliness between two men brought together out of need and obligation. Set in snowy Istanbul, the film follows Yusuf (Toprak), trying to make some money to send back home to his mother in the country. He stays with his older relative, Mahmut (Özdemir), a troubled photographer and intellectual whose solitude and loneliness is disturbed by the new arrival. A saddening, and at times mutely comical film, Ceylan exploits all the facets of urban decay and hostility to create scenes where the characters’ gaze continually betrays their longing to escape their lives. Uzak speaks of the distance between ideals and reality, the city and the small town, and the longing for distance that haunts people when they cannot accept the troubled unhappiness their own life has become.

After playing as the opening gala of the New York Turkish Film Festival, it was unfortunate that this year’s London Turkish Film Festival was unable to show Uzak (due to the film’s exclusive commitment to the London Film Festival).

“Of course,” says Ceylan, “it’s nice to be with the other Turkish films as part of a Turkish Film Festival, where mostly Turkish people come to see the film. But wherever I go there are enough Turkish people to fill half the cinema salon – London is not special in that way.”

However, Ceylan’s films are arguably especially important to London as they represent a stylish ‘homeland’ art cinema which might prove an inspirational force for the British-Turkish film-making diaspora, which has yet to produce an internationally acclaimed director in the same way as the German or Italian communities.

Ceylan is very clear about his identity, saying he is a “Turkish filmmaker in the fullest sense, because a Turkish filmmaker has to show their environment, and this is what I’m trying to do.”

The environment of Uzak is Istanbul, which Ceylan captures without giving in to any hackneyed romanticising of the city. “In some ways it’s a film about people who are lost in the city. They thought they knew what they wanted, they’ve got to a certain stage in their lives when they felt they’d established something, but it’s not what they wanted,” he says.

In Uzak, Istanbul also feels like another character that the two protagonists watch constantly, as if waiting for the city to give them some sign of their fate. What is particularly noticeable is the unflinching way the camera takes in every aspect of the metropolis, even the litter in the street. Was this deliberate?

“It was just there,” Ceylan notes. “If you want to be a realist as much as possible, you don’t add things like that... In some ways these kinds of waste are a freedom. Living in a very sterile place can be unpleasant. It is one of the basic costs of city living that there is rubbish on the streets, but this is not an unfamiliar thing.”

With Uzak, Ceylan succeeds in capturing the cold heart of Istanbul, something that he achieves with an unwavering commitment, making films that reflect his view of things: “my aim is to reach a certain reality, even if the reality is very ugly, or tragic, or the kind that most people would not like to face.”

Uzak will be released in the UK in the Spring by Artificial Eye.