Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Early Works Review

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has gained much critical acclaim and international film festival success through his two most recent films, Uzak and Climates, but few had the opportunity to see the director’s first two films that precede them. If the substance of Uzak was not immediately apparent to all when seen in isolation, it’s hollowness perhaps gains more depth and meaning when viewed as the third part of a trilogy started in Kasaba and continued through Clouds of May. Those two films may also owe a great debt to some of the most important filmmakers in the world in terms of their structure, imagery and technique, but through them the director is still able to bring out his own personal concerns and experiences.

Kasaba (1997)

Shot in black-and-white, with limited filmmaking equipment, using non-professional actors and members of his own family, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s debut film is nonetheless an accomplished piece of work. Not only does the film look much more professional than its origins would indicate, but the director has a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve and finds both direct and lyrical means to do so.

The aim of the film, indicated in the title of the film - kasaba meaning small town - is an apparently simple one. It sets out to capture what it is like to grow up in a small town, to want to leave a small town, to return to a small town and to have lived all your life in a small town. Kasaba uses one family to represent the conflicting hopes and ambitions as well as the sense of frustration and resignation this engenders, but Ceylan also manages to bring out deeper themes out of the characters and their environment, since even being part of a family living in a small town inevitably has wider considerations relating to ancestry, history and nationality.

Ceylan achieves this in a short film through only a couple of incredibly lyrical scenes. An early scene in a classroom, paced almost as real-time, has a Victor Erice feel to it – a poetic flow of beautiful imagery that captures a sense of time and location, of the individual and - through the classroom that unifies them - their place in society. It is underlined slightly through the patriotic chants outside the class before the lesson and by the lesson itself on what it means to be a socially responsible citizen, but the imagery alone is enough to capture this with grace and elegance.

This scene is built upon in the remainder of the film with a similarly poetic sensibility, through the children exploring the forest, coming to understand the cruelty and dangers of their environment through the animals and the elemental forces at large there (recalling in many ways Tarkovsky’s Mirror and perhaps Bresson). The adult perspective is also fully explored through an outdoor picnic, where all the generations are present, talking about what life has to offer, their hopes for it, their disillusionment with it and their acceptance of it. The conversation takes in the past, the history of the nation and civilisation, trying to understand the purpose of life and even speculate about what lies beyond.

This is an awful lot to take on in such a short and apparently simple film, but Ceylan does so marvellously, maintaining a remarkable balance between the physical reality of the situation and the environment, and the spiritual side explored poetically in the dreams of several of the characters.

Clouds of May (1999)

Clouds of May is almost a fictional ‘making of’ of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous film, Kasaba - but due to the “homemade” nature of the director’s films, using non-professional actors, drawing on his own family for ideas and for their performances, the lines between fiction and reality become somewhat blurred. Moreover, Ceylan has the remarkable ability, in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami, to take a situation one step further and delve even deeper, opening up newer levels with complex resonances and nuances.

Muzaffer (Muzaffer Özdemir), a filmmaker from Istanbul, returns to the provinces to stay with his family and considers making a film there. He stays with his mother and father, listening to their conversations and observing their behaviour, but also takes in the surroundings, looking for locations and other people who can make up the roles of the family in the film. He has promised his cousin Saffet (Mehmut Emin Toprak) a role in the film and the young man hopes that acting might provide the opportunity for escape from the country that he has been looking for having failed to pass his university entrance exams.

Looking at life in a little provincial village, Clouds of May manages to touch on simple, everyday things in a profound and lyrical way – on families, on how people live, on time and growing older, on the little things that are important to individuals of all ages, keeping them alive and striving to move forward, even when the cards seem to be stacked against them. For the young boy Ali, everything is focussed towards getting a musical watch; for Saffet, it’s the unrealistic ideal of living and working in Istanbul; for the father, it’s keeping the land that he has looked after all his life, which is under threat from the government land surveyors. Each of them however needs to come to terms with reality and adjust their perceptions in a small way. On the ‘meta’ level of the film, there is Muzaffer, the director who is striving to understand the patterns of life, the influence of the environment and capture it on film, and perhaps through it maintain a meaningful relationship with his family.

These are all very simple concepts, but Ceylan has the ability to draw them together into something greater, capturing through these individual aspirations and the environment around them a sense of purpose and meaning in life. The observations the director makes are brilliant, and certainly personal in the manner in which they are made with family members and familiar places, but yet there is nothing original in the concept, the technique or the method by which he achieves it. Kiarostami’s trilogy of Where Is The Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On and Through The Olive Trees is almost certainly the model that is followed here, not only in the manner in which each film within a film opens up new layers and blurs fiction and reality, but even down to specific situations where a young boy purposefully follows a winding path for a simple matter that means everything to him, and the appearance of a director who is looking for local people to appear as actors in the film he is making.

Regardless of whether it is original or not, Ceylan makes it work for himself, and Clouds of May is a fascinating and quite brilliant piece of filmmaking, full of life and full of love for life, with its infinite richness and complexity.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Early Works is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a two disc set. Kasaba is presented on a single-layer disc, Clouds Of May on a dual-layer disc. The films are in PAL format and the set is Region 2 encoded.

Kasaba is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but is not anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. There is some shakiness in the image which could be down to telecine wobble, or could just as easily be down to less than steady holding of the camera. The transfer is interlaced and shows signs of shimmer, so the image is perhaps not as smooth as it ought to be. Some marks, scratches and dustspots are occasionally visible on the print. Despite the lack of technical perfection in the transfer of the film, the essential elements are well presented, with excellent black-and-white tones, clarity and sharpness, and the original aspect ratio is retained.

Clouds of May is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it also suffers, only slightly, from a less than pristine image and transfer. The colours seem slightly dulled and faded in places and the contrast is very strong. There are a few minor dustspots, but little of any great consequence. The transfer again seems interlaced, causing some movement blurring and a little bit of flicker in the stability of the image, but in the main the transfer is more than acceptable, with reasonably good sharpness and clarity.

The audio track on both films is the original Turkish Dolby Digital 2.0. The sound on both films is functional, clear and strong – the dialogue having been post-synched. The essential tone of the films comes across well, the tone coping reasonably well with the different levels of sounds, though it can be a little bit crude in places. There is however no noticeable levels of distortion, noise or hiss.

English subtitles are provided for both films and are optional in a reasonably sized white font. The subtitles on the non-anamorphic Kasaba are widescreen friendly, so the image can be zoomed if desired. The translation would seem to be fine, though there appear to be some dropped words here and there in Kasaba in the not quite so smooth English subtitles.

Kasaba has a Behind The Scenes (22:28) featurette which shows the crew setting up the main scenes in the film, giving some indication of the working method with the non-professional actors and the limited filmmaking equipment at their disposal. A Music Video (4:23) beautifully blends the clarinet score with the dream-like imagery of the film. Trailers (2:53) are included for Climates and Clouds of May. The Biography for Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a very short paragraph long.

Clouds of May also contains a Behind The Scenes (21:57) featurette showing the setting-up, rehearsal and filming of a number of scenes, with the finished shots included. It doesn’t really add much more to the nature of the difficulties in working with non-professional actors than the film does itself. Never mind non-professional actors – try getting a baby to cry on cue. The Trailers (2:52) for Climates and Clouds of May are the same as on Kasaba, as is the brief Biography for Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The techniques in these two early works by Nuri Bilge Ceylan may be borrowed from Bresson, Erice, Antonioni, Kiarostami and Tarkovsky, but they couldn’t be appropriated from better sources and Ceylan makes them work for him, using them to draw remarkable levels of lyricism and meaning from his own life, his own family and his own environment in a very personal way. Ceylan would wrap the themes developed here in Kasaba and taken through Clouds of May with Uzak starring Mehmut Emin Toprak as a character who makes that long-desired journey to Istanbul to look for work and stays with his cousin (played by Muzaffer Özadamir) only to find the reality is not what he hoped it would be. The opportunity to view the two films that precede it certainly offer the third film more depth than was previously evident, but even taking in Climates and considering the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a whole, there is still little evidence that his work has the vitality, originality and uniqueness of vision that is characteristic in the directors whose work he emulates.

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