Nuri Bilge Ceylan interview

Dave Calhoun meets Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan to talk murder and metaphysics

Nuri Bilge Ceylan Nuri Bilge Ceylan

‘The films that bored me the most in the past became my favourite movies later on,’ muses Nuri Bilge Ceylan thoughtfully over a coffee in a London hotel. ‘So I don’t care about boring the audience. Sometimes, I really want to bore them because out of boredom might come a miracle, maybe days later, maybe years, when they see the film again.’

It’s not a tagline you’ll see on the poster of his extraordinary new film, ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ – ‘Boring now, fascinating later’ –  but there’s no doubt that 53-year-old Ceylan’s poetic, enquiring work challenges audiences to think more deeply than most. ‘I know that audiences are used to faster and shorter movies,’ he concedes when I mention the pace and length – 158 minutes – of his film, which follows a dozen men as they hunt for a body with a gaunt-faced murder suspect over one night in rural Turkey. When the film first screened in Cannes last year, a plot development occuring at the 90-minute mark was greeted by cheers. Until then, Ceylan asks that we settle into the rhythm of the investigation as men  make small talk about yoghurt and prostate cancer. ‘What I want to show can only come out at the slowed-down pace of life,’ Ceylan reasons.

Like his last film, ‘Three Monkeys’ (2008), ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ is less autobiographical than his first four features. His first film, ‘Kasaba’ (1998), is a child’s-eye portrait of village life; in ‘Clouds of May’ (1999) a filmmaker grapples with the ethics of his work; ‘Uzak’ (2002) tells of a lonely photographer in Istanbul; and ‘Climates’ (2006) features Ceylan and his wife as a metropolitan couple. Ceylan’s childhood was split between Istanbul and a small town in provincial north-west Turkey. He came to London in the mid- ’80s – before his military service – where, he told me in an earlier interview, he spent hours at the NFT and stole camera film from a chemist in Brixton. It was in the early ’90s that Ceylan shot his first short, ‘Koza’ (1995), which was selected for Cannes. The French festival has been kind to him and last May he won the Grand Prix a second time with ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’  (jointly with Belgium’s Dardenne brothers).

The film is an existential murder mystery based on an actual killing two decades ago. But its interests are very much Ceylan’s own: the hierarchies of power in everyday relations;  the meaning of life and death;  gallows humour; the passing of time (and passing the time); tensions between the city and country. ‘ I would say that my films are trying to understand the dark side of human nature,’ Ceylan explains.

The striking look of the director’s films has developed over time. He has always  sought meaning in landscapes or cityscapes – think of the ship in the snow in ‘Uzak’.  But his visual style became more heightened in ‘Three Monkeys’: a film about a family dragged into political scandal, the plot’s melodrama was reflected in stormy skies across the Bosphorus. ‘This time I wanted to be more realistic,’ he argues.

The light and colours of ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ may nod to the real, but the film’s compositions and lighting are as precise as ever, especially in the mysterious night-time scenes. Over half the film takes place in the dark, and Ceylan works wonders with the glare of headlights and torches. A flash of lightning offers a moment of horror as the sky lights up an ancient carving of a face.  A scene in a village as the men drink tea in the dead of night takes on a spiritual edge when a beautiful young woman serves the suspect by lamplight: a haunting moment that sends the story in a different direction. ‘This girl is a catalyst,’ Ceylan offers. ‘We were searching for a reason why this suspect would  confess. An innocent girl could be a reason for the change in his soul.’

It’s the first of two such epiphanies in the film. As night becomes day, Ceylan narrows his focus to a doctor, a rational man we see in conversation with a prosecutor who believes in the more spiritual side of life. Ultimately there’s a sense that events awaken something within the doctor too. Perhaps it’s here that the film finally feels autobiographical. The doctor, called a ‘city boy’ by a policeman, feels like one of the conflicted men, torn between the rational and emotional, of Ceylan’s earlier films. In short, he feels like Ceylan himself.

‘The real story was told to me by a doctor,’ Ceylan says. ‘But yes, the doctor in the film is a little like me in terms of personality. He is a very rational person, but of course that is not enough to deal with life. Life has a metaphysical dimension too. There are questions that you cannot answer with knowledge. The doctor has these questions in his mind. The important thing is that, by the end of the film, we see that he has the ability to feel something for somebody else. That’s the hope for him.’