I chose Uzak (Ceylan, 2002) partly because I loved Climates (Ceylan, 2006), but more so because it focuses on outsiders and how they fit in (or don’t) to ‘normal’ society. I watched it with an eye for place and how Ceylan uses it to convey the characters’ thoughts and emotions.
The similarities between Uzak and Climates are striking. Both follow characters who are emotionally distant, whether by choice or not. Both use narrative and cinematographic strategies to avoid giving the viewer what they expect to see. And while the cinematography is not as obviously beautiful in Uzak as it is in Climates, it’s still used with a subtle effectiveness.
Another similarity lies in Uzak’s musical silence. The absence of non-diegetic sound exaggerates the ambient, diegetic sounds, helping to build the sense of place inherent in each of the locations that Ceylan chooses to capture. The dialogue is similarly spartan (he first eleven minutes are completely dialogue free). And this silences highlight the exclusion of the characters. Just as the selective sound builds a sense of place, the minimal dialogue creates a sense of character.
Ceylan matches his minimalist soundscape with evocative, but remote cinematography. He uses long pans to bookend the film; the opening pan establishes Yusuf’s hometown and the desolation that he’s leaving behind; its mirror at end of the film is a shot which pans around Mahmut’s seafront isolation, where he’s chosen to remain. Place is woven in the the very fabric of Ceylan’s story.
And he also uses long shots, but with a static camera, inside Mahmut’s apartment, creating a sense of distance between the audience and the characters which mimics that between the characters and the rest of their world. Ceylan sticks to the same specific angles for all of the scenes in Mahmut’s apartment, creating such a strong sense of place that when he finally abandons them (after a pivotal argument between Mahmut and Yusuf) it’s jarring. Suddenly we see Mahmut’s apartment from new angles and it feels like a completely different place; Ceylan pulls the rug out from under the audience just as Yusuf feels it has been pulled from underneath him. (It’s also the only time that Ceylan breaks the 180 degree rule).
Ceylan uses place very effectively to connote the isolation chosen by Mahmut and imposed on Yusuf. Yusuf’s long walks through the snowy and desolate Istanbul docks in search of a job (after the only factory in his home town closes) perfectly represents his exclusion from society. And it’s another use of the ocean and its shore as a place for outsiders. A shot which pans across a wrecked trawler is a particularly powerful allegory for the situation that Yusuf (and the rest of his home town) finds himself in. Towards the end of the film, Yusuf looks longingly at the Hagia Sophia; a place of meaning and cultural togetherness, but one which he doesn’t enter.
Aside from Istanbul’s snow bound exteriors, the other significant location in the film is Mahmut’s apartment, which Ceylan uses to highlight the distance between Mahmut and Yusuf, but also their collective remove from the rest of the world (it’s no surprise that the the film was re titled Distant in the US). They often appear looking through the huge windows that frame Istanbul like a photograph; they see the world but don’t interact with it. And Yusuf is gradually excluded more and more from Mahmut’s apartment, spending increasing periods on the balcony as Mahmut remains inside. The outside becomes the only place he is free of Mahmut’s criticism; a visual representation of his outsider status.
Yusuf’s isolation is not something that sits easily with him. He tries to make connections with people, especially women, becoming more and more desperate and despairing as time passes. He begins to follow women, first a women he sees in Mahmut’s apartment building, then other women he sees in the city. Objectively it’s unsettling behaviour, yet Ceylan so expertly conveys Yusuf’s despair and longing that we still feel sympathy for him. And Mahmut’s relationships with women are similarly strained. Yet he’s a mirror to Yusuf, because it’s him who keeps them at a remove, rather than the other way round. (Although there’s a small, but poignant moment of similarity when Mahmut follows his ex-wife to the airport as she emigrates to Canada.)
Mahmut’s job as a photographer also represents his self-imposed isolation; he captures the moment but isn’t part of it. His distance is also represented by his avoidance of his mother’s calls (whereas Yusuf unfailingly phones home) even though she’s very ill. And his continual TV watching also hints at a way of seeing the world at a remove; watching it but not interacting with it.
Uzak, like Climates, is a masterclass in using location to convey meaning, especially the emotional states of its characters. And it’s also an example of how much can be conveyed with minimal dialogue; how much aural negative space is as important as visual negative space.
Ceylan, N., B., (2002), Uzak, NBC Ajans
Ceylan, N., B., (2006), Climates, NBC Ajans