Winter Sleep (Kiş Uykusu, Turkey-France-Germany 2014)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, confirming the status of writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a leading figure in global art cinema. Since 1998 he has been winning prizes at film festivals from Tokyo to Buenos Aires and all points in between. So much has been written about his latest film that I am wary of simply repeating the same observations. If you want to read a review and an interesting interview I recommend Jonathan Romney’s review and Geoff Andrew’s interview in Sight and Sound December 2014. Romney’s review is not untypical in finding the film disappointing while still recognising it as a notable intellectual achievement. In Sight and Sound January 2015, the Cannes valuations have been reversed and the ‘poll of critics’ has placed Winter Sleep at No 7 in the list of the year’s top films. Its Cannes rival Leviathan appears at 3. These lists are pointless really but they sometimes indicate shifts in taste. My thoughts on Leviathan are posted on The Case for Global Film.

Winter Sleep‘s narrative presents a central character called ‘Aydin’ (Turkish for ‘intellectual’ according to Ceylan in the Andrew interview). Once an important stage actor, he has retired/retreated back to the mountainous region of Cappadocia in Eastern Anatolia to run the hotel he has inherited. The Hotel Othello is carved out of the rocks like many of the dwellings in this important but isolated tourist region. As well as the hotel, he has also inherited land and tenants. He lives with his sister Necla, recently divorced, and Nihal his younger wife. He delegates the business aspects of the hotel and the tenancies to his agent and spends his time writing a column for the local paper and contemplating the history of Turkish theatre which he intends to write. But as the winter draws in and the snows come he finds himself in dispute with both his wife and his sister as well as one of his tenants.

The issues at stake here in the negative aspects of some of the reviews are the length of the film at 196 minutes and its ‘interiority’ – a narrative dealing with quite a small cast of major characters who spend much of the time in conversation (and confrontation) in darkened rooms. Since Ceylan was a photographer before he became a filmmaker and since he has gained a reputation for his presentation of Turkish landscapes, there is a frustration felt by some critics with his change of approach.

In the Andrew interview Ceylan discusses the length of the film and acknowledges that nobody likes long films but that he felt the need to be free to tell a story like a novelist. (He actually wrote the script jointly with his wife Ebru as has been his practice for several years.) He then observes that films like this have a long after-life on DVD allowing ‘readers’ to break off and re-engage with the narrative as they please – just like reading a novel. This strikes me as obviously true but also rather a strange viewpoint for a filmmaker of Ceylan’s unique vision. It occurs to me that an intermission would have been an excellent decision for the theatrical release (Seven Samurai had one for its 207 minute version and mainstream Indian cinema has made it an industry convention). I don’t like watching DVDs but I have to admit that it was a slog at times in the cinema and I struggled to concentrate in some of the long dialogue scenes (Romney suggests that one such scene lasts 30 minutes).

The general agreement seems to be that the film owes its narrative style/tone to Chekhov and Ceylan has spoken about his love of Chekhov in relation to earlier films. Here he makes it explicit and tells us that three Chekhov short stories were the inspiration for the script. In the end credits he also namechecks Chekhov alongside Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire. I’m not sure what to do with these references. I have some knowledge of all four, but not enough to usefully comment on how they influence Ceylan’s narrative. For me, the most useful ‘way in’ is to think about similar geographical/social/cultural locations. This, of course, includes Russia over the last 150 years plus perhaps Spain and definitely India. In fact the tourist hotel made me think of specific hotels which I visited in Andalusia and in West Bengal – hotels where it is easy to imagine an intellectual, aloof from the rural population, failing to achieve his personal aims, being criticised by family and friends and losing his sense of direction.

Aydin's Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Aydin’s Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Several commentators have suggested that Aydin is indeed representative of a contemporary Turkish elite intellectual class. This view is coincidentally supported by the casting of Haluk Bilginer, a leading actor known in the UK for a stint on the UK TV soap EastEnders in the 1980s. Thus Aydin speaks very good British English in his dealings with an East Asian couple staying at the hotel (Ceylan says he didn’t know about the EastEnders role.) It’s also noticeable that Aydin decides to write a newspaper column about religion which becomes a target for his sister’s criticism. Intellectuals in Turkey have a difficult relationship with Islam in a country in which secularism and the idea of an Islamic state are in constant conflict. Even so, the scope of Winter Sleep is much wider than Turkey alone. Ceylan tells us that this is a universal story and certainly Aydin’s failings and his problems are very recognisable.

Most reviews assume that Aydin is an irredeemable character, a wealthy man who bullies his wife and doesn’t know how to behave towards his tenants – or indeed towards the whole local community. He is pompous, arrogant, proud etc. One or two do point out that Aydin is also a ‘civilised’ and charming man. Ceylan deliberately doesn’t give us very much in the way of back story for any of the principal characters. How long have Aydin and the two women been living at the hotel? When did he get his inheritance? How long is it since he had any acting work? Instead of being spoon-fed this background we are forced to glean what we can from the dialogues. These long scenes require accomplished actors used to delivering lines precisely and this has affected the casting. In earlier films Ceylan cast friends and relatives and even appeared himself as part of a couple with his wife Ebru in Iklimler (Climates, 2006) – perhaps the nearest to Winter Sleep in some aspects of subject matter, if not style). In these films he made more use of ‘street language’ and improvisation. In Winter Sleep the precise language is imperative in order to construct the narrative. The casting also makes an ironic comment on the relationship between film and television, since the two leading female actors are stars of Turkish TV. Aydin’s disparaging remarks about TV soaps in a sense reveal his own failure to get roles in TV drama which is now enormously popular in Turkey.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many 'interior' shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many ‘interior’ shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Despite the fact that very little seems to happen, this is in fact a rich text. It isn’t the case that Aydin has no friends. He seems genuinely to care for a neighbour who is recently widowed (and who doesn’t see his daughter now living in London) and it with this man that he will get very drunk perhaps as a symbol of hitting rock bottom before he can start to put his life back together. And it isn’t the case that he is the only one not ‘in touch’ with the community. He bullies his wife and criticises her attempts to act as a fundraiser in the community and clearly he is in the wrong – but she also is pretty clueless about what she is doing. Ceylan isn’t didactic. He doesn’t tell us what to think. Instead he layers sub-plots that show Aydin’s interactions with local traditions and customs. One of these concerns the wild horses of the region which he (or a hired designer) have used as illustrations on the hotel website. When a guest asks if he has a horse he determines to acquire one. This decision develops into an interesting little story about tradition and modernity (and the sensibility of Western audiences). Some of these layered sub-plots or separate narrative ‘threads’ also involve philosophical dilemmas such as the action proposed by Aydin’s sister when she gives him feedback on his newspaper column. We realise that Aydin doesn’t really know whether the best strategy re his tenants is to leave everything to his agent or to intervene personally. The central plotline provides the scenario in which a ‘legal’ but uncaring action by debt-collectors brings Aydin face-to-face with an aggrieved tenant. Nuri and Ebru Ceylan construct the whole narrative so that it springs from a simple incident concerning the tenant’s young son.

Why is it ‘Winter Sleep’? The obvious allusion is to hibernation or to the ‘shutting down’ implied by the metaphor of the seasons for the ‘ages of man’. But rather than gradually hibernating, Aydin is more active than we might expect – worried that he isn’t doing the right thing or that more is expected of him. These kinds of references to seasons and climate often seem to be contradictory. Stories set in boiling summers when you might expect torpor to set in sometimes produce violent action brought on by impatience in the heat. Perhaps the key here is Aydin’s resolve at the end of the narrative to take a cold hard look at himself and change his behaviour – but typically Ceylan leaves open the possibility that Aydin might talk to his wife Nihal rather than just ‘get on’ with his own affairs.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is the subject of a case study in The Global Film Book, focusing on his film Uzak (Distant 2002). The case study appears in Chapter 6, Middle East Without Borders. Elsewhere on this blog and The Case for Global Film, there are short postings on Iklimler (see above) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

New Wave UK trailer:

Uzak (Distant Turkey 2002)

Yusuf (Emin Toprak) in the snowy streets of Istanbul

The new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is due to open in the UK this Friday and last night we watched his 2002 film which I think was his breakthrough with arthouse audiences over here. I remember watching it without knowing anything about the director and being very impressed back in 2004 when it finally reached London after winning prizes at Cannes in 2003.

My strongest memories of the film were the compositions of one of the two principal characters, Yusuf (Emin Toprak) isolated in the snowy urban landscapes of Istanbul. This was the third film by Ceylan (co-writer and director) to feature Toprak with Muzaffer Özdemir. Soon after completing the film Toprak was killed in a car crash, a tragedy that would also ultimately change the director’s approach to casting. In Uzak, Özdemir plays Mahmut, a village boy who has built up a successful career in Istanbul as a photographer. Yusuf is his country cousin who is forced out of his village by redundancy and comes to Istanbul seeking work on a ship. Mahmut is a rather reluctant host, a divorced man stuck in his ways who thinks of his cousin as something of a country bumpkin. The film’s title refers to the ‘distance’ in culture between the village and the big city – and the potential distance between the two cousins.

The film is strong on metaphors and symbols. Istanbul looks wonderful cloaked in thick snow and Ceylan knows just how to make use of the possibilities it offers as Yusuf wanders forlornly around the waterfront looking for work. At the end of one hopeless trip he stares down at a bowl of small fishes one of which has fallen from the bowl and is thrashing about in a puddle – we know how he feels. Back in Mahmut’s flat the two men do battle with a mouse in the kitchen with sometimes hilarious outcomes but the inference is clear. The country mouse has come to town and the town mouse doesn’t know quite how to react.

In his use of two non-professionals as leads, Ceylan is using men he knows (he often used other members of his family in his early films) and he has admitted that the early films are autobiographical to some extent (for instance, Muzaffer appears as both a filmmaker in Clouds of May (1999) and a photographer here, mirroring Ceylan’s activities. I’m not sure whether Mahmut’s rather wonderful flat is actually Ceylan’s but we do see a poster for Ceylan’s first film, a short titled Koza on Mahmut’s wall. If Mahmut is in any way ‘representative’ of the director, it is a brave self-examination because Mahmut is certainly a man with flaws. He has become the isolated and alienated intellectual who has even lost interest in the art form that drove him in his career. The film sets up a nice contrast between Yusuf’s traditional community-orientated values and Mahmut’s disdain for family and friends. But it also hints at the possibility that Yusuf could end up like Mahmut if he spends too much time in the city. In this sense the scenes in which both men (separately) stare out across the Bosphorus from the waterfront remind us of the key geographical and cultural location of Turkey, looking out to Europe and beyond and back into the hinterland of Western Asia.

The film is slow-paced but never dull. I never felt it dragged and that is down to Ceylan’s fine visual sense (he photographed the film himself), enough humour to spice up the observation of the characters and two fine central performances that won the pair a joint acting prize at Cannes.

 

 

BIFF 2011 #13: Honey (Bal, Turkey/Germany 2010)

Yakup and Yusuf in the forest

Honey is something of a companion piece to Le quattro volte as another example of ‘slow cinema’ (and as a prizewinner, the 2010 Golden Bear at Berlin). It’s the final film of a trilogy but since I haven’t seen the other two I’ll discuss it as a one-off. The title refers to the occupation of the protagonist’s father. 7-year-old Yusuf lives in the mountains of Rize Province near the Black Sea Coast in the far North-East of Turkey. His father Yakup places hives in the tallest trees and the sale of the honey is the family’s chief income.

Yusuf is devoted to his father and every day he rushes home from school to see if Yakup has made any progress in carving a small wooden sailing ship. At school Yusuf desperately wants to get the medal that his teacher bestows on any student who successfully reads out loud, but Yusuf is too self-conscious to manage this and can only stutter – much to the amusement of his classmates. At home, he reads the almanac for his father each morning, safe and confident in his home surroundings. Father and son have a close bond and Yusuf whispers to his father about their secrets as they walk through the forest to check the hives.

A classic image of exclusion – Yusuf watches his classmates play through the classroom window

The film shares the narrative structure of the Japanese film Seesaw featured earlier in the festival. It opens with an incident that leaves us literally hanging and to which it returns later in the film. The local bee hives are failing and Yakup is forced to look for suitable sites in a forest some distance away. When he doesn’t return after a few days Yusuf’s mother Zehra begins to worry. She takes Yusuf to stay with his grandmother and also to a big local festival where she seeks news of Yakup. These are the only scenes outside the home, school and local forest tracks.

The cinematography is beautifully composed, scenes are well lit, the performances are extraordinary, especially that of Bora Altas as Yusuf. Writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu writes about how he managed to get Bora to act the part of Yusuf – a boy with a very different personality (see the Press Pack from Olive Films). Kaplanoglu describes his approach to filmmaking as ‘spiritual realism’. This is something he has discovered through making the ‘Yusuf trilogy’. He seems to invest a great deal in every decision he makes about locations, actors and technology/techniques. I’ve discovered that the trilogy has actually been made in reverse chronological order so that Honey finally reveals some of the events that helped to make the adult Yusuf in Milk (2008) and Egg (2007). Neither of these films seems to have reached the UK, but I’m intrigued to see them now. Kaplanoglu is not interested in period drama as such so all three films (which cover 30 years or so and have different actors playing Yusuf) are set in the present. Even so, Kaplanoglu tells us that the forest setting in Honey is magical and traditional in an area of outstanding beauty that is disappearing under the pressure of development.

Honey is scheduled for a June/July release from Verve in the UK. I hope it does well – I could certainly watch it again. Here’s the German trailer which gives a good indication of the fantastic use of natural sounds in the film:

Global soap

Photos of the stars of the Turkish soap opera "Noor" are sold in Ramallah on the West Bank. (Muhammed Muheisen/ Associated Press, taken from the website of the Boston Globe in 2008)

The global soap opera is a phenomenon that should get much more attention in both film and media studies. TV soaps are primarily the television offspring of traditional cinematic family melodramas, albeit in ‘serial narrative’ form rather than single narratives. Their production flourishes in those countries with a heritage of film production in this genre.

The US and UK, other English-speaking countries (e.g. Australia) and much of Europe have produced soaps for home consumption and exports within their own language markets. The same is true in India (and probably East Asia – can anyone confirm this?). But the interesting development is what global media theorists refer to as the ‘contra-flow’ of exported soap operas outside the American-dominated English-language market. The Latin-American telenovela in Spanish or Portuguese conquered much of Africa and parts of Eastern Europe decades ago, but it has competition from another source – the Arabic-language soaps primarily from Egypt, but according to a recent news report also in dubbed form from Turkey.

Noor is a Turkish soap which when it finished its run was attracting up to 80 million viewers from “Morocco to Palestine” according to the Guardian and which is now promoting tourism from Arab countries to Istanbul. This looks like an effective move into ‘soft power’ as Turkey seeks leadership across the countries of North Africa and Western Asia. It goes well with the recent resurgence of Turkish Cinema. Researching this story, I’m all too well aware of my ignorance of a programme that has become a cultural phenomenon in the Arab world through showings first on the MBC channel.

Here’s a BBC business report on the success of Turkish soaps:

Kolkata IFF screening 4: My Marlon and Brando (Turkey 2008)

Ayça Damgacı as the central character in My Marlon and Brando

With sensitive handling by a distributor I think that this film could do well in major markets. I’m sure that it will be appreciated in Turkey and Germany but its story is also universal. It has already won several festival prizes and been well reviewed by Variety and Screen International.

The film’s story is based on the real love affair between a Turkish actor and the Iraqi Kurd she meets on a film set. The opening sequence made me think that it might be a reality TV take-off, but the final sections reminded me strongly of Michael Winterbottom’s Berlin prizewinner, In This World from 2002. The film was co-written and directed by the documentarist Hüseyin Karabey.

The two actors, Ayça and Hama Ali effectively play themselves in a narrative that is presumably only slightly fictionalised. They fall in love but are separated and Hama Ali finds himself in Iraq when the British and Americans invade. He sends Ayça video love letters in which he acts out one of his roles as a comic Iraqi Superman. But Ayça is very much in love and she despairs at the separation and despite her severe lack of funds she determines to travel to Iraq to be with him. The second half of the film then becomes a form of road movie as she experiences great difficulty in making a border crossing from Turkey, eventually travelling to Iran to attempt a crossing over a different border.

I enjoyed the film and especially the performances. Ayça is not a conventionally pretty ‘leading lady’ but she is a character who invites identification. Hama Ali is similarly engaging. Although there are several comic sequences, the latter stages of the narrative are harrowing. The realism of the journey helps in the representation of rural Turkey and the problems a woman travelling alone encounters in conservative communities where she is expected to be veiled.

Turkish Cinema is on something of a roll at the moment and I hope that this film gets picked up for wider distribution. For a European audience it offers real food for thought about the boundaries between sophisticated European communities (which may well include Istanbul) and those in rural ‘Asia Minor’ as we used to call it. As the director points out it reverses the usual narrative of movements from East to West and in doing so shows that the borders between Turkey, Iran and Iraq are irrelevant (and of course the Kurdish people do not have borders for their ‘virtual state’).

A trailer and a detailed Press Pack are available on this sales company website. I do hope the film finds a distributor prepared to promote it properly.

Bes vakit (Times and Winds, Turkey 2006)

The Imam's family

The Imam's family in Bes vakit

Bes vakit is the kind of film that brings out the best in some reviewers and rather than go through the same points, I’m tempted to point you towards Jonathan Romney in the Independent on Sunday. I’d go along with all of Romney’s points, but perhaps I can add some other ones as well.

At the beginning of the film, I had no expectations about how it would look, but I assumed that it would be similar to the work of Abbas Kiarostami or the Makhmalbafs (given that geographically and culturally they are perhaps the closest other major filmmakers). The first surprise then was to find that the film is a CinemaScope presentation. ‘Scope at 2.35:1 makes a big difference to the representation of landscape – and, importantly here, to the placing of figures in that landscape. The views of mountains, valleys and the distant sea necessarily become ‘panoramic’, stressing width not height, and characters are shown in medium shot or MCU they appear much more constrained than in 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 (the more familiar ratios for the neo-realists). Of course, it helps if the projectionist can get the anamorphic lens working properly – surprisingly, the print at London’s Renoir Cinema seemed out of focus at either side of the frame. Despite this, I enjoyed the views of the area.

There are familiar elements from the Iranian films (though I discovered that the location was on the most north-westerly coast of Turkey overlooking the Hellespont – i.e. closer to Europe than Iran), but I was reminded of a range of other films. The ‘distanced’ feel of some of the village scenes reminded me of Carlos Reygadas and Silent Light (2007), the Mexican film about a Mennonite community and the children in school reminded me of several European films and especially of some Spanish films set in isolated villages. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) sprang to mind. Bes vakit does not have the strong narrative sense of either of the other films mentioned here, but it does share a sense of ‘other worldliness’. Romney points to the recurring compositions of the children lying seemingly asleep in a variety of locations. I found these quite disturbing and one occasion I thought the character was dead (a boy is lying amongst what looks like the ruins of a house). The use of music (by an Estonian composer) adds to this feeling. It seems very portentous and undercuts any sense of rural calm.

The trailer gives a sense of how the film looks and sounds, though I think it overemphasises the scenes of violence by adults directed at children and suggests that the narrative threads are much clearer than they really are:

Overall, this seems to me an enjoyable and rather beautiful avant-garde film, more like an art installation than a straight narrative movie. I’ve still not quite worked out the meaning of a film which is divided into five sections relating to the prayer times in the village (which are then offered in reverse order, so that the film ends in the morning). There are narratives – mainly associated with themes of growing up, sexual awakening, identity within a family structure etc., but also the simple narratives of daily life, here bound up in ideas of collective responsibility. But the film doesn’t offer any coherent sociological explanation of how the village functions. There appears to be a jointly owned flock of sheep, but it wasn’t clear how the families made their livings beyond animal husbandry. The village isn’t really that remote (and the boys are sometimes dressed quite formally – more as they might be in cities?). But this is good for the sense of mystery that underpins the daily routine. I think it might be quite useful in raising discussions about film narrative.

24 Frames: books on regional cinemas (1)

The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, Gönül Dönmez-Colin (ed), Wallflower Press, London 2007, ISBN 978-1-9056-7410-7

’24 Frames’ is a very welcome series from Wallflower Press that over the last few years has begun to introduce new audiences to films from ‘national and regional cinemas’ around the world. These are scholarly collections with 24 articles on individual films in each collection. The definition of a ‘regional cinema’ is always going to be arbitrary and the introduction to this collection by the editor turns the arbitrariness to the advantage of the book. On the one hand, the definition here of ‘North Africa and the Middle East’ includes three major film-producing countries, each of which deserves its own volume. On the other, there are good reasons, historical, political, cultural etc., why it is useful to group these cinemas. Commercially, the ‘region’ represents only a small part of the international film market, even though there are sizable local audiences and the potential for wider distribution. To illustrate the problem of definitions, the annual ‘World Film Market Trends’ publication, Focus (from the European Audio-Visual Observatory) includes all of Africa and the Middle East, but not Turkey. In this collection, Turkey is included, but not sub-Saharan Africa.

The Middle East is a highly problematic term that has arguably increased in usage with its importance as a concept in American foreign policy. The term was first popularised during the European colonial/imperial period, but then it referred primarily to Iraq and Persia/Iran. As a child, I remember the term the ‘Near East’. For the British, the ‘East’ began at Suez and the ‘Far East’ began at Singapore. India and Burma were the Raj. These are my memories of terms that lingered on after the Empire went. These terms at least had a (Eurocentric) logic that isn’t there in current usage. As Gönül Dönmez-Colin points out, the term ‘West Asia’ is sometimes used by Indian scholars and it does make more sense. Egypt and Turkey then conveniently straddle Asia and Africa/Europe respectively.

The region does not have a single language culture. Although Arabic, English and French are used extensively, Turkish, Hebrew and Farsi are distinctive language cultures. Religion and ethnicity are also mixed, especially in the littoral that the French used to call the Levant, with Lebanon and Beirut in particular celebrating diversity. This cultural mixing has contributed to several distinctive modes of film culture, both in production and in distribution/exhibition. The latter means that whilst some films from the region have been widely available in European and American specialised cinema circuits, others (generally those more popular with local audiences) have struggled to be seen outside parts of the region. There is now the beginnings of a Turkish popular cinema in limited distribution in Germany and other parts of Europe for the Turkish diaspora and also the possibility of Arabic-language films on satellite, but again these are unlikely to be seen by ‘Western’ audiences.

The difficulties of distribution mean that I have only seen three of the 24 films discussed in the book (although I have access to a couple more that I will get to eventually). It’s difficult therefore to evaluate the coverage of the diversity of material presented here. I can’t criticise a book because I haven’t seen the films, but the availability of films is an issue in opening up study. You can just imagine the headache the editor must have had trying to commission authors and titles, trying to represent an historical perspective and a spread across national cinemas, popular cinema and specialised cinema. For the record, the book has entries on four films each from Egypt, Turkey and Iran, four from the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) and seven from what was the Levant (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine – several involving co-productions, often with France) with the last entry about an Iraqi film, Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection, produced from Switzerland and Germany. The only films made before 1970 are Ghazal Al-Banat (Candy Floss) and Bab El-Hadid (Cairo Station), both from Egypt in 1949 and 1958 respectively, the first representing the Egyptian studio system, the second Egypt’s principal auteur, Youssef Chahine.

I have seen two of the films in the last couple of years, Silences of the Palace (Tunisia, 1994) and Uzak (Distant, Turkey, 2002), so I’ll focus on the analyses of these two. Viola Shafik’s essay (10 pp with references) on Silences of the Palace proved invaluable in working on the film for a recent course. The film did very well on the festival circuit winning prizes and it received distribution in Europe. It tells the story of a young woman growing up in the ‘women’s quarters’ in a Bey’s house (Beys were the aristocratic rulers in Tunisia, granted privileges by the French colonial administrators) in the 1950s. The story is told in flashback by the central character who has become a cabaret singer by the 1960s. Shafik begins with a commentary on the film’s critical reputation and she points out that although revered in the West as an ‘art film’, partly because it deals with the position of women in Islamic society, it is in fact a skilful re-interpretation of a classical melodrama. Shafik then notes that in 1995, the film was distributed widely in the West but, apart from within Tunisia itself, it was not sold to distributors elsewhere in the Arab world (i.e. unlike popular Egyptian melodramas). She goes on to explore the complex set of theoretical issues around ‘popular’ and ‘art cinema’, the denigration of Egyptian melodramas, the subtle transformation of the genre in Silences, the ‘moment’ of liberation from colonial rule as represented in national cinemas etc. By providing useful specific cultural knowledge as well as contextualising insights, Shafik makes possible a much richer reading of the film.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has ‘arrived’ in Europe and North America as an auteur, introduced outside the festival circuit by Uzak. In 2007, his position was firmly established by the critical reception to Iklimler. Uzak deals with the arrival in snowy Istanbul of a man from the rural hinterland. He comes to the apartment of his cousin, a photographer and very much the ‘metropolitan man’. The cousins have a very ‘distant’ relationship, exploration of which is the focus of the film. (The photographer is a typical character partly based on Ceylan himself.) S. Ruken Ozturk’s essay is just eight pages. Again, like Viola Shafik, she provides contextualising information about Ceylan’s earlier career, about the differences between Ceylan’s work and those of diaspora filmmakers such as Fatih Akin. She emphasises that Distant has been seen by far more cinemagoers in France (150,000) than in Turkey (60,000). What follows is again a rich reading of the film in terms of allegory and metaphor (Istanbul is a ‘distant place’ of 10 million souls caught somewhere between Turkey and Europe, the tale of the two cousins is played out in three scenes using a mousetrap – linked to the fable of the town mouse and country mouse) as well as in terms of a discourse of masculinity. I would have found this very useful after I’d first seen the film and again when I was teaching Iklimler.

If the rest of the entries are up to these two, I think that this will prove to be a valuable book. It has certainly encouraged me to think about hunting down more of these films on imported DVDs.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed), Wallflower, London 2004, ISBN 1-904764-20-7

The ‘naming’ of regions is also an issue in this collection. For far too long, the four countries of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been viewed as generally ‘East European’ and up until 1989 as part of an Eastern bloc dominated by Soviet Communism. As a result, the films have been viewed through a prism of ideological awareness – judged by the extent to which they have confirmed or resisted Soviet hegemony. But before 1939 ‘Central Europe’ was something of a powerhouse of artistic achievement deriving in part from the nationalist struggles of artists within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in the new nation states that followed the break-up of the Empire after 1918. In this conception, I would expect to include aspects of German and Austrian Cinema, but I’m sure they will be part of another volume (and in any case will have different kinds of concerns).

Peter Hames’ collection of essays covers the four countries and the films range from the 1930s to the mid 1990s with a perhaps understandable focus on the mid 1960s (the period of the Czechoslovak New Wave). Apart from some of the earliest films, most of the titles have been distributed in the UK and several are now available on DVD. These include films by well-known European auteurs such as Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958 and Man of Marble, 1977) and Krzyzstof Kieslowski (Dekalog, 1988).

In this case, I have seen many of the films discussed and I have used material in the book on an evening class covering Central European Cinema. I found it extremely useful and I’d recommend it.