Letters from Turkey (1): “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” & “Pomegranate”

In this section of the blog, the topics vary from classical music to cinema or from Turkish media to education, technology and travel. In this very first “letter” from Turkey, I would like to draw your attention to the following two recent films from Turkish cinema, comment on them and do some brainstorming on what these films can tell us about ourselves.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia” Is A Real Gem In Turkish Cinema: Three years after receiving the Best Director Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for his “Three Monkeys”, internationally acclaimed Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan certainly receives all the praise and applause again with his new masterpiece “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”.

After a short pre-credit sequence showing three men drinking, the film makes us part of a quest in the Anatolian plain at night. The convoy of vehicles carries some police officers, a few gendarmes, the prosecutor, the doctor, two gravediggers and the two murder suspects (remember the three men drinking in the pre-credit sequence). The suspects are expected to show the police the place where the dead body is buried. Contrary to what has been initially thought of, the quest takes a long time in the darkness of the night since the suspects seem to have difficulty identifying the place of the buried corpse. The quest is in the dark. So are the characters – both literally and metaphorically. Upon the arrival of the morning, the story starts unfolding and the film reaches its conclusion. Darkness and light are, therefore, loaded symbols the audience needs to ponder upon in their interpretation of what happens in Ceylan’s film.

What makes “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia” an inspiring and rewarding film is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s unique directorial talent. He knows how to depict “us”. He knows how to reveal, in a very elegant manner, what is hidden in “us”. While the officers are trying to locate the corpse, all the characters in the film actually locate what is hidden or repressed in themselves or in the communities in which they are living. The police officer, the doctor or the prosecutor… they all have something they need to face during and after the quest. At the end of the night or at the end of the quest, can they all look inside? Can they all open up? Can they all sort out ethical dilemmas?

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s minimalist filmmaking makes Once Upon A Time In Anatolia deeper and richer and more satisfying. The film is long but never boring. It is definitely not for everyone’s taste. However, for those who choose to stay with the film, it is truly pure cinema. Ceylan’s “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, like his previous films, avoids giving clear-cut answers or explanations. It is the audience’s responsibility to form opinions and come up with their answers. Therefore, the conclusion of the film is also open to different readings. The medical examiner’s autopsy at the end of the film is like symbolic autopsies of the film’s characters and of a country – at the macro level.

I would strongly recommend Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia” to the readers of this blog. This art-house film is definitely a lesson on filmmaking. It is also like a mirror for us to look into and understand ourselves. The DVD of the film has English subtitles and is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Ümit Ünal Pokes Us: In addition to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, the second film I would like to highlight is Ümit Ünal’s “Pomegranate” (Turkish title: “Nar”). It is a one-location low-budget movie whose magic can envelop you from the very first moment. The success of the film lies in its director’s honest and plain filmmaking, in the performance of the four-people cast and in the dialogues.

The title “Pomegranate” is a loaded word keeping everything about the film in it. We Turks are like the seeds of a pomegranate. As the director puts it in his own words, “we are both similar and distinct yet we are still like a whole pomegranate. It is the crust of faith that keeps us together, the faith that we have for each other.”

What happens if the pomegranate is smashed and the seeds are all scattered around? What causes the crust of the pomegranate to crack? These are some of the questions the film encourages its audience to think about. (Well, at the very beginning of the film, the following words highlight the director’s intention to “poke” his audience: “Don’t poke the pomegranate within me because I am wearing a white shirt”)

Ümit Ünal’s film is full of surprises; it is like a puzzle. I intentionally avoid giving any details regarding the story to let you fully enjoy the experience. Ümit Ünal’s cracking the pomegranate is like an experiment demonstrating how we lose all our belief systems, our sense of justice, how we feel that we need to seek our own justice when the system fails to respond to us positively, and what consequences this would bring about. It is an experiment that shows how intolerance for others and polarization in the society can cause “the pomegranate ” to get cracked. It is an experiment that shows how each of the four people with a different belief system considers his or his belief system to be the right one, how these four people are pushed to question themselves and each other. It is an experiment that highlights the importance of the conscience.

“Pomegranate” certainly deserves attention