Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Palme d’Or winner who would have preferred to write books


Nuri Bilge Ceylan manages to fascinate for two hundred minutes with About Dry Grasses, a story about a misanthropic teacher in a snow-covered Turkish mountain village. Few imitate him. And yet the acclaimed master filmmaker would have preferred to become a novelist.

In a remote mountain village in eastern Anatolia, winters last until summer. That is not the only reason why seconded teacher Samet wants to leave as quickly as possible. He is accused of inappropriate behavior by his favorite student. A nice English teacher might be able to provide some relief. Although: Nuray is intellectually his equal, but her belief in the collective and the fight for a better world clashes with his misanthropy and seasoned individualism.

Of About Dry Grasses Nuri Bilge Ceylan immerses you in the malaise of an unsympathetic middle-aged man for more than three hours. That only sounds terrible if you are not familiar with Ceylan’s unhurried, somber but masterful films in the tradition of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. His photography of landscapes and faces rivals the great painters, his brooding anti-heroes and dialogues – such as between Samet and Nuray – seem straight out of a great novel.

‘The dinner scene with Samet and Nuray is the reason why I wanted to make this film. She focuses on the conflict that characterizes Turkey: that between individualism and collectivism,” says Ceylan. ‘In About Dry Grasses I examine the good and bad sides of both camps, those who want to keep themselves as far away as possible from politics and commitment and those who seek it out.’ Ceylan himself belongs to the first camp. As Golden Palm winner (for Winter Sleep (2014)) he is often interviewed, but whether journalists take a devious, cautious or brutal approach, he never comments on the political situation in Turkey, let alone Prime Minister Erdogan.

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‘Artists are often accused of being “not so political”. As if that’s necessary,” says Ceylan. ‘I am an individualist. I don’t like politics. I don’t like to talk about politics and I’m not interested in political issues at all. I don’t believe in the big stories and theories. Ultimately we always choose ourselves, like a small child. Preventing ourselves from sinking even takes precedence over friendship. Just read the magnificent A hero of our time by Mikhail Lermontov.’

That reference to literature is not innocent. No matter how much respect Ceylan enjoys among cinephiles, no matter how exceptionally strong his images are, he prefers to curl up in a corner with a book. ‘I prefer reading books to watching films. Books have a greater impact on my being. No film stirs my soul as much as a novel by Dostoyevsky or Chekhov. Unfortunately, I don’t write well enough to write novels. My talents lend themselves much better to cinema.’

And so Ceylan makes films. ‘I don’t do it for the money or for the fame; I don’t give a damn about that. I don’t do it out of commitment either: politics doesn’t interest me. Sometimes I don’t even know if it is important and meaningful to make films.’ He simply has no choice. ‘With my films I try to free myself from the loneliness I feel deep inside. I belong to the type of person who feels like a stranger almost always and everywhere. Life is difficult for me. That has always been the case. I was born pessimistic. The heaviness of existence is my reality. As an incurable melancholic, I need something higher to keep it viable.’ With his films, Ceylan tries to create the feeling he experiences when he finds comfort in a novel. His only goal is to create something ‘you can cling to’.

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And luckily he’s pretty good at it. The Cannes festival awards almost all of his films, the press is always full of praise and every self-respecting arthouse wants a new Ceylan on the bill. He himself is less enthusiastic about his success. ‘I’m never satisfied with what I’ve created. But I feel even worse if I don’t make anything,” Ceylan laughs. ‘Films are like mail in a bottle: you think carefully about every word in your letter, but then it goes out into the ocean in a bottle and you don’t know who will read it. You’re not even sure if anyone will find the bottle. But that doesn’t stop you. You write the letter anyway.’

But the black-eyed person cannot deny that his message in a bottle does occasionally reach its destination. ‘I admit that I sometimes come across some like-minded souls who recognize themselves in the loneliness, alienation and melancholy of my main characters. Time and time again I think no one will like my new movie. And time and time again I am surprised and there are people who intensely feel and understand the film and the characters. That is very nice.’

About Dry Grasses

In cinemas from 15.11.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Born in 1959 in Istanbul.

Makes career as a photographer, screenwriter and film director, with Antonioni, Bergman, Robert Bresson, Andrej Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu as shining examples.

Is has been a regular at Cannes since 2003 and won the Palme d’Or in 2014 with Winter Sleep.

Lays contemporary Turkey and human alienation captured in cinematographically strong films.

Running does not bother with films of more than three hours because ‘you have to challenge the viewer a bit’ and ‘my longest films get fewer bad marks’.

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The article is in Dutch

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