From a Divided Country, a Stark and Bleak Cinema Emerges


Poised between East and West, Turkish cinema reflects a divided society—both deeply religious and ferociously secular—where men and women frequently occupy separate spheres, and where the long arm of state control extends from mud-walled villages to Istanbul’s crowded streets. Life there may be complicated, but it makes for great material. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, which won the Grand Jury Prize and awards for its two stars at Cannes this year (and screens as part of the New York Film Festival October 15 and 16), is merely the most prominent among the dozen features screening in this festival, which range from classic melodramas to highly charged works that test the limits of censorship.

Fans of Yesim Ustaoglu’s Journey to the Sun (1999)—a Kurdish, neorealist political thriller—should look out for her first feature, The Trace (1994), unavailable for screening at press time. (I’m also curious to see Ravin Asaf’s Yellow Days (2002), a fictional account of the 1988 Iraqi Kurdish massacres, recently banned by the Turkish government.) At once subtle and acute, Ceylan’s Distant chronicles the relationship that unfolds when an Istanbul photographer in the throes of a midlife crisis plays host to a relative who unexpectedly arrives from the provinces for an indefinite stay. This photographer (Muzaffer Özdemir) is a familiar type in post-Antonioni cinema—divorced, childless, and enveloped in a cloud of anomie, he drifts through a middle-class urban existence without hope or connection. His unemployed country cousin (Mehmet Emin Toprak) is his mirror image, minus the wealth and sophistication—a man unmoored from his life’s purpose. Ceylan lets their story unfold with minimal dialogue and in exquisitely composed long shots that speak eloquently of a culture’s unraveling.

In Nowhereland (2001), a moving film written and directed by Tayfun Pirselimoglu (who also wrote The Trace), focuses on the country’s thousands of missing persons, many presumably political prisoners detained by the government. Zühal Olcay stars as a mother determined to search for her son, who has suddenly disappeared. Her gripping performance charts the gradual transformation of a woman driven mad by the inaction and indifference of the officials (all men) who respond to her inquiries by showing her the door.