Ceylan, Nuri Bilge (1959–)

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Ceylan, Nuri Bilge

Turkish photographer, filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer Nuri Bilge Ceylan is considered to be one of the leading "new wave" auteurs of Turkish cinema. Ceylan is the winner of both the prestigious Grand Jury Prize (2002) and Fipresci Movie Critics' Award (2006) at the Cannes Film Festival. He, along with filmmaker Zeki Demirkubuz, and orhan pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize winner in literature, are considered among the most important artists and intellectuals who have questioned and artistically explored Turkish identity and culture.


Ceylan was born in Istanbul on 26 January 1959. In 1961 Ceylan's parents moved to the countryside and returned to the city when Ceylan was ten years old. This period of rural upbringing shaped Ceylan's experience and is reflected in his films. His mother Fatma Ceylan and father Mehmet Emin Ceylan, an agricultural engineer, have parts in Ceylan's first three films.

Ceylan's interest in photography began when he was given a camera as a present at age fifteen. His interest in art and film eventually led him to the study of cinematography at Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul. (He had already graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Boğaziçi [Bosphorus] University, but never worked as an engineer.) Cutting short his studies, Ceylan left after two years and decided to learn filmmaking by watching movies and making them. "In school they are too slow and I was not young so I had to be very quick. I just went into it with my imagination, figuring out what the best way for me was" (Shrikent, 1999a, p. 23). With Koza (Cocoon, 1995), a fourteen-minute short film, Ceylan's career as a film director began. He was thirty-six then and had already established himself as a commercial photographer. Ceylan vehemently refused to work in the advertisement business, because, as he said in an interview with the film critic Jonathan Romney, "you steal from yourself, from your own ideas, when you do that" (2004, p. 21). By then he was divorced and remarried to Ebru Ceylan, who plays the lead role in Iklimler (Climates, 2006). Now an acclaimed film director, Ceylan continues to produce his films on a low budget and refuses to give up his small-scale approach to filmmaking.


For a number of reasons, including competition from television, the ubiquity of Hollywood films, and the "oppressive political and social atmosphere created by the military regime" in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, Turkish filmmaking had been in decline, and its audience stagnant, for years before the 1990s. "Apart from a handful of 'serious' social realist films that received international critical acclaim … the term 'Turkish film' had become a joke, synonymous with bad taste and banality" (Suner, 2004, p. 306). In the 1990s, however, economic and political changes paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers who created a revival, offering new levels of technical and artistic innovation. The local audience increased and box-office records marked a new level of success.

Ceylan belongs to this "new wave." His films have a sublime and observational style of art-house quality. Ceylan has been influenced by Fedor Dostoevski and Anton Chekhov as well as influential modernist film directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrei Tarkovsky. His passion for photography can be recognized in the photographic sensibility through which Ceylan introduces audiences into his story world.

Ceylan's first, short, black-and-white film Koza won the Caligari Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998. Shot mainly on location in a small town in the Marmara region of Turkey, it portrays a divorced couple who, years after separating, meet again and attempt to live together. Koza is about the relationship between this couple in their seventies, played by Ceylan's parents, and a child. Ceylan's goal was to show differences in human behavior as well as the juxtaposition of two different worlds as perceived in childhood and adulthood. Events are minimized and we watch the couple's irreconcilable differences resurface as their ineffective attempts to unite bring back the painful emotions of their past.

Kasaba (1997, The small town), Ceylan's first feature film, is not too different from Koza. In an interview, Ceylan declares that during the preproduction phase his application for financial support was rejected by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, forcing him to raise the full amount—$15,000—by himself. This low-budget film is based on the short story "Cornfield," by Ceylan's sister Emine Ceylan, and gives an autobiographical account of events from Ceylan's childhood. It is narrated from the point of view of two children. Ceylan also shows the seasonal changes in the small town in which they live. The whole world represented in Kasaba seems to slow down, and because of this the audience is invited to focus on single objects that inhabit the world of these children. Through these children's eyes we experience a world of microscopic detail encompassed by the sights, sounds, and rhythms of the rural milieu. The film depicts the lives, stories, dreams, and frustrations of a three-generation extended family and sensitively evokes the idea of a lost world.


Name: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Birth: 1959, Istanbul, Turkey

Family: Wife, Ebru; son, Ayaz

Nationality: Turkish

Education: B.S. in electrical engineering, Bosphorus University, Istanbul; studied film at Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul


  • 1998: Kasaba wins Caligari Prize, Berlin Film Festival, and Fipresci and Special Jury Prize, Istanbul Film Festival
  • 2003: Uzak wins Grand Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival, and Fipresci Grand Prize for Best Film of the Year
  • 2006: Iklimler wins Fipresci Prize, Cannes Film Festival
  • 2007: Iklimler wins Best Film Prize, Istanbul Film Festival


Another outstanding Turkish "new wave" auteur is Ceylan's close friend Zeki Demirkubuz (1964–). Masumiyet (Innocence, 1997), Demirkubuz's second feature film, and Ücüncü Sayfa (The third page, 1999) have been critically acclaimed and screened at many international film festivals. His and Ceylan's latest films, according to Turkish film critic Atilla Dorsay, suggest a new type of Turkish film that is concerned with the inner and psychological world of its characters. Jonathan Romney, in contrast, argues that this type of film "reflects the crisis of an educated middle class losing its bearings and skidding towards materialistic embourgeoisement" (Romney, 2004, p. 23).

Demirkubuz was born in Isparta in 1964 and graduated from the Department of Communications of Istanbul University. He spent three years in prison, jailed by the military regime in 1981 at the age of seventeen for his leftist political beliefs, an experience that affected his art. He began his film career as an assistant to director Zeki Ökten in 1986. Demirkubuz has made his films mainly from his own screenplays. His consciousness of the social impact of modernity and his exceptional way of storytelling raise questions regarding contemporary Turkish life and society.


Kasaba and Ceylan's next two films, Mayis Sikintisi (Clouds of May, 2000) and Uzak (Distant, 2004), can be read as a trilogy, as all three reflect on childhood and adulthood, urban and rural life, the present and past. Mayis Sikintisi tells the story of Muzaffer, a film director, who returns to his small town to make a film. Not only are we exposed to the socioeconomic reality of this locale, but also witness how Muzaffer has to adjust his urban habits and expectations to the rhythms of the rural location. Emin, his father and a landowner, informs Muzaffer about the attempts of the authorities to confiscate the woods that he has cultivated on his property. At the same time, we are introduced to Muzaffer's rebellious cousin Saffet, a self-absorbed and bored young man, who abhors his rural existence. Muzaffer, who wants to help Saffet realize his dream of moving to Istanbul (a burning desire that Saffet so passionately outlined in Kasaba), offers him a role in his film.

Ceylan's impressionistic view continues to shape the mise-en-scène in Uzak, his most autobiographical work so far. Loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, lost ambitions and desires, and lethargy toward life are all themes woven around the figure of Mahmut, a professional photographer who lives in Istanbul. Mahmut is divorced, living a lonely life, and is occasionally visited by a woman with whom he has no connection other than to satisfy his sexual needs. His seclusion and unsociability can also be seen in his relationships with his sister and mother, whose phone calls he does not return. Yusuf (played by Mehmet Emin Toprak, who played Saffet in Ceylan's previous two films), visits Mahmut in Istanbul after losing his factory job in his village and stays with him until he finds a job on a ship. After a short time, Yusuf's visit becomes problematic, as the communication between him and Mahmut fails, resulting in Mahmut's attempts to get rid of Yusuf in order to regain his privacy. In the words of Jonathan Romney, Mahmut's apartment is a "sour single man's kingdom" (2004, p. 23).

All in all, it is a grim scenario that Ceylan offers regarding Mahmut's character. The viewer comprehends that everything Mahmut does is routine, nor he does not care; he does not desire a listener because he seems to have lost the belief in happiness. It is as if Mahmut's condition pulls him outside the world, where he has no interest in relationships with human beings. Mahmut's life is filled with secrets; he is dishonest with the people close to him, incapable of communicating with them. While conventional cinema would tell us how its characters are driven into such situations, Ceylan offers no clues. The viewer is left to ponder why Mahmut lives in a cage of dual realities and betrays himself and everyone around him on a daily basis. The final scene in Uzak gives us a close-up of Mahmut looking into the distant landscape of Istanbul. This image, a long take, is intertwined with natural sound and invites its audience to meditate, to turn its consciousness inward and reach a moment out of time and filled with stillness. One possible meaning of this lyrical and spiritual ending is to let the viewers notice the cocoons they have built around themselves, leaving them in seclusion. The question posed at the end, therefore, is how to liberate ourselves from this distance we have created for ourselves.

Iklimler (Climates, 2006), Ceylan's latest film, recalls the cinema of Italian director Antonioni and portrays the troubling final days of the unhappy relationship of two lonely people. According to the official film description on Ceylan's Web site, this couple is "dragged through the inner ever-changing climate of their inner selves in pursuit of a happiness that no longer belongs to them."

Isa, a middle-aged professor, and his girlfriend Bahar (played by Ebru Ceylan, Ceylan's wife), a television producer, spend their vacation on the Aegean coast. Their relationship implodes and becomes cold and distant. Through time, their trust in each other has faded, which is also their reason to separate. After living the consequences from this decision, Isa follows Bahar to Agri to win her back. Film critics have stated that Iklimler is Ceylan's most outstanding film in the way it depicts the fragility and complexity of human relations. Iklimler was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and won the Fipresci Prize the same year.


Response to Ceylan's work has been generally very positive. This may derive from the fact that his characters are not bound to one locale or Turkish milieu and do not represent important figures in society. On the contrary, Ceylan's characters live ordinary lives, experience ordinary problems, and deal with challenges that are not unfamiliar to cinemagoers: Ceylan's films reveal universal problems that confront people of our time. Because of Ceylan's unique observational style, his films bring us back to the rhythms of life and nature from which we have distanced ourselves.


I do not like marginal stories. I also do not like extraordinary stories which happen to ordinary people. I like ordinary stories of ordinary people.


He hasn't yet achieved the poetry of Ozu's film language, or the intensity of Tarkovsky's, but he's recognizably working towards what Paul Schrader once called a "transcendental style." It could be that the only thing holding him back is his insistence on the ordinary.


Ceylan and his work have drawn international attention with his unconventional cinematic style and exceptional use of symbolism in portraying present-day Turkish life and culture. His films explore questions of emotional estrangement, loneliness, and the communication gap between genders; they question modernity and its impact on the human condition. The dialectic between the urban and the rural, working class and bourgeois existence, materialism and antimaterialism, social consciousness and the desire for personal happiness, structure Ceylan's films. "Chekhov taught me how to look at life—how to see the details in human relationships" (Romney, 2004, p. 23). Ceylan lifts moments of our mundane life into the realm of art, making his themes universal.


Turkish cinema experienced a remarkable revival in the 1990s: the creation of a new popular cinema and the emergence of an auteur cinema, to which the work of Ceylan belongs. His success at many national and international festivals has put Ceylan among the most important contemporary filmmakers in the world. Uzak can be seen as a modern masterwork. His brilliance and mastery in portraying urban and rural life have made him a geographer of the modern era.


Akbulut, Hasan. Nuri Bilge Ceylan Sinemasini Okumak: Anlati, Zaman, Mekân. Istanbul: Baglam Yayinlari, 2005.

Dorsay, Atilla. "Back from Near Oblivion. Turkish Cinema Gets a New Lease in Life." Film Comment 39, no. 6 (November/December 2003): 11-12.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's official Web site. Available from http://www.nuribilgeceylan.com.

Rayns, Tony. "Uzak." Sight & Sound 14, no. 6 (June 2004): 72.

Romney, Jonathan. "A Silky Sadness." Sight & Sound 14, no. 6 (June 2004): 20-23.

Shrikent, Indu. "The Art of Storytelling." Cinemaya: The Asian Film Magazine 43 (1999a): 20-21.

――――――. "Ordinary Stories of Ordinary People." Cinemaya: The Asian Film Magazine 43 (1999b): 22-23.

Suner, Asuman. "Horror of a Different Kind: Dissonant Voices of the New Turkish Cinema." Screen: The Journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television 45, no. 4 (2004): 305-323.


Koza (Cocoon, 1995)

Kasaba (The small town, 1997)

Mayis Sikintisi (Clouds of May, 1999)

Uzak (Distant, 2002)

Iklimler (Climates, 2006)

                                                   Mine Eren