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Formula for Success: How Turkish Cinema Won Europe

Eminent Turkish film director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film recently won the Palme d’Or (best film award) at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Hence, I thought it could make sense to pull out a paper I had written for my World Cinema class at Yale in 2007. Let’s see whether the cinematic formula for success that I had elaborated on 7 years ago still holds…

Although Lumiere and Pathe previously shot numerous documentaries in Istanbul, cinema was first introduced to the Turkish culture in 1897 by Sigmund Weinberg who projected the first film at his café. (Ilal, 121) However, it was not until the beginning of World War I that Turkish filmmakers got actively involved in the art. Under the Turkish military’s patronage and with technical knowledge provided by their Austrian allies, Turkish filmmakers began to shoot propaganda films and war documentaries. (Ilal, 121) In the civil domain, between 1914 and 1950, “Turkish cinema was a cinema of theater”. (Franko, 550) Pioneering theater directors of the time, lead by Muhsin Ertugrul, would use this new form of art to film their theater productions with dramatic camera angles. (Franko, 550) Ertugrul adapted French plays as well as nationnalistic Turkish novels about the War of Independence. In his films, he never addressed social concerns. Up until 1948, only 58 Turkish films had been produced and 29 of them were directed by Ertugrul. (Ilal, 122)

In 1945, Egyptian films that were immensely popular in Turkey were banned. Since films from other countries, including European ones, were not available, domestic production had become a necessity. Consequently, Yesilcam (the nickname for the Turkish film industry that comes from the name of a street in Istanbul where most of the production companies were located) was created. In 1948 the government lowered local taxes for Turkish film exhibitions. Between 1948 and 1958, on average, 35 films were annually made. (Ilal, 122)  The most important directors of this period who transformed the “cinema of theater” into a socially conscience cinema with a developing cinematic language are Lutfi Akad, Metin Erksan, Atıf Yilmaz, Muharrem Gurses, Memduh Un, Halit Refig, Ertem Gorec, Duygu Sarioglu and Orhan Elmas. (Franko, 551) With the political freedom that the new 1961 constitution brought, the number of socially conscience films increased rapidly.

Yilmaz Guney, Turkey’s most famous screen actor in the mid-sixties, was one of the pioneers of Young Turkish Cinema. (Franko, 552) He was born in 1939 to a poor family in southern Turkey. Guney attended the Ankara Law School and Istanbul School of Economics. (Scognamillo, 317) Before he got involved in film business, he was a short story writer. (Kinzer, 26) Some of these leftist stories would later cause him to be sued and imprisoned many times.

Most of the 20 films that Guney acted in per year were cheap popular flicks. Guney would always play the social outcast who has to rely on his fists in order to bring justice. These Guney films that lack political ideology would become the antithesis of his later films. (Scognamillo, 320) Moreover, they would make Guney a common hero who shares the same background as most Turks. Henceforth, his admirers would call Guney “the Ugly King”. In 1968, Guney set up his own production company and began to direct his own films. Hope (1971) was revolutionary for Turkish cinema. Turkish audiences were shocked to watch “the story of a man and a trade both destined to become victims to industrial development” told through complex characters and a poetic plot line. (Franko, 553) Hope was banned by the Turkish government. However, the filmmakers managed to smuggle it to the Cannes Film Festival.

Unfortunately, Guney’s three terms of prison sentence, due to communist tendencies and murder, reduced his production efficiency. From his cell, he continued to write scripts and send detailed directions to his friends who shot his films for him. In 1980, the script that he wrote for Herd was directed by Zeki Okten. Herd that told the odyssey of a peasant family was screened at Berlin, Locarno and London film festivals. The military banned all Guney films after the coup of 1980. Later, Yol (1982), a film about five inmates who are given permission to leave the prison for one week, was directed by one of Guney’s former assistant directors, Serif Goren. Yol that won the best film prize at Cannes is based on Guney’s own experiences at prison. Just like the main characters of Yol, he was given permission to leave the prison for a short period. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Guney escaped first to Switzerland and then to France. (Scognamillo, 328) Shortly after shooting his last film, the Wall (1983), Guney passed away in Paris.

Other Young Turkish filmmakers who constantly express their gratitude to Guney are Yavuz Ozkan, Korhan Yurtsever, Ali Ozgenturk, Omer Kavur, Erden Kiral and Sinan Cetin. The umbrella that unites these Young directors is their common tendency to criticize the current socioeconomic situation “from a political standpoint”. (Franko, 556) Most of the films made by the Young Turkish directors dealt with Turkey’s transition from feudalism to capitalism. Some dealt with the newly emerging problems regarding guest workers, especially in West Germany. Unfortunately, most of the films made by Young Turkish directors could not attract a large audience, due to the unbeatable popularity of melodramas, sex films, video tapes and television. The harsh policies of the censorship commission that were put into effect after the coup of 1980 made it even more challenging for the Young Turkish filmmakers to share their art with the Turkish people.

Starting from late 1980s, Turkish cinema was drawn into crisis. 185 films were produced in 1987, 117 in 1988, 33 in 1991 and 26 in 1997. (Scagnamillo, 367) Despite the loosening of the government’s grip on film regulation in 1986, the number of Turkish films that reached movie theaters was even less. (Dorsay, 16) For instance, in 1991 only 17 were screened on the silver screen; the rest were either made for video and TV or were trashed. The chief reason behind the shrinking productivity of Yesilcam was the competition intensified by TV and video tapes. Even though the popularity of video tapes began to die in early 90s, the number of TV channels increased dramatically after 1989. (Scagnamillo, 367) In addition, American blockbusters began to dominate the Turkish silver screen. The cheap, mass-produced movies of Yesilcam were unable to compete with their Hollywood superiors. Consequently, the number of Turkish film spectators decreased significantly: 20.3 million in 1986, 5.6 in 1990 and 0.3 in 1994. Fearing that their national cinema would die out, in 1991, the Turkish government provided subsidies for Turkish films for the first time. (Scagnamillo, 371) Unfortunately, with changing government, priorities changed too. In 1997, the local film exhibition taxes for Turkish films were increased while the taxes for international films were decreased! Unable to finance their projects, Turkish filmmakers began to search for funds outside of their country. They applied for grants from European NGOs, such as Euroimages. When these funds were insufficient, they negotiated with Turkish corporate sponsors.

Through European funds and corporate sponsorship, some experienced Turkish filmmakers found a way to beat the hegemony of American blockbusters. Yavuz Turgul’s the Bandit (1996), “a sentimental comedy about a rural outlaw”, was more successful at the box office than Titanic. (Dorsay, 11) The box office successes of Sinan Cetin’s Propaganda (1999) and Gani Mujde’s Byzance the Whore (1999) followed. In the 2000s, “technically polished” Turkish films, mostly comedies, starring “cultural icons” and that were promoted through “American-style marketing” proved their competitive edge against American blockbusters. (Dorsay, 11)

Late 90s and early 2000s have not been dominated solely by commercially successful Turkish films. New Turkish directors, lead by Zeki Demirkubuz, Dervis Zaim and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, have proven their unique cinematic language through their achievements at major European film festivals. At Cannes 2002, Demirkubuz’s last two films were screened at the Un Certain Regard section. (Dorsay, 11) Influenced by Bresson and Kieslowski, he is a true auteur who writes, shoots and edits his films. (Dorsay, 11) His films usually deal with the lower levels of society, in a minimalist fashion.

Dervis Zaim’s first film is Somersault in a Coffin. (1996) In this critically acclaimed, small-budget, Zaim transformed the reality of the marginal anti-hero into a hallucination. (Scagnamillo, 434) His later films have been more political in nature: Elephants and Grass (2000) about political corruption and Mud (2003) about the Cyprus conflict.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who writes, directs and edits all of his films, started his film career with a short film. (Pine Cone, 1996) In 1997, he shot the Town, a personal film about the melancholic Turkish rural life, in the neo-realist fashion. His second film, Clouds of May (1999), is a self-reflexive film about the making of the Town. Although Ceylan’s third feature film, Distant (2002) did not manage to engage a large Turkish audience, it won the Grand Jury Award at Cannes 2003. Ever since Yilmaz Guney’s Yol (1982), no Turkish film had been so successful at an important European film festival. After reading about the success of Distant, Turkish intellectuals were hopeful about the future of Turkish cinema. Reminiscent of Kiarostami’s Koker films,Ceylan’s three films function as a quasi-trilogy “tracing the trajectory of a young man’s life”. (Dorsay, 11) Common characteristics found in all of his films are the skillful use of non-actors, minimalism (both in the budget and the mis-en-scene) and improvised performance. (Scagnamillo, 432)

By comparing the subject matter, the mis-en-scene and the technical aspects of the works of the three Turkish directors who have been the most successful at European film festivals so far, we can discover the cinematic characteristics that increase a Turkish film’s chances of receiving an important European award. In an attempt to discover such a pattern, Yilmaz Guney, Dervis Zaim and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s most critically acclaimed films will be analyzed and juxtaposed in the rest of this paper.

In Turkish film history, no film has been more successful at European Film festivals than Yilmaz Guney’s Yol. Yol is the only Turkish film that has won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. (Kinzer, 26) The film has numerous attractive characteristics that might have grabbed Western intellectuals’ attention. These characteristics can be classified into three major categories: the subject matter, the mis-en-scene and the technical aspects. In addition, some environmental factors, such as the dramatic story of the film’s making and Guney’s previous encounters with Cannes (with the Herd in 1978) may have contributed to the international success of Yol.

In his film, Yilmaz Guney tells the story of five inmates who are allowed to leave the prison for one week. Tragically, on their way to their homes they encounter various painful experiences that make them feel imprisoned even when they are not surrounded by the mighty walls of the Imrali prison. Bound by tradition, Mevlut is not allowed to spend a minute alone with his fiancée. As a result, he seeks satisfaction at the local whorehouse. His father-in-law prevents Mehmet Salih the coward, who has betrayed his brother-in-law during a robbery, from reuniting with his wife and children. Attempting to solve the problem by running away with his wife, Mehmet Salih finds a much greater problem at his tail: blood feud. One of his wife’s young relatives shoots both Mehmet Salih and his wife in front of their children. Seyit Ali is also constrained by tradition. Although he still loves his wife, the people of his village force him to kill her for having become a prostitute. Being a Kurd, Omer faces not traditional but military oppression when he returns to his village in Southeast Turkey. The magnitude of the oppression is so great that he cannot find the courage to identify his terrorist brother’s corpse in front of military officials. Even though the audience initially feels sorry for Yusuf who is immediately taken back to prison because of losing his permission documents, after watching the dire fate that awaits his four friends outside of the prison, we reach the conclusion that he is better off inside. (Dorsay, 154)

The script brings up some controversial, social/political issues that are crucial for the identity of modern Turkey. The question of the Kurds in the Southeast and the situation of women in the Southeast are the major social/political issues that Yol puts under the microscope. Omer and all other Kurdish villagers are either forced to stay indoors all the time or to live on the mountains. Due to the ongoing battle between so-called Kurdish “freedom fighters” and Turkish soldiers, most Kurdish villagers have to protect themselves behind the walls of their homes. On the other hand, the terrorists always have to be out in the open, either hiding or fighting. Yol eloquently informs us about the tragic situation of the Kurdish villagers stuck between the two extremes.

The situation of women in the Southeast is another important topic that Yol elaborates on. Women are depicted as a lowly breed of people. When a female relative approaches Mehmet Salih’s father-in-law to inform him that his daughter has run away, the father beats her up. Just as she attempts to escape the physical abuse, one of Mehmet Salih’s brother-in-laws starts to slap her around. His reason for the punishment is disrespectfully running away from the elderly male’s beating! Seyit Ali’s wife who is chained up in the barn like an animal is an unforgettable symbol of the male villagers’ abuse of women. Due to such socially/politically conscience scenes, Yol did not pass the review of the censorship commission and it was banned in Turkey until 1999. (Holland, 8)

The mis-en-scene of Yol incorporates devices that allow access to the main characters’ inner worlds, neo-realist details, and symbolic/aesthetic shots. We delve into the main characters’ psychology through voiceovers, day-dreams and flashbacks. Day-dream scenes give the audience further access to the inmates’ inner worlds. For instance, Omer regularly dreams about his riding a graceful horse on a never-ending, bright green field. There cannot be a better image that articulates Omer’s lust for freedom. Ironically, these day-dreams do not stop once he reaches his village. The green village that he has been dreaming about is no longer the same; it has been infected by terrorism and military oppression. Since Omer is disappointed to see that the village he has imagined as the land of freedom has been transformed into an open-air prison, he continues to dream on. Hence, joins the terrorists.

Mehmet Salih’s two flashbacks present a sharp contrast between his delusions and the reality. When he visits an old friend of his and the friend asks him whether he has betrayed his brother-in-law, thereby causing the brother-in-law’s death, Mehmet Salih lies. Right after he begins to tell the story of the robbery, the director cuts to a flashback narrated by Mehmet Salih’s voice. It feels as if we are in his brain, observing the nerve impulses creating his story. In this first version of the robbery, we see Mehmet Salih bravely waiting for his brother-in-law/accomplice in the get-away car. However, when the old friend tells Mehmet Salih that he is lying, he gives him the true version. Once again, the director cuts to a flashback. The audience is provided with the reality where Mehmet Salih cowardly escapes from the crime scene, causing his brother-in-law to be shot. By providing this sharp contrast between the two versions, the director not only proves how hard Mehmet Salih’s conscience and subconscious have been working to ease his pain by creating an alternative story, but also visualizes the reason for his secondary embarrassment felt for lying.

Just like the psychological elements of the film, such as flashbacks, the neo-realist details help the director build a more complete cinematic world. Starting from the very first scenes at the prison, there are numerous shots that would never be included in a classical Hollywood movie, but in either a documentary or a Pasolini film. The sequences of inmates sipping tea in traditional Turkish tea cups, scrutinizing every inch of the old newspapers and nostalgically staring at wedding photos exemplify Guney’s semi-documentary style. Such details do not only enhance realism, but also serve practical purposes. For instance, the shot of flies mingling with Omer’s brother’s corpse contributes to the emotional build-up, while the shots displaying Kenan Evren (the leader of the coup) and Bulent Ersoy (a transsexual singer) photos sold on the streets establish the cultural context.

Not all shots of Yol are as self-explanatory as a documentary. Some are aesthetically satisfying photographs with dual meaning. During the day-time battle between soldiers and terrorists, we see a Kurdish woman holding a baby far away from the camera and a soldier aiming a gun up close to the camera. The soldier is out of focus. Its aesthetic composition is not the only reason why this image is striking. Another characteristic that makes this photograph stick to the viewer’s visual memory is its symbolic nature. The solider is aiming at the woman’s house where her terrorist husband is hiding. Preventing the woman from entering her home, the soldier alludes to the popular Kurdish perception that the Turkish military is the destroyer of families. Similar symbolic photographs have been created with the use of frames. Yol presents various shots of women framed by doors, children by windows and terrorists by narrow openings caused by ammunition. All of these physical frames symbolically emphasize the cultural and political constraints imprisoning our characters.

In addition to characteristics related to the subject matter and the mis-en-scene, technical aspects, which can be categorized into sound, cinematography and editing, have also contributed to Yol’s international acclaim. The soundtrack is special chiefly for reinforcing the overarching theme that the whole country is an open-air prison. At the prison, before the prisoners leave for holiday, a commanding voice announces the terms of their departure. Interestingly, we never see the speakers through which the commanding voice is projected; we never see the owner of the voice either. Although this is surprising at first, the reason becomes apparent when both Seyit Ali and Omer hear the same voice outside of the prison. After going through all the painful experiences, Seyit hears the same announcement on the train back. Initially, it is difficult to decide whether the announcement is diegetic or it is only in Seyit Ali’s mind. As the announcement continues, the director cuts to Omer, thereby bridging the two inmates’ cognitions.

Director Serif Goren’s camera is dynamic. He frequently makes use of zooms and pans. Moreover, he is never intimidated by challenging shots. The camera has been placed at almost impossible locations in order to capture most wagons of the train as it crosses a bridge. Such an active and adventurous camera can only be fit for leading the characters, not for following them. That is precisely the role that Goren has hired the camera for. Throughout Yol, the camera shows what lies ahead. For instance, when the inmates board the bus or the train, the first thing that the camera does is to register the view through the front window. Even though what lies ahead can easily be distinguished in the first half of the film, after the tragic incidents of the second half, nothing can be seen, other than rail tracks extending into darkness. In the last shot, the camera quits the job of leading; falls onto the tracks and watches Seyit Ali’s train as it takes him back to the prison.

The visual elements have been masterfully edited. Goren’s sequences of short takes contribute to his dynamic story-telling, thereby making the film more engaging. Moreover, the strictly limited screen time of the shots allows both the interiors and exteriors to be established in great detail. An example of such a sequence is as follows: close-ups of Seyit Ali on the train, close-ups of unrelated characters sitting around him and wide shots of the exterior. The main purpose behind the director’s intertwining related and unrelated characters, interiors and exteriors is to present Turkey as a closed system where everything is interconnected. After Mehmet Salih and his wife have been shot on the train, Goren cuts to the puffing chimney of the locomotive and to the full moon in the sky. No matter how unrelated these elements may seem, the tragic incidents taking place in the train and the natural phenomena occurring outside interact with each other, because the whole country with its institutions, people and geography is a prison. The director’s style of montage supports this thesis.

Although not nearly as successful as Guney’s Yol, Dervis Zaim’s Somersault in a Coffin (1996) is one of the few Turkish films that have attracted international attention. It has been screened at the Chicago, Toronto, San Sebastian, Thessalonica and Montpelier film festivals. (Kinzer, 2) It was also screened at the New Directors/New Films section of the Museum of Modern Art in 1998. (Holden, 14) In addition to collecting some of the most important national awards, Somersault in a Coffin has won numerous international awards, such as the Mediterranean Critics’ Award of Montpellier and the Special Jury Prize of Thessalonica. (DVD)

With a budget of only $15,000, Dervis Zaim has produced, written and directed the story of a homeless man, Mahzun, who struggles with life, in the streets of Istanbul. (Kinzer, 2) Mahzun, a compulsive thief, makes a living by fishing and cleaning the toilettes of a café. There he meets a prostitute addicted to heroin and falls in love with her. In the meantime, he steals a peacock from the gardens of a fortress. The peacock “symbolizes the abundant life Mahzun will never have.” (Holden, 14) After that, he steals his boss’s boat to take his love for a ride. As he blissfully kisses the dozed-off prostitute, the boat crashes into a lighthouse. Having lost his job and the prostitute, he attempts to escape starvation by catching and eating a second peacock. Unfortunately, this time the guard of the fortress catches him. The film ends with Mahzun imagining that he is being beaten up by each main character.

Somersault in a Coffin is a personal film that chiefly deals with the issue of homelessness, since that is the primary identity of the protagonist. The film makes the most striking commentary about homelessness when Mahzun’s two bosses chat, as they smoke weed. One of them says that Mahzun would be better of in a prison, because there he would have free food and shelter.

The mis-en-scene incorporates psychological and neo-realist elements, and symbolic/aesthetic shots. While the crowd outsides cheers over the Turkish national soccer team’s victory, Mahzun lies in his bed half asleep. The audience notices the extent to which Mahzun is detached from society when they observe that he is dreaming about being on a rowing boat with a beautiful peacock and about touching the prostitute. His dreams not only reveal his fantasies, but also articulate his fears. Mahzun frequently imagines himself in a dark room being slapped by a hand. We never see whom the hand belongs to. Towards the end, the director reveals the owners of the hand by adding close-ups of the main characters, to the dream sequence. The owner is everybody who prevents Mahzun from realizing his fantasies.

Since the main objective of the film is to present a situation rather than rigidly pursuing a logical plot line, it has been built on neo-realist details. Although realistic shots, such as the café employee’s masturbating before Mahzun enters the room and children’s striking the tail of the peacock as Mahzun waits at the bus station are unimportant for the plot, they add to the cinema verite quality of the film.

The mis-en-scene incorporates many aesthetically satisfying shots of the Istanbul straits and symbolic shots that emphasize the claustrophobia that Mahzun feels. In such a shot, we see Mahzun sleeping in one of the long, horizontal canons of the fortress. His body barely fits into the barrel. Remembering the discrepancy between his inner world and the reality of the world that he lives in, it is not too far fetched to interpret the canon as the tight grip of the society gradually causing the homeless man to suffocate. Just as it is impossible to do a somersault in a coffin, it is impossible to move freely inside the canon.

The technical aspects of Somersault in a Coffin have also been manipulated to produce unique cinematic characteristics. Dervis Zaim has used natural sounds, such as the sounds of the waves and birds, in order to parallel Mahzun’s psychology. As he sits in the stolen bus parked by the see, he has the nightmarish vision of his being beaten up by a hand in a dark room. When the camera shows the inside of the bus, the soundtrack is completely silent, even though the inside of Mahzun’s head is about to explode with slapping noises. What reflects Mahzun’s psychology is the loud sound of waves hitting the shore. The juxtaposition between the silence of the bus and the loudness of the waves parallels the contrast between Mahzun’s quiet appearance and his tumultuous inner world.

Zaim’s camera is stable, rarely making use of zoom lenses and dollies. Throughout the film, it establishes interiors and exteriors in great detail. This technique implies that the entire city, with all its interiors and exteriors, is the homeless man’s home. In a classical Hollywood movie, only the locations significant for the main characters would be established. However, in Somersault in a Coffin, Istanbul had to be established as a whole, since the entire city is significant for Mahzun.

Similar to Yol, the shots of this film have been edited in a way that presents Istanbul as a closed system. Although Zaim’s takes that are significantly longer than Goren’s allow for a smaller number of transitions between shots of the main characters and shots of the environment, the reactions of the environment to the protagonist’s psychology can be readily noticed. For instance, after Mahzun’s homeless friend freezes, the director cuts to the shot of birds making a mourning noise. The reason why the director forces the environment to parallel Mahzun’s sorrow is to present Istanbul as single unit, which reinforces the idea that the city is the home of the homeless. In order to unite all elements that make up the city, the director has also occasionally thrown in shots of muddy puddles. Despite the fact that a symbolic reading of these puddles is possible, the chief purpose behind their existence is to break the viewer’s concentration on the protagonist by presenting a random environmental element. Mahzun’s actions are meaningless on their own. They can only gain meaning once they are presented within the general framework of the city, side by side with other elements of the city, such as the muddy puddles.

Distant’s success in Europe has been closer to Yol’s. Writer, director and cinematographer of Distant, Nuri Bilge Ceylan received the Grand Jury Award at Cannes 2003. (Sight and Sound, 20) Distant is a representative of a “vanishing kind of personal cinema”. (Sight and Sound, 20) The director’s most autobiographical film so far, Distant tells the story of a pensive, middle-aged photographer, Mahmut and a younger, uneducated villager, Yusuf who comes to Istanbul in search of a job. While Yusuf hopelessly looks for a job as a sailor, he stays at Mahmut’s apartment. Mahmut is constantly thinking about his deteriorating relationship with his sister and mother, his ex-wife who has become infertile due to an abortion that he has insisted on and Yusuf’s inconsiderate behavior. In order to make Yusuf leave, Mahmut purposefully accuse him of stealing a golden watch. At the end, Yusuf leaves the apartment, the ex-wife whom Mahmut is still emotionally attached to immigrates to Canada and we are left with Mahmut smoking a cigarette as he melancholically stares at the gorgeous view of the Istanbul strait.

Funded by the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Distant is a heavily psychological film that deals with loneliness. According to the film, the main factor that causes loneliness is the main characters’ tendency to substitute active communication with melancholia. Mahmut, for example, never answers his sister’s phone calls. Although he answers his ex-wife’s phones he cannot express his true emotions to her. Similarly, instead of talking to his intellectual friends about his tragic transition from artful photography to commercial photography, a topic that profoundly troubles him, he changes the topic and talks about trivia. Each time Mahmut escapes active conversation he finds himself in a passive state of melancholia, frequently smoking a cigarette and looking into the horizon. He brings loneliness upon himself.

Reminiscent of Tarkovsky and Bresson, the mis-en-scene incorporates dream sequences and supernatural elements in order to give the audience a glimpse of what is going on in the main characters’ minds as they melancholically stare at the Istanbul strait. (Dorsay, 11) Not knowing that Mahmut is dreaming, we see Mahmut staring at the snowy TV screen with tired eyes. The glass of water that he is holding in his hand is about to fall. Just as the viewer expects the glass to shatter on the wooden floor, the floor lamp standing next to the TV inexplicably falls instead. Ceylan cuts to Mahmut waking up. This dream sequence that is in slow motion implies that Yusuf does not have to be there for things to go wrong. With Mahmut’s lack of communication, his life can shatter any minute like the light bulb of the floor lamp or perhaps it already has.

The plot line is even less important for Distant than it is for Somersault in a Coffin. Its plot line consists not of a series of events chained by causal relationships, but instead of neo-realist details. Mahmut’s wiping semen off of his bed, Yusuf’s staring blankly at the lamp and Yusuf’s causing the car alarm to go off as he is flirting with a girl are tiny details that would not even be captured by a non-plot-driven film, like Somersault in a Coffin.

Ceylan has used environmental sounds, such as vehicle and animal noises, to unite the characters with the city. Since only one piece of music and long pauses in dialogue have been integrated to the soundtrack, the sounds of the city dominate. During one of the many scenes of melancholia where Mahmut sits at the shore watching the strait, the city makes itself felt. The sounds of the waves, the traffic and the doves make the audience realize that Mahmut is only one of the various elements constituting the city. When he stops speaking, it is easier to hear the other elements speak.

Ceylan’s rebellious camera that uses zoom lenses, the dolly and the steadicam extremely rarely has an independent character of its own. The camera glides according to no particular formula but to its own wish. Although in classical Hollywood films the camera usually follows the main characters and registers only the shots that are essential for the plot, this is not the case in Distant. When Yusuf goes to the docks, the camera tracks him for a limited time. The motionless camera allows Yusuf to walk out of the frame. For about ten seconds, the audience watches the static shot of an empty dock. This shot can be considered plot-wise unnecessary, since it would be sufficient to show Yusuf enter the shipping office in order to present his inability to find a job. After ten seconds, we see Yusuf enter the frame at a further point and walking at a different trajectory than the one he has exited through. Due to its independent nature, the camera becomes a melancholic character, like Mahmut, who frequently grows distant from his surroundings. The camera’s failure to follow the protagonist and film an empty dock instead parallels the moments when Mahmut stares at the sea purposelessly.

The visuals have been edited in a way that supports the general mood of melancholia. Similar to Somersault in a Coffin’s editing style, Ceylan’s long takes present the city as a closed system. Of course, here the purpose is not to support the overarching idea that the whole city is the home of the homeless. Instead, it is to introduce the idea that Istanbul provides the ideal setting for melancholia. By placing shots of Istanbul hidden under the snow after shots of the protagonists’ pensive faces, the director gives them something hypnotically beautiful to stare at, as they lose themselves in emotionally painful trains of thought.

After analyzing the three films, a pattern has emerged. Even though the Western critical acclaim that the film receives does not seem do depend on whether the subject matter is personal, as in Distant and Somersault in a Coffin, or socially conscience, as in Yol, some generalizations regarding the mis-en-scene, the technical aspects and auteurship can produce a potent formula for budding filmmakers. All three films have psychological elements, neo-realist details and symbolic/aesthetic shots weaved into their mis-en-scene. One of the technical aspects, sound has been used to support overarching themes. These are the theme that the whole country is an open-air prison in Yol, the contrast between the appearance and the inner world in Somersault in a Coffin, and the theme that people are only one of the various elements constituting the city in Distant. The camera has a unique character in all three films. Goren’s camera leads the main characters until the last shot, Zaim’s establishes the entire city in order to support the idea that the whole city is the home of the homeless, and Ceylan’s is independent of the main characters. The visuals have been edited in a way that presents the protagonists’ world as a closed system. The people and the surroundings are in constant interaction. In addition, the films have been directed by Turkish auteurs who have been involved in multiple levels of production. Although these auteurs’ formula can be followed step by step in order to achieve success in Europe, it should be interpreted in the more general sense. Turkish film history should convince budding filmmakers that they need to spend a significant amount of intellectual energy developing a unique cinematic language based on the mis-en-scene, sound, cinematography and editing. There is no doubt that aueturship would allow them to develop a more coherent one.

 

 

Bibliography:

Holland, Ben. “Once-barred film on Kurds now allowed in Turkey.” Christian Science Monitor Vol.91, Issue 60 (1999): 8.

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Franko, Ayse. World Cinema Since 1945. Ed. Luhr, William. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Dorsay, Atilla. “Back From Near Oblivion, Turkish Cinema Gets a New Lease on Life.”   Istanbul Journal (2003): 11-12.

“A Silky Sadness.” Sight and Sound Vol.14, Issue 6 (2004): 20-23.

Dorsay, Atilla. Sinemamizin Cokusu ve Ronesans Yillari (Turk Sinemasi 1990-2004). Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, 2004.

Scognamillo, Giovanni. Turk Sinema Tarihi. Istanbul: Kabalci, 1998.

Holden, Stephen. “Film Festival Review: Outcast Grasps the Bird of Happiness.” The New York Times 4 Apr. 1998: 14.

Kinzer, Stephen. “Arts Abroad; Down and Out in Istanbul: Cinema on a Shoestring.” The New York Times 20 Nov. 1997: 2.

Kinzer, Stephen. “Film: Turkey, Relenting, Shows the Work of a Kurd Patriot.” The New York Times 11 Apr. 1999: 26.

 

 

 

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