Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder. Continue reading “Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past”

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Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed

Orhan Pamuk’s <em>A Strangeness in My Mind</em>: the streets of Istanbul transformed

In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.
― Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind

Writing in a recent post about Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, with its central character a bus-driving amateur poet who closely observes the special in the mundane details of the city he inhabits, reminded me that I ought to write something about Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s latest, The Strangeness In My Mind. Read in December, it has as its central character an Istanbul street vendor through whom Pamuk weaves the tumultuous history of that city in the last half-century. Indeed, it carries the lengthy subtitle, ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 From Many Different Points of View’.  Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed”

Mustang: five free spirits corralled

<em>Mustang</em>: five free spirits corralled

School is out for the summer and five free-spirited teenage sisters head for the beach. Full of girlish exuberance, they splash in the sea with schoolboy friends. They swim, fight playfully, and clamber on the boys’ shoulders. We could be almost anywhere in the world, but this is a far-flung village on Turkey’s northern Black Sea coast, ‘a thousand kilometres from Istanbul’, and the teenage idyll is about to ‘turn to shit’, in the words of the youngest sister, Lale. Continue reading Mustang: five free spirits corralled”

EU migration policy: ‘immoral and unworkable’

EU migration policy: ‘immoral and unworkable’

This week EU leaders agreed a new deal on migrants with Turkey. At its heart is a ‘one in, one out’ agreement that will allow one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp to be resettled in the EU for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece. For non-Syrians, the route to Europe is entirely cut off.

Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council, has described the deal as a ‘breakthrough’ and ‘historic’. But in a new post on his Pandemonium blog, the writer and author of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, Kenan Malik calls it ‘immoral and unworkable’. His post offers a forthright analysis of the deal, and is reproduced below. Continue reading “EU migration policy: ‘immoral and unworkable’”

Winter Sleep: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian morality tale

Winter Sleep: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian morality tale

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin in Winter Sleep

The latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is Winter Sleep.  Earlier this year the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (his fourth award there). For us, a new offering from Ceylan, arguably the greatest director working currently, must be seen, whatever the circumstances.  At three and a quarter hours of almost constant dialogue, and in the torture chamber that is FACT Liverpool’s Box with its sofa seats that bear no relation to the human body, this made for a challenging experience.  But a deeply rewarding one.

Jane Campion, head of the Cannes jury, said that she Winter Sleep as ‘a Chekhov story where the characters torture each other’. Indeed, Ceylan has drawn upon one, possibly two, Chekhov short stories for his screenplay, in which his characters argue and needle each other without pause. Nevertheless, as Campion went on to state,the film has ‘a beautiful rhythm that draws you in’.  Every one of the film’s 196 minutes enthrals, totally.

The film opens in one of the memorable landscapes for which Ceylan’s films are known.  The camera pans across an otherworldly landscape of strange, honeycombed rock formations and wind-blown, grassy slopes before zooming in on the figure of a man in a long dark coat, hunched and deep in thought. He is soon revealed to be Aydin, a former actor, an intellectual with impeccable liberal views, who owns the Hotel Othello, which, like neighbouring dwellings, has been carved out of the wind-eroded rock formations.

Unlike Ceylan’s previous films, Winter Sleep takes place almost entirely indoors, with most of the film being insistently interior, in every sense of the word.  Before the opening titles, the camera slowly zooms in on the back of Aydin’s head, as if entering his mind, a shot which suggests immediately that this will be a film in which people argue about what’s going on in their heads – pretty much without a pause.  This just be the wordiest film ever:  if you aren’t Turkish you will have read the equivalent of a short story by the time the end credits roll.

Aydin (the name is apparently a pun in Turkish, sounding like ‘enlightened intellectual’) was once a celebrated actor who worked in Istanbul. He prides himself on ‘never having done soaps’ which turn out to be a joke inserted into the script at the expense of Haluk Bilginer who gives a superb performance as Aydin: Bilginer once starred, apparently, in EastEnders.

Aydin’s character is possibly based on Pavel Andreitch, the protagonist of Chekhov’s short story The Wife, in which Andreitch’s attempt to write a ‘History of Railways’ is disrupted when he receives a letter asking for financial help for peasants in a nearby village. At the beginning of Ceylan’s film, Aydin also gets a letter seeking his support for a local project. The letter has been written by a person who has read the regular column which Aydin writes for a local newspaper in which he expresses his liberal views, sometimes critical of the conservative influence of religion in neighbouring villages. Aydin is also attempting, without much success, to write the ‘History of Turkish Theatre’.

In outward appearance Aydin is a charming man who converses affably with the travellers who pass through his hotel, and offering hospitality to his house guests. Soon, however, it becomes evident that he is also self-satisfied, vain and deluded.  This is a man who never lifts a finger: he is forever summoning tea or coffee to be brought – usually by a woman.  He is also a big local landlord, having inherited from his father a portfolio of local properties, the homes of poor villagers.  This is a man who has others do his dirty work – lawyers and debt-collectors who secure the evictions of those behind with their rent – and Hidayet, his driver and right-hand man, who issues threats on his behalf and carries his bags.  One scene memorably illuminates Hidayet’s servility: as he struggles in a blizzard with Aydin’s suitcases at the railway station, he slips on ice and falls over, unnoticed by the other man.

Commenting on Aydin’s character, Ceylan has remarked :

The human is a very complex creation. I wanted to show that complexity as it is. All of us are complex. One day you think – this is a very good man. But the next day he becomes very brutal.

The whole set-up has a distinctly Chekhovian feel: Aydin as the intellectual, a privileged man of property concerned with questions of philanthropy and social improvement, the centre of a household that comprises his beautiful, intelligent, and much-younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), his recently divorced, sharp-tongued sister, Necla (Demet Akbag); his factotum Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan); and a barely-visible maid. Beyond the immediate household there are his tenants in the nearby village, who pay him rent, just as they did to his father before him.  Overlaying all is the air of disillusionment, that sense that we can never escape ourselves, that inescapably we cause our own unhappiness.  In fire-lit rooms aglow with warmth, intellectuals argue about individual freedom and the right of all to a decent  education. Beyond the gates: impoverished, disempowered peasants.  As in Chekhov, there will be an epiphany that probably won’t lead to anything changing.

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Aydin writing on his Macbook Pro, argues with his sister, Necla

With his embittered sister Necla, Aydin has arguments about matters of conscience – how we should respond to evil – that quickly spiral into bitter recrimination.  At such moments, the siblings are brely able to look at each other. He faces his computer; she is behind him, lounging on a sofa. ‘I wish my threshold for self-delusion was as low as yours’, she says before quietly savaging his latest newspaper column in which he bemoans declining standards and writes condescendingly of the ignorance and squalor of the villagers’ lives. ‘It reads like the writer has adopted certain values just to make himself popular. It stinks of sentimentality,’ murmurs Necla.

Karin Badt  wrote of this scene in her Huffington Post review that:

While such probing dialogue is familiar Chekhov, the genius of Winter Sleep lies in Ceylan’s direction: his use of set, sound and camera. The sister-brother episode, for example, takes place while the two are peacefully reposing in a warm study, in golden hues, the sister lounged on a couch, the man at his desk. We do not need screams or gunshots. This is how sibling tension is expressed in “real life”: in a homey room, while rain falls and each word becomes an invisible bullet. No extra cues are necessary “to get it.” In fact, in the 210 minutes of the film there are less than 5 minutes of music (a repeated strain of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20). Climatic moments are scored, rather, by the sound of a door opening, a fire burning, rain falling, a car driving up the road.

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Aydin and his wife, Nihal

All three main characters – Aydin, his sister and his wife Nihal – are trapped by the boredom and isolation of their lives far from the metropolis of Istanbul, in a wild and remote landscape inhabited only by the poverty of those who inhabit the nearby villages. Nihal and Aydin live separate lives under the same roof, she with her own rooms and separate routines. In Chekhov’s short story, The Wife, we read this:

My wife … slept, had her meals, and received her visitors downstairs in her own rooms, and took not the slightest interest in how I dined, or slept, or whom I saw. Our relations with one another were simple and not strained, but cold, empty, and dreary as relations are between people who have been so long estranged, that even living under the same roof gives no semblance of nearness.

Nihal has channelled her free time and her rich husband’s money into organising a fundraising committee to improve local schools. But when, one day, Aydin finds the committee members meeting at their home, he perceives it as a threat and forcefully attempts to snatch control of her project from his wife.  Pawing through the project accounts he treats her like a child.  The scene in Winter Sleep closely follows the comparable scene in Chekhov’s The Wife:

“Show me how much you have collected and how much you have spent.”

“I have no secrets. Any one may see. Look.”

On the table lay five or six school exercise books, several sheets of notepaper covered with writing, a map of the district, and a number of pieces of paper of different sizes. It was getting dusk. I lighted a candle.

“Excuse me, I don’t see anything yet,” I said, turning over the leaves of the exercise books. “Where is the account of the receipt of money subscriptions?”

“That can be seen from the subscription lists.”

“Yes, but you must have an account,” I said, smiling at her naïveté. “Where are the letters accompanying the subscriptions in money or in kind? Pardon, a little practical advice, Natalie: it’s absolutely necessary to keep those letters. You ought to number each letter and make a special note of it in a special record. You ought to do the same with your own letters. But I will do all that myself.”

“Do so, do so . . .” she said.

I was very much pleased with myself.

And when Nihal launches a tirade against Aydin, fighting to retain control of the activity that has saved her from boredom, he listens with a patronising smirk on his face. Then he changes tack: hurling her papers to the floor, he tosses onto her desk an envelope containing a large sum of money – a donation to the committee under the name ‘anonymous’.  ‘You are selfish, spiteful and cynical,’ Nihal tells Aydin.  ‘You suffocate people – crush and humiliate them.’

Winter Sleep 3

Aydin and Nihal

Watching this scene between Aydin and Nihal unfold it was impossible not to think of the current threats being made to the position of women in Turkish society. The Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, has been accused of blatant sexism after declaring that women are not equal to men and claiming feminists in Turkey reject the idea of motherhood.  Erdoğan added that biological differences mean women and men are unable to serve the same functions, with manual work being unsuitable for the ‘delicate nature’ of women.  Recently, in a further example of such attitudes, the deputy prime minister, Bülent Arinc, one of the co-founders of the ruling Islamic Justice and Development party, lamenting the moral decline of modern society and suggested that women should not laugh in public.

The drama in Winter Sleep turns upon an incident that occurs in the first half hour, when a boy throws a stone which shatters a window of the jeep in which Aydin and Hidayet are travelling. The boy is the nephew of Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), the local hodja (Islamic teacher), whose brother is an unemployed ex-prisoner prone to lashing out violently.  The family are Aydin’s tenants and they are angry that his debt collectors have taken away their television and humiliated them.  Hamdi, an ingratiating and servile man,  tries to calm the tension between his embittered brother and their landlord by taking the boy to apologise to Aydin for vandalising his jeep.

These scenes emphasise the extent of gulf that divides the rich and educated who congregate in the warmth and comfort of Aydin’s hotel from the poor who scratch a living in his sparsely-furnished, run-down properties.  In the Observer, Mark Kermode wrote:

In a drama in which wealth and poverty are juxtaposed as starkly as religion and secularism, the motivations, aspirations and disappointments of every character are described with pointillist precision, tiny details combining to create utterly coherent portraits. Take Hamdi (Serhat Kiliç), embattled uncle of the young boy who casts the stone, now desperately attempting to reconcile his hot-headed brother and passively threatening landlord, his lips permanently stretched in a grimace of desperation and decency that speaks volumes about his inner anguish.

The ambitious screenplay for Winter Sleep was co-authored by Ceylan with his wife and regular collaborator, Ebru Ceylan.  The script unwinds slowly but with purpose, setting up early crises that are resolved much later in the film.  A very long film, with lengthy conversations that extend into debate and argument, it is always engrossing, the characters so interesting, and the thematic density so challenging, that its length is never a burden.  Collaborating on the screenplay (as they have done since Climates in 2006), Nuri Bilge and Ebru Ceylan really get under the skin of their male and female characters. ‘It’s by arguing about a scene that we make it deeper,’ the director has said in interview. ‘We’re able to see it from both the man’s and the woman’s point of view.’

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Aydin and the strange landscape of Winter Sleep

Winter Sleep is a film that exposes the hypocrisy of those who argue about morality from a position of comfort and security, allowing them to feel the satisfaction that comes with possessing something that the dispossessed person so clearly lacks. For Nihal, the epiphany will come when her noble vision of helping Hamdi’s family by handing over the wad of banknotes donated by her husband comes face to face with the quiet but devastating contempt of his brother, Ismail. He rejects Nihal’s gesture with an act that is utterly horrifying to the wealthy giver of charity. In his Observer review, Mark Kermode observed that:

The tension between morality and malice is at the heart of Ceylan’s sprawlingly wordy and cumulatively powerful meditation upon Dostoevskian guilt that credits Chekhov … and nods stylistically toward the architectural psychologies of Bergman. The unfashionably expansive dialogue is proudly argumentative and unashamedly literary; these are the kind of conversations one might expect to encounter in a novel or play rather than a film.

The three lead performances are superb, especially in the two pivotal scenes where, firstly, Demet Akbag as Aydin’s sister Necla coolly demolishes her brother’s complacent self-assurance while stretched out on the sofa behind him; and secondly the confrontation between Aydin and his wife, played by Melisa Sozen.

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Winter Sleep: snow and mysterious landscape

Like all of Ceylan’s films, Winter Sleep is beautifully photographed, with cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki, who shot the three previous films from Ceylan.   Once again, Ceylan has chosen a spectacular location for the film’s location: filming took place during two winter months in a village in Cappadocia  in Central Anatolia, where most of the dwellings are carved out of the rocks. Peter Jackson must be kicking himself that he overlooked this place when shooting the Hobbit films!  Unlike most of Ceylan’s previous films, though, most of the action takes place in interiors – but beautifully lit and furnished to suggest the warmth and intellectual richness with which Aydin and the two women surround themselves – as well as their isolation from the harshness of the human and natural landscape outside.  As in most of Ceylan’s films, snow falls heavily and human figures struggle to make headway.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan wins Palme d'Or 2014

Nuri Bilge Ceylan wins the Palme d’Or in 2014

Winter Sleep deservedly won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  In his speech accepting the prize, Ceylan acknowledged the protests in Turkey that led to the deaths of 11 people in 2013–14. The director said, ‘I want to dedicate the prize to all the young people of Turkey, including those who lost their lives’. He also mentioned the workers who were killed in the Soma mine disaster, which occurred on the day prior to the commencement of the awards event.  Writing in the Telegraph, Robbie Collin said that the film is:

 Fiendishly intelligent stuff from the director, nudging back the limits of what we expect of cinema and also what it expects of us: a mighty tale of what becomes of a man when his heart goes into hibernation.

Winter Sleep ends with Aydin and his wife returning to their separate lives. As he types the opening sentences of his history of Turkish theatre, Nihal, in another part of the house, picks up the disordered documents of the education project.  At his computer, Ayadin smiles. In his head he murmurs thoughts to his wife, beautiful words of contrition and love, words that she will probably never hear. These are closing lines of The Wife by Chekhov:

An hour later I was sitting at my table, writing my ‘History of Railways’, and the starving peasants did not now hinder me from doing so. Now I feel no uneasiness. Neither the scenes of disorder which I saw when I went the round of the huts at Pestrovo with my wife and Sobol the other day, nor malignant rumours, nor the mistakes of the people around me, nor old age close upon me – nothing disturbs me.

Winter Sleep is a deeply serious film which considers what it is to be a human being.  It is probably the best film of 2014.

Trailer

See also

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

One day, you may get a kick out of the stuff going on here.  When you have a family you’ll have a story to tell. Is that so bad?  You can say, ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia… when I was working out in the sticks… I remember this one night which began like this’.  You can tell it like a fairytale.

In the dark of night, three vehicles approach along a road that winds across a bare, windswept plateau, pinpoints of yellowish moving, floating light.  Coming to a halt beside the road, the men travelling in the convoy step out, two of them are handcuffed and have confessed to a murder; they are accompanied by an assortment of police, soldiers, two men with shovels, a public prosecutor and a doctor.  They are all searching for the scene of the crime, the place where the victim is buried.

This is the opening of the latest film from the Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, regarded as one of the greatest film makers of our time, and in the words of Philip French of The Observer, ‘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 in the 1960s and 70s.’  For French, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ‘his finest work to date … a carefully controlled masterpiece’.

I find it a hard call to make: it’s a fine film – but then so are the three other films that have established his reputation – UzakClimates and Three Monkeys. Each of them displays Ceylan’s distinctive and evocative style: an intense Chekhovian exploration of interior lives combined with stunningly beautiful landscape photography.

The road winds on through the night – two-thirds of this long but engrossing film takes place in darkness that seems to materially reflect the mystery and confusion in which this group of men are, for a few hours, bound together.  The  accused men can’t remember where they buried the body in a landscape in which every bend in the road looks the same.  But while they search for a dead man, what preoccupies this group of men is less the dead than their own lives – the frustrations of work, their children, women and life’s disappointments – that they talk about endlessly as they travel the long and winding  road through the night.

There’s a lot of standing around talking in this film, the dialogue quite Pinteresque and comedic at times.  Take this exchange, as three of the men wait wearily while the others probe the darkness:

– So we’re all drunk and the tax officer walks off.
– That’s Nedim.
– Who?
– The tax officer at the time.
– No, it was Sinasi. Nedim came before him.
– Oh, yes. He’d throw back his head to talk. Fat and bald.
– Around two months after Mr. Galip arrived he got posted somewhere else.
– Well, he goes off with the waiters. And they come back with three trays.  See a tray and what do you think?
– Kebabs.
– You’d think kebabs. Meat. But no!. It’s yoghurt.
– What kind of yoghurt?
– Not the soupy kind we know. It’s hard as rock. You need a knife to cut the stuff.
– Sure it wasn’t cheese, chief?
– Cheese?  You think I don’t know yoghurt from cheese, doctor?  What do you take me for?
– That stuff”s delicious, doctor. Especially in spring.
– No, it was yoghurt. But buffalo yoghurt.  Not sheep or whatever, buffalo yoghurt.
– They have buffalo stuff at the dairy down from our quarters.
– Where is there a dairy?
– Down from our quarters, sir.
– Which quarters are you in? What dairy?
– You know that dairy below our quarters?
– By Kivircik’s place?
– Yes, sir.  They sometimes make it there.
– That stuff”s pasteurized!
– No, it’s buffalo. I’ve tried it.
– It kind of smelled.
– It smells if it’s good.
– Buffalo yoghurt.. Wouldn’t I know if they had it at the corner shop?
– I’m crazy about the stuff.
– To be honest, chief, you don’t know.
– I tried it. But it just seemed to smell a bit.
– Because it’s good. The animals eat fresh grass in spring, right, doctor?
– Arab, some people have no taste for the good things.  I mention buffalo yoghurt and the guy says it smells.
– He doesn’t know the real thing. What’s he used to?
– Pasteurized. You can get pasteurized from any shop.
– No, chief. My deceased mother used to make it.
– They can’t make it like that now.
– You know, I see stuff sometimes that really bugs me.
– In the supermarket. ‘Skimmed’ yoghurt. What the hell is that?
– ‘Skimmed’ yoghurt. You’d be ashamed to write the words.

Exchanges like this don’t upset the overall mood of men oppressed by having to complete an arduous task out of office hours in a dark and hostile landscape, but arise naturally  – as they do when a group of men are thrown together for several hours with nothing but their own conversation to stave off boredom. William Boyd once wrote that Chekhov’s greatness lay in his abandonment of the ‘event plot’ for something more ‘blurred, interrupted, mauled or otherwise tampered with by life’ and that it is exactly the mood that Ceylan creates in his film.

At its heart, this is a film about men, and about how these men see women.  These men, passing the night together, are haunted by thoughts of women.  Only two female characters appear briefly on screen (one in the film’s most memorable and Tarkovskyan scene), while another never appears but is discussed at length.  The film ends with an autopsy of a male corpse, but for the rest of its length Ceylan has performed a dissection of the male psyche.

There’s the irascible police officer, Naci, ‘a handful of bees, as my mother would say, all noise and no action’.  Frustrated with the accused man’s failure to locate the place where the body is buried, he starts to beat him.  The prosecutor intervenes: ‘Is this how we’ll get into the European Union? No way!’

The prosecutor remarks to the doctor how difficult it has been to make sense of many of the cases that he has had to deal with over the years.  Sometimes, he thinks, you have to be more of an astrologer than a prosecutor to divine motives and causes.  Most mysteriously, he recounts the story of a woman who, five months after giving birth, died on the exact day she predicted she would, without any signs at all of ill health or self-harm.

Another police officer, Arab, consoles himself with the thought that their long night might one day become a fairy tale they will be able to tell their family: ‘Once Upon A Time In Anatolia’.

At times they become philosophical:

– We none of us live forever, do we, doctor?
– The Prophet Solomon. He lived to 750. Gold, jewels..
– Well, he died in the end too.  Right, doctor?
– It’s raining on Igdebeli.
– Let it.  It’s been raining for centuries. What difference does it make?
– But not even 100 years from now, Arab, neither you, me, the prosecutor or the police chief..
– Well, as the poet said…Still the years will pass.. And not a trace will remain of me.  Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul..

But as well as the conversation there is the film’s haunting imagery. Once again, Ceylan has worked with cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki to create moments seem to speak, as in a film by Tarkovsky, of the ineffable, of things just beyond our understanding:  a gust of wind blows turmoil through the branches of a tree; a flash of lightning illuminates stone carvings in the rocks by the road; an apple falls and is slowly carried down a stream.

The film’s most hypnotic, hallucinatory passage comes when, deep in the night, the convoy halts at an isolated and decrepit village where the mukhtar plays host with food and drink – and wastes no time in lobbying for his pet project. He wants money to fix the cemetery wall and build a morgue. The village, he explains, has suffered from emigration.  There’s only old folk left.  But when someone dies, he says, ‘We have a lot of relatives in Germany.  They want to come and see the body.  You get them on the phone saying, ‘Don’t bury dad, I have to kiss him’. Fine, but the man smells. Where are you going to kiss him?’

The wind gets up and the power fails.  At the mukhtar’s bidding his beautiful young daughter brings light and tea to each man in turn.  It’s a stunning and beautifully filmed moment of epiphany for each of the men.  The murderer, entranced by the face of the girl, suddenly sees his victim sitting in the room among them.  For the prosecutor, the moment  impels him to recall again with the doctor the mystery of the woman who died on the day she envisioned.

From this point on, the film focuses increasingly on the character of the doctor. He is portrayed as a rationalist with a strictly logical approach to life, whether discussing male problems of the prostate or probing the superstitious implications of the prosecutor’s story. Indeed, in the latter part of the film, the idea that an action and its motives can be pinned down with the precision of official phrases is pursued to its surreal and comical conclusion, first as the prosecutor dictates his report in classic bureaucratic phrases to a police officer who types on a laptop as he crouches in a field, then as the doctor conducts the autopsy while his findings are recorded in a similar manner.

But something unsettles the doctor. Divorced and childless, he gazes out of the window, watching the murdered man’s wife and son walk away down a track while kids kick a ball around on a playground. Behind him, the autopsy assistant, noisily removes, weighsn and describes the parts that used to be a man.  The doctor makes a decision that may be an act of mercy, and omits crucial information from his report.

For Bilge Ebiri, writing on his They Live By Night blog, Anatolia is a film of staggering ambition, even for this director:

Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, the second half of the film is the opposite of the first: the prosecutor takes statements, the doctor conducts an autopsy, townspeople react to the news of the killing and the death. The mythical gives way to the mundane; the mystery of death is gone, replaced instead with its physical and social consequences. And a film that began in the enveloping, sensuous darkness of a dream ends in the cold, hard light of the painfully real, and it’s up to us to determine where eternity lies.

So, although Ceylan’s film may have had all the characteristics of a police procedural, unlike more conventional examples of the genre we are left with no clear answers.  There has been a journey from darkness to light, dawn has broken and a town awakes.  But we are left to ponder motives and mores.  Jugu Abraham, writing on his blog Movies That Make You Think, makes this interesting point:

Anatolia is an ancient name for much of modern Turkey. It is the name associated with much of Turkey from the days of Alexander the Great. What is important for the viewer to note and reflect on is that Ceylan chose the term Anatolia rather than Turkey, when the tale he presents is of modern day Turkey, of individuals and mindsets that are not historical but contemporary. Perhaps for Ceylan and co-sciptwriters (comprising his wife Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kasal, the very same team that wrote the brilliant Three Monkeys) the mindset and values have not changed with time and  perhaps for them modern Turkey is no different from Anatolia of the ages past.

There’s a moment when the prosecutor says: ‘You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults’.  For Jugu Abraham, Ceylan’s  film represents the melancholy story of Anatolia through the ages repeated in each generation.

But in the end there are no answers to the questions raised in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  The story is inconclusive. Instead, Ceylan often films the doctor’s face in close-up, watching this thoughtful man in the act of thinking.  As Virginia Woolf wrote:

These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. … Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic – lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed – we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Chekhov, we need a very daring and alert sense … to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.

See also

The Bridge: poverty and pride

‘Without the bridge you cannot know the city. The bridge is, in fact, a city, though one must not take that too literally; the bridge is not the city and the city is not the country, not by a long shot.  The bridge is, above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that.’

Several years ago I read and enjoyed In Europe by the Dutch writer Geert Mak. Now I’ve been reading his latest short book, The Bridge, which powerfully evokes the atmosphere of Istanbul through vignettes of the traders who eke out a bare existence selling improbable items such as insoles on the Galata bridge straddling the Golden Horn, the inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the city. It was Mak’s eye for the personal stories that illuminated Europe’s 20th century that made In Europe a rewarding read, and here he achieves the same effect: interweaving stories based on encounters on the bridge with an account of the city’s long history from Byzantium, by way of Constantinople to the days of the Ottomans and down to the present.

In 2006, Geert Mak spent weeks on the Galata bridge, one of Istanbul’s busiest, getting to know the pavement merchants: the tea vendor, the book salesman, the peddler of orthopedic soles and the boys who trade in illegal cigarettes.  Most of them are from villages in Turkey’s far east and are desperately poor, barely able to their keep their heads above water; they live from one day, one hour, to the next. And they all have their own worries, their strategies for survival, their hopes, their own stories. The result is ‘a travelogue covering 490 metres’, in the author’s words.

Galata Bridge around 1900

Mak spends day after day with those who frequent the bridge, listening to what they have to say: about free speech, about Islam and the West, about headscarves and honour. Together, these stories paint the portrait of a complex society, of the city of Istanbul, a melting pot that is home to ten million people: Muslims, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Westerners; liberal urbanites and migrants from remote villages; the secular and the deeply religious.

Mak weaves together the stories of the street traders with the history of the bridge, and so with that of Istanbul itself. This city that was once the heart of a vast and powerful empire. In the twentieth century, however, that traditional, multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman Empire was transformed into a modern, secular state, and Istanbul was transformed along with it. Today, in Mak’s words, it is a metropolis ‘largely cut off from its own history’.

Before the 19th century, there was no bridge on the Golden Horn connecting both sides of the natural harbour around Istanbul. Small boats and ferries were the only means of transportation between the two shores. The first Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn was constructed in the mid-19th century. It was replaced successively by newer structures in 1863, 1875, 1912 and most recently in 1994.

Galata bridge 1880-1900

While Mak is on the bridge he writes that ‘a mad controversy arose between East and West’.  It’s the time when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, when people across the Muslim world rose up in outrage and anger, and when the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered.

Mak is excellent here at challenging preconceptions, just as he did in his 2005 pamphlet, Doomed to Vulnerability, in which he challenged the view that the Netherlands was ‘at war’, a statement attributed by one journalist to the deputy-prime minister at the time.  In that pamphlet Mak insisted that the murder of Van Gogh was the work of a single religious fanatic, a disturbed individual; it did not constitute the implosion of a multi-ethnic society. Mak countered the hysterical tone of many politicians and journalists with calm statistics and a lesson in Dutch sociology. In late 2004, he stated, there were some 900,000 Muslims living in the Netherlands, most of them Turkish and Moroccan. Of all these Dutch Muslims, Mak wrote, no more than twenty percent ever visited a mosque on a regular basis. Most of them were familiar with Islam only from a distance. The widespread adoption of fundamentalist beliefs, a fear evoked by many at the time, was a complete myth.

In The Bridge, Mak explores the reaction to these events of those on the bridge. He certainly finds anger: ‘They have no right, this is our faith, and they have to respect that’…the insole vendor said.  ‘I’m a human being, you’re a human being.  God gave us the Koran and the Bible, and we have to respect each other like that.’ But he also comes to realise that this is not, as one might suspect at first, a question of religious enmity.  ‘During those weeks I never heard a bad word about Christians or other non-Muslims’.   What he realises is that the anger is about wounded pride: ‘and when you are as poor as a church mouse, honour is one of the last assets you have left….Anyone who mocks their god, therefore, is not insulting an institution or even a religious feeling; no, he is dealing a blow to their deepest sense of personal worth, the last bastion against total humiliation’.

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and a non-fiction writer in the field of history who contributes actively to Dutch public debate, as a staunch defender of the values of an open and tolerant society. He first became known to the general public with his book Jorwerd: the Death of the Village in the Late 20th Century (1996; to be published in the UK later this year) on the changing culture of a farming community in the 20th century, based on an account of a village in Friesland and the people who lived there. In Amsterdam: A brief life of a city (1995), he gave an account of the people of Amsterdam and their city down the centuries. My father’s century (1999), a history of the Netherlands in the 20th century, based on letters and memories from Mak’s own family, became immensely popular, selling over half a million copies. His best-known work, In Europe, a combination of a travelogue through the continent of Europe and a history of the 20th century, has appeared in over a dozen languages and has been turned into a 35-part Dutch TV series.

This was the review in the Independent:

An unremarkable concrete structure spanning the Golden Horn, the estuary on Istanbul’s European shore, Galata Bridge links the two oldest districts of the city. To the south lies historic Sultan Ahmet, which contains Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace; on the other shore Pera, with its imposing embassies and merchants’ mansions, the heart of European Istanbul. With its traffic-clogged highway, crowds of commuters rushing to catch the ferry, fishermen hanging over the parapets, restaurants affording magical views, and a dingy underpass with stalls selling guns, dancing dolls and counterfeit luxuries, the bridge is a microcosm of the city in all its rich variety.

Geert Mak’s thoughtful travelogue sketches out Istanbul’s past, and provides a touching portrait of its present inhabitants that explores, and challenges, the clichés of a bridge between East and West. He brings the city’s multicultural history to life and introduces us to the inhabitants of the bridge, from the itinerant card sharps, pickpockets and glue-sniffers to the hawkers of cigarettes, condoms, umbrellas, roasted chestnuts and lottery tickets. Mak has the the acuity of a novelist and the sensitivity of an anthropologist.

The young in one another’s arms, like the headscarfed girl canoodling with her pierced and tattooed boyfriend, defy our stereotypical expectations; but, as Yeats observed of his Byzantium, this is no country for old men. A 77-year-old porter complains that he’s been swindled out of his life savings by a femme fatale pushing 60. Many are lonely divorcees living in shabby boarding-houses. Poverty is a constant in their lives. “I smoke a lot, that always helps to still the hunger,” says Ali, an in-sole vendor.

They are outsiders bound by regional loyalties; the cigarette boys are Kurdish, and divided by political allegiances. Some are nationalists, while the umbrella men “form a fledgling socialist enclave”. Honour “has value as a social currency”, and poverty brings with it a sense of failure and shame.

It is pride, rather than ideological fanaticism, that fuels their anger. “My village is full of people who don’t know a thing about the Koran. But … they’re prepared to die for Islam,” a waiter tells Mak. His intimate portraits disrupt tidy European prejudices, and this thoughtful, beautifully written book is suffused with a respect for the richness of the inner life of individuals that transcends tired metaphors. The bridge is a city, but is “above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that”.