Category: Turkish Cinema

Mustang (Turkey/France/Germany/Qatar 2015)

The five sisters together

The five sisters together

In a Turkish village on the Black Sea coast, five orphaned sisters celebrate finishing school for the summer by splashing in the sea with boys – only to be incarcerated by their grandmother and uncle who view their behaviour as unseemly and provocative. Instead of summer holidays they begin lessons at home in preparation for future marriage. Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour and directed as a début feature by Ergüven, the film has been welcomed as a film by women about sisterhood and growing up under the restrictions of a conservative society. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is part Turkish and part French and the film is a co-production.

Mustang is a stunning film and it’s no surprise that it has been celebrated by film festivals in Europe and North America and nominated for an Oscar in a very competitive competition. (But I’m intrigued about how it will fare in Asia.) In the UK the film is the second title selected for the BFI’s new distribution support scheme and it has been widely seen and discussed by enthusiastic audiences. Many of the reviews have made a reference to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (US 1999) – especially in the US. Certainly there are obvious similarities, but the film also uses ideas shared with other films in its universal story about families, conservative communities and girls’ adolescence in the face of the modernising impact of globalisation. One important difference to The Virgin Suicides is that it is narrated from the girls’ point of view. One sequence in particular reminds me of Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran 2006), with the struggles of young female supporters to watch men’s football in perhaps the most joyful sequence in the film. The depiction of rural weddings also makes me think of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) as well as several weddings featured in Palestinian films.

The film’s title refers to the term for a wild horse in North America and Ergüven intended her young women to have the same romantic appeal as the mustangs of folk songs and Western movies. In the production notes for the film she tells us that the mustang symbolises:

my five spirited and untamable heroines. Visually, even, their hair is like a mane and, in the village, they’re like a herd of mustangs coming through. And the story moves fast, galloping forward, and that energy is at the heart of the picture, just like the mustang that gave it its name.

Ergüven goes on to refer to other ways that the five sisters are symbolic:

The film expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra – the girl’s five-headed body – and a ball that is signified here by the soccer match that the girls long to attend.

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most 'modern'?

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most ‘modern’?

These two statements are key to the specific form of representation used in the film. This is not a neo-realist or social realist account of girls in a rural community. The five young women were found in various ways through the casting process. One had previous acting experience – Elit Iscan (Ece) was one of the children in Times and Winds (Turkey 2006) by Reha Erdem and again in his 2008 film My Only Sunshine. Tuğba Sunguroğlu (Selma) was spotted on a Paris-Istanbul flight and the other three were found via auditions in France and Turkey. The film’s plot does suggest that originally the girls came from Istanbul, so the sense that they are already ‘modernised’/’westernised’ is given narrative authenticity. It’s also important that the youngest sister, Lale, is the narrator and that by definition she is the most ‘modern’ – and therefore the one most likely to resist confinement. (She’s the one who supports the football team.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I was rooting for the girls all the way through, but even so I was surprised that I began to cry during the last scene which I did feel was a little too neat in its resolution – but clearly my emotional responses told me differently. Taking a more distanced view, I recognise the director’s argument (she also co-wrote the film with Alice Wincour) that the story uses symbolism rather than social realism. Even so, I think it might have been even more powerful if the five sisters had been represented a little more in social realist style. There are quite a lot of shots of the girls stretching in the sunlight streaming in through the windows of their room/prison with their graceful movements, beautiful legs and luxuriant hair. Are these shots designed for a ‘female gaze’?  A debate about the aesthetic choices in the film would be good. I should note that the music in the film passed me by, but I understand that it is important. Whatever my reservations, this is a film that should be widely seen – it would be good if it developed the status of a La haine in its appeal to a youth audience and its questioning of assumptions. What’s happening in Turkey is both shocking and sad. The irony is that throughout the Arab world, in that strange way that ex-colonial ties work, it is Turkish film and TV which is bringing about the seeds of a social revolution in Muslim countries.

There is an ongoing discussion about the film on ‘Conversations About Cinema‘.

Winter Sleep (Kis Uykusa, Turkey-France-Germany 2014) – theatrical or cinematic?


One of the characters in this film uses the word ‘awesome’ twice: it was my response after my first viewing of the film. The film is a worthy follow-on to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s earlier masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, 2011), though it is also rather different. This is rich and complex work of art. I feel that I need to think about it more and maybe view it again before I can write adequately about it.

I did, though, read the review in Sight & Sound (December 2014): rather lukewarm I thought. Referring to Ceylan’s love of Chekhov Jonathan Romney writes

Understandably, then that it should feel theatrical;..

He comments on one recurring aspect of the film:

But for much of the time, the characters do little except talk at length, in darkened rooms. [which he describes as ‘long, stagey discussions’].

He is right about the length, there is one such scene which runs for about 30m minutes. Such scenes, he thinks

feel like transcribed chapters of a novel.

Like fine theatre the film has great settings, excellent staging and seriously fine acting. But then much of cinema is, like theatre, a performance art. But it is a different art. In fact we talk not about staging but mise en scène. Among other things these sequences are beautifully lit. The rooms in which the characters talk are full of suggestive props and furnishings. But most importantly these images are presented via the camera lens.

Several of these scenes commence with a long shot in long take. And long shots and long takes recur in the scenes but are intercut with close ups, large close-ups, changing camera angles, reverse camera angles, pans and tilts. The camera changes our perception of the characters’ interactions and with close-up shows that they are doing a lot more than just talk: with often delicate but often powerful gestures, body movements and expressions. In the scene between Aydin and Nihal [a husband and wife] that Romney picks out there is also a mirror shot, this brings a notable new perspective at this point.

Likewise the sound is not live but recorded. The dialogue is clear and much of the soundtrack is natural sound. However segments of the film are set up by a solo piano. And the design in scenes of conversation uses noise, tone and timbre in a way that is rigorous and evocative.

Ceylon’s films feature intelligent and stimulating use of image and sound, and this film offers just that. If you have not seen it yet, seek out a cinema with it in the programme. Don’t wait for the Blu-Ray or Television airing – this film deserves a theatrical setting. Both of my viewings were at the Hyde Park Picture House which enjoys a classical auditorium: this is the way to get the full pleasure of this film.

Once upon a time in Cannes

The above film, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan may have presented difficulties for some viewers with its allusive and at times ambiguous narrative. My difficulty was rather different: this film won the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival whilst Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or (higher up the pecking order of the Festival Awards). This was a decision that I found difficult to understand. So I looked up the membership of the 2011 Jury on the Internet. It consisted of Robert De Niro (President), Olivier Assayas, Martina Gusman, Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Jude Law, Nansun Shi, Uma Thurman, Johnnie To, Linn Ullmann. I suppose I could imagine the President, Jude Law, Una Thurman and Johnnie To preferring the US epic. I was uncertain about Nansun Shi, Linn Ullmann and Oliver Assayas, but the last is attending the forthcoming Bradford Film Festival so I may get an opportunity to ask him. But, based on my viewing of their own film works, I did think that Martina Gusman and Mahamat Saleh Haroun would have recognised the outstanding quality of the Turkish film.

Certainly when I saw it at my local independent cinema the staff remarked that many people had expressed admiration after seeing the film. After a pre-credit scene which turns out to be important in plot terms we see cars travelling along a country road by night. Such scenes appear in Ceylan’s earlier films, as do thunderstorms; here one threatens ominously through a large part of this film. The car sequence, which recurs several times in the film, is visually stunning. Ceylan and his cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki are able to produce mesmerising images with their digital photography. And the sound, edited by Thomas Robert, is an equally impressive design.

Ceylan has also expressed his liking for the Russian writer Anton Chekhov in interviews. Ceylan is also able to present characters and their inner thoughts as they struggle with the deeper meanings of the everyday: lives circumscribed by their character, circumstances and sometime the intractability of the world they inhabit. Whilst the film offers a very different story, set in a vastly different land and society, the parallels strike one: in my case with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Seagull. Gilbert Phelps’ comments on that writer, (The World Novel, 1988) seem quite apt: the “story ends in a struggle of dots, leaving it open-ended, with reverberations echoing beyond the limit” (of the cinema screen).

In keeping with the influence of Chekhov, the key character in the central group of men in Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da) turns out to be the doctor. But in many ways, equally significant are the women. One is the daughter of the mayor of a village where a meal is taken. We never hear her speak, and only see her by candlelight. Another is the wife of a murdered man, again seen watching and passively waiting. The third we never see, she is only a character in tale recounted by one man to another. The fourth only appears in a couple of photographs. Yet I was keenly aware of how they affected the men, and how their enforced silence was itself a factor in the playing out of the story. Ceylan’s wife Ebru worked with him on the script for the film. I was left wondering if (as with many critics’ favourite auteurs) there is another untold angle on the world with which we are presented.

There are telling small incidents – like an apple rolling into a stream – a policeman lighting up two cigarettes and offering one to his prisoner – a drop of blood splashing on the face of the doctor – which offer enormous resonance. The style re-inforces this – at one point we see the a close-up of the prisoner Kenan, later in the film identical framing and lighting is used on a close-up of the Prosecutor Nusret.

This is a marvellous film: see it at the cinema, it will never be the same on DVD or even Blu-Ray. I expect it to be in my top five favourite films for 2012. If it is not, it will have been a wonderful year for World Cinema.

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.