Uzak, (Distant), the 2002 Turkish film from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, won 18 awards at film festivals in Cannes, Turkey, Macedonia, Chicago, the Philippines, Istanbul, Mexico City, Spain, Bulgaria, and Italy. It is arguably one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. However, this is a film that lacks the explosions, romantic subplots, and computer animation common to Hollywood films. In fact, it is a remarkably empty film, minimalist to the extreme. One might wonder what makes this film so outstanding. Distant is a film of contrasts and barrenness, one that captures both the emptiness and idiosyncrasies of daily life. First, we will discuss Ceylan’s focus on the real, scenes that are almost unwatchable in their mundane depiction of everyday life. Then, we will contemplate the scenes that seem eerily out of place in this film, haunting images almost reminiscent of a horror film. Finally, we will examine a scene that encapsulates both of these characteristics. Let us review the bold realistic style that has earned this movie so many accolades.
The Mundane Life
Distant, or Uzak, is a film which many people find hard to watch. This is a film which depicts life in its most banal form. Compared to Hollywood films this seems like an odd way to make a movie; Ceylan, however, has his reasons. Distant is a film about two men who reside briefly with each other in the city of Istanbul. Mahmut has lived in the city for some time when Yusef comes to visit. His visit is not for pleasure; rather, a massive lay-off in his hometown has forced him to come to the city to find work. Tensions start to develop between these cousins, young and old, middle class and impoverished, city and country. Yusef is increasingly dejected by his inability to find a job, just as Mahmut is feeling beaten down by life. At the end of the film, which is not long after an extended verbal argument, Yusef leaves without saying goodbye. Throughout the movie, there are many ways in which Ceylan chooses to show the routine of life. Yusef is depicted waiting, or looking for work, for extended lengths of time. Mahmut spends a lot of the movie watching TV. Yusef develops an attraction towards a girl and follows her, watching her from a distance. Mahmut is estranged from his ex-wife and has sexual encounters with a woman who does not acknowledge him during the day time. Ceylan not only focuses on reality in his film, he nearly obsesses over it. It is important to note that Ceylan was a photographer before he became a director; this is mirrored autobiographically in the character Mahmut, a photographer who once aspired to be a director. Ceylan’s photographic tendencies are especially noteworthy in the way this film was shot. Almost every single scene is shot as a still image rather than a depiction of life. Characters move against a perfectly still background, or stare out at the cold, uncaring city. Match shots are employed repeatedly as the camera moves from Mahmut to Yusef and back again, both doing the same thing but being worlds apart in their attitude towards each other. In one particular shot, Mahmut is up late watching TV, and the only things visible in the shot are the TV and the dim light it casts on Mahmut himself. It seems as though Ceylan wants to remind us that real life does not move as fast as movies often depict, using real time and lacking drama or excitement. As Yusef walks through the snowy streets of Istanbul, the most notable sound is that of the crunch of snow under his feet. The discomfort visible on Yusef’s face makes one feel the cold. Mahmut surfs the internet, watches TV, or spies on his cousin, all in the absent-minded way of a person with no direction and nothing to do. It is a depiction of life at its most uninteresting; this is a stark contrast to the portions of the film which depict a completely different world.
Yusef walks before a massive abandoned tanker, his figure tiny and insignificant next to the representation of the ultimate failure of his employment search. This scene is of immense significance, overstated yet powerful, and for many it is the most salient image in the film. It is a testament to Ceylan’s cinematic capability, and yet it has elements of something more in it; the snow falling, the near absence of sound, and the astonishing size of the ship suggest something out of a dream. This is not the only scene like this. At one point in the film, Yusef is awoken by an unrecognizable sound, and a strange shining light. Very late in the film, Mahmut is shown to be watching static on TV. Strangely, and in a sort of bizarre slow motion, a lamp falls. At first, the viewer expects the lamp to fall in normal speed, perhaps bumped by Yusef, but the way in which the lamp refuses to obey gravity gives the scene an almost nightmarish quality; indeed, in the next shot Mahmut wakes. Although Mahmut was in a dream, the viewer was not, their consciousness unaffected, and now continues to watch the movie. Other sequences, such as an odd man who follows Yusef (himself trailing a young woman) and a window pane which moves of its own accord, are a strong divergence from the almost painful reality that Ceylan chooses to depict throughout most of the film. In a movie so concerned with distance, one must wonder why Ceylan blends the real and the surreal so seamlessly. He is showing us that reality is not so sure, so solid that it can be unmarried from the dream. This movie is about reality in its most stark and vivid form, but to perceive this reality is to constantly delve into dreams, nightly, and often we see things in a way that is not at all true; a window moving autonomously, for instance, becomes a sign of the supernatural. We know these delusions to be fiction, and yet they linger on in our memory. Ceylan tries not only to depict the most uninteresting aspects of daily life, but to connect the audience with the characters in such depth that they feel their dreams and delusions. We will now investigate a scene which marries the real and surreal.
In one of Yusef’s last scenes in the film, he wakes to a bizarre shimmering light and an unusual sound. It is not clear whether he is awake, asleep, or only half-awake. The light is unexplained, shining with an intensity unlike anything else in the film. It could be a figment of his imagination, or perhaps just an illusion, a reflection of a light outside. Regardless of the source, Yusef’s focus shifts from the light to a distant, at first confusing sound. This sound is a sort of high-pitched squeak. It is hard to determine the source of the sound until Yusef walks to the kitchen and sees what is making this noise: Mahmut’s mouse trap, which had failed until now, has caught its prey. Mahmut joins Yusef, feeling less compassion for the mouse’s situation. Yusef ultimately takes the mouse out to the garbage in a small bag, still alive in his sticky prison. Seeing cats circling the bag, Yusef returns to the bag and smashes it against the wall, undoubtedly killing the mouse. This scene is an obvious reminder of how Yusef feels, trapped, much like the mouse. Yusef is clearly aware of the similarities between his own situation and that of the small rodent Mahmut is so happy to be rid of. And yet there is a distance in his deed, the mouse murder is not filmed from close up to capture Yusef’s emotions, but rather it is shot from the window where Mahmut is watching. This creates a schism between the audience and Yusef; we are prevented from truly empathizing with his gruesome task. Yusef is aware of the similarities between the mouse and himself and so is the audience; yet we, as the audience, are not to see this moment as cliché. Rather, we are to reflect on similar parallels in our own lives. The human animal, in a search for meaning, may relate an overturned tanker or a trapped mouse to their own life. This may not be an accurate relation, as these sorts of parallels are not organized by a director in the real world. By marrying the morbid reality of Yusef’s deed with the strange dream that precedes it, Ceylan is showing that this movie is a true depiction of the strange occurrences in our own lives, not an artistic exaggeration of these events.
Distant is truly a remarkable film. It has an artistic visual style rarely seen in film of any budget. Ceylan’s focus on the visual, with the use of near-still shots that resemble a photograph, draws the audience into the film and makes them connect with the characters. The characters, in turn, are depicted living their daily lives in a rather uneventful manner that is almost difficult to watch at times. Long shots of Mahmut watching TV make the viewer reflect on the time wasted in this idle task. This is a movie of blatant depictions of reality. While there is a tension between Yusef and Mahmut, it is drawn out, mired in the doldrums of everyday living. At the same time as Ceylan goes to great lengths to depict the real, he spends equal time on the surreal. Strange occurrences throughout the film mirror the strange half-awake state that one may feel, or the sense of foreboding at seeing an impossibly large shipwrecked vessel. These elements serve their narrative purpose but at the same time cause one to reflect on the weird things that happen in the real world. Life is not simply what we see; it is also what we feel.
(Header image created by Kristin Richey using a still from the film.)
Real Versus Surreal by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on world film.