Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Year: 1997
Rating: 7.5
Country: Turkey

A.k.a - The Small Town

A few years back I was able to watch Climates at a film festival and liked it well enough to want to see more of this Turkish director's work. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not very prolific with only some eight feature films in nearly 25 years, but all of his works as far as I can tell have been highly acclaimed by critics and gone on to win awards at International Film Festivals. That can of course be the kiss of death to movie goers as film festival favorites will often be artistic thoughtful static films that move along glacially and certainly the films of his that I have seen fall under that description to some degree. But he really has something to say, they are revealing of who we are and your patience will pay off.

Ceylan grew up in a farming community such as depicted in this film, became a highly regarded photographer and then made a short film called Koza in 1995. I saw Koza a few months back and it was a wordless black and white film primarily consisting of images that showcased his photographic eye. It starred - if you can use that term - his parents. His family is often involved in his films. This one is based on a story that his sister wrote. Members of his family are in front of and behind the camera. It was again shot in black and white on a budget that must have been a hope and a prayer. But it is beautiful - never in a rush to move on to his next camera shot he captures the essence of this small town and the people who live there in a series of shots that are intimate and real. There are moments of splendor as well - the wind rising as two children run through a wheat field, a feather floating through the air, an amusement ride shot from below and the wide open infinite sky behind it. Ceylan goes back and forth often from face to face ingrained with the life of the rural poor.

Because this small town is poor – a place where dreams crumble and get blown away – when I lived in Turkey with my parents years ago we would go through so many towns that look just like this – unmemorable and insignificant – makeshift houses of wood and mud, dreary in the winter, dusty in the summer. Yet these are the towns that have over the past 15 years shifted Turkey to a more Islamic state with religion being the foundation of their lives. He begins the film with a small act of cruelty by the children to who they call the town idiot – there are other moments like this throughout the film from throwing a rock at an elderly man to turning over a turtle on its back to allow it to helplessly die. Like a lot of what goes on in this film I am not sure what Ceylan is getting at – different interpretations are possible – to me the turtle was in a sense the people in this town – unable to move on with their lives, unable to leave, stuck to the past.

The school children first give allegiance to Turkey and Ataturk before class begins. A bored teacher stares out the window at the snowfall and tells one of them to read the lesson out loud. It is about family as the child drones on – the unit of the family and how it is there for you in good and bad times – the unit that makes a strong nation. And I think that is the basic gist of the film – the family unit – how it binds you to them and to your place in life. The narrative thread in the film is ambiguous and invisible – there really isn’t one as there is no particular plot here, no drama – we just watch a family and their interactions with one another primarily during one night as they picnic outside in an autumn chill. They tell familiar stories that they have all clearly heard many times before – the grandfather (Ceylan’s father) tells of when he fought the British in WWI, his son about Alexander the Great, the grandmother talks of the son who has died – the son of the dead son complains that his father is not treated with enough respect – again we suspect that this argument and rancor has been gone over before. He talks of leaving this dead end town, but he is unable to. The two young children just listen to the adults through the buzz of near sleep.

Again it is difficult to be sure as to what Ceylan is trying to say here – the dialogue is sharp and smart – wistful for another period by the older generation and scorned by a younger generation. As much as anything this is a mood piece with a camera capturing so many images – some cruel such as the lambs having their throats cuts – the myriad of rugged faces – the empty harsh landscapes – roads that go on forever – a cemetery deep in the woods where the tomb stones are written in the old Turkish-Arabic alphabet before Ataturk changed it. All these images create a sense of reality of a time and place and people. It pulled me in more than I would have thought.

Written up November 13, 2019