Uzak (Distant Turkey 2002)

Yusuf (Emin Toprak) in the snowy streets of Istanbul

The new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is due to open in the UK this Friday and last night we watched his 2002 film which I think was his breakthrough with arthouse audiences over here. I remember watching it without knowing anything about the director and being very impressed back in 2004 when it finally reached London after winning prizes at Cannes in 2003.

My strongest memories of the film were the compositions of one of the two principal characters, Yusuf (Emin Toprak) isolated in the snowy urban landscapes of Istanbul. This was the third film by Ceylan (co-writer and director) to feature Toprak with Muzaffer Özdemir. Soon after completing the film Toprak was killed in a car crash, a tragedy that would also ultimately change the director’s approach to casting. In Uzak, Özdemir plays Mahmut, a village boy who has built up a successful career in Istanbul as a photographer. Yusuf is his country cousin who is forced out of his village by redundancy and comes to Istanbul seeking work on a ship. Mahmut is a rather reluctant host, a divorced man stuck in his ways who thinks of his cousin as something of a country bumpkin. The film’s title refers to the ‘distance’ in culture between the village and the big city – and the potential distance between the two cousins.

The film is strong on metaphors and symbols. Istanbul looks wonderful cloaked in thick snow and Ceylan knows just how to make use of the possibilities it offers as Yusuf wanders forlornly around the waterfront looking for work. At the end of one hopeless trip he stares down at a bowl of small fishes one of which has fallen from the bowl and is thrashing about in a puddle – we know how he feels. Back in Mahmut’s flat the two men do battle with a mouse in the kitchen with sometimes hilarious outcomes but the inference is clear. The country mouse has come to town and the town mouse doesn’t know quite how to react.

In his use of two non-professionals as leads, Ceylan is using men he knows (he often used other members of his family in his early films) and he has admitted that the early films are autobiographical to some extent (for instance, Muzaffer appears as both a filmmaker in Clouds of May (1999) and a photographer here, mirroring Ceylan’s activities. I’m not sure whether Mahmut’s rather wonderful flat is actually Ceylan’s but we do see a poster for Ceylan’s first film, a short titled Koza on Mahmut’s wall. If Mahmut is in any way ‘representative’ of the director, it is a brave self-examination because Mahmut is certainly a man with flaws. He has become the isolated and alienated intellectual who has even lost interest in the art form that drove him in his career. The film sets up a nice contrast between Yusuf’s traditional community-orientated values and Mahmut’s disdain for family and friends. But it also hints at the possibility that Yusuf could end up like Mahmut if he spends too much time in the city. In this sense the scenes in which both men (separately) stare out across the Bosphorus from the waterfront remind us of the key geographical and cultural location of Turkey, looking out to Europe and beyond and back into the hinterland of Western Asia.

The film is slow-paced but never dull. I never felt it dragged and that is down to Ceylan’s fine visual sense (he photographed the film himself), enough humour to spice up the observation of the characters and two fine central performances that won the pair a joint acting prize at Cannes.




  1. Shubhajit Lahiri

    Hi Roy, great to know about your views on this much acclaimed arthouse film. This was my first tryst with Nuri Bilge Ceylan as well, and I too was greatly impressed with what I saw despite not having much knowledge about this film prior to watching it. What I love most about Ceylan’s films is his eye for panoramic visuals and landscapes – the fact that he knows a thing or two about photography most certainly helped him in filling his movies with staggering outdoor shots. And of course, he uses the stark beauty of the outdoor shots to juxtapose against the alienation and/or ennui and/or inner turbulence experienced by his characters – something he did exceptionally well here. Yes, its a slow film, but the slow buildup of the character dynamics between the two leads was captured so well that I never felt bored for even a moment. By the way, I wasn’t aware that the person who played the role of Yusuf passed away in a car accident after this film got made – that’s a tragedy indeed.


    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks, Shubhajit. Good to hear from you. The new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan opens in the UK today and I hope to see it in a couple of weeks. From the trailer it looks as though there will be plenty of beautiful landscape compositions in CinemaScope.

      I see that you are watching a fair bit of European Art Cinema at the moment. Do any of the recent European films show at the Nandan complex outside of the Kolkata Festival – or at any other screens in the city?


      • Shubhajit Lahiri

        Hi Roy, sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I watched Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia quite recently, and must say I was quite impressed with that as well. I’m yet to watch his Three Monkeys which received considerable accolades, though I’ve seen one of his lesser films, viz. Climate, which I’d found interesting if not a great film per se.

        Yeah, I’ve been seeing a fair bit of European Arthouse Cinema at the moment. I was doing post-graduation which got over last month, and I’ll be going back to the corporate world in a couple of months – so I’m enjoying this interim transition period to the fullest with cinema.

        Well, short film festivals do take place at the Nandan complex outside the Kolkata Film Festival from time to time, though not at a regular basis. They prefer to screen recently non-mainstream movies most of the time. Various short film fests are held by such institutions too like the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institut – the cultural wing of the German embassy), Alliance Francaise (the cultural wing of French embassy), etc. Also, regular film screenings are held by the various film clubs in the city (Eisenstein Cine Club, Cine Central, etc.), as well as by SRFTII (Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute of India).

        Nice to know that you still remember the Nandan film complex from your visit to Calcutta. Sad that I wasn’t in the city at that time and so couldn’t meet up with you then.


      • Roy Stafford

        Thanks, that’s really useful. I’m trying to keep track of what is happening in Indian Cinema and I noticed that in the FCCI/KPMG Report on Indian Media Industries published last week, Bengali films are showing signs of resurgence. However, I think that the export markets for Hindi Cinema seeming to be growing faster in East Asia than in Europe and North America. I wonder if this is reciprocal and you’ll start getting more Korean films in India?

        You aren’t the first person who has found Climates less gripping than some of Ceylan’s other films – perhaps it’s because he stars in it with his wife? Three Monkeys is very good and given your interest in film noir, I’m sure that you will enjoy it.


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