Nuri Bilge Ceylan on 'Three Monkeys'

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Acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a new film out, 'Three Monkeys', and a photography exhibition on the BFI Southbank. See both and your experience will be all the richer, says Dave Calhoun

Last Tuesday evening, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the celebrated Turkish director of ‘Uzak’ and ‘Climates’, hosted an exhibition of his photographs in the entrance hall of BFI Southbank. In each of the 24 images on display you can see Ceylan’s elderly father, Emin, in various, mostly rural locations, photographed on high-resolution digital film and in compositions designed to draw as much emotional power from the natural environs as possible. In one, ‘A Winter Day on the Galata Bridge’, the elder Ceylan leans over a set of railings next to the open sea as a flock of seagulls hovers above. In another, ‘Winter Light’, the man stands close to the camera, staring at the lens, but it’s the stormy sky behind him that grabs the attention and defines the shot.

Those forbidding clouds will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Ceylan’s past films or who sees his latest, ‘Three Monkeys’, when it opens this week. The film won the Best Director prize at Cannes last year for its artful, intimate and fear-laden portrayal of a working-class Istanbul family sucked into a cycle of tragedy when its patriarch, a politician’s driver, takes the rap for a crime committed by his boss. Much of the drama – more ‘events’ take place in this film than in all his others put together – unfolds in the family’s suburban flat, which Ceylan frames within shots of the moody sea and dark hills beyond.

When we meet in Cannes (last May), Ceylan tells me he wanted to move in a new direction. ‘I wanted to test myself with a different kind of story,’ he says. His films are not autobiography, but he has tended in the past to make work that’s close to home. The 49-year-old director grew up in the countryside (‘there was no art around me’) before moving to Istanbul to attend school. It was as a teenager and young adult that he taught himself photography and, later, filmmaking by reading about them in books. After military service, he bought a movie camera but reckons it was another ten years – a decade that included a stay in London, where he lapped up Tarkovsky films at the National Film Theatre – before he attempted to make a short, an effort that was selected by Cannes in 1995.

His family appear in his first two feature films, ‘The Small Town’ (1997) and ‘Clouds of May’ (1999): in the first, his parents contribute to a monochrome portrait of Turkish village life; in the second, this time in colour, he inserts a filmmaking alter ego into proceedings, a director who cackhandedly shoots scenes with his family that are similar to those in his debut. There are versions of himself in ‘Uzak’ (2003), which tells of an alienated photographer living in Istanbul, and ‘Climates’ (2006), in which Ceylan plays a lecturer fighting to get over a failed relationship.

‘In my previous films, except maybe “Small Town”, there is always an intellectual and we look at the world through his eyes,’ he says. ‘That creates an autobiographical feeling – although my films may not necessarily be autobiographical. This time, though, there was no such eye.’

When Ceylan started to write ‘Three Monkeys’ (named after the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ trio), he knew he was moving on from self-reflective territory. ‘The desire is always there to do something different, but sometimes you think you’ve made a different film yet it comes out a bit the same. At first, I felt myself in a foreign land when I was writing this. Maybe that’s why I needed some help with the writing.’

He enlisted his wife, Ebru, and a friend, Ercan Kesal, who also plays the politician. The writing was a struggle, he recalls, largely because he was trying a more complex approach to plotting with the focus on more characters and events. ‘I think the style is not so different, but the storyline is very different for me.’

On paper, the story of ‘Three Monkeys’ involves manslaughter, adultery and murder. It sounds busy, but Ceylan typically interests himself more in the psychology of his characters than their actions. None of these events even takes place on camera. He also follows the pattern of his earlier films by limiting dialogue to the essential. It’s his habit, he says, to keep chipping away at chat – ‘until, finally, there is none,’ he jokes. ‘I don’t like talky scenes, but we have to give some information, so I include as little as possible.’ This translates into an approach that’s familiar: long, silent studies of individuals, often with their faces in close-up, there to be read. Familiar, too, are the lack of music, the flashes of dark humour and the slight colour manipulation of high-definition digital video that he began working with so artfully in ‘Climates’. ‘For me, film is dead,’ Ceylan told an audience at the BFI when he presented a preview of ‘Three Monkeys’ the night after the opening of his photo exhibition.

It’s those same photos that offer a final link between ‘Three Monkeys’ and his other films: the use of landscape to express isolation and upheaval. It’s there in ‘Uzak’ (2002), in which middle-aged Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a troubled photographer, wanders through Istanbul in the winter, at one point passing the overturned hulk of a ship that mirrors his difficult life. It’s there, too, in ‘Climates’, in which Ceylan’s character travels to snowy eastern Turkey to win back his lover. And, now, it’s on the walls of the BFI and on screens across town as cracking thunder, brooding clouds and the stormy waters of Istanbul all gang up on a family in crisis.

Three Monkeys’ opens on Feb 13.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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