Shanghai Jury Chair Nuri Bilge Ceylan on the Anxiety of Filmmaking

Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Getty - H 2019
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI

The Turkish auteur comes to Shanghai for the first time, talking up his role as jury president, his passion for portrait photography and the importance of never giving too much away.

There is a quiet, lingering sense of foreboding that shadows a good deal of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s output, an oeuvre that includes the 2014 Cannes Palme D’or winner Winter’s Sleep (2014).

That film crept in like the cold might, too, before laying bare the many and varied deficiencies of its central character, an aging actor played by Haluk Bilginer who is far less of a man than he thinks. Ceylan says he carves out such characters based on personal experience and a need to explore “what it means to be human.”

So far, all eight of Ceylan’s features, from The Town (1997) in 2002 through to last year’s The Wild Pear Tree, have been honored in some manner at Cannes, a remarkable run the director shrugs off with a smile. “I was lucky, I guess,” he says.

The 60-year-old Ceylan will be hosting a master class at SIFF, but mostly he’ll be watching the world around him, in his role as the festival's jury president and simply because he says that’s what he likes to do most. “I’m not much of a talker,” he confesses.

The director sat down with The Hollywood Reporter and – with a little urging – recounted his unlikely journey from engineering student to soldier and on to acclaimed and influential filmmaker.? 

How do you approach the role of jury chair? Do you come to the festival with a completely open mind?

Definitely, definitely. I never watch movies “professionally.” I am always just like the audience, emotionally. I don’t have any rigid criteria for what makes a good film. Sometimes I try to define it, but then a film comes and surprises me and I have to throw that all away. So I am open, completely, to everything. Watching is the easy thing. Making film is much more difficult. You are never happy when you are making movies. This is the joyful side.

How emotionally engaged do you get then when you make a movie?

There are always anxieties and fears. Problems. You are never really satisfied with the result. You are completely in an unknown situation. So you tend to be blind. When you finish the film, you want to forget it as soon as possible. I never watch my films again.

You went from engineering student to film student. How much of what you learned at school did you actually put into practice once you became a filmmaker?

Studying? Does it help? I’m not really sure. Mostly I learned filmmaking by watching movies. In those days, there were no videos. I went to New York and London to go to the cinematheques. Things like that. I used to watch three movies a day. That was my real teaching. I would just throw myself at everything. You don’t know, at first, so you want to see everything.

Had you any early experience in the visual arts?

I knew I didn’t want to become an engineer by the end of my second year, but by then I was a photographer. I was trying to understand what I wanted to do with my life. Then, one day, when I was doing my military service, cinema seemed the most suitable for me, suddenly. I was reading a lot of books, as I was alone a lot.

What were the books that turned your head?

A biography of [Roman] Polanski, actually. That somehow influenced me a lot, because it showed me a life, starting from zero, from the concentration camps to Hollywood. An adventurous life. I think that showed me I could be a filmmaker. Then I went to every cultural center I could find and I got more books, all the technical books, all the cinema books. I decided strictly to become a filmmaker.

Were you a natural storyteller growing up?

Actually, I was a listener. In real life, I am a listener. I don’t like to tell a lot. I listen. That’s why I don’t like interviews. Probably listeners can be better filmmakers because you can collect, you can observe. A realistic observation of life; the realities of life behind what is seen.

We live in a very political world. Are politics ever considered in your films?

In terms of my cinema, no. I don’t make political films or other kinds of risky subjects. So there are no restrictions. Maybe for others who do, I don’t know.

What are the subjects that interest you?

I am interested in the unknown. Elements in human nature that surprise me, which astonish me, which are muddy for me. I feel like a fish swimming in muddy water, so I try to understand life, like all of us.

Do elements of your own personal story sneak into your narratives?

Definitely. I like autobiographical things because I know them very well. I know the details, and I believe that everything can be a subject. I don’t look for an "interesting subject," because life is colorful for me. I like the life of everybody, and I listen to everybody. Everybody is astonishing for me, and everything can be a subject for me. Since what I have lived I know very well, so I put these things in my films. There were more in my first movies, but now my sources are more broad.

How do you approach preparing for a master class?

I don’t. I just want questions, and I will give answers.

Are you able to get out and see Shanghai?

I have never been here before, so I want to, but all I have seen is the hotel. I know the hotel very well. I want to take photos, mostly portraits. I take portraits because mostly I don’t have much time. I like to go out to villages and take photos of real people.

What interests you about portraiture as a medium?

I think the human face is the most interesting landscape in the world. I love it. Each face is full of thousands of stories.