Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The action man

Nuri Bilge Ceylan writes and directs his award-winning films. He also produces, sells, edits and stars in them. Jonathan Romney meets the hardest-working man in Turkish showbusiness
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The Independent Culture

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has always put a lot of himself into his films - right down to his flat, his car and his Puffa jacket. In interviews, he might play down the autobiographical aspect to his work, but the clues are there. His first feature Kasaba (aka The Small Town, 1997) is about a rural community like the one Ceylan grew up in; its follow-up Clouds of May (1999) is about a director returning to his home town to make a film about it. His third film Uzak (Distant) put Ceylan on the world map when it won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes in 2003. It's about a photographer living in Istanbul - like Ceylan, who maintains a parallel career in photography - and his cousin from the country, played by the director's own cousin. Uzak's hero wears Ceylan's jacket, drives his Smart car and lives in a flat which was Ceylan's at the time (it's still his office). Perhaps these are just canny ways to reduce the props budget, but you can't help raising a sceptical eyebrow when Ceylan insists that his heroes shouldn't be mistaken for him.

Things are even closer to home in the extraordinary Climates, released this week. This time, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (pronounced "Bil-geh" and "Jey-lan") steps in front of the camera, together with his wife Ebru Ceylan, as an unmarried couple who separate after an explosive falling-out on holiday. At times, the Ceylans' presence together on screen leaves you feeling almost intrusive: a dinner scene early on, full of barely muted rancour, is guaranteed to make you grind your teeth (probably because you've been there yourself at least once). It's fiction, but you can't help wondering whether there's some domestic acting-out going on between the Ceylans: when Bahar and Isa worry about their age difference, there's no disguising the fact that Nuri really is 47, Ebru a decade younger. But ask the director whether the Ceylans are in any way portraying themselves, and you get much the same answer that most film-makers give: "Woody Allen acts in his films," he shrugs. "Maybe everybody thinks Woody Allen is really like that." (Oh, but everyone does.)

Ceylan has spiked his on-screen character with imperfections: his Isa is indecisive, dishonest, somewhat brutish. The director himself is a relaxed, affable man, saturnine and soft-spoken, whoserusty English can make his comments sound high-flown. Asked why there's such a strong continuity between his films, Ceylan says, "It's because of my soul, I think: there is an urge to tell the same kind of stories, the same kind of melancholy. I always want to make something entirely different, but it comes out as the same." As for Ceylan's apparently masochistic casting of himself as Isa, a man at once sympathetic and rebarbative, "I'm the kind of person who asks himself really cruel questions. I try to be as realistic as possible when I live these kinds of things. If someone does something bad to me, I don't blame them, I look at my own responsibility."

Asked why he and Ebru decided to act in Climates, Ceylan remains vague. "There are many reasons. I thought we could act these characters well. And like everybody, I wondered about myself, I wanted to see who I am and what I am. I was afraid of that, and if I'm afraid of anything, I go into it more, I push myself." Besides, it seemed to make the job of directing simpler. "Sometimes it's difficult to tell actors what you want if you're not sure. Knowing I was going to act made the writing easier. I didn't have to finalise the dialogue, I could handle it in the shooting. When I'm writing, I'm never sure of anything. People who are sure of everything seem to me a bit stupid, you know?" Ebru also played a big role in the writing process; she should have shared the script credit, Ceylan says, but declined.

There's a long tradition of male film-makers making lyrical, obsessive films about their real-life partners, but few have exposed their domestic life to conjecture quite as teasingly as Ceylan does in Climates. Still, the director insists that Climates is not about him and Ebru. "Of course, I have painful memories from many relationships - they left a mark on me, and those marks made me make this movie. But my relationship with my wife is not like this." The material for Climates, he says, came from other relationships, a previous marriage and the lives of friends.

Climates is arguably Ceylan's most introspective film yet, with a chamber-drama intensity to match Ingmar Bergman. But visually, it's also a sublimely crafted film. Not only does its High-Definition digital photography seem to expose its characters' emotions with forensic transparency (in an early close-up of Ebru as Bahar, the shadow of a frown warns us that something's about to snap), but also it offers an extremely striking essay on landscapes and weather. You might also recognise a Ceylan trademark, a moment when a character finds himself framed in a landscape that echoes his emotional state - notably, a shot of Isa standing on a bridge under looming clouds. There's a simple reason why Ceylan favours these images. "In real life, it happens to me all the time. When you're an introvert, you don't see anything. Then suddenly, you realise there's an atmosphere around us, a landscape and the sound of birds and suddenly you feel this mystical connection between yourself and the universe."

You can sample more of Ceylan's exteriors in his current photography exhibition at London's National Theatre. The pictures are part of a series he shot around Turkey on a digital camera, featuring street scenes, faces, rural panoramas, all given a formal twist by the Cinemascope format. At first glance they are exercises in stark poetic realism, but many, on further inspection, reveal a degree of manipulation, heightening echoes of Brueghel's mythically-inflected landscapes.

Ceylan was born in Istanbul in 1959, then moved at the age of two to the western province of Çanakkale, the inspiration for Kasaba. Returning to Istanbul at 10, he went on to study engineering there, then headed to the Himalayas to mull over his future, and decided that it lay in the military. Languishing in an army camp in Anatolia for a year and a half, he spent most of his time reading, until Roman Polanski's autobiography suddenly suggested a more promising vocation. As a result Ceylan came to London to learn film-making, although he seems to have spent most of his time devouring triple-bills at Kings Cross's much-missed art-palace the Scala.

By the time his third feature, Uzak, hit Cannes in 2003, his work already had the mature stylistic confidence that denotes a full-blown red-carpet auteur. I tried to interview him there that year, but it initially proved hard to pin him down to a meeting: the usual case, I assumed, of a film-maker caught up in the festival's media feeding frenzy. When I finally caught up with him, he explained what had been keeping him busy. He had been running up and down the Croisette personally handling the sales of his film, which he had also shot and produced himself. (He brought in another cameraman on Climates, although he edited it himself.)

Ceylan has been hailed by some as heading a renaissance in Turkish cinema, along with such names as his friend Zeki Demirkubuz, who made a mark with his Camus adaptation Fate, and Reha Erdem, whose Times and Winds - likely to reach the UK this year - is a vintage rural epic. Ceylan himself isn't convinced that there's a Turkish resurgence as such: "I'm not in a position to see it. But we are living in an era of communication, everyone is in better contact with the world, and being local is more difficult." Nevertheless, he certainly agrees that the international prominence of Turkey's literary Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is giving the country's artists new confidence.

Unlike Pamuk, however, whose novel Snow shares an eerie ambience with the wintry last half-hour of Climates, Ceylan has not yet addressed the tensions in contemporary Turkey between the secular nation and Islam. Ceylan says, "In Turkey, I am a Westerner", and his particular terrain has been to depict the everyday angst of Istanbul's cosmopolitan intellectuals. But one day, he says, he'll probably have to address Turkey's social changes: "Yes, this kind of tension I also sometimes feel. Everybody is choosing their position and that makes the different positions sharper."

Both the Ceylans are extremely impressive on screen in Climates, but neither, Nuri says, has any plans to act in the future, in his films or anyone else's. He did, however, get one prestigious offer in the wake of Climates - to direct and star in a biopic of another Turkish screen icon, the late Kurdish director and actor Yilmaz Güney, best known for The Herd and Yol. He politely declined.

"Before I got a prize in Cannes, people in Turkey didn't pay me any attention at all - I was like a child for them, playing his own games. After that, they tried to put me someplace." He shrugs. "But where to put me?"

'Climates' is on general release; Climates: Turkey Cinemascope, National Theatre, 020 7452 3400, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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