Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Melancholy poet of his ‘lonely Turkey’
ISTANBUL - AFP
Wary of the limelight but one of the most prodigiously successful directors ever at Cannes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has emerged as Turkey’s top modern filmmaker, with his slow-moving but piercing examinations of his homeland’s melancholy soul.
Ceylan, 59, known as NBC in Turkey, has an unbeatable track record at Cannes, with every feature he has ever entered in the competition coming home with one of the top awards.
Bringing his sixth feature film, “Ahlat Ağacı” (The Wild Pear Tree), to Cannes, which had its gala premiere on May 18, Ceylan is a specialist of slow-moving cinema, with images filled with silence but illuminated by glorious images of Anatolian and other landscapes.
In his 2014 film, the three hours and 16 minutes long “Kis Uykusu” (“Winter Sleep”), for which he won the Palme D’Or, sharp dialogue is fed by the characters’ antagonism.
Ceylan’s fame has come against one of the most turbulent periods in the history of modern Turkey, marked by disasters, terror attacks and a failed coup. But the filmmaker has steered away from overt political commentary in his films and also from airing his opinions in the media in Turkey or abroad.
Indeed, among the few occasions when he has made pointed remarks in public have been the award ceremonies at the Cannes Festival.
His win for “Winter Sleep” came days after 301 workers were killed in the Soma mine disaster in 2014.
Ceylan, usually keen to let his films do the talking, dedicated his 2014 prize to “the young people of Turkey, those who lost their lives during the last year” in his short acceptance speech.
And after accepting the award for best director in 2008 for “Üç Maymun” (“Three Monkeys”), he said: “I would like to dedicate the prize to my lonely and beautiful country which I love passionately.”
Ceylan’s first entrance into Cannes came in 1995 with short film “Koza” (“Cocoon”) but his breakthrough movie was “Uzak” (“Distant”) which won the Grand Prix, the number two prize in Cannes, in 2003.
Joy over its success was shadowed by the death of its co-star Mehmet Emin Toprak, who jointly won best actor at Cannes, in a traffic accident months before the festival.
“İklimler” (“Climates”), which starred Ceylan and his wife and frequent script-writing partner Ebru Ceylan, won Cannes’ top international critics group Fipresci Prize in 2006.
“Üç Maymun,” his most explicitly political film, won the award for best director in 2008.
And the mysteriously atmospheric whodunnit, for some admirers still his greatest achievement, “Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da” (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) netted Ceylan the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2011. And then in 2014 “Winter Sleep” won him the top prize.
For Ceylan, his films are an attempt to depict not just human nature but also darkness and melancholy as well as the expectations humans have of each other.
“There is as much hope in my characters as there is in real life,” he once said.
His work is often inspired by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and the Russian master dramatist Anton Chekhov.
Born in Istanbul on January 26, 1959, Ceylan’s interest in cinema came during his university years. But it was not until he was in his 30s that he studied film at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University after initially reading chemical then electrical engineering. Ceylan quit the film course after two years and started the short film “Koza” in late 1993. Throughout his career he also earned money through commercial photographs, and his first feature film was “Kasaba” (“The Small Town”) in 1997.
After his 2014 win for “Winter Sleep,” inspired by the short stories of Chekhov, he told journalists his motivation was “generally the darkness; to search and trying to understand the dark side of my soul.”
The writing process with his wife, Ebru, is no less dramatic. Describing the process to write “Winter Sleep,” she said the experience was “very intense” and the two had “violent quarrels.” But, she added: “I believe we work fruitfully together.”