Nuri Bilge Ceylan: An Aesthetics of Boredom

  • Emre Çağlayan


Çağlayan offers an analysis of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films in relation to slow cinema and contextual dynamics of filmmaking in Turkey. The chapter begins with an institutional history of cinema in Turkey and discusses the critical intervention by which Ceylan and New Turkish Cinema brought newer ways of telling stories. Following an overview of the production methods Ceylan borrows from the traditional film industry, the chapter moves to investigate boredom as the underpinning aesthetic strategy that is responsible for the filmmaker’s departure from those very customs. With extended analyses of Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Çağlayan argues that slow cinema has the potential to transform boredom into an aesthetically engrossing and politically liberating experience.

Of all the directors associated with slow cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan remains one of the most cited and well known, but also one of the least investigated in Anglophone film criticism. Perhaps part of the reason is the cultural context in which Ceylan’s films are produced and marketed. Turkey does not seem to be as familiar a terrain to Western cultures as, for instance, Tarr’s Hungary, or as exotic as Tsai’s Taiwan. In this respect, Turkish cinema represents a unique cultural mix in the eyes of Western audiences, embodying, on the one hand, an intriguing portrayal of distinctive cultural characteristics, and on the other, offering little context and some difficulty in approaching underlying historical circumstances. In fact, such “in-betweenness” has throughout the twentieth century been a significant aspect of the cultural discourse in Turkey, a country that is not just geographically but culturally, socially, politically and economically torn between Europe and Asia, West and East, modernity and tradition. Given this complicated sociocultural background, it is no wonder that it is perplexing to see Ceylan’s films, which arguably display the most honest, powerful, poignant and accurate portrayal of contemporary Turkish society seen on screen for decades. While holding a mirror to Turkish society, Ceylan’s films are often seen as a significant part of contemporary European art cinema, and they regularly feature in international film festivals and prestigious competitions. What initially seems to be an investigation of local cultures is in fact a major part of global networks of distribution, exhibition and reception—a fundamental attribute of slow cinema. Ceylan’s films constitute a negotiation between a complex relationship with national culture and filmmaking traditions and a cultural interaction with European aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities. Just as with Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang, Ceylan’s films represent a complicated history of film and culture, in which complex debates about the local versus the global are intricately rooted.

Therefore, I begin my investigation by presenting a brief account of the history of cinema in Turkey, focusing mainly on the conventions of Yeşilçam , its so-called golden age of roughly between 1950 and 1980, during which domestic film production and consumption rocketed and dominated the country’s film market. Yeşilçam cinema was essentially seen as a primitive version of classical Hollywood: it was composed of mainly escapist films with recognizable stars and extraordinary plots, which attracted working-class audiences. Noticeable characteristics of the films were their heavy-handed use of oral storytelling techniques, most notably the relentless post-synchronized dubbing, the practice of recycling other Western films, either in the form of cinematic plagiarism (the so-called Turkish rip-offs) or by re-adapting well-known narratives in a completely Turkish context, and finally their apparent promotion of lower cultural and aesthetic values through relatively cheap production quality and rudimentary narratives. Ceylan’s films, however, represent a reversal of these Yeşilçam values and conventions. The ordinary lives of ordinary people, played by non-professional actors, are the focus of his films and are often depicted in stillness through a contemplation of everyday situations and empty moments. In short, Ceylan’s films display a lack of narrative action and an abundance of dead time. Profoundly influenced by modernist art cinema, the films nevertheless manifest an exhilarating visual imagery, sustained through prolonged sequences of slowness. While I explore the evolution of Yeşilçam cinema into the emerging New Turkish Cinema movement of the 1990s, of which Ceylan is considered a forerunner, I also offer an account of the filmmaking career of the director himself, along with providing the production and exhibition history of his films. In addition to various stylistic features, Ceylan’s use of autobiography as a method of production characterizes his initial intervention in this film history. The national critical reception at the time demonstrates the ways in which Ceylan is diverging away from his native cinematic conventions, while the international reception praises Ceylan as an original discovery, in essence creating a cultural dialogue between Turkey and the West.

In the second part of this chapter, I move on to an aesthetic strategy that I think is constitutive of the whole slow cinema canon. I argue that Ceylan’s principal aesthetic strategy is his productive use of boredom. Although historically regarded as a negative emotion, especially within the escapist structures of Yeşilçam cinema, boredom frequently surfaces in criticisms both for and against slow cinema. In opposition to these prevailing discourses, this chapter will reconfigure boredom and slowness as a receptive state of mind, rather than one that simply reflects emptiness devoid of meaning. I argue that slow cinema transforms boredom into an aesthetically rewarding experience and I provide a brief history and theory of boredom through the works of literary scholars, philosophers and psychologists. I conclude that boredom can function as an aesthetic virtue, or in other words, boredom can create an opportunity for our minds to exercise creative inspiration, artistic insight and effective problem solving in an appropriate context. Creating such a state of mind in cinema depends on the aesthetic strategies that the filmmakers employ, namely stylistic and formal devices emphasizing stillness, idleness and inactivity. I refer back to the concept of descriptive pause, which was explored in Chapter  2 in relation to modernist and avant-garde cinema, and claim that it provides the basis for such an aesthetic strategy. I apply this theoretical framework to Ceylan’s Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), both of which represent different aspects of the descriptive pause. The analysis considers the ways in which pausing story progression throughout the film not only obscures our understanding of its plot details but through a specific use of mise-en-scène and camerawork reveals deeper insights about Turkish society and culture. In this respect, boredom achieves a revelatory function and encourages contemplation on the part of the spectator, characterizing the foundation of slow cinema’s mode of spectatorship.

4.1 Yeşilçam and New Turkish Cinema

Providing a detailed historical outline of Turkish cinema is beyond the scope of this book. However, in this section I want to set up the historical circumstances in which Turkish filmmakers worked, describe the types of films they produced and then conclude by contrasting this with the New Turkish Cinema movement that found its voice in the mid- to late 1990s and outlining the development of national film culture. As we will see, traditional Turkish cinema was fundamentally escapist in nature, in stark contrast to slow cinema aesthetics. Mainly composed of conventional genre productions, it lacked the sense of artistic ambition that was to be recuperated by emerging contemporary directors who followed art cinema aesthetics. Ceylan was an important forerunner of this group of filmmakers, loosely termed as New Turkish Cinema, which flourished in the 1990s and opposed traditional conventions in a number of ways, albeit maintaining an aesthetic and political focus. While certain practical features and production methods of traditional Turkish cinema overlapped with Ceylan’s work, it was largely the ways in which his films were marketed and distributed that set them apart from their mainstream counterparts. Similar to other slow cinema directors, Ceylan developed an aesthetics that opposed the storytelling conventions of filmmaking in Turkey.

Although benefiting from a surge of scholarly interest, the study of cinema history in Turkey has been addressed in only piecemeal fashion. Much of the work published in English centres around matters of identity, gender and national culture without a detailed interest in the historical evolution of institutions or aesthetics (e.g. see Erdoğan 1998; Robins and Aksoy 2000; Dönmez-Colin 2010; Suner 2010; Atakav 2013; Köksal 2016). Three major figures, however, are today considered to be indispensable resources, albeit mostly available in Turkish : Nijat Özön (2010), the first film critic and theorist to undertake research into the history of Turkish cinema, published the first serious film journal as well as a critical dictionary; Giovanni Scognamillo (2003), a Levantine-Turkish film historian and author of Italian descent, whose two-volume history of Turkish cinema revisits and to a certain extent revises Özön’s research; and finally Rekin Teksoy (2008), a renowned translator and cultural programmer, whose recently translated book is the first historical study of Turkish cinema published in English. A more accessible study is Savaş Arslan’s Cinema in Turkey (2011), which offers a fresh critical perspective on the basis of rigorous academic research for each and every period of Turkish cinema history and currently stands as a unique resource for Anglophone scholars.

In the rest of this section I will navigate through important developments in the Turkish cinema industry and explore the ways in which conventions of national cinemas caused auteur-directors to align their films with foreign traditions. Although Ceylan’s work is largely consumed on an international level, his films nevertheless intervene in a particular cultural history: on the one hand opposing certain aesthetic traditions and on the other embracing some practical aspects of filmmaking. As with other slow cinema directors, Ceylan maintains a dialectic relationship to his national culture: while his films barely attract audiences in the local cinemas, they are revered abroad for their honest and sweeping portrayal of contemporary Turkish life. Furthermore, the discourses and problems that are commonly seen in Turkish cinema are still part of Ceylan’s cinema today and as such a brief historical account can only help us better understand the cultural and historical significance of his films.

In the early 1950s, Turkish cinema boomed and developed its own domestic production outlet, commonly referred to as Yeşilçam (literally, green pine). Named after a street on which most of the country’s production companies were located, Yeşilçam roughly refers to the historical period from 1950 to 1980, which in its so-called golden age of domestic film production created an output of approximately 200 films in 1966 and around 300 in 1971, “while remaining [at] around two hundred until the 1980 military intervention prevented the continuation of almost all independent cultural activity” (Arslan 2011, 10). Naturally, such a high-production volume brought forward its own internal dynamics. For instance, Arslan notes that technical incompetence and chronic low budgets were the defining characteristics of Yeşilçam films, as well as their extremely simple narratives that ubiquitously depict the clash between good and evil (2011, 15). Yeşilçam produced escapist productions for an inexperienced, middle- to lower-class audience and appealed to them by maintaining run-of-the-mill storytelling devices, resisting innovative film techniques for decades. Indeed, Arslan views Yeşilçam not as the location of a particular national film industry but as an umbrella term that identified a “hub of cinema having a specific set of distinctive characteristics in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition network, and a specific filmic discourse and language developed by bringing together different films under one umbrella” (2011, 17). This perception of Yeşilçam is crucial, as it differentiates it from large industrial institutions such as Hollywood, or national waves such as the French New Wave. Rather, Yeşilçam in its everyday use delineates nostalgia for a type of cinema that no longer exists but is conventionally based on a cultural taste for such things as trite dialogues, absurd chance encounters and an excessive melodramatic sensibility.

Despite these associations, Yeşilçam cinema maintained its popularity with working-class audiences and accordingly its scope consisted of films from a wide range of genres. These included family melodramas, action-adventures, comedies, “kebab” Westerns and soft-core sex films. In short, Yeşilçam catered to any demographical appetite. The variety of films, however, was offset by a perceived technical and aesthetic ineptitude, resulting in impoverished production values. However, according to Arslan , “the poor quality of shooting and editing did not present a problem on the part of spectators” (2011, 17). In fact, these features led to a unique form of narration that was inherently Turkish, drawing certain elements from traditional performing arts in which an extra-diegetic narrator would explain the situation and give away plot details at the outset of the play. “Similarly”, writes Arslan , “Yeşilçam’s presentation of its stories was based on oral cues rather than visual narration. It was the story that was of interest and therefore the deficiencies of visual narration were eliminated through oral narration” (2011, 17; see also Erdoğan 2002). In other words, Yeşilçam cinema favoured an extensive use of dialogue and plot, both of which became the primary way in which audiences engaged with movies—a strong contrast to the aesthetics of slowness, ambiguity and contemplation associated with the films examined in this book. There was little use of the long take or of deep-focus cinematography, and atmospheric sound design was almost non-existent as filmmakers were not interested in creating a distinctive mood. Ceylan retains an ambivalent relationship to this aesthetic history, which often resulted in the director attempting to please different audiences or work in two different markets. As we shall see later, because Ceylan’s films are closer to a foreign (i.e. European) aesthetic, they were initially unsuccessful, at least in the financial sense, with Turkish audiences who did not relate to Ceylan’s use of dead time, boredom and slow pace.

But Yeşilçam still produced films with aesthetic ambitions, or in other words, art films. From the early 1960s, individual directors slowly gained recognition at international film festivals, although their works remained marginalized due to box-office failures in the domestic market and political barriers that prevented the filmmakers from working freely. The first Turkish film to achieve considerable success and receive proper recognition in Europe was Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, Metin Erksan, 1964), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival of the same year. The film depicted the plight of Turkish peasants in the underdeveloped rural areas of Anatolia, inaugurating the much-discussed Turkish village films, to which we will return. Dry Summer was a key film that intensified the cultural exchange between Turkey and Western Europe, which later became more focused on the rise of actor and self-trained director Yılmaz Güney. Notable directors followed this course in the 1970s and well into the 1980s with films shown at festivals, but Turkish cinema in this period failed to achieve enough sales or distribution to make any impact on global film markets. Yılmaz Güney was an exceptional figure in this period also, with his political allegiance, individual charisma and artistic direction deeply attracting international audiences (see Ebiri 2005; Dönmez-Colin 2008, 116–141). As we shall see later, the next generation of filmmakers, in the 1990s, changed this course, as there was a visible increase in quality art-house filmmaking as seen in the works of Ceylan and others.

Although composed of many genres, Yeşilçam can still be considered a coherent and unified discourse with its own particularities, and its overarching features are closely related to contemporary Turkish cinema, including Ceylan’s films. Savaş Arslan (2011) theorizes the cinema in Turkey through four distinct notions: hayal (literally imagination or spectre), melodramatic modality, Turkification and özenti (literally imitation or pretension), the latter two of which are significantly related to the ways in which Ceylan emerged as a unique filmmaker through the post-Yeşilçam environment. According to Arslan , Turkification refers to the nation-building objectives of the film industry: post-synchronized dubbing, and the modification and remakes (or rip-offs) of Western films within a Turkish context. Turkification also significantly defines the concept of özenti : a desire to be like the other (the West, or Hollywood), through various practices of transformation. “In this movement from self to other”, Arslan notes, “a return to the original self is impossible”, and “Yeşilçam maintained a double existence, not being one nor being the other but in continual movement between the two” (2011, 18–19). More specifically, I see Turkification and özenti as two important, often complementary, concepts that not only illuminate the discourses in Yeşilçam cinema but reflect the broader political, social and cultural movements that take place within modern Turkey. While özenti represents the aspirations of a cultural elite that wants to become Westernized, Turkification, or in other words the republican project of reforming, adapting and integrating Western values into a traditional Turkish context, represents one particular method of achieving this dialectic between the traditional and the modern (or the Western, for a comprehensive overview of the dialectics of tradition and modernity in Turkey, see Kasaba 1997). The contradictions between the traditional and the modern are ever-present in Turkey, not least because of its geographical location between Europe and Asia, but largely due to its twentieth-century sociopolitical history. As in Europe, the formation of film culture in Turkey testifies to these developments.

A genuine film culture did not flourish in Turkey until the late 1960s, due to the lack of investment from either state or private initiatives. Arslan writes: “The state was not interested in opening film schools, film libraries, or cinematheques. The only existing places that might have served such functions were the screening theaters established by the RPP [Republican People’s Party] at the People’s Houses, which were closed under the DP [Democratic Party] government [throughout the 1950s]. This situation continued until the mid-1960s, when the first cinematheque and film archive were established. The first film school opened in the mid-1970s” (2011, 74). The Turkish Cinematheque (originally, Türk Sinematek Derneği, and literally The Turkish Cinematheque Association) was founded on August 25, 1965, by Onat Kutlar, at the time an author and cinephile who studied philosophy in Paris during the early 1960s and was a regular visitor to the Cinémathèque Française. The cinematheque was by no means the kind of organized institution the Cinémathèque Française was; rather than paying attention to the preservation of cinematic works it functioned as a social club and a network for intellectuals, scholars and artists who were interested in the history of cinema and wanted to engage with contemporary art cinema. The screenings were usually held in the cosmopolitan Beyoğlu district of İstanbul and the events were completely funded by its members in İstanbul and Ankara. The journal Yeni Sinema [New Cinema] was published by the association between 1966 and 1970, and some minor (and irregular) publications continued in the following years. After 1975, however, the association lost its impact, but it continued its screenings until its closure in 1980 (see Başgüney 2009). The members in İstanbul and Ankara were divided into two branches in the aftermath of 1980, which resulted in local initiatives that eventually evolved into the cities’ respective film festivals and other clubs. Although the cinematheque itself did not support Ceylan directly, the urban film festivals became an important site of exhibition and recognition for Ceylan as well as for the New Turkish Cinema group.

The year 1980 was in many ways a turning point for Turkey, for the cinema industry itself but more intensely so for the sociocultural and political future of the general public. The coalition government’s failure to resolve the violent clashes between armed political groups and its inability to eradicate anarchy in urban centres culminated in a military coup d’état, which in turn brought social and cultural life to a three-year halt. The military junta rounded up intellectuals and imprisoned them and banned all political activity, eventually creating a new constitution in 1982, which, although bringing in a new government, did not deliver a democratic climate until the ban on political parties was finally lifted in 1987. With leftist political parties out of the way, conservative parties regained control over parliament and introduced economic policies that were strongly in favour of neo-liberal ideology and integrated Turkish economic market into the global network, with severe consequences. In short, during the 1980s and the early 1990s, Turkish social life underwent rapid and drastic changes: the currency was devalued; there was massive immigration to urban centres; and unemployment, economic instability, an asymmetric distribution of wealth and internal political threats (e.g. the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the armed Kurdish rebellions) became part of everyday life (see Zürcher 1993, 276–277 and 292–315). The country’s cultural outlook changed so rapidly that the naivety and blind optimism of Yeşilçam failed to capture the imagination of Turkish audiences.

The 1980s, therefore, saw a steady decline of Yeşilçam cinema. Although the number of productions was maintained at a decent level, cinema attendance, ticket sales and the number of theatres plummeted to all-time low figures. Those theatres that remained open in urban centres insisted on showing foreign imports, namely Hollywood blockbusters, which posed serious competition to Yeşilçam films and reduced revenues. The increasing costs of film production due to inflation, the video boom of the 1980s and finally the privatization of the broadcasting industry in Turkey, and hence television replacing the cinema theatre, also contributed significantly to Yeşilçam’s demise (Arslan 2011, 203–204). As a result, while the popular cinema came to an end, the 1980s saw a number of socially conscious films with ambivalent political messages, many of which were later criticized in the national scene for being too difficult. For example, Yılmaz Güney’s The Road (Yol, 1982), perhaps the most well-known Turkish film until recently, follows the stories of five prisoners travelling to their homes in Anatolia upon their leave from prison. In many ways, Güney constructed the story to evoke an allegory of the military intervention in Turkey in 1980, as the prisoners slowly realize that their lives outside of prison are no different from and no less oppressive than those they led inside. As Asuman Suner writes, “using prison as a metaphor for the state of Turkish society under military rule, the film raises a radical critique not only of the oppressive Turkish state, but also of feudal traditions prevailing in rural Turkey” (2010, 5–6). The film’s political allegory and frankness in depicting the aftermath of the 1980 coup was rewarded with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983, but due to the political overtones of Güney’s later films many of them were banned under the military dictatorship. Following his exile to Paris, Güney went on to make his last film The Wall (Duvar, 1983) with French financial support and died of cancer shortly after its release. Other notable auteur-directors, such as Atıf Yılmaz, Ali Özgentürk , Erden Kıral and Ömer Kavur, continued to work throughout the 1980s, producing politically and socially conscious films, but they remained unable to attain a wider audience or to make a significant impact and were similarly frequently confronted by state censorship (Erdoğan 1998; Dönmez-Colin 2012).

While the Hollywood dominance of the Turkish market lasted until the mid-2000s, the mid-1990s saw a renewal of Turkish cinema. Many critics concur in associating this resurrection with the release of Yavuz Turgul’s The Bandit (Eşkiya, 1996), which became one of the biggest box-office successes in Turkey. The Bandit directly inherited aspects of narrative, characterization and themes from Yeşilçam, although part of its success in fact relied on its technical competence. It was the first Turkish film to use synchronous sound recording as well as sophisticated editing techniques, both of which were unseen in the films released in Turkey, with the exception of foreign imports (Simpson 2006). Such an increase in production values was largely facilitated by the expansion of the commercial advertising and television sectors, both of which increased the quality of filmmaking by offering professional technicians, studios and equipment for use (Köstepen 2009). Furthermore, the economic success of the film provided other directors with optimism and triggered a wave of films. Critics were quick to produce the label “New Turkish Cinema” in reference to a resurgence and renewal of Turkish national cinema (for one of the first accounts, see Dönmez-Colin 2003). For some, New Turkish Cinema is understood on two distinct fronts, at least within the context of the 1990s. On the one hand, The Bandit epitomized a more popular form of cinema, represented by directors such as Yavuz Turgul, Mustafa Altıoklar, Sinan Çetin and Yılmaz Erdoğan, whose financial resources were drawn not only from the derelict film industry but from related industries such as television, advertising and entertainment. These films gradually replaced the Hollywood dominance of the domestic market by successfully revising the Yeşilçam sensibility, often in an ironic, humorous or nostalgic manner, and they established a firm audience base in Turkey as well as abroad through targeting the Turkish diasporas in Western countries. On the other hand, the same year brought Derviş Zaim’s Somersault in a Coffin (Tabutta Rövaşata, 1996), which inaugurated a “new wave art cinema” (Suner 2010, 13–15) in Turkey along with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Small Town (Kasaba, 1997) and Zeki Demirkubuz’s Innocence (Masumiyet, 1997). Despite their critical acclaim, these films attracted only a niche audience at the beginning and did not quite find their way into the mainstream media well into the 2000s.

New Turkish Cinema was new because of its break from those aesthetic features closely associated with Yeşilçam. These were films shot with synchronized sound, relying on a naturalistic use of dialogue and acting. Inspired by auteur-directors of the European tradition, filmmakers turned their attention to serious themes: Derviş Zaim and Yeşim Ustaoğlu examined the changing landscape of Turkish society by implicitly referring to recent political history, while Nuri Bilge Ceylan studied the alienation of the individual by drawing on personal memories. Moreover, Western literary and philosophical influences were made explicit in many of these films, with Demirkubuz adapting works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Waiting Room, 2004) and Albert Camus (Fate, 2001), and Ceylan dedicating his films to Anton Chekhov. More generally, these films collectively share a common trait, which Fırat Yücel describes as “the pursuit of vocalizing and visualizing the unspoken, especially those feelings that the commotion or monotony of everyday life make difficult or impossible to articulate” (2009, 12). While absence of speech in many of these films reflects the inability of their characters’ expression, in some works “the unspoken referred more to sociopolitical issues like cultural amnesia, hidden violence, discrimination, prejudice, and crises of identity” (Yücel 2009, 12) . This downplay of the spoken word and the importance of language is in opposition to the ways in which Yeşilçam cinema communicated with its audiences and it demonstrates a clear-cut transition from an oral narration system to one that fosters visual representation. In other words, the legacy of European art cinema was finally beginning to be seen in Turkey, with filmmakers consciously experimenting with the formal elements of the medium. While slowly becoming culturally and politically conscious, Turkish art cinema adapted well-known aesthetic features of slow cinema.

In addition to these aesthetic differences, New Turkish Cinema differentiates itself from its predecessors in its modes of production, sources of funding, distribution and sites of exhibition. As discussed earlier, developments in tangential sectors enabled filmmakers to increase the production quality of their films. However, many of these art films were still individually funded and the directors worked with extremely low budgets, a practice that was dubbed “guerrilla filmmaking” by Derviş Zaim. Working with low budgets was common in Yeşilçam, and although certain popular films of the 1990s were relatively expensive, New Turkish Cinema directors took the low-budget notion to an austere level. Austerity and minimalism were other ways of resisting and confronting both mainstream culture and the traditions of Yeşilçam cinema. For example, drawing from Ceylan’s early interviews, Asuman Suner writes, “[w]orking on a low budget is not only a matter of necessity, but a preference for Ceylan, who perceives ‘minimalism’ as his resistance to the culture of excess and the consumption craze characterizing the contemporary world” (2010, 78). As such, minimalism and low-budget production carried an aesthetic as well as an ideological function for New Turkish Cinema directors, as much as it did for slow cinema directors across the globe. Ceylan’s reference to “the culture of excess and the consumption craze” was in many ways the outcome of the period following the 1980s, which saw a radical liberalization of Turkey’s economy and rapidly changed its sociocultural milieu. Although the economy was highly unstable, modernization, industrialization and liberal politics intensified well into the 1990s, and this was especially noticeable in the urban centres from which the New Turkish Cinema directors emerged. With no funds available from either the state or the private sector, these filmmakers mostly relied on personal savings to finance their work and Ceylan was no exception.

Upon the critical success of their early works, New Turkish Cinema directors were able to obtain alternative sources of funding, many of which paralleled those of the emerging slow cinema of the 2000s. Derviş Zaim (2008), for instance, argues that the main sources of funding for both independent and mainstream Turkish cinema comprise Eurimages and television channels, both domestic and international. Zaim continues: “Although the state provided increasingly more support to filmmakers during this time, this support never transformed into a continuous, systematic and multi-dimensional cultural policy” (2008, 90). A notable exception is the Committee for Supporting Cinema, a funding body set up by the Ministry of Culture in 2005, which has since supported a large number of debut features by young directors with sums ranging from €100,000 to €125,000. According to Zaim , a final source of funding for these filmmakers are the independent funds that are closely associated with international film festivals (such as the Hubert Bals in Rotterdam and the World Cinema Fund in Berlin), which “due to their prestige and their ability to carry chosen projects to other platforms, festivals and networks of contact [have] the potential to produce extremely valuable and effective outcomes” (2008, 94). Films that receive funding from these organizations “automatically earn the right, even before the filming begins, to be screened at an important festival” (2008, 94–95). For example, Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s Waiting for the Clouds (Bulutları Beklerken, 2003) received scriptwriting support from Germany and received much critical attention in Berlinale’s Panorama. In this respect, competing at international film festivals as well as pursuing third-party funding were vital strategies for New Turkish Cinema, and Ceylan’s successful track record in Cannes was a clear demonstration of this.

National film festivals also played an important role in the development of New Turkish Cinema. First, they generated thriving local film cultures, especially in the urban centres, and were instrumental in the distribution of international art films. Secondly, the New Turkish Cinema directors were able to premiere their works nationally and were recognized by film critics and other professionals as well as by their targeted niche audience. The first film festival in Turkey began its competition in 1964 in Antalya with the primary aim of celebrating and promoting Turkish cinema (Dönmez-Colin 2012). Other notable film festivals, the International İstanbul Film Festival and the International Ankara Film Festival began programming in 1982 and 1988 respectively, with the help of ex-cinematheque members. Both of these festivals were modest in their beginnings and included series of screenings of European art films from that particular year. However, with the support of public funds and individual initiatives, they became important cultural events in both urban centres and soon began their own competition sections. The International İstanbul Film Festival’s goal, for instance, was to “introduce quality films of the world to İstanbul audiences and to showcase quality Turkish films”, in hope of a dialogue between Turkish art films and audiences (Dönmez-Colin 2012, 102). Therefore, the festival attained a triple focus: retrospectives (to date, including figures such as Robert Bresson, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci), contemporary art films and competition films. The International İstanbul Film Festival was single-handedly responsible for screening examples of slow cinema throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, introducing directors such as Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming -liang and Carlos Reygadas to cinephile circles in İstanbul. The festival also promoted minimalist cinema by awarding its Golden Tulip to films such as Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), Café Lumière (2003) and Egg (2007), well-known films of the cycle. Furthermore, both festivals pay increasing attention to the promotion and production of contemporary Turkish films, through national awards and competitions but also through setting up international co-production markets, networks and production funds. Meetings on the Bridge, a tangential platform that is part of the International İstanbul Film Festival, for instance, was begun in 2006 and consists of a series of workshops and competitions that reward applications either in the scriptwriting, production or post-production stages.

New Turkish Cinema was an early collective sign of these cultural developments. Along with these institutional establishments, the critical success of the first wave of filmmakers in the late 1990s eventually paved the way for a younger generation, most of which saw figures like Ceylan as their influences. With the exception of a few individuals, Yeşilçam’s influence was disregarded and its failure to adjust its conventions to a more demanding, mature and complex audience resulted in its institutional termination.1 Against this backdrop of cultural transformation, Ceylan began his filmmaking career by breaking away from traditions and incorporating autobiographical aspects into his oeuvre. The adoption of art cinema conventions such as minimalism, long takes and dead time—in other words, aesthetic features specifically associated with slow cinema—was also part of Ceylan’s intervention in Turkish cinema culture. Although Ceylan is often identified as a forerunner of Turkish art cinema, other New Turkish Cinema directors such as Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Zeki Demirkubuz, Semih Kaplanoğlu and Reha Erdem also adopted aesthetic features of slow cinema. In other words, New Turkish Cinema as a movement was, to a certain extent, a localized version of the slow cinema trend within a national context.

Yeşilçam cinema may appear irrelevant to today’s slow cinema, but its historical development is an exemplar of the way in which national film waves emerge and younger generations differentiate themselves from a traditional and conventional past. While Yeşilçam aspired to be like Hollywood, it developed its own cultural, aesthetic and political conventions before—arguably—disbanding in the late 1980s. There is a remarkable similarity here to the ways in which Taiwan cinema developed, as outlined in the previous chapter. While the domestic markets in both countries flourished and developed their native traditions in the face of economic, social or political crises, film production and consumption plummeted. The revival of art cinema movements, however, not only relied on domestic incentives but came about by way of negotiating either aesthetic or political issues with transnational or global networks. Thus, these films were elevated to the international scene by catering to international audiences. The emergence of New Turkish Cinema and Ceylan’s role in it represent a typical, albeit often neglected, historical trajectory of art cinema.

4.2 Evolution from an Artisanal Mode of Production

Ceylan’s career in filmmaking represents an interesting case study for slow cinema, because it embodies typical avenues that art cinema directors go down. Beginning with modest productions that combined the practical approach to filmmaking influenced by Yeşilçam conventions with European style and aesthetics, Ceylan gradually came to prominence on the international art cinema circuit by securing film festival funding. Despite adopting certain local practices, Ceylan’s cinema was nevertheless an unusual one for Turkish audiences. His films were largely seen as influenced by European art cinema giants and his idiosyncratic style gradually became a staple of contemporary art cinema . From his third feature onwards, Ceylan regularly competed at the Cannes Film Festival, attracting international cinephile circles with films that adopted aesthetic features of minimalist art cinema.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan challenged the principal preconceptions of Yeşilçam cinema. No other Turkish filmmaker before, perhaps with the exception of Yılmaz Güney, had treated autobiography as a significant element of artistic creation. Auteurs in the traditional sense existed in Yeşilçam cinema, but Ceylan was one of the first to honestly integrate his own life, memories, environment and ideas with the screen. Indeed, much of Ceylan’s childhood was spent in the small town of Yenice, located between Çanakkale and Balıkesir in Northwestern Anatolia, where his early films were set and shot (see early interviews in Ceylan 2007, 87–106). Before pursuing a career in filmmaking, Ceylan studied electrical engineering at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul, during which time he was deeply engaged with Western art and culture, especially through the resources the university provided in the form of classical music, photography and cinema. Despite lacking a film-related department, Boğaziçi University was an ideal environment for a liberal arts education, as it was the “first American institution of higher education abroad” (Greenwood 2003, xi) and offered its students a rich variety of clubs, networks and resources, including elective courses that introduced the students to European auteur cinema.2

Western culture formed an intellectual and creative inspiration for Ceylan, but at the same time he showed a sentimental interest both in Eastern culture and in certain national traditions. This duality was already present in the period immediately preceding his filmmaking career. Upon graduating, Ceylan worked as a commercial photographer and travelled across Europe and Asia, in his own words, “searching for the meaning of life”. However, he finally decided to go back to Turkey to complete his compulsory military service, and during the 18 months he consequently spent in Ankara he was faced with “a rich mosaic of Turkish culture”, represented by a variety of people belonging to Turkish society, which he would then isolate himself from during most of the 1980s. After this revelation, Ceylan decided to become a filmmaker (Ceylan 2007, 89–91). He spent some time in London looking for film schools and visiting its cinematheques, such as The Scala in Kings Cross and the National Film Theatre in Southbank (Bochenski 2009). In the late 1980s, he enrolled in Mimar Sinan University, known for its fine art faculty as well as its extensive archive of Turkish cinema. While achieving a good reputation in commercial photography, by the early 1990s he had abandoned both his profession and the filmmaking course he has been on for two years to start working on his film career.

Ceylan’s first film was an experimental short titled Cocoon (Koza, 1995). It was shot over a year with a single assistant and on film stock past its expiry date acquired from the Turkish state broadcasting company, or in other words on a shoestring budget. Unlike the rest of Ceylan’s filmography, Cocoon is a non-narrative film without audible dialogue and is organized around the principles of associational montage. What the film lacks in story, however, is redeemed by its profusion of striking images, which feature Ceylan’s parents performing ordinary tasks (looking out of the window, walking, reading) and other visual patterns that depict cycles of nature. As the juxtaposition of images conveys loss, decay and longing, the film as a whole functions less as causally (or even thematically) connected moments and more as a fragmented reconstruction of personal memories. Its nostalgic and melancholic tone is further dictated by its sound design, which combines howling wind, ambient noises and baroque music, and creates a truly contemplative experience in which the audience is confronted with the freedom of interpretation. As its title suggests, Cocoon explores life cycles and evokes questions about one’s own sense of mortality, while perhaps both serving as a sentimental love letter to Ceylan’s own parents and conveying an awareness of our existence as transient, ephemeral and temporary. Shot on 16 mm, Cocoon was the first Turkish short film ever to compete for a Golden Palm in the Cannes Short Film Competition and it forged a path for Ceylan in the international film festival market. Although much more experimental than his features, Cocoon nevertheless shares many aspects of Ceylan’s future films.

Indeed, the production circumstances of Ceylan’s debut feature The Small Town (Kasaba, 1997) were no less different: it was largely self-funded, with a budget of US$50,000 (most of which was spent on the use of post-production facilities in Hungary) and produced by a crew of two, comprising Ceylan and his assistant Sadık İncesu, who handled diverse production responsibilities. It was based on a short story written by Ceylan’s older sister Emine and, like most of his other films, included quotes from and allusions to Anton Chekhov. Returning to the familiar setting of his childhood, Ceylan once again captures the rhythms and cycles of a provincial town, this time with the aid of several characters, played by his siblings and other family members, who feature in similar roles in the director’s next feature. The film’s narrative structure consists of four loosely connected episodes, with appropriate natural seasons determining each part’s thematic focus. It begins with winter, during which a young girl struggles to adapt to difficult conditions at her local school. The second episode continues with spring and shows the young girl exploring wild life accompanied by her younger brother, scenes that are intercut with Saffet (Ceylan’s real-life cousin, Mehmet Emin Toprak), another young man wandering aimlessly around town. This leads to the third and perhaps longest vignette in the film, in which three generations of an extended family get together for a picnic in the woods with the grandfather (Ceylan’s father, Emin Ceylan), who reminisces about his life experiences. His monologue evolves into a debate between him and other, middle-aged members of the family (particularly Saffet), involving tensions and disagreements based on notions of belonging and moral behaviour. Part of this episode evokes a familiarity with Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (2014), as both feature extended dialogue scenes articulated through a richly layered, literary tone. The final episode returns to the point of view of the children and relocates the setting to their family home, where autumn brings a sense of change, pensive sorrow and reflective closure.

In an interview, Ceylan himself proclaimed his interest in shooting with sound for his next feature Clouds of May (Mayıs Sıkıntısı, 1999), which was in essence a fictional “making of” of The Small Town (2007, 95). The film depicts the struggles faced by the emerging independent filmmaker Muzaffer (Muzaffer Özdemir), who visits his family in his provincial hometown near Çanakkale in pursuit of location scouting and casting research. During his visit, Muzaffer persuades his cousin Saffet (Mehmet Emin Toprak) to join the film crew, following the latter’s failure in the university entrance exams and his subsequent ill-fated job at the local factory. In the meantime, Muzaffer’s father, Emin (Emin Ceylan), is preoccupied with the forest he has been cultivating over the last two decades and ignores Muzaffer’s plea that he act in his film. With its title literally translating as “The Boredom of May”, the film examines a uniquely inert sense of temporality inherent in the provinces, while at the same time asking self-reflexive questions about the nature of art. In a number of amusing scenes, for instance, Ceylan shows Muzaffer’s pursuit in capturing an aesthetic of reality based on spontaneous and natural acting by auditioning actors without their knowledge of the presence of rolling cameras and recording equipment. Dissatisfied with the villagers’ acting skills, Muzaffer eventually asks his parents to feature in his upcoming film. Clearly these scenes carry autobiographical elements and this blurring of reality, autobiography and fiction is a thematic motif in Ceylan’s early features.

In many ways, Clouds of May is the film that introduced Ceylan to a wider network of Turkish cinephiles, who recognized his potential as an important filmmaker. This was largely due to Ceylan’s overwhelming success at three major Turkish film festivals, with Clouds of May receiving the Best Film award in Ankara, İstanbul and Antalya. Following this impressive feat, Clouds of May enjoyed some journalistic attention in popular film and cultural magazines as well as some newspaper coverage. However, the attendance figures for independent films were still too low to produce any kind of cultural or economic impact. On the international level, however, the film toured a number of film festivals and became one of the most awarded Turkish films ever, until Ceylan’s Distant was released in late 2002.

Although Clouds of May received a decent distribution and number of awards, Ceylan’s international breakthrough was Distant (Uzak), which continued his fictionalized chronicle of his biographical self and his family. Clouds of May’s Saffet realizes his dream of leaving the province for a more sophisticated and prosperous life in the city as Yusuf in Distant , played by the same enigmatic and naturally gifted Mehmet Emin Toprak. Moreover, Muzaffer Özdemir reprises his earlier role in Clouds of May’s Muzaffer as Mahmut, a commercial photographer who had left the provincial lifestyle behind and had already set up a life for himself (and himself only) in İstanbul. The film portrays this strange relationship of two men, who are in many ways diametrical opposites in terms of their social and cultural status. They are unable to communicate with each other, let alone with the opposite sex, and fail to resolve their predicaments while wandering aimlessly against the background of a snow-covered and visually stunning İstanbul. The film presents a miniature portrait of contemporary Turkey and holds up a mirror to its age-old cultural problems, such as the conflicts between urban and rural, intellectual and uneducated and modern and traditional—indeed, the film’s title contains numerous connotations, from the growing schisms in Turkish society between urbanites and provincials to the unattainable dreams, ambitions and aspirations of its characters.

Distant was produced in different circumstances to those of Ceylan’s earlier features. The production crew comprised five people, including Ceylan, who also acted as cinematographer. The rest of the team took on specific responsibilities, such as production design, sound, lighting and camera assistance; however, many aspects of the production were reportedly handled through a communal spirit, including little or no pre-production or rehearsal and filming in Ceylan’s own flat, which in the film appears as Mahmut’s house (Okur and Yücel 2002). The film marked the first time Ceylan received substantial funding from an independent, third-party institution, in the form of the Hubert Bals Fund scheme managed by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. In effect, this signalled the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between Ceylan and the various art cinema institutions based in Europe, a relationship that reached its height in the film’s premiere at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. As the favourite of the majority of press members at the festival, Distant went on to win the Grand Jury prize and was subsequently an immense international art-house hit. The festival jury also shared the Best Actor prize between Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak, the latter of whom tragically died in a road accident upon his return from the film’s release at the Ankara Film Festival. Although I will address its national and international critical reception later on, it should be noted here that not only did the film go on to tour various film festivals and to enter commercial distribution networks, it continued to receive awards at other prestigious film festivals.

With the international success of Distant , Ceylan’s career entered a new phase in which his collaboration and interaction with European cinematic institutions intensified. Although his future productions were shot in Turkey and were concerned with Turkish themes, all of them premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving major awards and gaining popularity in international art cinema circles. Likewise, the films maintained their critical success within Turkish publications, but their box-office numbers were still modest. In other words, Ceylan became a typical global art cinema director: although critically praised at home, the main audience for his films were international cinephiles, critics and festival viewers. This complex relationship was initiated by his next film Climates (İklimler, 2006), which received the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, where it premiered, and involved several other developments in Ceylan’s filmmaking career. For example, Ceylan began working with the producer Zeynep Özbatur, whose previous work included Turkish art films such as Lola + Bilidikid (Kutluğ Ataman, 1999) and Hiçbiryerde (Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, 2002). Secondly, Climates received a substantial €200,000 from Eurimages towards its production as well as financial support from the Turkish Ministry of Culture, and it was co-produced with the French-based Pyramide Productions in association with the Turkish company İmaj (Aytaç and Yücel 2006). Much of the funding was once again spent at the post-production stage, namely the editing and sound design processes, and took place in France , where Ceylan admittedly wanted to benefit from the production company’s technical know-how, as it was his first experience of shooting in high -definition video. Moreover, Gökhan Tiryaki, by then a director of photography at İmaj Film with previous experience in the state broadcasting company, was recruited for the cinematographer role, which increased the shooting crew to 14. In other words, Ceylan consolidated his individual role as a director by acquiring professional and technical assistance for his film productions. His mode of production slowly evolved from a handful of assistants into a (relatively speaking) regular-sized crew.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film was Ceylan’s role in front of the camera. Ceylan decided to try out his acting skills in the film, which depicts the disintegrating relationship between İsa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and Bahar (Ebru Ceylan). Following their frustrating trip to a Turkish coastal town in the Southwest, the couple decide to break up. Having second thoughts, İsa purposelessly wanders in İstanbul and is resented by his colleagues for his inability to complete his work on architecture. One evening, he accidentally bumps into his ex-girlfriend Serap and stalks her to her apartment, culminating in an erotic meet-up later in the night. İsa finds out that Bahar has relocated to the city of Ağrı in Eastern Turkey for a TV shoot. Weary of his solitude in İstanbul, he then takes off to Ağrı to find Bahar in the hope of reunification. However, Bahar rejects him and even though they get together for a brief moment, İsa departs the city, leaving Bahar in tears.

Themes of alienation, disquietude, disconnection and a hopeless incapability to communicate as well as ethically vague or outright immoral characters find their way into Ceylan’s fifth feature, Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun, 2008). In this crime drama with neo-noir overtones, Ceylan depicts the lives and ethical struggles of a working-class family in what seems to be a gloomier than usual İstanbul. The plot follows a father, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), who decides to take the fall for his petty politician boss, Servet (Ercan Kesal), following the latter accidental murdering someone in a car crash. Servet promises Eyüp a large sum as compensation for taking the blame and while Eyüp is in prison, his son İsmail (Ahmet Rıfat Sungar) convinces his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) to request this money in advance from Servet to establish a business. An obsessive sexual relationship develops between Hacer and Servet, but ends once Eyüp is out of prison. Suspicious of his wife, Eyüp becomes endlessly haunted by mysterious incidents in his past, while İsmail decides to kill Servet for interfering in family matters. To avoid his son receiving a prison sentence, Eyüp convinces a homeless man to take the blame exactly as he himself did for his now deceased boss.

Three Monkeys was an even larger co-production with several companies involved. Basically, the film was the outcome of a co-production between two domestic companies, Ceylan’s own NBC Film and producer Zeynep Özbatur’s Zeyno Film, and two European production companies, Pyramide Productions from France and Bim Distribuzione from Italy, with the participation of İmaj, a Turkish post-production company. Both European companies also distributed the film in their respective countries. Likewise, Eurimages, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and the French National Cinema Centre made financial contributions to the production of the film. It was widely distributed, and Ceylan received the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009—a first ever for any Turkish director. Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) was the outcome of a European co-production, although in this instance between Turkey and Bosnia Herzegovina. In addition to many smaller, national production and post-production companies, Eurimages partly funded the film. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and shared the jury’s Grand Prix with the Dardennes brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (2011). The film went on to travel to various film festivals and to acquire theatrical releases across North America and Europe, achieving Ceylan’s largest box-office success as well as unanimous critical acclaim. The worldwide success of the film accelerated the production of Winter Sleep (2014), the shooting of which began in early February 2013 and secured a record €450,000 of support from Eurimages (Yıldız 2013). At the time of writing, Ceylan’s latest feature The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı, 2018) has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and released theatrically in Turkey.

In many ways, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia marked a new high point for Ceylan’s career. While popular with some mainstream audiences, the film also powerfully displayed fundamental aesthetic features of slow cinema, with precision and virtuosity. In contrast to other slow films, however, its dramatic and thematic complexity was also praised. The film portrays a homicide investigation, in which a group of government officials are led by the suspects across a single night in search of the victim’s body, which is buried somewhere along the steppes. Comprising civil servants, policemen and military personnel, the investigation represents a miniature portrait of the Turkish bureaucracy network, specifically exploring its manner of existence within a provincial terrain. While the murder inquiry proceeds monotonously with characters traversing settings seemingly identical to each other, the recurrent dialogue, simultaneously witty and banal, reveals the cruel and bitter relationships between different groups of provincial identities and social classes. Balancing dramatic ambiguity with deadpan humour, the film also exhibits gorgeous nocturnal photography of the Anatolian landscape, delivering a number of memorable moments: an apple rolling down a hill into a stream, only to float towards a rock and meet with other rotting apples, all captured through an uninterrupted tracking camera movement, and long shots of the landscape shaped by strong winds, illuminated by the cars’ headlights—incidentally, these are good examples of the lush and sumptuous cinematography that slow cinema often deploys to trigger artefact emotions, to borrow Ed Tan’s term (2011, 64–65). While the film focuses more and more on such poetic and distractive moments, our expectations of clear-cut answers regarding the murder mystery are thwarted, and I will return to Ceylan’s use of ambiguity to induce productive spectatorial activity later on.

Ceylan’s career was the typical trajectory that filmmakers associated with the slow cinema trend experienced. It began with modestly ambitious features, in which Ceylan portrayed local peculiarities and sparked national recognition along with additional sources of funding. As soon as foreign investment became available (the Hubert Bals fund for Distant ), Ceylan achieved international success and maintained a global presence with the support of film festivals and crucial financial support from Eurimages. In other words, his career took on a movement from the local and national towards the global and international; and although his films still deal with local and national issues and are produced domestically, their main audience lies in various global networks of exhibition, which makes them all the more accessible and powerful. This situation clearly parallels that of other filmmakers, not just Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming -liang but those who are even less well known among their local audiences. Moreover, Ceylan’s filmmaking procedures demonstrate an evolution from an artisanal mode of production to a much more organized and strictly professional activity, one in which Ceylan delegates many of his responsibilities on the set onto others (including cinematography, production and editing) and one that includes co-productions with other companies and nations as well as post-production facilities. This movement from the artisanal to the industrial is also significantly reflected in the ways in which Ceylan’s narrative themes develop. His early works, for example, are largely dramatized out of autobiographical memories and situations, while later works (which, incidentally, are co-scripted by Ceylan’s wife Ebru Ceylan and his long-time friend Ercan Kesal) are concerned with universal emotions and themes, nevertheless preserving a sense of authenticity due to the fact that they are based on real-life impressions. This “becoming international” largely defines the changes in the national and international reception of his films.

4.3 Intervention in Yeşilçam and Turkish Film History

A symptomatic reading of the national and international critical reception of Ceylan’s films can help illustrate the ways in which New Turkish Cinema performed an intervention in film history and aesthetics in Turkey. In the first instance, critics approach Ceylan as part of a loose canon of filmmakers who strive for newer forms of cinematic expression. I briefly discuss the use of post -synchronized dubbing in Yeşilçam cinema and how it relates to Ceylan’s work, also noting issues of realism and the village film that are inherently related to Ceylan’s connection with the Yeşilçam past. At the time of the release of Distant , critical attention briefly switches to a lament about art films being unsuccessful in the domestic market while enjoying positive critical appraisal at international film festivals. The release of Distant represents an immediate change in the reception of Ceylan, inasmuch as it reflects a shift in the mode of production of his films. During this time, Ceylan’s unique film style is compared with that of other European auteurs and international currents, roughly concerning the notion of minimalist cinema.

The domestic critical reception of The Small Town was in harmony with the growing awareness of New Turkish Cinema , a critical discourse that originated in the subsequent release of films such as Somersault in the Coffin and Innocence . Two Turkish newspaper critics introduced Ceylan as a new and unique director and placed him in opposition to the mainstream popular cinema, while foregrounding the film’s original style, photographic qualities and incorporation of autobiographical features (Arslan 1997; Çapan 1997; both reprinted in Ceylan 2007, 71–76). Furthermore, the majority of the reviews stressed the film’s rendering of an authentic portrayal of rural life in a barely unknown Turkish village community. There was, however, one negative criticism of the film and of Ceylan’s stylistic choices. Tuna Erdem wrote an almost scathing newspaper review of The Small Town, arguing that its aesthetic features were at complete odds with those found in Italian neorealist films. Erdem suggested that although The Small Town contains elements of the neorealist aesthetic, such as on-location shooting and non-professional actors, much of these elements remain on the surface, because the film does not achieve a sense of visual narration or of an aesthetic normally present in neorealist films. Therefore, Erdem argues, the film’s pursuit of realism in the form of episodic narration, on-location shooting and natural acting is fundamentally inconsistent with its frequent and lengthy use of heavy-handed monologues that neither advance the plot nor reveal any deeper insight regarding the rural lifestyle that it strives to explore. Referring in particular to the second part of the film where family members reminisce about their individual experiences, Erdem notes that the post-synchronized dubbing creates an overt artificiality, which further devalues the film’s realist ambitions (Ceylan 2007, 78). There is an important conclusion to be drawn from Erdem’s short, albeit valuable, criticism. The critical orthodoxy in Turkish film culture expected new wave filmmakers to employ cinematic realism as a basis for artistic integrity. Indeed, the critical negation of sound dubbing as an overtly artificial practice was a testament to that realistic expectancy and, from the point of view of the critics, newer generations of filmmakers needed to sever ties with the erstwhile aesthetic of Yeşilçam, inventing newer forms of cinematic expression in line with international trends of quality filmmaking.

As mentioned earlier, Yeşilçam cinema was an escapist industry that frequently used post -synchronized dubbing, primarily because it was practical and economically viable in turning around a rapid output of film production. Many of its revered actors and actresses never spoke their own lines; instead, experienced theatre actors with correct diction and tone recorded the lines in dubbing studios. Sound design elements such as environmental effects and ambient sounds were often overlooked or hastily reproduced from stock sounds in studios (for an overview of dubbing practices, see Erdoğan 2002; Arslan 2011, 116–224). This meant that all films were shot silent and there was no sound recording on the stage (or on location). A prompter uttered the lines of dialogue for the actors, a practice employed in the production of Ceylan’s The Small Town and fictionally recreated within the world of Clouds of May. This, coupled with the clumsy low-budget production processes outlined in the earlier sections, resulted in a mode of narration that was highly artificial and non-illusionistic, albeit embraced by spectators because of its cultural links to traditional Turkish dramatic conventions. Arslan , for example, argues that the lack of authenticity in dubbing did not create a problem for spectators and nor did it threaten the stars’ image. “Turkish spectators watch films with their ears”, said scriptwriter Bülent Oran, emphasizing the ways in which the discontinuities and deficiencies in the visual image were largely resolved by the descriptive use of verbal language and dialogue (quoted in Arslan 2011, 121). Concepts such as “credibility, naturalness and sincerity” were, therefore, largely ignored in Yeşilçam cinema, but according to Nezih Erdoğan, they became defining characteristics of the emerging New Turkish Cinema. In pursuit of creating “genuine characters”, New Turkish Cinema “yielded an altogether different mode of representation”, in which the shift from post-dubbing to shooting with sound marked its pioneering technical transformation (2002, 234).

The release of Ceylan’s first features was an integral part of this phase, in which filmmakers were slowly adopting contemporary technologies in film production as well as spending considerable resources on creating newer forms of cinematic expression. In this respect, The Small Town represented both the old and the new in Turkish cinema: on the one hand, aspects of its mode of production, such as low budgets, lack of detailed mise-en-scène and use of dubbing, were in large part a continuation of the Yeşilçam tradition. On the other hand, however, the film strived for an unusual sensitivity in narration and sowed the seeds for a newer cinematic experience for Turkish audiences and critics. Its lack of progressive narrative momentum and its reliance on dedramatized sequences were clearly indebted to European art cinema traditions and to the slow cinema discourse that was beginning to take shape on the international film festival circuit in the mid- to late 1990s. In other words, in its own way The Small Town was a mix of localized filmmaking practices and global aesthetic sensibilities.

Ceylan’s other films, however, manifested this relationship in complex ways. The legacy of post-synchronized dubbing and use of dialogue were glaringly evident in Ceylan’s future works, for instance, in the lack of lip-synching in Distant and the banal macho monologue delivered by İsa towards the end of Climates . The ways in which dialogue exchanges between characters were carried out in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia further demonstrated that although the films were shot with sound, certain modifications still took place through dubbing in the studio. Despite these examples, Ceylan was, without a doubt, a master of sound design. The use of classical music in Clouds of May was at once estranging and deeply expressive. While the musical pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Franz Schubert did not entirely belong to Turkish provincial culture (and had never before been used in Yeşilçam), they nonetheless poignantly conveyed the melancholy of Ceylan’s characters. Following Distant , Ceylan began to pay incredible attention to sound design, largely modifying sounds to create disorienting effects, such as the blurring between diegetic and non-diegetic sound at the beginning of Climates and the subtle electronic drone synth in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Indeed, from a practical point of view, Ceylan spent an unusually extensive period in post-production, not on just editing footage but on streamlining a carefully thought-through and planned sound overlays and working with foley artists. Experimenting with sound in this way was one of the defining characteristics of slow cinema, but it was unimaginable within the context of Yeşilçam. Yet, narrative themes such as guilt, vengeance and family ethics in Three Monkeys and the film’s focus on traditional Turkish working-class lifestyles were largely drawn from Yeşilçam films, albeit narrated using completely different stylistic conventions. As we will see later, a philosophical investigation of Turkish provincial life was in many ways the dominant narrative strand in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. As such, Ceylan broke away from Yeşilçam stylistic traditions fairly quickly, but there was still a sense of continuation in terms of themes and settings.

The Small Town and Clouds of May were often considered part of the village film tradition in Turkish cinema, mainly due to their portrayal of provincial life. The period of high Yeşilçam also included village films that depicted traditional rural life, usually emphasizing the ever-present feudal structures in either an ironic or a socially realistic way. The most realistic of these were usually cut by censors, to which the film critic and historian Nijat Özön responded by labelling them “pink realism” (Arslan 2011, 226). In contrast, films such as Revenge of the Snakes (Yılanların Öcü, 1962) and Hope (Umut, 1970) were considered by Özön as departures from the pink realism of the period towards a more objective documentation of rural life, echoing the Italian Neorealist aesthetic. Yılmaz Güney’s Hope was in many ways a turning point for the village films, although not entirely in stylistic or aesthetic terms. For example, aspects of the Neorealist aesthetic, such as on-location shooting and use of non-professional actors, were already present in Yeşilçam for economic and practical purposes; hence Güney’s use of such devices did not constitute any form of artistic innovation. “What makes the Turkification of Neorealism in Umut or Neorealist films different”, writes Savaş Arslan, “was its filmic narrative: it represents social life through the medium of cinema in a particular way and replaces the tough guy Güney with a poor and helpless carriage-driver” (2011, 182). This meant that Hope and other realist village films were realist because of their narrative focus, or in Arslan’s words, because they framed certain “social ills as products of the capitalist system”. In this respect, Arslan argues, “Yeşilçam’s realism was of a different mold, one that is of the natural more than the real and one that is direct” (2011, 234). In other words, there was no aesthetic ambition in creating a visual style reminiscent of European modernist waves, but there was an implicit purpose in creating narratives in the form of stories, myths and folktales. Many of these films later evolved into the popular nostalgia films of the 1990s, which Asuman Suner characterizes by their “emphasis not so much on the past, but on the remembrance of the past from today’s perspective” (2010, 26). Although addressing certain historical and political incidents in Turkey’s recent past, these films neither achieved a major social impact nor received international attention. According to Suner , the “popular nostalgia films” portrayed provincial life from a utopian and sentimental perspective, mainly through “aestheticized images of the rural landscape”, but also through attributing “a sense of innocence to traditional community relations”, which at the end is “irrecoverably lost due to the intervention of an external force”, such as the government or any other political entity (2010, 37). In this respect, Suner also notes the ways in which Ceylan’s films differ from these popular nostalgia films: “Rather than being an imaginary site of innocence and purity, the province in Ceylan’s cinema is an ambivalent space where we can observe paradoxes of belonging in contemporary Turkish society” (2010, 188). Instead of depicting a utopian vision of rural life, which is in the end impaired by external forces, Ceylan’s provincial films portray the internal conflicts of his characters and their relationship to their environment. Although similar narrative themes and imagery of rural life appear throughout both popular nostalgia films and Ceylan’s provincial trilogy (namely The Small Town, Clouds of May and Distant ), there are significant differences in terms of narrative structure and film style, which ultimately represent an unusual and unique portrayal of contemporary Turkish life for their critics and audiences.

Despite the critical acclaim, Ceylan remained an obscure name among Turkish audiences until international critics recognized Distant as a profound masterpiece of international art-house cinema following its success at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003. For instance, Jonathan Romney hailed Distant as “one of the most vital discoveries of European cinema” (2004a) in the wake of its theatrical release in the United Kingdom, while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw commented that “[i]t is one of the best movies of the year, perhaps of many years—the work of a brilliant film-maker” (2004). The following month Romney (2004b) also provided a longer piece for Sight & Sound, which included an interview with Ceylan as well as an overview of his previous films. Ceylan was beginning to receive an extensive critical attention in British cinephile circles, culminating in a season of his films at the British Film Institute. Meanwhile, Tony Rayns (2004) was already comparing his work to filmmakers such as Tarkovsky , Ozu and Bresson , recalling “transcendental style”, a term that was originally suggested by Paul Schrader and had a close affinity with slow cinema. Ironically, the film’s theatrical release in Turkey preceded its win at Cannes and attracted only meagre attendance. With only five print copies distributed in major cities, the film yielded approximately 20,000 spectators, an extremely low number compared with popular Turkish films, let alone mainstream Hollywood productions. However, it was quickly re-released after Cannes and the audience numbers more than doubled to approximately 45,000. Even more ironic was the film’s release in France, which reportedly attracted an audience of about 100,000 following a successful marketing campaign (Türk 2005). As disappointing as they may sound, these numbers were the norm for Turkish filmmakers. In fact, Ceylan had already realized that his target audience was extremely niche and he deliberately chose to distribute just five copies, contrary to the suggestions made by distribution companies, to achieve optimum exposure and profit, which would be enough to cover the urban centres of İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir initially, then to gradually spread out to other towns (Köstepen et al. 2003).

In this respect, Distant epitomizes the tensions between national cinema and art cinema, hence illuminating some of the varying discussions regarding slow cinema. While praised for its ability to represent Turkish culture on screen, the film did not receive any attention whatsoever in Turkey until it won its award at Cannes. Following the ensuing headlines, the film was re-released in the country for those who were curious enough to find out what kind of film it was that had represented Turkey on such a culturally high international stage and this significantly increased its modest box-office numbers. This is in many ways a common thread in the dissemination of slow cinema as films attracted attention not within the context of national cinemas but through exhibitions and awards at international film festivals. However, this incident not only shows the typical trajectory of art films worldwide but reveals an important element of Turkish spectatorship. A cultural artefact becomes recognizable and important when it receives positive critical attention from the West—a tendency that can be observed in other art forms in Turkey, for example, in Elif Şafak’s book The Bastard of Istanbul (2007), a novel that provocatively explored the highly sensitive and controversial issue of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. While the book was praised on the international circuit as well as garnering a wide readership in Turkey, Şafak was condemned by the right-wing Turkish press and was tried in court for “insulting Turkishness” (Lea 2006). The case against criticism of Turkish politics was eventually dropped, but many Turkish writers are known to have had the same experience, including the Nobel Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk.

Although Ceylan’s work has never been overtly political, these events illuminate the highly disparate and sensitive values of Turkish spectatorship. In many ways the reaction against socially realist Turkish films in the Yeşilçam era followed a similar pattern. While films such as Revenge of the Snakes, The Road and Bitmeyen Yol (1967) projected the grim realities of Turkish society, on the national level these films were criticized for their openness and were considered anti-Turkish by the government and the right-wing press, with many of them being censored or banned until recently. Ceylan’s films, on the other hand, failed at the box office, not because of their political stance but due to their unusual style, niche audience and poor distribution networks. As mentioned earlier, aspects of national distribution, namely the general leaning towards Hollywood blockbusters and a much smaller interest in the circulation of independent films, also exacerbated the issues of exposure of Ceylan’s films. These patterns, however, strongly recall the previously discussed notions of özenti and Turkification proposed by Savaş Arslan. Ceylan’s work represents a rising art cinema sensibility within Turkish cinephile circles, which has been left in an inactive vacuum since the early 1980s. This new art cinema wave modelled itself on the preceding European waves: all the productions were auteur-based, they were marketed with the director’s personal vision driving the film and although they achieved critical and international attention, in reality they remained very marginal when compared with the mainstream popular cinema. Making personal films and adopting minimalism evoke influences of European art cinema and contemporary slow cinema respectively. As such, Ceylan’s reworking of European art cinema aesthetics in a Turkish context has fundamental parallels to the ways in which Yeşilçam defined itself by way of Hollywood conventions, in effect rendering the concepts of özenti and Turkification all the more present in contemporary Turkish art cinema.3

Following Distant, and certainly after Climates , many international critics hailed Ceylan as a staple of contemporary European art-house cinema, a critical opinion that reached its peak in the release of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. For instance, while claiming the film as Ceylan’s “finest work to date”, Philip French declared the director as “one of the most significant moviemakers to have emerged this century, an original figure in his own right and a major force in reviving a belief in the kind of serious, ambitious, morally concerned European art-house cinema that was taken to new heights by Bergman , Tarkovsky , Antonioni and Angelopoulos the 1960s and 70s” (2012). Similarly, Manohla Dargis viewed Ceylan as “one of the consistently most exciting directors on the international scene”, and the film as a “visually stunning meditation on what it is to be human” (2012). The film regularly featured in the top-10 lists of credible publications such as Film Comment and Sight & Sound. Furthermore, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia marked Ceylan’s largest box-office success in Turkey. A total of 160,468 spectators saw the film in Turkey, a number unimaginable by auteur-directors, although previously Three Monkeys had surpassed expectations by attaining 127,668 spectators.4 Following 10 years’ success on the international festival scene, Nuri Bilge Ceylan currently enjoys a prestigious international reputation, something no other Turkish filmmaker had previously achieved, and is considered by many a principal example of contemporary slow cinema.

Following this historical background, I now turn my focus to the formal aspects and stylistic configurations of the films. An understanding of Yeşilçam conventions and the ways in which Ceylan positions himself in regard to this tradition is crucial, because his work begins as a mixture of both worlds, in terms of production practices and stylistic features, but eventually becomes involved in the much more complex network of global cultural production. The previous sections aimed to establishing Yeşilçam cinema fundamentally as an entertainment industry with no regard for aesthetic or intellectual elation. The cultural taste of its spectators was commonly deemed “primitive”; as director Şadan Kamil observes: “People used to go to see a film as if they were going to coffee houses or night clubs. They listened to music and watched famous singers and dancers”, the spectators “enjoyed looking at a star player, listening to a couple of songs, or crying at a few touching scenes” and the producers “marvelled at how these spectators never tired of watching the same subjects time and time again” (quoted in Arslan 2011, 77–78). Ceylan and other filmmakers associated with New Turkish Cinema, however, offered different forms of cinematic pleasure.

4.4 Boredom, Cinema, Mind Wandering

As a leisure activity with pretence to entertainment and aesthetic stimulation, cinema can be seen as the antithesis of boredom. Few—if any—spectators afford the cinema in order to be bored. On the contrary, cinema suspends the desire to fill time and offers the perfect escape by eliciting other, mainly positive and enjoyable, emotions. Yet, thanks to the slow cinema debate, boredom and slowness have surfaced within film criticism as a form of spectatorship and mode of address that allegedly fosters creative reflection, with little explication of how our engagement with film is shaped and affected by boredom. Here I explore this question by reconfiguring boredom as a receptive state of mind and a productive aesthetic strategy, despite its conventional treatment as a negative and undesirable emotion. I argue that slow cinema can transform boredom into an aesthetically rewarding experience through its celebration of dead time and foregrounding of dramatic ambiguity.

It might be tempting to label slow cinema as boring and disengaging, and such a claim would be both right and wrong. Wrong, because it would be reductive and overlook the ways in which the films test our cognitive capacities, and right, because certain features of boredom are indeed deliberately embedded in their reticent design. In other words, boredom is an intentional consequence of the ways in which the films’ narration foregrounds idleness and ambiguity, restrain the flow of information, and ultimately resist interpretation. However, this is not the type of boredom we commonly experience in our everyday activities. Through a short theoretical exposition, I outline here the dimensions of boredom and specify idleness and monotony as the defining features of slow cinema narration. The specific cinematic devices the films use to produce these effects are dedramatization and dead time, and in the next section I demonstrate this argument through an analysis of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, focusing on its use of mise-en-scène and temporality, and the ways in which it prompts a self-reflexive pondering of the nature of spectatorship.

Taking this film as a case study seems especially appropriate, because, while Ceylan’s films are successfully distributed in art cinema circles, they emerge from a historical film culture in which cinema was a popular pastime: as established at the outset, its purpose was to entertain, not contemplate. In fact, boredom was so unwelcome in Turkish film culture that at one point Ceylan ironically threatened to continue making boring films (2007, 99). Ceylan’s amusing remark leads to two important conclusions: first, despite its tongue-in-cheek humour, the comment evidences authorial intent in the sense that boredom was a mode of address that was consciously and artistically intended by the filmmaker. Secondly, it paints a poignant picture of the ways in which the critical reception of art cinema has historically accommodated debates on whether slowness and boredom constitute active (or valuable) forms of spectatorship. I aim to contribute to this debate by delineating boredom as an aesthetic virtue, in the sense that it gives rise to a type of aesthetic or intellectual elation, and I claim that in certain contexts it functions as a springboard for our mind to exercise artistic inspiration, creative insight and contemplation.

As it is a largely pervasive experience , boredom occupies all areas of human interaction and is used in diverse contexts. “We live in a culture of boredom”, writes Lars Svendsen: “To investigate the problem of boredom is to attempt to understand who we are and how we fit into the world at this particular point in time” (2005, 7). When ascribed to cultural productions, boredom is often intended in a degrading way, yet it has also been the main subject of countless artworks. Although still a burgeoning topic within film studies, boredom has received rigorous philosophical and scholarly interest for decades. Some literary theorists approach boredom as a state of mind in two distinct forms: simple boredom, a fleeting, temporary and time-bound condition arising from the lack of stimuli in an environment, an inability of attention, impatience, or other external circumstances such as confinement; and existential boredom, which, similar to depression or ennui, is characterized by a realization of futility in life, running deeper and longer within the human psyche and often labelled as a maladic or pathological condition. While literary theorists were remarkably consistent in separating boredom into two particular forms, their preference as to which aspect to appraise was highly variable. For Patricia Meyer Spacks, boredom not only fuels the imagination of writers but determines the development of literary movements in the ways in which newer generations of authors attempt to “interest” their readers (1995, 1–2). Reinhard Kuhn, on the other hand, dismisses simple boredom for its dependence on “external circumstances” and instead explores ennui as the narrative subject and “temporal fabric” of modernist literature, with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927) as his quintessential example (1976, 6–7). In response, Peter Toohey defends simple boredom by reclaiming “its own tradition, [which is] more fundamentally rooted in human psychology than existential boredom because it is an emotion that has been felt in all periods of history” (2012, 142).

Theorizing boredom is challenging because some of its forms refer to an emotion, while others delineate a mood. We take emotions to be specific responses directed towards other entities: just as when we are scared, we are scared of something, when we are bored, we are usually bored of something. Mood, on the other hand, is broader and objectless and extends over a longer period of time, thus characterizing a general attitude to the world outside. In this respect, boredom as a state of mind seems to accommodate both possibilities: since existential boredom is a longer-lasting condition, it can best be characterized as a mood, while simple boredom is more suitable to be classified as an emotion, because it depends on external circumstances that can be rapidly altered by changing the source (Toohey 2012, 33–34). Until now, I have been using the word “boredom” in its widest sense, referring to a psychological state of mind and encompassing notions of an emotion and a mood. Strictly speaking, both senses of the term are relevant to my argument. Many slow films explore boredom as a narrative theme and therefore use it as a general sense of mood within their own diegetic universe. In fact, themes of modern alienation and the individual’s estrangement from society were so frequently ascribed to Michelangelo Antonioni’s prototypically slow work that Andrew Sarris coined the term “Antoniennui”, albeit in a slightly pejorative manner (1970, 280).

The origins of this preoccupation with boredom and with manifestations of ennui as a narrative subject are largely rooted in modern, specifically European, literary fiction. US writer Saul Bellow, for example, suggested through his fictional surrogate in his novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) that boredom as an aesthetic mode found its voice, above all, in late nineteenth-century French literature. Later in the twentieth century, boredom occupies a central and fundamental aspect in the French Existentialist novels, such as Nausea (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938) and The Outsider (Albert Camus, 1942). From Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) to Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (1982), and from Alberto Moravia’s Boredom (1960) to the plays of Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, numerous authors and dramatists, most of whom adopt a modernist aesthetic, explore boredom as a state of mind in the wake of modernity (see also Goodstein 2005).

In this respect, boredom has a peculiar connection to modernity and modernist forms of art. Similar to the flâneur’s alienated gaze and slow drifting against the ever-accelerating world outside, boredom in its simplest manifestation represents a resistance to modernity because it is in essence a refusal of attention: its stillness and affective lethargy contradicts the progressiveness and efficiency of modernity. In one of his Weimar period essays, Siegfried Kracauer writes that if “one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly” (1995a, 334). This type of revelatory boredom, however, appears to be in opposition to Kracauer’s conception of distraction, which, through the highly adorned architecture of Berlin’s gigantic picture houses, “rivet[s] the viewer’s attention to the peripheral” and as the “simulations of the senses succeed one another”, it leaves no room “for even the slightest contemplation” (1995b, 326). Nonetheless, according to Patrice Petro, boredom and distraction are “complementary rather than opposing terms”, whose relationship she defines in the following manner: “reception in a state of distraction reveals cultural disorder and increasing abstraction; the cultivation of boredom, however, discloses the logic of distraction, in which newness becomes a fetish, and shock itself a manifestation of the commodity form” (2002, 66). For Petro , because the twentieth-century theorists situate boredom within “the realm of the everyday”, boredom “shares important affinities with traditions of the avant-garde, particularly those that come after political modernism and refuse its aesthetics of distraction, sensory stimulation, and shock”. As such, referring specifically to Andy Warhol films and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, both of which I examined briefly in Chapter  2), Petro finds “an aesthetics of boredom [that] retains the modernist impulse of provocation and calculated assault. (How long must one watch and wait until something actually happens? How much tedium can one possibly stand?)” In this respect, the experience of boredom in avant-garde and modernist cinema facilitates “an awareness of looking as a temporal process—bound not to particular object but to ways of seeing” (2002, 68).

Slow cinema repackages this modernist provocation of suspending duration and imposing boredom, as the preceding case studies have attempted to show. In the films of Béla Tarr, for example, the camera ostensibly follows its wandering characters, creating an active form of dialectical engagement with the spectator, while the state of mind of the protagonists in the films of Tsai Ming -liang can at best be characterized by alienation, depression and emptiness of life, or in short, ennui. Similar cases of ennui are evident in Ceylan’s work. Distant’s Mahmut, for example, goes through an emotional and intellectual crisis. Although nothing is made certain, the film implies that since his divorce Mahmut has not been able to attach himself emotionally to a female other, while at the same time his faith in photography as an art form has severely diminished. The key scene involves a roundtable discussion between Yusuf, Mahmut and the latter’s colleagues. Yusuf is unable to participate in this highbrow discussion, while Mahmut, to his friends’ surprise, bemoans the end of photography as an art form. The parallel between emotional and intellectual crisis is even more evident in Climates , in which İsa not only drifts between his ex-girlfriend and Bahar but is inexplicably unable to complete his doctoral thesis on architecture. In Three Monkeys, the ethical dilemmas faced by the characters create an enormous emotional gap between the father and the mother, eventually causing the collapse of the traditional family structure. Similarly, family struggles under impoverished circumstances take the form of a generational clash in Clouds of May, in which the disagreements between the father, Muzaffer and Saffet lead to the failure of their main objectives (the father loses his cultivated land, Muzaffer fails to complete his film and Saffet does not even attempt to escape the town that he claims to be bored with). All of these examples emphasize the ways in which ennui, or rather the existential type of boredom, has affected the main characters. In these films, the sense of existential boredom is manifested not only through characterization, dialogue and mise-en-scène, but more importantly, through a specific use of duration, long takes and repetitive action.

As opposed to a general mood, boredom as emotion characterizes the individual, subjective experience felt by the spectator. “Because it imposes duration”, writes Richard Misek, “cinema is a privileged site of boredom” (2010, 778). Taking his cue from Martin Heidegger’s categorizations of boredom (which, despite their rhetorical complexity, parallel the simple/existential distinction), Misek divides films into two groups: “those that kill time, and those that bore to death” (2010, 777). While mainstream cinema avoids (or “kills”) boredom, slow cinema uses it as an aesthetic strategy, which Julian Hanich describes as the formal operation that “aims at producing the emotion: it takes place on the filmic level and can therefore be objectively described and analyzed stylistically”. He continues: “Since these aesthetic strategies exist only in order to affect us, their implicit goal is to evoke subjective experienced (cinematic) emotions of the exact same name” (2010, 23). My approach to boredom is to treat it not merely as an emotion felt in cinema but to include the films’ mode of address, including aspects of narrative structure and visual style that in some ways bear a resemblance to boredom’s defining psychological features—idleness, monotony and emptiness.

Boredom in its simplest, time-bound form can tell us a great deal about how we view and engage with slow cinema. While some of its distinguishing characteristics pertain to its representation of the mundane, the monotonous and the everyday, the dominant criticism against slow cinema also highlights its inactivity, idleness and banality. The polarized opinions within the slow cinema debate revolved around whether an aesthetic of slowness produces an active form of spectatorship or whether the films consisted of a complacent aesthetics that deployed long takes and dead time in an idiomatic and mannerist fashion. As we have seen before, some critics attacked slow cinema for being boring and monotonous and having little cultural or political value. Nick James, for instance, condemned the films of slow cinema as “passive aggressive” because “they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeing and slender aesthetic and political effects” (2010, 5). Critics on the defending side, however, praised slowness for its capacity to invoke a hypnotic, contemplative and meditative experience, qualities often associated with virtuous artworks (see Dargis and Scott 2011; Martin 2010).

Although these opinions are seemingly contradictory, the experiences of boredom and those of contempla tion and meditation have a fundamental affinity as they are all based on an aesthetic of slowness and concomitant notions of idleness. At this point I think we need further conceptual distinctions to help us disentangle simple boredom from its common-sensical, value-laden implications. What I mean by simple boredom here is different from disinterest, displeasure and irritation, because the latter group implies judgements of taste that can be based on subjective preferences but not on objective criteria. We may find a film boring in its lack of ability to engage its audience when, for example, its subject matter does not correspond with our personal interests or when the experience of watching is disrupted by external and contextual circumstances. But such conditions do not actually relate to how I consider boredom as an aesthetic strategy, which takes place on the narrational level in the form of idleness and monotony, and which on the level of the spectator translates to a temporally suspended mode of contemplation. Clearly, there need to be finer gradations of what I have called simple boredom. Indeed, what other scholars have called simple boredom is nevertheless an expansive category: it can encompass psychological features ranging from impatience to disinterest and from idleness to irritation, and these distinctions will help us identify more precisely the kind of spectatorial activity that takes place in our engagement with slow cinema. To reiterate: I do not evaluate slow cinema as boring or claim that it imposes on audiences all (negative and aggressive) aspects of boredom but suggest that some films use certain features of boredom in their aesthetic design to induce a contemplative cinematic experience. Rather than ascribing value judgements, I am more interested in understanding the perceptual responses to and aesthetic effects of simple boredom as an experience that elicits idleness and monotony.

We can feel this sense of simple boredom in the cinema when we are faced with monotony—yet, we need not take this experience as equivalent to anti-immersion, as perhaps the most conventional and undesirable consequence of boredom. On the contrary, there is another dimension involved in the experience of simple boredom, wherein, notwithstanding its emptiness and negativity, a temporally extended mode of consciousness can yield acts of subjective introspection and enhance individual creativity. Lars Svendsen, for example, emphasizes the productivity inherent in boredom: “Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for a new configuration of things, and therefore also for a new meaning, by virtue of the fact that it has already deprived things of meaning” (2005, 142). In other words, because boredom denies meaning, it can lead to a calm state of receptiveness—a condition, I would argue, crucial for understanding Ceylan’s slow cinema.

Slow cinema can also be framed as a reaction to the exponential increase in the pace and speed of contemporary life, which, supposedly, deprives us from perceiving reality in its fullest form and discerning its underlying structures—this reaction has found its institutional voice in the Slow Movement, as popularized by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré (2005). Granted, this is an impressionistic argument and it should be developed with further research, but such beliefs nevertheless prompt Song Hwee Lim to ask: “Can boredom, like slowness, be a pleasure that some audiences deliberately seek?” (2014, 29). Pamela Lee writes: “They’re pausing not in any naïve effort to ‘go back,’ […] but to slow down […] For it is in slowness and the capacity to parse one’s own present that one gains ground on what’s coming up next, perhaps restores to the every day some degree of agency, perhaps some degree of resistance” (2004, 308). Ceylan, for example, explicitly addresses this postmodern condition and defends “slowing down” as a more profound mode of experiencing reality. While editing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan kept a journal in which he wrote:

This afternoon, as if weighed down by the accumulation of fatigue from all these years, I lay down on the bed and fell asleep, fully clothed, for several hours. When I opened my eyes, I had the impression of waking up with a new form of perception. In the silence, before my eyes, in a fluid fashion, the immobile objects in my room surrounded me with infinite affection, as if the doors of a different level of perception had just opened. I stayed lying there with my eyes open for over an hour. My senses felt completely alert. This state allowed me to take enormous pleasure in life. I understood that I don’t truly feel the emotions of everything I live, because we live at such a frenetic rhythm. It’s obvious that we should slow down the rhythm of our lives so that our senses are sharpened. Here resides my reason for liking films that are slow in pace—and my desire to make this kind of film. This state of mind that I felt on waking today can only appear through a slow and languorous rhythm. (2012, 30)

In short, Ceylan feels that “a slow and languorous rhythm” yields a heightened sensitivity, or a kind of pronounced evocativeness, in which inactivity and idleness paradoxically create a fascination with the simplicity of the world outside. This is perhaps a reference to moments in life such as daydreaming or déjà vu in which we, consciously or not, perceive things as out of the ordinary—moments during which we are transfixed, as if under hypnosis, and mesmerized by looking at a fleeting aspect of reality we would otherwise miss. For Ceylan, decelerating our subjective experience of temporality is an essential component of achieving this evocative sensibility that closely resembles boredom, because the latter’s defining features are in a similar fashion idleness, inactivity and denial of meaning. In lieu of illustration, consider the following imaginary scenario. I am looking out of the window on a moving train and can observe the subtle shifts in my perspective of vast, but reasonably dull, landscapes. Part of me is impatiently waiting for the end of my uninteresting journey, yet I cannot help but indulge the sensual thrill I get from looking outside—slowly, my imagination rushes on its own, with no conscious effort by me to focus my mental activities. I feel bored of the mundane and monotonous situation I find myself in, but I continue to take pleasure from it, because it lets my mind go. As I discuss later on, slow cinema is particularly compelling in animating this peculiar and hypnotic effect of defamiliarization through strategies of rendering dead time and dedramatization prominent across distended sequences of banal action.
Other artists similarly view boredom as a source of their artistic inspiration. “Boredom does more than provide the leisure and tranquillity indispensable for the state of concentration required by artistic endeavor”, writes Reinhard Kuhn. “As a source of sensual joy, it is also a source of creation”, or in Goethe’s words, it “is the mother of all invention” (1976, 184). In a letter to Schiller, Goethe explains how the monotony of travelling and the lack of any external impulse “makes it possible to turn inward, to gather one’s thoughts” (Kuhn 1976, 184). In his essay “In Praise of Boredom”, Joseph Brodsky (1995) writes:

When hit by boredom, […] let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here […] is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

In reference to this passage, Peter Toohey argues that “boredom offers an unusual and rare enforced opportunity to see yourself as another” (2012, 186–187). That is, idleness of the mind in temporally restricted situations can be productive insofar as it provides one with the ability to create space for reflection and contemplation, enabling a more profound way of understanding and expressing reality. In this respect, boredom contains certain meditative qualities and it is indeed this quality of boredom that I think is virtuous. The films in question do not attempt to bore their audiences en masse by eliciting idleness and a sensation of monotony, but rather aim to re-orient their experience of time and duration so that they engage in active and creative reflection.

Boredom as a potentially suitable emotion for fostering artistic creativity and productivity is further evidenced in studies of psychology. A phenomenon called mind wandering, characterized by “a shift of attention away from a primary task toward internal information”, is largely responsible for this mental activity (Smallwood and Schooler 2006, 946). Mind wandering occurs when we engage in undemanding, simple tasks that do not require our full attention or all our faculties of reasoning. As such, our mind shifts its attention inward, yet we initiate this often in an unintentional and unaware manner. According to cognitive psychologists Smallwood and Schooler, mind wandering “can be viewed as a state of decoupled attention, because instead of monitoring online sensory information, attention shifts inward and focuses on one’s thoughts and feelings” (2006, 951). An important function of mind wandering in our everyday life is that it increases our efficiency in problem solving by channelling attention towards personal goals. Whether it fuels artistic creativity, however, remains an empirical question, although current evidence shows that it may be possible (Mrazek et al. 2012, 442–448). One study, for example, concludes that undertaking monotonous tasks facilitates mind wandering and empirically demonstrates an increase in creativity and use of insight in problem solving (Baird et al. 2012, 1120). The same study also considers the possibility “that mind wandering enhances creativity” and as such may “serve as a foundation for creative inspiration” (Baird et al. 2012, 1121).

Examples of such revelations and scientific discoveries are varied, but evident, across history. This might not mean that boredom is a wholly productive state of mind, but the research points towards the fact that our minds are at work even when we are faced with monotony and idleness—and perhaps slow cinema is one mode of filmmaking that extends the usual problem-solving role we ascribe to film viewing to a form of consciousness that incorporates reflection and contemplation. Indeed, boredom plays a pivotal role in the debate about whether slow cinema induces an actively engaging or lulling phenomenal spectatorship, and the films perform the productive functions of boredom and mind wandering by dedramatizing narrative structures, something I have discussed in detail in previous chapters.

In certain films, this ostentatious narration makes viewers attend more closely to the film’s style and technique (features including, but not limited to, music, sound design, colour, staging and performance ) as in the case of Béla Tarr. In others, it draws audiences into an immersive experience that resembles what I see as intrinsic features of simple boredom (idleness, inactivity), an experience that is palpable in its suspension of narrative causality. But these seemingly undemanding sequences still convey a productive aesthetic experience. “Faced with duration not distraction”, writes Manohla Dargis (Dargis and Scott 2011), “your mind may wander”, but in “wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think”. Similarly, Karl Schoonover points out that art cinema “turns boredom into a kind of special work, one in which empty on screen time is repurposed, renovated, rehabilitated” (2012, 70–71). In this respect, the long and complex history of art cinema can be reconsidered in order to recover boredom as a productive and even virtuous emotion, one that fosters creativity, generates insight and amplifies receptiveness. Indeed, slow cinema is situated at the tail end of this historical trajectory as a more concentrated subset of art cinema because its most salient formal features, namely a resolute application of the long take and an unwavering representation of dead time, play a central role in transforming boredom into an aesthetically rewarding experience. But what exactly are these aspects of style that produce boredom in the spectators? How do they relate to narrative and how do they function? The next section will answer these questions by presenting several examples from Ceylan’s Distant and an in-depth analysis of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

4.5 Virtues of the Long Take in Distant and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This section aims to substantiate the arguments presented above by focusing strictly on the formal aspects of the aforementioned films, with an emphasis on framing, duration, lighting and depth of focus. The overarching purpose in exercising this close analysis is to establish boredom as a productive aesthetic strategy, which Ceylan, along with other slow cinema directors, puts into practice in order to stimulate a mode of spectatorship based on contemplation, insight, revelation and creative interpretation. I argue in this analysis that through an overt foregrounding of film style and duration that temporarily pauses plot progression, Ceylan distracts his viewers from the habitual concerns of the narrative as a whole and invites a closer inspection of its formal parameters (the décor, the setting, the edges of the frame), which eventually unveil hidden and deeper truths regarding the story world or the nature of storytelling in general. This argument, then, harks back to my preliminary observation regarding slow cinema, that it is a mode of narration based on an intensified application of film style, favouring mood and atmosphere over plot. In addition to an examination of stylistic features, I will also investigate the narrative form and the thematic structures of the films in order to demonstrate the various incarnations of the different types of boredom.

As I have argued in earlier sections, Ceylan’s films were initially unsuccessful in their national reception because they employed unusual narrative structures and stylistic decisions. The films represented a clear break from Turkish popular cinema in terms of the dedramatization of the plot as an organizing principle within the narrative. Influenced by the works of Anton Chekhov, Ceylan’s stories revolve around situations, moods and mental states while the progression of events and the cause-effect links between them are neglected. Weaving together ordinary, everyday situations, Ceylan establishes long sequences of silence enhanced by the use of elliptical editing, subtle sound designs, fixed camera angles, still frames and dead time. Descriptive pause and the long take are the main components of activating boredom as a receptive state of mind, largely because both devices allow for mind wandering through establishing idleness. You will recall from Chapter  2 that descriptive pause is a category of narrative tense that describes moments in the film when the story action stops but narration continues. In other words, despite the pause in story events and plot progression, the act of storytelling proceeds, chiefly through its narrative discourse. The definitive examples I ascribed in that chapter to the descriptive pause are largely from Béla Tarr films, in which action is literally paused despite slow camera movements and droning sound effects. However, in Ceylan’s films the descriptive pause functions figuratively, in the sense that despite the continuation of physical action (e.g. characters walking or standing), these instances do not relate to the story structure or advance any plot progression. Rather, these empty moments that slow down and pause plot developments are preoccupied with projecting the mental states of the characters by throwing the audience into a suspended feeling of time. In other words, they embody typical features of the slow cinema tradition: stillness or monotonous movement, pointless dialogue or absolute silence, atmosphere instead of event, and most importantly, a systematic and careful application of the long take with the purpose of reducing narrative pace. With the use of deep -focus cinematography, these sequences use composition to obfuscate the actions and spatial orientation of characters. In some scenes various objects occupy the foreground of the image, eclipsing characters or important moments in the background. In many ways, such an austere representation of action tests narrative intelligibility and, in Ceylan’s case, the inactivity of the characters becomes revelatory in the sense that the spectators begin to build up, develop or imagine character traits and question whether there is another meaning beyond what they see in the image.

Let us begin with several examples from Ceylan’s Distant. The first example takes place immediately after İstanbul is caught up in a snowstorm. Yusuf has finally managed to enter Mahmut’s apartment and reveals his intention of finding work on international commercial ships. He tells Mahmut that the following day he will go to the docks and talk to the officials to get more information. On the next day, İstanbul is covered with snow and along with Yusuf we experience the city through various images and sounds. This remains one of the most memorable sequences in the film, both visually and sonically, and it shows the ways in which Ceylan plays with visually stunning images edited together with ambient sounds. The emotional tone of the film suddenly takes on an eerie quality, with a particular emphasis on sounds coming from the ships passing through the Bosphorus, whose tonal qualities are modified to such a degree that they become a sort of ambient music—aspects of sound editing and design that, as we saw earlier, were completely ignored in previous forms of Turkish cinema. As soon as the snow is introduced as part of the setting, a loosely connected series of images in and around the city dominates the film’s narrative structure. In these sequences the progression of plot slows down, until Yusuf enters the docks and begins inquiring about jobs. The film temporarily abandons plot progression in this sequence to capture the urban rhythms through unusual images such as the bent ship that dominates most of the screen. In a city known for its chaotic pace, the sudden snow abruptly interrupts the very essence of the city itself and introduces a calm and idyllic nature. Later on, Ceylan insistently portrays his characters gazing at both each other and the city through a window, with no complementary dialogue or plot element. These ephemeral depictions slow down the plot time as well as the spectator’s experience of the film, allowing for contemplation instead of building causal links between individual moments.

Another example of Ceylan displacing conventional forms of narrative structure is the scene in which Yusuf and Ebru wait for the janitor to pick up a package for Mahmut. This uncomfortable waiting within the apartment building is shown through an initial establishing shot from the end of the corridor. The janitor walks downstairs to pick up the package and leaves Yusuf alone with Ebru, who stand still inside the outer doors of the apartment building (Fig. 4.1). The framing emphasizes their vertical stillness parallel to the doors in the background, whereas the extended duration of the shot places further emphasis on the diagonal and circular shapes of the stairs, against which Yusuf casually leans, presumably with the hope of hooking up a conversation with Ebru. But that conversation never takes place and the uncomfortable silence between the two is made prominent by the automatic dimming of the lights (Fig. 4.2), at which point Ceylan cuts to close -ups of both characters, illuminated dramatically by the natural light sweeping into the corridor: Yusuf continues to ogle Ebru, but she keeps looking outside, indifferent to Yusuf’s passive aggressive manoeuvres, albeit with a quick glimpse in his direction. It is indeed a scene about waiting: both in terms of what the characters are experiencing and of our spectatorial position. How long will Yusuf remain silent? When will he find the courage to strike up a conversation? Such questions might linger in our minds, while Ceylan defamiliarizes what initially appears to be a banal and uncomfortable moment of boredom.
Fig. 4.1

Distant: Yusuf and Ebru wait for the janitor

Fig. 4.2

Distant: Yusuf and Ebru continue waiting in the dark

A secondary function of the dimming lights is their pictorial reference to the stylized nature of tableaux vivants , in this case captured in silhouette through a relatively extended duration. Previous to his filmmaking career, Ceylan was already praised for his immaculate photography, and his grounding in composition, expressive lighting and still life informed much of his work. Indeed, the static posture of two loners waiting in an empty corridor is heightened not only by their elusive gazes but by the dramatic lighting, which is facilitated through staging and temporality—in other words, the lights turn off only when they have waited long enough, as the switch has a fixed duration. The scene finally comes to an end with the janitor turning the lights back on and returning the parcel, but the whole scene emphasizes still life, inactivity and dead time. The aesthetic effect of such a use of duration is the emergence of what Mieke Bal calls “sticky images: images that hold the viewer, enforcing an experience of temporal variation. They enforce a slowing down as well as an intensification of the experience of time” (Bal 2000, 80). The bulk of the examples Bal cites as sticky images are contemporary sculptures and installations that have conceptual roots in tableux vivants, which foreground an awareness of temporality and render the act of looking palpable through an emphasis on the ephemerality of the artwork itself, essentially through the use of transient materials or composition. As a historical reference in painting, however, Bal turns to Caravaggio, who “allegedly destroyed painting by disrupting narrative”—namely by pausing the narrative action in favour of contrast, texture and colour—and whose “narrative dimension derives from its appeal to an interaction with the viewer; to its own processing in time” (2000, 80–81; see also Bal 1999). In other words, pausing narrative progress envelops viewers in a different state of perception, one that enables them to participate in the construction of meaning and negotiate the role and function of visual style.

While this scene demonstrates the ways in which Ceylan uses the descriptive pause to attain an aesthetic experience based on components of boredom, it also highlights how such sequences establish borderline cases between narrative and non-narrative forms. By eliminating causality, progression and development, these sequences move towards a different engagement with the spectator: not only are the exact feelings of the characters clouded by the film’s deliberate concealment but the sequences try to project the precise idleness and apprehension that underpin the characters’ mental states. In other words, these sequences duplicate in the spectator the feeling of boredom experienced by the characters, by depicting the very moments of boredom though a visual style that simulates boredom. But how is this experience of boredom creative, insightful or productive? In the remainder of this section I will demonstrate this aspect of the descriptive pause fully by arguing for slow cinema’s ability to transform boredom (that which specifically results from slowness, idleness or lack of engagement) into a heightened sense of perceptivity, in which compositional elements of the image elicit mind wandering.

The peculiar connection between boredom and creativity takes on a different shape in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Boredom is frequently treated as a central theme across the film’s narrative structure. For example, there is considerable emphasis on moments of simple boredom faced by the main characters. Both the prosecutor (Nusret, played by Taner Birsel) and the doctor (Cemal, played by Muhammer Uzuner) are disaffected with the mundane tasks of police inquiry and are expressively fed up with drifting from one location to another in search of the crime scene, waiting for the perpetrators to identify the burial site. Moreover, Nusret and Cemal experience typical notions of existential boredom. Nusret is emotionally torn by the recent and mysterious death of his wife. He anonymously recounts this story to Cemal (which implies his refusal to admit responsibility) and dismisses the doctor’s suggestion that the wife committed suicide in order to punish her husband. Later on, Nusret finds Cemal’s alternative scenario plausible, but instead of coming to terms with reality, becomes further disturbed and remorseful. Similarly, Cemal is a character who is being held in the provinces against his will, presumably carrying out his national service as a medical professional.5 However, his boredom is not only related to the time-bound simple boredom commonly associated with the stasis of provincial life. Rather, he seems to be disaffected with a kind of boredom that runs deeper, independent of time and space, perhaps due to incidents that took place in his past. More important, his boredom is related to his inability to exercise his free will against his entrapment in the provinces.

Far beyond its function within the narrative level, boredom can also be discerned as an aesthetic strategy through which the film displaces narrative intensity in favour of suspending its narrative progression . Once Upon a Time in Anatolia achieves this effect through a blend of repetition within its narrative structure and its long takes designed as frames-within-frames. For example, the first half of the film portrays the investigation in its various stages, but there is little difference between the sequences. Most of these scenes are depicted in long shots with no intimate access to the subjectivity of the characters, a dedramatization strategy that is distancing, but also immersive in its impressive cinematography and lighting effects. Moreover, long takes depict more or less the same action in different circumstances, relegating the truth quest of the characters to a banal and monotonous activity. The on-location investigation scenes are also connected by sequences that take place within the car, which largely interrupt and abandon the story action. In many ways these interludes and deviations from the story and the film’s narration indicate that there is an interest in another kind of truth, perhaps an allegorical or poetic truth beyond everyday realities, which can be scrutinized only through a narration that resonates with the monotony of boredom.

The film’s critical reception confirms these claims about the narration. J. Hoberman, for instance, describes the film as “an epistemological murder mystery”, which “invites the viewer to meditate on the nature of truth or basis of knowledge” (2012). Film critic Senem Aytaç sees the function of the dead body as similar to that of a Hitchcockian Macguffin, in other words a distraction from the actual truth quest of the film, and claims that the film is in fact not concerned with illuminating the murder or the murderer’s identity but instead aims at unveiling the power struggle and social hierarchy that deeply characterizes Turkish provincial life (2011, 28–31). The role of the police procedure is central to this argument. According to Geoff Andrew, as the “futile investigation proceeds, Ceylan uses it as the framework for a richly quizzical meditation on a range of themes” and probes a variety of existential questions (2012, 28). The film constructs its plot in such a way that its subtle revelations appear to possess a close affinity to boredom as an aesthetic experience. In other words, the film creates an atmosphere of boredom in which, through “a slow and languorous rhythm”, the realities of the everyday remain as fleeting as they are in real life. “A police investigation is a sound movement, […] a dialectic: the quest for truth in a concrete and common expression, where it is innocently at work”, said the French director Bruno Dumont, another important but often overlooked figure of slow cinema. For Dumont , “the discovery doesn’t really matter. What counts is the movement: looking” (quoted in Rosenbaum 2000), or in other words, films focusing on the police procedural work only insofar as they evade rational explanations of events and instead emphasize the investigation and looking as structural metaphors for a truth quest.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia visually embodies aspects of this voyeuristic activity through a systematic use of frame -within-frames. On three specific occasions, Ceylan uses the cinema-window analogy not only to draw attention to the processes of looking but to emphasize our inability to grasp what lies beneath by holding the shots for minutes on end with no noticeable change. These scenes contain little action and lack story development, in effect creating temporal gaps for contemplation through an oblique, yet motivated arrangement of mise-en-scène and camerawork. In this respect, the frame -within-frames function in moving the viewer away from the banal and allow an engagement with an ephemeral, sublime truth, while the narration frequently undermines conventional notions of narrative causality and obfuscates important plot points.

The opening scene of the film provides the first of my examples. The camera slowly tracks towards a hazy window, rendering objects on the other side of the glass out of focus and extremely blurry (Fig. 4.3). Moments later, the focal depth slowly adjusts to the space inside the room and only through a sharp image we realize that the two suspects and the future victim are socializing. Here, the narration achieves precisely what the viewer is going through. The change in focal depth sharpens the image at the end of the scene and provides more information for us, but without completely revealing the role of the actors (and indeed, we retrospectively understand what had happened in the scene). A similar play in focal depth is repeated across the film in two other moments and signify the way in which the viewer is unable to arrive at a truthful conclusion regarding how the events have unfolded, emphasizing our inability to fully access the information concerning the murder and the investigation.
Fig. 4.3

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Opening shot of an unsanitary window

This is perhaps best exemplified in the scene prior to the location in which the characters finally find the burial ground. Preceding this discovery is a long take where the camera is placed inside the car, behind the steering wheel, doubling the cinematic frame with the front of the car (Fig. 4.4). The shot is held for a couple of minutes on the landscape ahead, while raindrops continue landing on the windscreen. Although the focal depth is arranged in such a way as to illuminate the other side of the window the constant raindrops temporarily blur the image we see, at least in the moments where the window is not swiped clean. In short, the whole camera setup is designed in such a way as to evoke a partial comprehension of whatever reality unfolds right in front of us. As soon as we are able to notice a clear image, the raindrops immediately obscure the image further. As such, similar to the example earlier, the frame-within-the-frame literally represents our relationship to the film’s plot. Although we receive information, we never quite grasp the reality and the information flow remains fleeting, temporary, perhaps causing frustration on the part of the spectator.
Fig. 4.4

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Raindrops on the windscreen occlude our perception of the landscape

The fact that this imagery is presented right before the moment of discovery is crucial as it also foregrounds our inability to fully grasp some of the future developments. There are two important questions regarding the story in the film, both of which remain unanswered. First, we question whether the suspects have really committed murder. The policemen find the main suspect’s confession satisfying, but the younger brother’s culpable emotional breakdown implies otherwise and the narration does not revisit this possibility. Secondly, during the autopsy, Cemal’s assistant finds sand in the victim’s lungs, suggesting that the victim was buried alive. Cemal, however, inexplicably refuses this conclusion and excludes it from the final report, without showing any obvious rationale. This development is surprising, because earlier in the film Cemal was established as someone dedicated to an objective truth, not least because he is practising medicine but more so through his conversations with the policemen. In these dialogues Cemal disapproves the superstitious remarks made by the policemen, defending the necessity for medical diagnosis and autopsy in determining causes of illness and death. Initially portrayed as a diligent doctor, Cemal’s final concealment is all the more surprising to the spectator: not only do we not get a definitive answer as to who has really committed the murder, we are also not given any clue as to why the doctor does not fully report the apparent truth.

The film ends with an image that visually epitomizes this uncertainty, once again through a frame-within-the-frame composition that reflects a clouded vision of the world outside. In this image, however, our inability to see outside the window is caused by an oversaturated light rather than an incongruity in focal depth (Fig. 4.5). The overexposed image literally disables our perspective in looking at the landscape outside and implies that the viewer is unable to arrive at a truthful conclusion in spite of the various pieces of information laid out earlier in the film. The remarkable similarity in the visual style with which the film begins and ends accentuates its parenthetical examination of Anatolian culture. Observing a similar visual pattern in the film’s Cannes press release, critic Vecdi Sayar (2011, 39–41) describes the film’s formal structure as portraiture instead of the traditionally story-driven narrative film and suggests a distant kinship to Turkish literary works such as Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu’s Yaban (The Stranger, 1932). The novel portrays the experiences of a stereotypical Republican subject, an enlightened individual (typically a doctor, teacher, or engineer), who travels to a remote Anatolian village with the purpose of educating its dwellers, but instead faces a compulsively backward environment totally indifferent to the Republican project of social edification (on that issue, see Karaömerlioğlu 2002). Another visual method that the film utilizes in creating such a portrait of Anatolia is its lingering use of extreme facial close-ups, which in the words of Fırat Yücel brings an “Antonioniesque touch to a Spaghetti Western convention”, hence the title of the film’s homage to Sergio Leone’s signature films Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), both of which similarly explore a subtler cultural reality while the main plotlines masquerade criminal procedures. For Yücel , the sustained gaze at these “rigid faces” reveals at the same time “a hidden fragility and disgrace” of a previously unseen Anatolian masculinity (2011, 1; my translation).
Fig. 4.5

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Closing shot of a window oversaturated with light

These examples underline our status as viewers, not only through frame compositions that illustrate the conditions of looking but through a unique narration foregrounding dead time, which distracts the viewer from the demands of the plot and conceal story information in ways that contradict the pleasures normally associated with cinema. Indeed, our position echoes an innocent bystander with no comprehensive grasp of the film’s narrative, just as Doctor Cemal becomes an outsider to his own life for his inability to command control over the investigation (or his free will), as poignantly conveyed in an eerie moment when his melancholic gaze meets the camera (Fig. 4.6).6 While it may appear frustrating, these reticent features, coupled with a particular use of imagery and staging, establish a state of mind that can best be characterized as boredom. In this respect, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia functions similarly to the group of films, which according to Richard Misek, albeit not literally, “bore to death”. For Misek , these films are “conscientious objectors to the time-killing strategies of dominant cinema” and thus are “profoundly ethical”, because they embrace “the fact that time is not under our control” (2010, 783). This point precisely relates to the scholarly work carried out by Karl Schoonover (2012) and Song Hwee Lim (2014), who concurrently assert slow cinema’s capacity to revalue temporality (or rather a sense of temporality that is both felt and invested in experiencing these artworks), in a manner that contradicts and “challenges conventional ideas about utility, productivity and labor” and thus functions politically (Lim 2014, 30). While I agree with these views, my focus here has largely been aesthetic, not political. In this respect, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia represents a kind of film that is designed with a mode of address that encourages idleness in order to allow a closer and more profound engagement with its themes and materiality. Nothing really happens in the scenes mentioned before, at least in the traditional sense, and that is exactly why such an undemanding presence of mise-en-scène and plot can initiate mind wandering. The elusive use of camerawork and mise-en-scène, therefore, invite the viewer to question and imagine the possibilities and motivations beyond the surface of the image, while their idleness may foster insightful, contemplative thinking. Elsewhere, Mark Le Fanu describes this contemplation as an “unmediated openness to the world”—a mode of revelatory seeing that is grounded in the “patient intensity of [the artist’s] gaze” (1997).
Fig. 4.6

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Doctor Cemal gazes towards the camera

I conclude this discussion by referring to another early interview with Ceylan. When asked whether his ordinary characters and everyday situations might alienate or bore his spectators, he answers: “In cinema, being boring and boring the spectator or not are not important. One can reach a deep and profound understanding through the experience of boredom. Films that have influenced me most are those I was bored most while watching them. But their affection, their influence emerges two or three days, even years after watching them” (2007, 102; my translation). Ceylan makes an implicit reference to directors such as Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films are historically perceived as pretentious or boring by mainstream media (see, most notably, Kois 2011). Yet, while the works of these filmmakers often baffled critics and spectators, they are now largely regarded as highly commended examples of modernist art cinema. In other words, the cultural value of such art films that used boredom as an aesthetic strategy have, over the course of history, matured into inflicting a more profound sense of aesthetic experience and artistic inspiration. There is, however, another critical attention attributed to these films by art cinema friendly critics, who label the cinematic experience as contemplative, meditative, hypnotic or mesmerizing (for an esoteric take on this issue, see Lopate 1998, who finds watching Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest [1951] spiritual and meditative, precisely for the reasons I have argued). These are modes of experiences that share a fundamental affinity with boredom, as I believe they all stress a suspended sense of temporality and idleness. Boredom is not only present at the narrative level of the films, in the sense that the characters are affected by that particular emotion; the filmmakers use it as an aesthetic strategy to fashion a very different mode of viewing, based on active participation, engagement and contemplation. As such, boredom is not merely a negative emotion and may attain positive functions, such as a source of artistic creativity or reflective viewing. Although it may remain an undesirable condition, boredom can also be seen an aesthetically rewarding experience, because its calm nature facilitates mind wandering that can lead to intermittent, yet insightful and productive mental activities. In this respect, boredom achieves a similar function to other aversive emotions, such as horror and disgust, and its application in slow cinema offers a radical, and at times, paradoxical reconsideration of our emotional attachment to moving images. If, across centuries, tragedy as a type of dramatic art based on human suffering has captivated audiences, then perhaps viewing artworks that elicit boredom can also arouse forms of aesthetic pleasure.

* * *

Filmmakers in the slow cinema tradition establish an international presence by negotiating local traditions with an aesthetic sensibility largely drawn from European art cinemas. Ceylan’s films cogently demonstrate this feature of slow cinema, because they represent a composite of Yeşilçam and art cinema traditions. On the one hand, Yeşilçam cinema is largely characterized by its low -budget production mechanisms that depict familiar narratives in an easily recognizable manner. While Ceylan’s films display certain filmmaking practices (artisanal mode of production) and narrative themes (clashes between different generations of a family or the urban and the provincial) originating from the Yeşilçam tradition, in a strictly aesthetic sense their deployment of the long take aesthetic and foregrounding of boredom are largely in defiance of established local cinematic conventions. Ceylan’s most successful films, Distant and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as I have demonstrated, are powerful examples of this adaptation of European art cinema aesthetics into a Turkish context. I argued that the use of boredom as an aesthetic strategy is the main element of this negotiation and hence provided a theory of boredom that emphasizes its idleness as a basis that fosters inspiration, insight and revelation through the psychological phenomenon known as mind wandering. Boredom is not a state of mind in which meaning is lost, but a stream of consciousness encouraged by the apparent idleness or lack of activity in the film and can potentially fuel an imaginative and ruminative mode of spectatorship.


  1. 1.

    Although the majority of scholars argue that Yeşilçam cinema was officially terminated, Engin Ayça argued in 1994 that “ Yeşilçam is not over but has changed its medium” (quoted in Arslan 2011, 247), suggesting that the very same aesthetic sensibility that defined Yeşilçam is now present in Turkish television serials. Given the enormous success and global spread of these serials since 1994, examining the aesthetic continuation of Yeşilçam in television could be a fruitful inquiry.

  2. 2.

    Many of the elective courses offered at this university eventually evolved into the Mithat Alam Film Centre, founded in 2000, an extremely influential institute for filmmakers and cinephiles alike, which is not only the closest thing to a Cinematheque in İstanbul but is an environment that fosters a rich film culture through its publication organ Altyazı (literally, Subtitle).

  3. 3.

    I should note here that for Turkish speakers the term özenti might evoke a negative, perhaps even offensive and demeaning, characterization of a cultural activity. I am not attempting to designate Ceylan’s films or the New Turkish Cinema movement as özenti. Rather, I claim that özenti , as a defining aspect of Yeşilçam cinema, has the potential to inform the ways in which art cinema in Turkey relates to Western culture broadly speaking, in the sense that there is, implicitly, a “desire” to be like the other—an other who is perceived as more progressive and innovative. Indeed, this is all the more relevant given that culture in Turkey has been going—and continues to go—through a crisis of identity. In this respect, the intention here is not to challenge the originality of the films, nor to relegate them to purely imitative works.

  4. 4.

    Numbers sourced from, accessed October 31, 2017, a website that collates Turkish box-office statistics. Unfortunately these records begin only in 2006, so earlier numbers were approximated from journalistic sources.

  5. 5.

    It is worth noting here that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was adapted from the real-life experiences of a doctor, Ercan Kesal, Ceylan’s co-scriptwriter, who takes on a cameo role as the muhtar. Kesal spent years in an Anatolian province carrying out his national service as a qualified doctor and witnessed a similar series of events, in which he and other government officials set out in search of a dead body during a whole night. Much of this main arch-story was complemented with quotes from and allusions to the stories of Anton Chekhov and a poem by Mikhail Lermontov. See Andrew (2012).

  6. 6.

    Onur Civelek (2011) notes that these photographs are from the series The Country Doctor (1948), shot by W. Eugene Smith, in which he shadowed a real US country doctor, Dr. Ernest G. Ceriani, in his daily tasks. Civelek considers this more than a basic reference to Ceylan’s previous profession: not only is Dr. Ceriani an alter-ego model for Cemal, but this is an indication that Cemal is becoming a spectator himself, just like us watching the film, and although he tries to convince himself otherwise by keeping the photograph on his desk, he has succumbed to being a permanent spectator by accepting provincial mores.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Emre Çağlayan
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Arts and CulturesNewcastle UniversityNewcastle Upon TyneUK

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