Distant (Uzak)


Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 19, 2004


I wasn't planning to write about the Turkish film "Distant", which is now playing in NYC, but words in today's NY Times review of a new Icelandic film got me thinking:


"The director, Dagur Kari, making his feature film debut, has a clean, understated style. Like certain filmmakers from Asia -- Tsai Ming-Liang of Taiwan, for example -- he moves the camera only when absolutely necessary and constructs his scenes as a series of deadpan visual jokes. At the very beginning the camera is stationed near the adjoining doorways of Noi's bedroom and his grandmother's to record her methodical manner of helping him wake up. She walks across the frame, into her room, and returns with a rifle, which she carefully fires out the window."


Since this is exactly the way that "Distant" is constructed, it might be useful to look at it as an expression of a style that is rapidly consolidating itself internationally. I can think of no term like 'nouvelle vague' that describes it exactly or any manifesto that announces it like Dogme '95, but it certainly appears to follow its own austere rules. You can see many elements of this style in Iranian film as well, especially in the works of Kiarostami.


Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, "Distant" ("Uzak") is a minimalist tale of two cousins in Istanbul who live together but barely speak. One is Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a frustrated commercial photographer working for a tile factory who once had dreams of being the Turkish Tarkovsky; the other is Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), a country bumpkin who lost his job after the local factory closed down. Mehmet Emin Toprak was actually Ceylan's cousin, who died in an auto accident shortly after "Distant" was made.


This is not the first film by Ceylan that explores cultural and class alienation between men such as these. In his 1999 "Clouds of May" that I saw in the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center, the director featured a character named Muzaffer (also played by Muzaffer Ozdemir), who is in the countryside making a film about village life that stars his relatives. His cousin (also played by real-life cousin M. Emin Toprak) is an unemployed factory worker whom Muzaffer hires to lug around cameras and other equipment and who dreams that movie-making can be an escape from the tedium and economic insecurity of the countryside. Meanwhile Muzaffer has little interest in the lives of his relatives beyond what is useful for his film.


In one scene his father Emin (M. Emin Ceylan, the director's real-life father) goes on at length about the possible loss of a grove of trees he has nurtured since youth. (Local officials plan to chop them down in the name of a typically Kemalist "modernization" project). While his father pours out his fears, Muzaffer can only fret about the amount of film they're using.


If anything, the Muzaffer character, who we assume must be a stand-in for Ceylan himself, becomes even more self-involved and remote in "Distant". After having lost his wife who is about to move to Canada with her new husband, Mahmut mopes around his apartment all day long or stares at his television set. His favorite fare is pornographic videos, even though it is apparent that he has a vast library of fine literature and art films on VHS. In one of the few scenes where we see him interacting with people other than his cousin, he tells a gathering of Istanbul intellectuals that "photography is dead".


Hiring his cousin Yusuf as an assistant, they go out into the Anatolian countryside to do some art photography. After stumbling across a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, Mahmut decides not to even set up the camera since it is a "waste of fucking time", thereby vindicating his statement to the intelligentsia.


If Mahmut's problems are artistic and existential in nature, Yusuf's are mundanely economic. He dreams of becoming part of the crew on an ocean liner and prowls Istanbul's docks futilely in search of a job. When he is not out looking for work, he stalks attractive women from Mahmut's upscale Beyoglu neighborhood although it is obvious that none of them would have any time for a penniless country boy.


When the two men interact with each other in the apartment, it is a mixture of "The Odd Couple" and Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light". Whether a toilet is flushed or not becomes invested with a kind of Bergmanesque angst. Since the entire film is set in some of Istanbul's infrequent snowy days, the effect is that much more pronounced. Flashes of understated comic brilliance and some of the finest cinematography I have ever seen in recent years relieve this film from a tedium that easily could have overtaken it. Before launching a career as a film-maker, Ceylan was a professional photographer. His ability to frame a scene clearly owes a lot to his past profession.


The real question, however, is whether or not this approach to film-making can offer much more than a kind of highly aesthetic existential drama in which not only communication is at a minimum; there is no catharsis in a meaningful dramatic sense. Ultimately, films are drama. Going back to Greek tragedy, a character is forced to confront some painful series of events that will leave him or her with greater wisdom. In the modern age, there have been constant efforts to either reject or supersede this approach with mixed results.


Finally, it might be said that "Distant" is ultimately a political film even though it contains not a single political discussion. The failure of artists to be engaged with their work and the failure of working people to find a job is not a failure of individual human beings. It is a failure of society and an economic system. In the difficult time that Turkey has been passing through over the past decade, political resistance has not taken shape in the way that it did in the 1960s and 70s. This will certainly weigh on the shoulders of a sensitive and gifted artist like Nuri Bilge Ceylan.


In an interview with the International Herald Tribune on May 24-25, 2003, Ceylan described "Distant" as "a criticism of how we live in cities." He added, "I see how my intellectual friends live in Istanbul; their hopes fade and they have nothing to turn to. In villages, people help each other - in the village I came from, there was a house where a hot meal was served every day for people who had less. But in city life, people are more reserved. We create our own prisons. The city has hardships, anonymity, unemployment. Turkey is one of the most famous countries for hospitality, but we're losing it because we want to be like Western cities."


When you stop and think about it, this is not just a problem for Turkey but for nearly the entire planet. I for one am looking forward to Ceylan's next film, no matter his esthetic predispositions.