Resisting the zeitgeist in Washington with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film
Since I moved to Washington D.C. from Istanbul almost one and a half years ago, I have been in dozens of rooms in the U.S. capital where Turkey was specifically discussed or Turkey somewhat came up in discussions concerning the populist and authoritarian regimes of the 21st century. Almost all of those discussions end on a negative note where most speakers agree on how Turkey has become a deeply unreliable partner drifting away from Western values.
The outcry of Turks or of speakers, who empathize with Ankara’s positions and argue that as an allyö the U.S. has also failed to honor the spirit of the alliance on several fronts, usually fall on deaf ears. It often feels like two sides of the debate are not truly interested in understanding each other but scoring points, a mirror reflection of the official state of play between Ankara and Washington.
You leave those rooms eyes strained due to the usually white florescent lights and with an unbearable bitterness, which haunts you the rest of the day.
Last Sunday, I found myself in a room where the mood somewhat resisted this ungracious zeitgeist in America for Turkey. The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art hosted the third Washington Turkish Film Festival, which was organized by the Office of the Culture and Tourism Counselor at the Turkish Embassy. The pleasant surprise of this year’s festival was acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s presence for the screening of his last movie “The Wild Pear Tree.”
Washingtonians who did not want to miss their chance to watch Turkey’s selection for this year’s Oscar for best foreign-language film, stood in a long line in front of the Meyer Auditorium hours before the screening. Moreover, the majority of the audience was still there for the Q&A session with the director after a 188-minute dive into the dark sides of human nature. It was quite an astonishing display of patience for most American cinephiles.
For me, a much more striking aspect of Ceylan’s rendezvous with Washingtonians was the absence of political questions from viewers regarding the developments in Turkey or his sentiments about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Having witnessed a recent habit of intellectual Americans testing every Turk they meet with Turkey’s failing democratic practices time and again, I was almost shocked that they did not try it with Ceylan. In our conversation after the event, Ceylan said he was also surprised about not being questioned on daily politics.
It is not difficult to imagine it was a relief for the Turkish Embassy that the event did not become a stage for the display of some anti-government sentiments. The embassy did a good job of supporting the festival. I guess it is worth noting that Turkish Ambassador to the United States Serdar Kılıç and his wife were at the screening. Moreover, Kılıç hosted Nuri Bilge Ceylan over lunch the next day.
Perhaps the reason why the U.S. audience did not pose direct political questions to Ceylan had a lot to do with the fact that the director’s political take on today’s Turkey was profoundly visible throughout the film.
Many film critics wrote “The Wild Pear Tree” is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s best film. It is not really for me to judge him on cinematographic performance, however I believe “The Wild Pear Tree” is his most political film.
Although most people left the movie theaters deeply moved by the inner conflict of the marvelously played characters, “The Wild Pear Tree,” which successfully embroidered the troubles of young teachers in appointment through the lead character Sinan’s story, is undoubtedly a solid criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Turkey. The system today forces unemployed youth to become a member of law enforcement in order to survive, while an imam’s loyalty to the bureaucracy keeping him there is much greater than his loyalty to the honest implementation of his faith.
On stage, Nuri Bilge Ceylan admitted the film carried strong inspiration of reminiscence to his fatherland. Furthermore, the struggling teacher in the film is like his own father, he said, describing him as someone who is perceived like an alien in his immediate neighborhood. “In a society like Turkey, if you are different, you are not respected,” added Ceylan.
While wandering in the streets of Washington, where he had been visiting for the first time in his life, Nuri Bilge Ceylan told me he would always prefer the chaos in New York City. He was probably not even aware that spending a full day on his film and with him had been a priceless escape for someone like me who is worn-out from the dramas in Turkey-U.S. relations.