Turkish film-maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Photo: Morteza Atabaki
Turkish film-maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Photo: Morteza Atabaki

With his new film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan takes stock of Turkey’s future

In Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'The Wild Pear Tree', the young hero follows his dreams to become a writer but, as Ceylan says, it's difficult to be a writer today, as many are finding out in Turkey

Nuri Bilge Ceylan made two big decisions before he began shooting his new film last year. First, the Turkish film-maker abandoned an existing project for an entirely different one. Next, he took the unusual step of changing the central character of the new film, from a retired schoolteacher to a young graduate. This was a significant call because it altered Ceylan’s narrative philosophy of engaging more mature characters to look at the world.

‘The Wild Pear Tree’ tells the story of young Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), who goes home to the countryside after graduating from an Istanbul college.
‘The Wild Pear Tree’ tells the story of young Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), who goes home to the countryside after graduating from an Istanbul college.

In The Wild Pear Tree, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Ceylan doesn’t recast his by now successful approach of endless dialogue over several hours. At 3 hours and 8 minutes, The Wild Pear Tree is 8 minutes shorter than his previous film, Winter Sleep (which won the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival), but it could have been longer. “The script is much longer than Winter Sleep," Ceylan tells me at the media terrace at Cannes, overlooking the calm Mediterranean Sea. “The first cut was 5 hours."

The Wild Pear Tree tells the story of young Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), who goes home to the countryside after graduating from an Istanbul college. Ceylan portrays the countryside as a boundless place of exile where dreams and destinies collide.

Wearing a T-shirt and combat trousers, Ceylan looks more like a Galatasaray football club coach than one of the finest film-makers in contemporary cinema. He was reluctant to talk to the press, keeping journalists guessing until the last day of the festival. “I don’t like giving interviews," he confesses to the handful of journalists from around the world who had gathered at a few hours’ notice. The unwillingness is evident when an Israeli film critic asks him about the situation in his country. “Turkey is a beautiful country," he says, before breaking into a big grin.

But he doesn’t hold back. “In Turkey, it is not an easy situation, you know," he continues after a pause. “It is quite strict, there is no free media, no free judiciary. And it is a country where the people you should be proud of are in jail." It is obvious he is referring to the detention of writers and journalists on charges of support to the failed coup two years ago. Turkey, which goes to the polls on 24 June, is under international pressure after clamping down on its citizens for dissent. In February, 38 Nobel laureates, including writers V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Mario Vargas Llosa, J.M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, wrote an open letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, demanding that the country restore full freedom of speech and expression.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s image of the well is fascinating and dark. “If someone killed a person, the body was taken to a well and dumped. Wells are a mystery for me, like cemeteries. When someone starts a sentence saying, ‘Well,’ I instantly get frightened.”
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s image of the well is fascinating and dark. “If someone killed a person, the body was taken to a well and dumped. Wells are a mystery for me, like cemeteries. When someone starts a sentence saying, ‘Well,’ I instantly get frightened.”

Significantly, Ceylan’s young protagonist in The Wild Pear Tree is a writer who is at odds with society. With Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan has found a tranquil way to talk about the toughest things. Aided by a static camera, the characters in Winter Sleep sat and discussed their troubles in the unforgiving cold of Anatolia. In his new film, there are two imams ceaselessly conversing about Islam and its interpretations. Ceylan agrees it is not easy to pepper a film with never-ending conversations. “Dialogue is very risky, very difficult, especially this kind of philosophical dialogue," he explains. “In theatre it is okay, just listening to Chekhov and Shakespeare is enough. But it doesn’t work in films easily."

Ceylan, who made his feature debut in 1998 with The Small Town, about the relationship between members of a provincial Turkish family, has in recent films attempted to apply the same “taste and joy" he found in theatre and staged dialogue to cinema. “I like to watch long films with more dialogue, more difficult dialogue," he says.

The international acclaim for his films like Three Monkeys (2008) and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2011), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, brought a confidence that enabled him to do what he wanted. After the screening of the 196-minute Winter Sleep at Cannes in 2014, the person in the next seat told me she would have sat for 5 hours if the film were that long.

I ask him why well-digging is a prominent theme in his new film. “The well is the kind of thing which was very important in my childhood," recalls Ceylan, who lived as a young boy in the countryside in Çanakkale province, where The Wild Pear Tree is shot. “Everybody had a well in the region in those days and it was very important." His image of the well is fascinating and dark. “If someone killed a person, the body was taken to a well and dumped. Wells are a mystery for me, like cemeteries. When someone starts a sentence saying, ‘Well,’ I instantly get frightened."

When I ask Ceylan about his life in the Himalayas as a 26-year-old, he becomes nostalgic. “After studying electrical engineering in Istanbul, I went to London and worked as a waiter. I realized I didn’t want to work as an engineer. But the main thing was, I didn’t know what to do in life. I was going to the bookshops in London and reading a lot of books. One day, I came across a book on Nepal. And I thought, maybe if I go to Nepal, that is a better aim. I needed to create an aim for myself, because living aimless was horrible."

Ceylan worked odd jobs in Nepal in the mid-1980s. “But it didn’t change anything," he laughs. It did, however, give him a goal. “I was sitting in a temple one day, looking at the mountains with an empty mind," he says. At that precise moment, he took a decision which would change his life forever. “Suddenly, I decided to go back to Turkey and join the military service. It was a changing factor. In the military service, I read a lot of books, saw the mosaic of my country in soldiers from all over Turkey. And I decided to make films." In The Wild Pear Tree, the young hero too follows his dreams to become a writer. But, as Ceylan says, it is difficult to be a writer today, as many are finding out in his country.

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