Time: 4:00-5:30PM, April 27, 2023 (Thursday)
Theme: Portraits of the Mind and Scratches over the Century
Keynote speaker: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish director and screenwriter
Panelist: Dai Jinhua, professor at the Peking University
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Dai Jinhua: This is the last Workshop & Masterclass of the 13th Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF). We’re very pleased to have Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish director and screenwriter, with us. Welcome! How big is your crew for making a film? How long does it take to make a film? What was it like when you were making your earlier works? Are there any changes? How about your crew and your status of filmmaking now?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: My earlier films are quite different from recent ones. I didn’t major in film study. I used to be a photographer. I used to be lonely and I liked it. So I kept looking for the right filming style and filmmaking mode for myself. My debut short film Cocoon was shot with film at that time. It cost a lot. I myself worked as the cinematographer for my first feature film with the help of a focus puller. But from then on, I started believing that even under those conditions, I can make films. In this sense, I began my filmmaking career with very humble mindset. I never went to film study. But I watched so many films to learn about the industry. Step by step, I was able to understand all aspects of filmmaking.
In the early days, it wasn’t my intention to do everything but I had to. By the time I made my second film, the number of crew members was increased to 5. For my third film Distant, it was also shot by a five-member team. The film was nominated at the Festival de Cannes. I did the sales. I didn’t have any partners, assistant or sales agent. At the Festival de Cannes, I didn’t see any director pitching his or her film like I did. Of course, post-production is very important. I managed to master them all while working. Later, I got to know more people, and I gradually withdrew from many roles and assign them to others. That’s how my team keeps growing bigger. It wasn’t until I was making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and filming a truck driving on the vast prairie that I felt surprised and wondered: is this my film? For my recent works, the number of my crew have been increased to more than 40.
There is huge difference in the size of my crew between early and later stages. Actually, the film Cocoon continued filming for years despite that it’s a rather simple film about my parents. Now, I make better filming plans and dispatch a crew of over 40 people. My filming cycle is quite long. It took me three and half months to shoot my latest film. I don’t think too much about the cost of filming. For me, time is the most precious when I shoot a film. If it drags on too long, inspiration diminishes; but if I shoot it too fast, new ideas are stifled, which might pop up as time goes by.
All three films made before the Distant are shot with 35mm film, which cost a lot. The subsequent development of digital technologies has brought me many surprises and opened up more possibilities for innovation by actors, actresses and directors. I don’t know if such technologies would guide the film industry to better future. But I don’t think I should forget my original aspirations for filmmaking and how I begun shooting with film.
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Dai Jinhua: Do you still use film? From which film on did you stop using film?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I started to give up film probably when digital cameras were launched on market. Of course, the quality then may seem unacceptable now, but it was good enough back then. I raised money by myself to make films. It wasn’t easy doing so. And in those days, there was little film available in Turkey. I had to carry film in my backpack from abroad. A backpack can only pack 4 reels, each of which may be shot for 4 minutes. So it was very difficult to shoot with film. It was mainly because of the physical and transportation inconvenience.
Dai Jinhua: I watched all your films. The style, pace of narrative and mental state of the characters all reminded me of the mental dilemma that the modern society that people are caught in. Also, I felt strong presence of European art style in your films. When watching them, it didn’t occur to me that they are made by a non-Western director from across the Eurasian continent, but rather I was reminded of the unique pursuit of aesthetics and aesthetic characteristics embodied in European arthouse films.
When it comes to the European style and portrait of Turkish individuals’ mental state in your films, do you think it’s a problem or simply natural expression? The reason why I asked this is from a scene of The Wild Pear Tree, where the leading male role was in a bookshop full of portraits of major European modernist writers. To what extent are we in a different world from that of Europe and America? To what extent are we in a scenario of the modern world?
 Dai Jinhua
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: How would you define Europe? I am not so sure about it. Just like the bookshop portraits you mentioned in the film, that’s not my intention. None of them were hung there by me. The decorative portraits were chosen based on the bookshop owner’s preference rather than our dedicated design for European look. The bookshop scene is as it is, rather than what we intended it to be.
Turkey is specially located across the Eurasian continent, and influenced by Oriental and Western cultures. For instance, you may notice influence of Russian literature on my films, which might be one of the reasons why you think my films are European. Apart from personal observation, Anton Chekhov from Russia exerts huge impacts on my filmmaking. He has great influence on my perspective of observing life. I seem to observe life through Chekhov’s lenses.
My filmmaking inspirations are mainly from surprising and shocking things in life. They might seem ordinary in others’ view but appeal to me. I want to film what I am interested in and curious about.
Sure, my style is formed based on various factors. I remember when I took my first film to the Berlin International Film Festival, director Jia Zhangke was screening his debut film. I felt like in Turkey while watching his film. Exactly. Indeed, that’s what a modernist film should be like. Regardless of where he shoots the film, we would think he’s telling our story. Whichever culture you are from, our mental state and nature are similar. So, wherever he shoots the film, we find it familiar and amicable. As compared to films by European directors, I feel stronger familiarity with films by Jia Zhangke.
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Dai Jinhua: You wrote an article titled Hometown Afar after watching director Jia Zhangke’s debut film, and you saw your hometown in Jia’s hometown narrative. You also mentioned starting filmmaking career at the same time as Jia did, making feature film around the same time, and recognizing each other’s highly amicable hometown tunes. That sounds like a little miracle for me. It’s very interesting.
Speaking of Anton Chekhov, before I knew the connection between you and Chekhov, I was astonished to find Chekhov in your Winter Sleep, a Chekhov re-summoned and resurrected by your film. I looked up relevant information after watching the film, and noticed Anton Chekhov was included in screenwriters. That’s how I found your far-reaching spiritual and cultural connection with Chekhov. What do you make of the 100-year gap between you and Chekhov? How can the spiritual reality outlined by the great writer a century ago be reproduced in today’s world? In what sense do we have in common with Chekhov?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: No matter how times change, humanity and human nature remain the same. Only appearances change. Chekhov and I are connected mainly via humanity. My film Winter Sleep was adapted from two novels by Chekhov. And I delivered the message of the two novels by Turkish in the context of modern Turkey. Nevertheless, the essence is the same. It’s all about humanity. So the adaptation wasn’t that hard for me. Even today, I find Winter Sleep the most gratifying and amicable among my films.
Chekhov’s short story The Wife is one of my favorite stories. I’ve been wondering if I can adapt it to a film over the past 15 years. The short story talks about conflicts between a couple, but doesn’t give clear-cut causes. I tried to keep and show the lack of clarity, the unknown and abstraction in full. It’s my one and only adaptation so far. It’s an interesting trial. I added my own stuff. My wife and I worked on the screenplay. It wasn’t an easy process. Sometimes we would discuss or even argue.
As a matter of fact, I like uncertainty. I don’t want to deliver clear-cut message through a film. What I want to keep track of is those that I can’t quite figure out but remain fascinated about. Of course, such films may not be accepted by many people. For me, a film is like a letter sent to the unknown future.
 Nuri Bilge Ceylan (left) at the Red Carpet for the Closing Ceremony
Dai Jinhua: As compared to Chekhov, would you intentionally add a touch of warmth to a film, especially to the ending? Is it a conscious choice for you or just natural presentation of your real life state?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I think it’s natural. I didn’t add it on purpose. I explore how to make films with instincts and inspiration. When I was young, I was deeply influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Because of him, I realized films could save mankind from loneliness. Because of him, I understood that those feeling beyond words can be expressed by various means.
Dai Jinhua:  Andrei Tarkovsky is frequently mentioned in analysis of your films. How do you like his films? How are the impacts of those films exerted on you as a director? Or are there any impacts of those films on you?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I love some of his films, such as The Mirror. I think he adopted brand new cinematic presentation that I’d never seen before. It seems like he’s telling the story hidden deeply in my childhood memory that I can’t even remember. I keep wondering when watching his films: how come he knows all these? It feels like I’ve been through it all.
Everyone has their viewing habits. So it’s inevitable that the new things he presents would make us uncomfortable and strange at first. His earlier films were not well received. And there was even sarcasm. But later, we realized what he brought us is new perspective and new view of the world. There is a theory that “nature imitates art”. Due to influence of art works, people start to observe nature through the perspective or lenses of art works. Therefore, nature seems to imitate artistic creations. The greatest quality of artists is that he/she can bring us new perspectives. He/she enables us to observe nature and world from the new perspectives. I think this is very important.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Dai Jinhua: Did your films go through the same process as Tarkovsky’s did among the Turkish audience: from initial unfamiliarity, non-acceptance and resistance to acceptance later, and a new way of observation obtained?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: My films were much worse received in Turkey at first with smaller audience. But gradually, more and more people started to get curious about and interested in my films. I wouldn’t dare to compare myself with Andrei Tarkovsky. But I do hope my films can make a difference, enabling people to have a new perspective. Of course, I wish to express my confusion, things that I cannot share with others through words, and loneliness through films. It’s just like I’m throwing a drifting bottle into the sea in the hope that someone will read it.
Dai Jinhua: How are your films released in Turkey? Are the audience gradually accepting your films? Or are they only admired by a niche group of audience?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: There are a rich variety of films available in Turkey. Commercial films would attract large amount of audience while arthouse films usually have very little audience. A commercial film may get 5 million to 7 million viewers, and an arthouse film usually gets a few tens of thousands. My film normally falls somewhere between. But arthouse films are more talked about in the industry. It’s the same across the world. Arthouse films get more attention but fewer viewers. Commercial films are not as selective. They are easy to enjoy and appeal to wider audience. But they are less talked about like a flash in the pan. Those phenomena are normal. We should accept rather than question or feel discontented.
Dai Jinhua: Those familiar with commercial films may be constantly disappointed when watching your films. They’d expect secrets to be revealed but not so till the end as if dramatic secrets were just there as they were till the end. In the end, they are just “left blank” as a Chinese expression goes. I often noticed comments from the international community that your films are getting longer and longer, but there remain even more blank spaces. As you used to answer, they may watch them again and again, and films can be like novels. And I want to know what you think of films and cinemas. Do you make more films so that they can be released in theaters? Or theaters are only screening spaces?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan Workshop & Masterclass
From left to right: Dai Jinhua, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Streaming platforms are expanding rapidly across Turkey and the world on the whole. Personally, I hope cinemas will recover soon, where it’s easier for the audience to feel connected with films. However, cinemas are not just the screening space. They can guide the audience to fulfill other purposes. For example, our social needs are constantly changing. It’s also one of the major factors that drive healthy development of cinemas. In cinemas, the audience can establish deeper ties with a film. In the dark environment where the audience are on their own, focused, and disconnected from the outside world, they could be fully immersed in a film. I think it’s very important in terms of interaction of art with the audience.
Of course, streaming platforms are influencing film production. They interfere too much with the final outcomes. I think it goes against freedom of film art. The identity of films are to be sustained by their independence. The loss of independence can result in huge losses for the mankind. It takes energy and strength to make films. For me, I need 3 to 4 years to make one film. During the process, the only thing I cannot give up is independent and free creation. It’s alright for me if I have to make low-budget films again. But I would never give up freedom.
Dai Jinhua: A must-ask question. You are known for poetic and picturesque style. In particular, your long shots remind us of numerous oil paintings; meanwhile, your films portray nobodies, and present the state where ordinary people are unable to break free from the difficulties of their own life and reality. The contrast is very aesthetic. Do you make the contrast and combination intentionally?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I rely more on instinct and feelings when making films. I don’t usually use storyboard and I deliberately try not to form too many preconceived ideas before I shoot. I often decide how and what a take should be filmed on the set. But it’s in the later editing stage that I would make very clear judgments and decisions.
As for long shots and leaving blank spaces, I try not to cut shots when unnecessary. In my opinion, if I cut those shots, the sense of reality of a film would be affected more or less. I am not saying that a film should just have one take. I don’t recommend so. That would be too contrived. I prefer to present life as it is, and make a film lifelike.
I think the view of back seems more expressive, such as the standing position, figure of the back or even hunchback. It’s easier to relate to a character when we look at his/her back. Personally, I don’t rely much on prep work. Because there are so many things beyond prediction on the set. When making a new film, one might flinch. We need to boost our confidence. I’ve basically gotten used to not making too many decisions before I get to the set.
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Dai Jinhua: So you improvise on the set every day?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Yes, I’d first shoot what I’ve conceived, and then film more takes based on my new ideas. Of course there will be improvisation. And my cast may improvise or offer new ideas. We are open to new trials. Everyone has their unique perspective. Certain actors and actresses excel at improvising while others would stick to the screenplay. The moment I spot an actor or actress’ potential to improvise, I’d encourage them. I am also grateful for the unique things that they bring to me or that I ignore.
Not just ideas of actors and actresses. We also make use of unexpected changes on the set, such as light changes, to improvise. When faced with changes, we are likely to come up with new ideas. When sitting in front of a desk, we tend to be confined to stereotypes and norms, and prefer simple solutions. But unknown factors might bring about richer possibilities.
Dai Jinhua: It would be great if you could share your insights with young directors. Many reviews regarding your films, especially earlier ones, would indicate autobiography or being autobiographical. Also, you said many of your films are inspired by a specific real life moment, and characters are associated with your real state of life to certain extent.
In short, how can a director make his/her self-expression and presentation relatable to the audience? How can they make films that appeal to the audience? The reason why I ask those questions is that many young directors are off great start when making films. But sometimes I think they fail to take into account the way forward. I am not talking about the market or the audience. Rather, I mean how to reach the audience in future. I believe every artist is telling their own story. But first of all, a film should be storytelling rather than monologue. That’s the premise of my question.
So, do you ever think about how to make your films relatable to the audience with respect to personal style, autobiographical property and filmmaking process? If so, how?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Almost every director would add autobiographical elements to their films because everyone perceives life with their own mindset. Usually, we often want to present what we know via films. The important thing is how. One might believe he/she is very important and unique, and tries to present it through films; others may capture the key points of his/her mindset, and try to reflect humanity and mankind’s mentality. Or one could start with his/her negative aspect, or what he/she doesn’t want to happen. One can portray a hero or an anti-hero character, and there can be stark contrasts in between.
Every director’s autobiographical film varies greatly because they approach things from different perspectives at various heights. Especially in highly autobiographical films, you can sense the director's self-praise, which can be off-putting. The world is big. The universe is infinite. An artist should first bear in mind that they are actually very small in the vast universe. It’s very important to have the understanding. Art is able to create a space that fills in our mental gap. We undertake the important responsibility for making sense of a world that seems meaningless. Art is a key tool for me.
It doesn’t matter if a film is autobiographical. What’s important is how to use such elements, and what kind of feelings and thinking they can inspire us. I just mentioned risks involved in making autobiographical films. Every director should remain cautious in this regard. Don’t just try to creative a good positive character for yourself. Be “tough” on yourself, and you’ll make good autobiographical films.
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan Workshop & Masterclass
From left to right: Dai Jinhua, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Audience: There are many dialogues in your Winter Sleep, all of which are extremely long, in-depth and life-related. How did you write them? Under what state did you write such dialogues? What do you think of the impacts of marriage on you?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Marriage sure exert huge impacts on my films. Because marriage can only be understood after you’ve been in it. And it’s able to stimulate different emotions. A narrative of marriage can explain the whole world to certain extent. Some of the dialogues are from Chekhov’s novels. Some are written by me and my wife together. Sometimes, we’d discuss till dawn, argue and try to persuade one another. Sometimes, I’d be surprised at what I said. Sometimes, I’d keep track of our arguments. Many dialogues in my films are based on actual conversations between me and my wife.
There are many daily moments full of dialogue. For instance, between intellectuals, they would quote from everywhere, try to stand out in the debate, persuade others and play with words. So, in my view, more dialogues in a film shows that it is close to life. Besides, I love various dialogues in stage plays and films. There were fewer dialogues in my earlier films. It’s mostly because of my fear back then. I doubted that I could do it well. But as my confidence grew, I increased dialogues in my films. It’s a challenge for me since it’s risky to have too many dialogues in a film. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t make too many settings in this regard at first. When I begin writing a screenplay, regardless of few or many dialogues, it goes as it is. It’s instinctive. As for filming, I’d shoot many materials. Sometimes, I’d feel lost in them. But I like this kind of filmmaking pace, and try to strike balance during the editing stage later. Find a space in the maze of materials. I’ve always felt like a student when it comes to filmmaking.
Audience: In the Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there is a scene where the group of people looking for clues come across an apple tree, an apple drops, and the long shot follows the apple until it stops rolling. Is it part of the screenplay or improvising? What does the shot signify?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: That shot was improvised. I think it’s a miracle for us to run into an apple tree when making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. An apple tree full of red apples stands in the middle of the prairie. When I saw it, I took a photo and started thinking. An apple dropped, rolling on the ground. I stared at it rolling. There was a creek in front of me. And then the apple fell into the creek and it kept rolling until next to a bunch of rotten apples. It occurred to me that the scene could be used as a metaphor for the film. I felt thrilled and decided to film it. But it was really difficult to shoot the scene. Various devices were put in place. And we had to consider how to avoid getting the apple stuck at a certain point.
I thought a lot about it when editing the scene. Is it an apple that breaks free from its fate? Or is it the same as other apples that obey to the fate? It’s really one-of-its-kind experience. Later I realized that it was well worth the time to shoot for that idea. If it weren’t the right timing, I would not have run into the apple, nor have come up with such a great idea. I am very grateful.
Audience: How do you direct the cast to deliver performance as desired?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: There is no paradigm in this regard. Everyone is a different world. A directing method may work for one actor/actress and fails on another. So, you need to apply different directing methods to various actors/actresses. For instance, in order to change one actor/actress’ performance, it is important not to speak to that actor /actress, but to the actor/actress opposite him/her. Because reaction to the speaking can change the actor/actress’ performance.
There are times when I don’t know exactly what I want, but I am sure of what I don’t want. Keep rolling the camera until I find what I want. Directing performance is one of the most important jobs of a director. So I spend most of my time on the set with the cast, finding ways to direct them towards the way I desire. Sometimes, I would lie to them, express untrue thoughts or argue with them. But it’s an essential role of directors to direct actors and actresses.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan Workshop & Masterclass
From left to right: Dai Jinhua, Nuri Bilge Ceylan