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 (Kiş Uykusu, Turkey-France-Germany 2014)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, confirming the status of writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a leading figure in global art cinema. Since 1998 he has been winning prizes at film festivals from Tokyo to Buenos Aires and all points in between. So much has been written about his latest film that I am wary of simply repeating the same observations. If you want to read a review and an interesting interview I recommend Jonathan Romney’s review and Geoff Andrew’s interview in Sight and Sound December 2014. Romney’s review is not untypical in finding the film disappointing while still recognising it as a notable intellectual achievement. In Sight and Sound January 2015, the Cannes valuations have been reversed and the ‘poll of critics’ has placed Winter Sleep at No 7 in the list of the year’s top films. Its Cannes rival Leviathan appears at 3. These lists are pointless really but they sometimes indicate shifts in taste. My thoughts on Leviathan are posted on The Case for Global Film.

Winter Sleep‘s narrative presents a central character called ‘Aydin’ (Turkish for ‘intellectual’ according to Ceylan in the Andrew interview). Once an important stage actor, he has retired/retreated back to the mountainous region of Cappadocia in Eastern Anatolia to run the hotel he has inherited. The Hotel Othello is carved out of the rocks like many of the dwellings in this important but isolated tourist region. As well as the hotel, he has also inherited land and tenants. He lives with his sister Necla, recently divorced, and Nihal his younger wife. He delegates the business aspects of the hotel and the tenancies to his agent and spends his time writing a column for the local paper and contemplating the history of Turkish theatre which he intends to write. But as the winter draws in and the snows come he finds himself in dispute with both his wife and his sister as well as one of his tenants.

The issues at stake here in the negative aspects of some of the reviews are the length of the film at 196 minutes and its ‘interiority’ – a narrative dealing with quite a small cast of major characters who spend much of the time in conversation (and confrontation) in darkened rooms. Since Ceylan was a photographer before he became a filmmaker and since he has gained a reputation for his presentation of Turkish landscapes, there is a frustration felt by some critics with his change of approach.

In the Andrew interview Ceylan discusses the length of the film and acknowledges that nobody likes long films but that he felt the need to be free to tell a story like a novelist. (He actually wrote the script jointly with his wife Ebru as has been his practice for several years.) He then observes that films like this have a long after-life on DVD allowing ‘readers’ to break off and re-engage with the narrative as they please – just like reading a novel. This strikes me as obviously true but also rather a strange viewpoint for a filmmaker of Ceylan’s unique vision. It occurs to me that an intermission would have been an excellent decision for the theatrical release (Seven Samurai had one for its 207 minute version and mainstream Indian cinema has made it an industry convention). I don’t like watching DVDs but I have to admit that it was a slog at times in the cinema and I struggled to concentrate in some of the long dialogue scenes (Romney suggests that one such scene lasts 30 minutes).

The general agreement seems to be that the film owes its narrative style/tone to Chekhov and Ceylan has spoken about his love of Chekhov in relation to earlier films. Here he makes it explicit and tells us that three Chekhov short stories were the inspiration for the script. In the end credits he also namechecks Chekhov alongside Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire. I’m not sure what to do with these references. I have some knowledge of all four, but not enough to usefully comment on how they influence Ceylan’s narrative. For me, the most useful ‘way in’ is to think about similar geographical/social/cultural locations. This, of course, includes Russia over the last 150 years plus perhaps Spain and definitely India. In fact the tourist hotel made me think of specific hotels which I visited in Andalusia and in West Bengal – hotels where it is easy to imagine an intellectual, aloof from the rural population, failing to achieve his personal aims, being criticised by family and friends and losing his sense of direction.

Aydin's Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Aydin’s Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Several commentators have suggested that Aydin is indeed representative of a contemporary Turkish elite intellectual class. This view is coincidentally supported by the casting of Haluk Bilginer, a leading actor known in the UK for a stint on the UK TV soap EastEnders in the 1980s. Thus Aydin speaks very good British English in his dealings with an East Asian couple staying at the hotel (Ceylan says he didn’t know about the EastEnders role.) It’s also noticeable that Aydin decides to write a newspaper column about religion which becomes a target for his sister’s criticism. Intellectuals in Turkey have a difficult relationship with Islam in a country in which secularism and the idea of an Islamic state are in constant conflict. Even so, the scope of Winter Sleep is much wider than Turkey alone. Ceylan tells us that this is a universal story and certainly Aydin’s failings and his problems are very recognisable.

Most reviews assume that Aydin is an irredeemable character, a wealthy man who bullies his wife and doesn’t know how to behave towards his tenants – or indeed towards the whole local community. He is pompous, arrogant, proud etc. One or two do point out that Aydin is also a ‘civilised’ and charming man. Ceylan deliberately doesn’t give us very much in the way of back story for any of the principal characters. How long have Aydin and the two women been living at the hotel? When did he get his inheritance? How long is it since he had any acting work? Instead of being spoon-fed this background we are forced to glean what we can from the dialogues. These long scenes require accomplished actors used to delivering lines precisely and this has affected the casting. In earlier films Ceylan cast friends and relatives and even appeared himself as part of a couple with his wife Ebru in Iklimler (Climates, 2006) – perhaps the nearest to Winter Sleep in some aspects of subject matter, if not style). In these films he made more use of ‘street language’ and improvisation. In Winter Sleep the precise language is imperative in order to construct the narrative. The casting also makes an ironic comment on the relationship between film and television, since the two leading female actors are stars of Turkish TV. Aydin’s disparaging remarks about TV soaps in a sense reveal his own failure to get roles in TV drama which is now enormously popular in Turkey.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many 'interior' shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many ‘interior’ shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Despite the fact that very little seems to happen, this is in fact a rich text. It isn’t the case that Aydin has no friends. He seems genuinely to care for a neighbour who is recently widowed (and who doesn’t see his daughter now living in London) and it with this man that he will get very drunk perhaps as a symbol of hitting rock bottom before he can start to put his life back together. And it isn’t the case that he is the only one not ‘in touch’ with the community. He bullies his wife and criticises her attempts to act as a fundraiser in the community and clearly he is in the wrong – but she also is pretty clueless about what she is doing. Ceylan isn’t didactic. He doesn’t tell us what to think. Instead he layers sub-plots that show Aydin’s interactions with local traditions and customs. One of these concerns the wild horses of the region which he (or a hired designer) have used as illustrations on the hotel website. When a guest asks if he has a horse he determines to acquire one. This decision develops into an interesting little story about tradition and modernity (and the sensibility of Western audiences). Some of these layered sub-plots or separate narrative ‘threads’ also involve philosophical dilemmas such as the action proposed by Aydin’s sister when she gives him feedback on his newspaper column. We realise that Aydin doesn’t really know whether the best strategy re his tenants is to leave everything to his agent or to intervene personally. The central plotline provides the scenario in which a ‘legal’ but uncaring action by debt-collectors brings Aydin face-to-face with an aggrieved tenant. Nuri and Ebru Ceylan construct the whole narrative so that it springs from a simple incident concerning the tenant’s young son.

Why is it ‘Winter Sleep’? The obvious allusion is to hibernation or to the ‘shutting down’ implied by the metaphor of the seasons for the ‘ages of man’. But rather than gradually hibernating, Aydin is more active than we might expect – worried that he isn’t doing the right thing or that more is expected of him. These kinds of references to seasons and climate often seem to be contradictory. Stories set in boiling summers when you might expect torpor to set in sometimes produce violent action brought on by impatience in the heat. Perhaps the key here is Aydin’s resolve at the end of the narrative to take a cold hard look at himself and change his behaviour – but typically Ceylan leaves open the possibility that Aydin might talk to his wife Nihal rather than just ‘get on’ with his own affairs.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is the subject of a case study in The Global Film Book, focusing on his film Uzak (Distant 2002). The case study appears in Chapter 6, Middle East Without Borders. Elsewhere on this blog and The Case for Global Film, there are short postings on Iklimler (see above) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

New Wave UK trailer:

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

Winter-Sleep

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.