Uncovering Chekhov in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s cinema
If you study Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Wikipedia page, as anyone in a quandary so regularly does in our day and age, the words photographer, screenwriter, actor and director are writ in large bold letters. While all those designations are pretty accurate, the Turkish director actually started out as an electrical engineer. Dilemma, which so many of us can identify with, forced Ceylan to wander a few corners of the planet, one of which happens to be the odd-choice-for-getaway Nepal. After having restricted himself to a reserved lifestyle and reading some Anton Chekhov on the way – through a few photography clubs here and there – Ceylan landed upon the realization that it was cinema – that’s what he wanted to make.
Ceylan’s journey to his first ever film – Koza (Coccon) – is as straightforward as the moment of desperate self-discovery that each one of us anticipates – the one just round the corner, just beyond reach. What has intentionally been tossed into the brief above is the name of that great short story stalwart – perhaps the greatest in the history of literature – Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, as confirmed by Ceylan time and again in the handful of under-spoken interviews the man is prepared to give, has been the inspiration behind most his films.
Ceylan finds it a little vague to pinpoint. Perhaps, “how Chekhov” is a better question to be asked here. The reason behind this is that Chekhov – the greatest short writer he may well be – never quite produced the type of work that was ever seen adaptable to motion picture. While the same could be argued for most Russian writers, including Nobakov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy – because their brooding themes were dependent so heavily on the invocation of literary strife found only in the written word – Chekhov had a distinct quality of his own. Much like Ceylan himself, Chekhov’s characters seldom spoke and were so original – they were at times uninteresting.
Most of Chekhov’s short stories are engagements in thought rather than personality or the varied virtues of man – a sentiment most exploited by Dostoevsky – whereby they gather from very little the elemental quality to surprise and arrest the reader’s attention. But how do you translate anything that is Chekhovian onto the film screen? Characters in film are usually hungry for dialogue – one could argue if another run of “The Artist” would fetch any accolades from the academy for John Dujarin and co. Just why it is unlikely for the industry to sustain with a paucity of words.
That said, Ceylan has been able to do the unthinkable – imposing on the landscape of a largely voice-driven medium the imprint of a Chekhovian reticence and humanness. The humanness in Ceylan’s films arises from actors that are relatively new to the profession themselves. They are either his friends or as in the case with “Iklimler” (Climates), his wife and himself, or relative unknowns. The rawness is palpable and perhaps essential for the Chekhovian theme.
“Uzak” (Distant), which thrust Ceylan onto the international movie stage at the Cannes Film Festival, is perhaps his most accurate rendering of two characters out of a Chekhovian story. In his most ambitious creation “Once upon a time in Anatolia”, Ceylan’s directorial arm waves off the previously perpendicular alignment of his inspiration Anton Chekhov. True to his films and personality, Ceylan seldom terms his source of inspiration as a singular entity. He claims he does not ‘intentionally’ make films with brooding themes, they just happen to be very close to real life. His latest, “Winter Sleep” has won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2014, touted to be his most outspoken film yet. The film runs well over 3 hours. But then perhaps true to Chekhov himself, the story here, is a residue of the time rather than the other way round.
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