May 6, 2015 / Perspective, The Sundance Issue
Is there value in exploring the lives of sex offenders, regardless of how heartbreaking and difficult this exploration might be?
There’s a scene in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Distant that most moviegoers will relate to. At the end of a long day, a man slumps onto his comfy chair and turns on a movie. It’s a slow-moving, challenging art film by Andrei Tarkovsky (cinephiles will recognize it as Stalker). The man watches it for a while, then loses patience and puts in a porn flick.
Okay, most moviegoers probably wouldn’t stick in a porn movie. But it’s likely that all of us, at one time or another, feel that impatience, that shortage of attention and energy to invest ourselves in fine art when we’d really rather just be entertained. Perhaps we’d switch to Late Night with David Letterman, or a video game, or the news … something fast-moving, flashy, easy-to-read.
For Ceylan’s central character, Mahmut (played with brusque indifference by Muzaffer Ozdemir), this is not just an occasional incident. It’s more like a disease gaining power over someone who was once intellectual, engaged, and alive. And Ceylan seems to suggest that this condition is tied to the spread of Western Civilization and its technology and economy.
Distant is set in present-day Istanbul, where it follows the decline of an intellectual and an artist into laziness, apathy, and an insulated existence that is disrupted by the arrival of his unemployed cousin. The film is full of insight, breathtaking cinematography, intuitive performances, brilliant sound design, and unconventional narrative twists. But, like the central character himself, moviegoers are likely to steer clear of this film because it asks us to do the opposite of what most of us want to do when we watch a movie… it asks us to think things through. Those willing to meet the challenges of Ceylan’s masterful work, however, will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience. It’s not the kind of movie that you leave the theatre raving about or getting back in line for a second viewing. It’s the kind that haunts you, and many days later you may find yourself unable to shake questions about it, so that eventually you’re drawn back for another exploration of its spacious silences, its mysteries, and its confounding characters.
The thing about Mahmut—he appreciates fine art. In fact, he’s gained some status and renown as an art photographer. So how has it come to this… that, to avoid embarrassment, he only engages in it when others are looking on?
The answer, it seems, has something to do with leisure. And leisure has come from the success of his commercial photography. Mahmut is stuck in the doldrums of distraction. The reputation he earned in days of inspiration has won him a circle of intellectual friends, and while he’s still up for some heated debate over drinks with them, he grows irritable when they speak up about his decline into mere commercial photography. His passion for artmaking has been replaced by a stagnation brought on, it seems, by consumerism. The instant gratification now available to him through media and technology seems to have short-circuited his more resilient, questing spirit. Instead of embarking on artistic investigations, he merely satiates shallow appetites with cheap sex and superficial pleasures. He keeps to himself, except when desire drives him to intimacy in the form of a business transaction. We see him sitting on the edge of his bed, his heart a blank, as an out-of-focus hooker rises and leaves. Surprised at his desk by his houseguest, he quickly adjusts his computer monitor, probably to conceal a certain sort of Web surfing.
But it’s not mere laziness that’s paralyzed him. There’s also been a trauma—his slow realization that he bears some responsibility for the collapse of his marriage. In one scene, he follows his wife, clearly desperate and dismayed at the way she’s slipping from his life, but he seems paralyzed to do anything about it. He watches her through barriers, a world of glass and reflections, easily within shouting distance but made to look half a world away. Lady Macbeth washed her hands obsessively, unable to wash murder off her conscience; unable to face his own withdrawal from engagement with the world and from the marriage he now misses, Mahmut tidies his apartment methodically. Something as small and disorderly as a mouse in the apartment becomes a threat to his sanity.
Mahmut’s houseguest is having his own problem with engaging the culture around him, but not for lack of trying. Purposeful and anxious, Mahmut’s burly cousin Yusuf (Mehmet Demin Toprak) has come to the big city from the country, looking for work in the shipyards after his factory closed down. Undaunted by the lack of advertised openings, he spends his days lurking sullenly around the snow-smudged piers, more than willing to strike up conversations with complete strangers. While Mahmut has no patience for movies in which travelers ride trains and watch the countryside roll by, Yusuf lives out that very scene, riding the bus and scanning the landscape for an opportunity. He may be slovenly and brutish, but he’s interested in female companionship, drawn by a yearning that’s more innocent and substantial than lust.
Will Yusuf get a chance to talk to the woman he’s spotted on the street? Will there be an opening for relationship, for work, for the money he desperately needs so he can bring it back home? Or will Mahmut, fed up with the chaos that Yusuf leaves in his wake, lose patience with him and evict him?
Most American directors would have made these unfriendly housemates the subject of slapstick comedy, playing up their intolerance for each other’s habits. In a sentimental climax, they would suddenly recognize their weaknesses, reconcile, and live happily ever. There would be a lot of sarcastic sparring, perhaps competition for a woman. In Distant, Mahmut and Yusuf say very little to each other; in fact, they hardly speak at all. They’re brought together only in a few uncomfortable clashes—when Mahmut’s obsessive mouse-trapping finally catches something (a scene that starkly contrasts their characters), when Yusuf gets an upsetting phone call, and when Mahmut loses something important to him. Ceylan isn’t interested in playing to audience expectations, nor is he interested in helping these lost souls get found. He’s interested in their disillusionment, their detachment, their differing despondency. He’s asking us a question: What is this alienation creeping into my once-passionate existence?
The conclusion may, in fact, confound and frustrate viewers accustomed to resolution. If there is any closure in Distant, it is to be found in the smallest of gestures, a willingness to partake in something previously despised, an appreciation of something only after it has passed, one man’s willful taste of something from the other’s world. Perhaps repeated viewings will reveal further resolution in Distant’s enigmatic final shot. That’s the value of a work like this—it is the kind of art with which you develop a dynamic relationship, something you digest and by which you are nourished, not something you merely consume.
There is a rare quality to Distant that moviegoers only learn to recognize with practice—a sense that the storyteller is searching for something instead of trying to appease the audience or persuade them of something. It’s the poetic sensibility that characterizes the timeless masterpieces of works by Tarkovsky, Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. Ceylan’s camerawork echoes Bergman in the precision of its positioning, and it moves only when absolutely necessary to bring more essential information into the frame; thus, everything is imbued with severe significance. Here’s one of those rare directors who understands that cinema is primarily a visual medium, and that he can communicate just as much or more with images than with revealing banter.
We are often placed at intersections, where we see not only the large room Mahmut has to himself, but an adjoining corridor that only adds to his distance from other activity and life.
The film’s most memorable image consists of Yusuf walking along the shipyards, and the camera keeps pace, slowly revealing the object of Yusuf’s focused attention in the background: a tilting, grounded ship like the hulking carcass of some prehistoric monster, something of an era long past. It’s the most awe-inspiring, frightening, and strangely beautiful image this moviegoer saw onscreen all year. The other memorably riveting image is simple: a small animal, trapped, distraught. Both of these images pose the question: What does this have to do with Mahmut and Yusuf?
Ceylan also recalls Krzysztof Kieslowksi in that he has an inclination to ethical inquiries, which he accomplishes through subtle juxtapositions, like the sight of Mahmut setting up his cameras dispassionately in order to photograph Muslims intently worshipping in one of Istanbul’s mosques, or the clever shifts between Yusuf’s questing and Mahmut’s stasis. He’s fond of dividing the frame with the edge of a doorway or a window, so that we can see Mahmut floundering at his desk while Yusuf stares numbly out at the frigid cityscape on the balcony. Each instance of these contrasts is a question: What do they have in common? What is different about them? Is there hope for either of them? Will they ever connect?
But that sense of searching also comes from Ceylan’s tendency toward autobiography. Screenplay, direction, production, camerawork, editing—this is his work. Mahmut’s apartment is, in fact, Ceylan’s apartment. Earlier titles—The Small Town (1997), Clouds of May (2000)—received less notice and, thus, less acclaim. But he has revealed that these were based largely on his own experiences, and, in fact, he starred in The Small Town with his parents and cousin. It’s almost as if, by serving up distorted reflections of his own emotional territory, he has a chance as a voyeur to try and understand it himself. By distancing himself from it, perhaps he’ll gain the insight he desires.
Thanks to the film’s success at Cannes—it won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor awards for both Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Demin Toprak—the film played on screens in various U.S. cities this year, and now New Yorker Films is distributing Distant on DVD. Whether Ceylan’s cinematic search satisfies him or not, he is gaining a larger and appreciative audience that awaits his next work with great anticipation.
A colleague of mine excitedly offered another interpretation of the film’s title: Ceylan refuses to serve these characters up to us; he makes us come to them, and only the inquisitive and dedicated viewer who makes the effort to investigate and care about these men and their subterranean dilemmas will stand a chance of catching the gold rushing by in the stream of ponderous imagery. In this way, Ceylan both exposes a problem, implicates himself and us in that problem, and offers a route for addressing it. The world is cold, forbidding, lonely, and full of temptations that could draw us off the best path. But those who choose this less-traveled way of watching a movie, which requires discipline, desire, and some measure of selflessness, for them it will make all the difference.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.