Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film Distant (Uzak), his third feature film (his first was 1997’s black and white The Small Town [Kasaba]), is a significant step up from his good but flawed 1999 film Clouds Of May (Mayis Sikintisi).
The earlier film had potential, but reeked of a small budget and improvised quality in the worst ways — plot holes and wooden acting from amateurs. That Clouds Of May succeeded on any level was a testament to Ceylan’s talent as a budding filmmaker. However, Distant is Ceylan’s arrival on the international scene as a great artist, one who has many of the same qualities as other great filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman (although his screenplay is not as dialogue-heavy it is just as brooding, and he lacks Bergman’s penchant for close-ups; his shots are usually long shots for exteriors and medium shots for interiors) and Yasujiro Ozu (whose penetrating scenes of contemplation Ceylan reconfigures).
The bulk of the film takes place in snowy hibernal Istanbul (the fact that it snows in Turkey will likely surprise some), which lends the film a definite Bergmanian feel, as well as reminding one of some of the bleak snowy urban images from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. The natural images invoke the best of Werner Herzog; as they tend to go on a beat or two longer than standard film theory would dictate, which is what makes them even more memorable, while the urban landscapes range from the nearly Precisionist compositions of Michelangelo Antonioni to the cultural hagiography of Woody Allen. One shot of a bench overlooking water is a direct quotation (read "steal") from Manhattan, save the lack of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. In another scene, Ceylan similarly quotes a famous shot of a ship in the harbor from Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Yet, like all great artists, Ceylan makes his appropriations his own art, by slightly altering them and keeping them apropos to his own film’s needs.
The story of Distant is not so important as the title, which is very apt. The film follows a lonely intellectual commercial photographer named Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir, the filmmaker from Clouds Of May), who has "made it" in the big city of Istanbul, even though he is still hung up on his ex-wife, who has remarried. She is sterile because of an abortion she had when they were divorcing, likely due to his lack of commitment. He is not a loquacious type, and is somewhat prissy, and one day a younger distant relative of his, named Yusuf (Mehmet Demin Toprak, Ceylan’s real life cousin who died at 28 years of age in a car crash just after the film premiered), shows up from his hometown, and asks to stay with him while he looks for work aboard a ship. The hometown factory has laid him and his father off, and his family is in debt.
While there are some comic scenes which ensue, such as a subplot with a mouse, mouse glue strips, and mouse droppings – sort of a Turkish The Odd Couple - the film basically deals with how both of the main characters are defined by the film’s title. Mahmut does it with reclusion, with nothing left to say to the world, while Yusuf stalks attractive young women through the city, and is frightened to speak to them.
Yusuf is aimless, shifty, slovenly, and more than a bit lazy, while Mahmut is self-absorbed, imperious, and standoffish. Yet, both are recognizably human. Even more so than in Clouds Of May, Distant showcases Turkey as a modern country far more at home in the modern Western world than being linked to the Middle East, due to its dominant religion of Islam. The scenes of Istanbul in winter are a marvel, and almost every scene in the film radiates with beautifully composed shots that display a sense of depth and beauty for nature and the man-made world. Ceylan’s earlier career as a photographer shines through in spades.
One scene, where Yusuf applies for a job down at the docks, shows this huge ship lying on its side in the water. How it got that way, in real life or the film, does not matter. But it is a great metaphor for Yusuf’s and Mahmut’s existence — immobile and distorted. Another scene that aptly displays these two qualities in a both more cerebral and comic way is when, one night, Mahmut is watching cable TV and trying to appear the superior arty to the more naïve and bumpkinish Yusuf, he watches an Andrei Tarkovsky (another filmic influence) film, Solaris, with Yusuf in the room. Bored, Yusuf goes to sleep, and Mahmut switches to watch porno.
It is a scene like this, or the symbolism of the overturned ship, that represent Ceylan’s Great Leap upward from Clouds Of May. Distant is filled with shots that evoke silent German Expressionism. Barely a page of dialogue is uttered for the film’s first twenty minutes and the rest of the 105-minute film does not waste a word after that.
Like Ozu, Ceylan lets scenes play out in natural time. Yet, instead of a contrived feel, one senses that the camera eye has just arrived, moments before a natural epiphany. This is a key point that many bad writers and filmmakers, indeed all artists that practice narrative forms, often do not get. It’s not the length of a scene that matters, but the length of a scene relative to anything of narrative, symbolic, or developmental significance occurring. One can watch an Antonioni film go on for ten minutes, and be utterly entranced as nothing seems to occur. One can watch an Ozu scene play out for a while, merely showing the peeling of a vegetable, and be moved deeply by what that seemingly banal act represents. But, one can watch a Hollywood "thriller" or a Steven Spielberg sci-fi film, loaded with nonstop action, and be bored shitless.
Yet, even those critics who enjoy or praise the film often do not get it, labeling it something like Minimalist, without even truly knowing what the term means. Distant is the antithesis of Minimalist. It is suffused with detail, detail that arouses intense interest in seemingly throwaway things, something Minimalism does not do. Minimalism is not a synonym for minimal, used as an adjective. Minimalism is not suffused in detail, it lacks detail and focuses on the lack of detail to reveal something.
Things are detailed and do not occur: the pair go out on a shoot in the countryside, yet the jaded Mahmut is not even moved by natural splendor any longer; Yusuf trashes the apartment with booze and cigarets when Mahmut visits his ill mom at a hospital; and Mahmut moons over his ex-wife’s leaving for a life in Canada. The scene of Mahmut and Nazan (Zuhal Gencer) at a café, both still in love with each other, yet waiting for the other to say something, make the admission of love, yet neither does, is one of the great love scenes on film — even as it is 180° from a similar moment in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, where the two lovers give in to their desires.
The film’s ending comes rather abruptly, and over something small — a detail that again disproves the claim of Minimalism. Mahmut accuses Yusuf of stealing a silver pocket watch he recently used for a shoot. However, he does so by implication, not direct accusation. Yet when Mahmut finds that he has misplaced the watch, he does not tell Yusuf, and lets Yusuf feel accused and paranoid. Yusuf then takes off, but there is no goodbye scene. All we see are Yusuf’s keys to the apartment hanging on a hook — which shows that Ceylan has learnt much from Ozu’s use of narrative ellipses to hone in on the really important points of a story (something he earlier does in scenes with Mahmut’s girlfriend and mother). Mahmut then finds the cheap sailor cigarets that Yusuf smoked behind a couch pillow, and goes out for a walk near the Istanbul harbor, where he smokes them, as he looks out over the harbor, even though he earlier mocked Yusuf for his choice in brand. The final shot is a rare close-up of Mahmut’s craggy mien, staring off into nothingness.
This sort of ending is a deft and mature touch that Ceylan was incapable of in his earlier work. Like all great artists, he avoids being didactic and moralizing. Will either main character change? Likely not, even if they would in a standard Hollywood film. But why force a contrived Hollywood ending onto a great film about realistic characters who are so distant from their own selves that they are incapable of such solution? How often do most people just go on being themselves, despite events which might force rarer, deeper, more aware individuals to change their lives? Mahmut will, despite smoking Yusuf’s cigarets, likely grow lonelier and lonelier, as ennui takes a death grip over his remaining years, while Yusuf will simply just use his "forced" leaving of Mahmut’s apartment as another in a long line of excuses to fail — just as he used the factory’s closing to impose his anomic life on Mahmut.
Distant won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival — the Grand Prix for Best Film and the two lead actors shared the Best Actor Award. It is a truly universal film. Its Turkish setting is just where it plays out, but its machinations and characters could be anywhere and any time in the last two centuries. It also deftly avoids stereotyping Turkish culture as exotically foreign or Near Eastern.
Yet, it also has moments that appear only in great art. There are also two scenes that deal with hypnogogy and hypnopompy. While sleeping, Yusuf sees a small spark of light in the apartment, but falls back to sleep. While watching late night TV, Mahmut sees his tall lamp oddly fall to the floor in slow motion, without a sound. Neither of these scenes has a rational explanation, nor do they symbolize anything. Yet, they could very well be those moments of decision or change that neither character is capable of recognizing in their literal stupor, which masques for their waking life’s stupor. That they are in the film, bits of the irrational in the rational, again shows Ceylan’s maturity in being able to make that Keatsian leap of illogic that works on a deeper reptilian level. Such Negative Capability is the hallmark of an artist who has arrived to a mature phase with great talent.
The DVD was put out by New Yorker Video, and is rather spare in extra features. There is no audio commentary, a theatrical trailer, a long sequence of behind the scenes footage that is just a jumble, not a "making of" featurette. The two best features are Ceylan’s debut short film Cocoon (Koza) and a 35-minute interview with Ceylan. That all of Ceylan’s films are small budget affairs – Distant was made for under $100,000 – and use mainly amateur actors makes his great achievement all the more impressive. That he acts as not only director of his films, but as screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, and co-editor makes that achievement even more impressive.
Distant is a film whose title suffuses the characterization within the film and the feeling some viewers will have toward them, but it does not describe the film itself, for scenes stay with one long after the film ends.
Perhaps the most memorable scene and image of the film comes when Mahmut stalks his ex-wife at the Istanbul airport, and watches her with her new husband as they head to board the plane that will remove her from his life forever. As he watches her, from a distance, we see her catch just a glance of him watching her. Will she leave her husband and return to Mahmut? Not in this film. He pulls back behind a column, and Nazan merely turns her head back to her future. Mahmut is her past, and she knows how to best move on — just keep moving. Mahmut will never get it. Most rarely get such moments of insight into themselves or life. That some viewers will get the film, and that Ceylan gets his own powers of creation, shows that ignorance can teach, as long as one moves about it. Distant does, albeit at just the right length.