Monthly Archives: February 2007

Iklimler (Climates) (Turkey/France 2006)

(These notes were for a course on New European Cinema)

So, why is a Turkish film included in a course on New European Cinema? There are two basic reasons. First is the status of Turkey, a country which in geographical terms has a foothold in the European continent, even if the main part of the country is in ‘Asia Minor’. In political terms, Turkey has already begun the process of bidding to become a member of the European Union and a sizeable Turkish diaspora already exists in Germany and other European countries. In this sense, Turkey is part of the ‘idea of Europe’. Secondly, the films made by Nuri Bilge Ceylan have been recognised as carrying on the tradition of ‘European Art Cinema’ established in the 1950s.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan (b. 1959, Istanbul)
With five films that he has written and directed since 1995, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is now established as a European auteur. His first film, Koza (Cocoon) a short feature (20 mins) gained a nomination at Cannes and subsequent films have often been recognised on the festival circuit with nominations and several prizes. Nominations for European Film Awards in 2000 and 2003 give a form of institutional kudos to the concept of Ceylan as a European filmmaker.

Ceylan began his artistic career as a photographer. This is evident in the stunning images that he achieves and he has continued to pursue a double career – a photographic exhibition has been showing in London alongside the release of Climates. Ceylan spent time in the Turkish Army, completed a degree in electrical engineering and studied filmmaking in London. His focus has been on very ‘personal’ stories and not so much on the issues in contemporary Turkish society (i.e. major issues such as the contesting claims of Islam and secular culture). He says that he finds it difficult to think ‘locally’ when modern communication allows him to be part of international culture. Inevitably, he has been deemed ‘Westernised’ by some commentators in Turkey.

European art cinema and the auteur
What exactly is art ‘cinema’? The first usage of the term appears to refer to films, especially in Europe in the early days of cinema, which adapted famous works of literature or great historical moments or which represented various aspects of high art on screen. The French production company Film d’art of 1908 typified this approach. In the 1920s, again especially in Europe, a movement of small film clubs (in the UK, ‘film societies’) began to promote screenings of films which were considered the work of film ‘artists’ such as the surrealist Luis Buñuel. By the 1930s the range of ‘film artists’ included high profile directors such as Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union, G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang in Germany, René Clair in France etc. Some of these filmmakers went on to be absorbed into the mainstream of international cinema. The ‘artist’ tradition was maintained in various movements termed avant garde or experimental cinema or, in the UK today, ‘artists’ films’. In some cases ‘art cinema’ was associated in Europe with ideas of national cinema, so that the ‘neo-realists’ in Italy during the 1940s were seen as part of art cinema (whereas popular Italian melodramas were not).

After 1945, the concept of ‘art cinema’ began to change, partly because of developments in film criticism and film culture, partly because of the continued domination of international markets by Hollywood. Art cinema in this later sense is often seen as a phenomenon of the twenty years from 1950-70. In a formal sense, art films were seen as defined by being ‘not Hollywood’ in terms of characters, narrative and the general approach to realism. The work of Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini etc. was often seen as primarily concerned with the inner worlds of characters represented by fragmented narratives. Such films were more difficult to follow in terms of the direct narrative pleasures of Hollywood. They were also more ‘open’ about the social problems encountered by characters, about their sexuality and spirituality. Such films appealed to a minority audience, but one which was significant in numbers in many European film cultures. Although this notion of art cinema was in the 1950s a mainly European development, the 1950s pantheon included Japanese directors such as Kurosawa Akira and Mizoguchi Kenji and the Bengali director Satyajit Ray.

The second driving force behind art cinema was the notion of the ‘personal vision’ of the auteur director as promoted by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif in France in the mid-1950s. The critics turned filmmakers of Cahiers such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer themselves became feted by art cinema audiences. Successfully arguing against the so called ‘quality films’ in France of the 1950s – the carefully scripted literary adaptations, studio-bound films with starry casts, the auteur directors made (at least initially) smaller films on lower budgets, deriving energy from varied sources including the street, political and social issues, their own lives, pulp fiction etc.

Since 1970, the decline in audiences for cinema (i.e. films in the theatrical market) and changes in Hollywood filmmaking (the rise of American independent cinema) have seen the gradual disappearance of European art cinema as a consistent force. It is still possible to identify auteurist cinema (especially in France, where state subsidy encourages young filmmakers) but art cinemas are now ‘specialised cinemas’ showing a much greater variety of films and those resembling the art cinema of Bergman and Antonioni are much more rare.

Ceylan and art cinema

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films are, for many audiences, reminiscent of the 1950s films. They focus on characters not unlike Ceylan himself (indeed they are often played by his friends and relatives – even if he maintains that they are not autobiographical). The narratives are minimalist by Hollywood standards. This is how the story of Climates is outlined on Ceylan’s website:

Man was made to be happy for simple reasons and unhappy for even simpler ones – just as he is born for simple reasons and dies for even simpler ones . . . Isa and Bahar are two lonely figures dragged through the ever-changing climate of their inner selves in pursuit of a happiness that no longer belongs to them.
<http://www.nbcfilm.com>

The interest in the film comes from the ways in which the two characters are presented within an emotional landscape and how that is represented using cinematography, sound and editing. There are rather different pleasures on offer from either Hollywood narratives or those we have seen on the course so far in films like Mar Adentro or Drømmen.

Here is an astute critic/reviewer commenting on Climates after its screening at the New York Film Festival in October 2006:

Nuri Bilge Ceylan elegantly channels the spirit and self-reflexivity of Atom Egoyan’s Calendar and Roberto Rossellini’s seminal Voyage in Italy (that in turn, paved the way for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychological landscape films) to create an equally sublime, serenely composed, and understatedly bittersweet chronicle of the dissolution of a relationship through the austerity and desolation of the landscape in his latest film Climates. As the film begins, a middle-aged university instructor and doctoral candidate named Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), en route to a summer holiday in the idyllic Aegean coast with his younger lover, a television art director named Bahar (Ebru Ceylan), deliberatively shoots a series of photographs of ancient ruins for possible use in a class lecture, oblivious to his traveling companion’s noticeable discomfort and tedium over his latest distractive side trip . . . Charting the indefinable trajectory of Isa’s restlessness, alienation, and melancholy through the climatic and geographic changes that reflect the interiority of Isa’s unrequited – and indefinable – longing, Climates exquisitely (and indelibly) maps a spare, elegiac, and achingly intimate meditation on the ephemeral seasons of the human heart. (‘Acquarello’ on the Strictly Film School website at <http://filmref.com/journal/archives/2006_journal/new_york_film_festival/>

This is clearly a highly specialised cineaste’s reading of the film and it is followed by an exchange of comments posted on the same website:

I can see the skeleton of the Voyage to Italy archetype constructing the whole narration here . . . There is something of the modernism of Bergman/Antonioni without the speech-drive, thus a non-intellectualized existentialism, a more visceral (yet mutic) incarnation of individual solitude within the couple. (HarryTuttle)

I agree with you on the non-intellectualized existentialism . . . it’s essentially going back to a more literary text of Sartre and Camus’ novels where it was all about the minutiae and the observation rather than the explication of it. (Acquarello)

We’ll attempt to explore these ideas about existentialism and landscape in our discussion next week.

The work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan is discussed by Nick James in Sight & Sound, February 2007

Roy Stafford 25/2/07

Drømmen (We Shall Overcome Denmark/UK 2005)

Anders Berthelsen as Freddie, the teacher who encourages Frits (Janus Dissing Ratke)

Anders Berthelsen as Freddie, the teacher who encourages Frits (Janus Dissing Ratke)

(An amended version of notes for an evening class.)

Denmark has an interesting cinematic history, as a small country with a Scandinavian language, but a border with Germany. Denmark produced one of the first stars of early cinema with the widespread acclaim for Asta Nielsen in the first Danish feature films from 1910-13. The early success of Danish producers could not be sustained and Nielsen worked in Germany from 1913, becoming a major figure in silent cinema. Carl Dreyer (1898-1968) is perhaps the most famous Danish filmmaker, but his best known films were made in other languages such as French or German.

Since the 1940s Denmark has consistently produced around 20 feature films each year, mostly for Scandinavian markets. In the 1980s two Danish films won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, Babette’s Feast (1987) and Pelle the Conqueror (1988). These were both historical dramas and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lars von Trier and his colleagues began to put contemporary Denmark onto the world’s screens.

In 1991 von Trier had a critical and commercial success with Europa (Zentropa), a Danish/Swedish/French/German/Swiss co-production in English and German. This was followed by a successful TV series (known as The Kingdom in the UK) in 1994, made by the production company Zentropa Entertainments that von Trier founded with Peter Aalbæk Jensen. This company has subsequently produced all of von Trier’s films and those of many other Danish filmmakers.

In 1995 Lars von Trier and colleagues Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen formed the Dogme Collective. The basic premise was that filmmakers should dispense with most of the trappings of mainstream cinema except for believable characters and a story that was in no way contrived. Films that fulfilled the strict rules of the Dogme ‘Vow of Chastity’ received a certificate from the group. Whatever Dogme achieved in terms of changing attitudes towards filmmaking (and there are plenty of sceptics as well as supporters, it proved to be an excellent means of promoting Danish films internationally. Journalists everywhere had a handy label to pin to films they were willing to discuss as ‘Dogme’ films. Perhaps a dozen, mostly Danish, films have been widely seen internationally as Dogme films, but hundreds more have received some kind of ‘promotion by association’.

We Shall Overcome
Niels Arden Oplev’s film is not a Dogme film (historical or costume pictures are not allowed), but it was produced by Zentropa Entertainments and it has certainly benefited from the high profile Danish films have achieved on the festival circuit as a result of the Dogme phenomenon. Getting your film seen is always difficult and Zentropa’s connections mean that Danish films like this have an advantage over other films from relatively small film industries.

Based on a true story, We Shall Overcome is a feelgood drama focusing on an incident in a Danish village school in the late 1960s in which a young boy Frits stands up to one of his teachers on a matter of historical accuracy. The incident snowballs into a major confrontation. The boy is close to his father who suffers a mental breakdown and has to spend time in hospital. In thematic terms it brings together three social issues including corporal punishment, attitudes to mental illness and the social liberation movements of the late 1960s which were inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the US and the Vietnam War protests across Europe. In Denmark, the social revolution had an internationally visible representation in the hippy community in Christiania, which was founded in 1971 when squatters on state-owned land in Copenhagen set up an alternative community. Freddie, the teacher in We Shall Overcome, is presented as a forerunner to the hippies of this community. Importantly, he is associated with the international peace movement and a more politically aware outlook compared to the hippies. Nevertheless, he will ‘fail’ the central character Frits at a crucial time.

The film is ‘feelgood’ because its ‘liberal’ views on social issues are now generally supported and the narrative effectively pushes us to support the boy and his family at the centre of the story in their struggle against a conservative and repressive school system. The film also develops other elements often found in European films. One is the 1960s optimism founded in American popular culture, especially black culture. An obvious connection might be made to the early films of Wim Wenders such as Summer in the City (1970), Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976), all using images of America (and its music) to comment on contemporary life in West Germany. Just as the French New Wave directors explored aspects of American culture in order to critique traditional approaches to cinema, this film uses the Civil Rights movement in order to challenge the social order. It is also worth remembering that in many parts of Europe the development of television as a mass entertainment form took longer than in the US and the UK.

In commercial terms, We Shall Overcome also attempts to attract two separate audiences. Younger audiences might identify directly with Frits and the schoolchildren, whereas for those over forty, the film evokes nostalgia for what might now seem a more optimistic time when protest could bring about change. (The director was born in 1961 and claims that the film was very much influenced by his own memories.)

One of the important issues for British audiences to consider is that this film belongs alongside a growing number of films that are child or youth-centred. In the Scandinavian countries in particular and Europe in general, there is far more attention paid to ‘children’s film’. This often means relatively serious films by comparison with those from Hollywood, although there are similarly escapist films as well. UK audiences have got used to the idea that ‘children’s film’ means animation or fantasy adventure. There are relatively few ‘British’ rather than American films that are seen by younger audiences in Britain. In the past, the UK had the Children’s Film Foundation which made professionally-produced films for children on relatively small budgets. This ran from 1951 until the early 1980s with some public funding. Otherwise in the UK, children have been neglected as the central characters in mainstream features. Older youths in UK pictures have traditionally appeared in ‘social problem’ films – ideologically quite different in their approach to youth issues to films such as We Shall Overcome. There is now something of a movement in the UK to promote Children’s Films again and in the last few years a number of children’s film festivals have developed, notably Cinemagic in Northern Ireland and two in Yorkshire – the Leeds Children and Young People’s Film Festival and Showcommotion in Sheffield. Both these festivals are part of the European Children’s Film Network. It’s worth visiting the website at http://www.ecfaweb.org/ecfnet/films.php to see the range of films produced in recent years.

Films like We Shall Overcome have attracted middle-class audiences to new versions of ‘Saturday morning cinema’ (in arthouse cinemas like London’s Barbican Cinema), once a staple of working class life in the UK in the 1950s. But might the film have a wider audience if it was dubbed? The sub-plot around the new approach to teaching music is very recognisable from Hollywood films such as School of Rock (US 2003). However, Variety’s critic Leslie Felperin suggested after a festival screening that the film “has a feelgood factor that can win hearts and minds on the fest circuit and secure some theatrical bookings, but isn’t sufficiently revolutionary to conquer farther flung territories”. I don’t agree – I think this film could have wide appeal.

Finally, we should note the co-production credit for Glasgow-based Sigma Films. There are strong connections between Zentropa and various Scottish production groups. These have seen some high profile projects such as Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (UK/Denmark 2006) and Lone Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (UK/Denmark 2002).

Roy Stafford 13/2/07