Celebrated Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2014 for “Winter Sleep” among many other accolades, is known to be rather reclusive. But he had no hesitation in accepting to preside over the jury of the International Migration Film Festival’s first edition, thus contributing significantly to its launch. He took questions from Variety about what moved him to participate.
You have been on several film festival juries before, also as president, including Cannes, Venice, Sarajevo and Shanghai. But this festival is different for various reasons. First off it’s a thematic event. The theme being migration, of course. How important was this aspect in your decision to head this jury?
I can really say that the urgency of the issue and a feeling of guilt that derive from the fact that I do not or cannot do anything despite frequently encountering the tragic dimensions of the matter, not only on the media but also in my close surroundings, have played a definite role in my accepting the offer. This is one of the toughest problems in the world today. I was offered an opportunity to, in a way, call attention to the issue, and do this without making a significant effort, so my conscience did not allow me to evade it with several excuses. When it comes to these issues, a single movie, or even a single photograph, can totally change people’s perspective and trigger sensitivity. We all know how a single photograph taken on an Aegean coast was effective on public opinion, and even on some world leaders, driving them to make some humanitarian decisions.
Historically Turkey has been a destination for migrants, being at a crossroads between Europe and Asia. Due to the ongoing conflict in Syria, it now hosts the world’s largest migrant and refugee population. I think it’s fair to say your films have reflected this aspect of your country’s history, albeit not directly. Do you agree? If so, could you elaborate?
Yes, as you said, Turkey is the country that hosts the highest number of refugees in the world. This inevitably can lead to a variety of problems in several parts of the country. It is important for the people who are disturbed to develop empathy toward the people who have disturbed them, but with the news reports obliged to present a rather popular, political and broader perspective on matters, this does not come that easy. This is why films that approach incidents on a macro level – (albeit) through the unique experiences of the individual, and possess an opportunity to present the authentic stories of the individuals in a way that everyone can understand and (that) develop empathy, with all the feelings and contexts – are important.
Obviously my films do not put these issues as their focus, but still, characters who are not content with where they are and who dream of going to some other places appeared in my former movies.
Have you yourself ever felt like a migrant? I’m asking because as a child you uprooted from Istanbul and moved to Yenice.
Not because of our back and forth between Istanbul and Yenice, but due to my general character, my nature which can by no means escape feeling like a stranger wherever I go, I might be considered as a confirmed refugee.
Most of the films in the festival competition are by young directors. You started directing relatively late on in life, at 36, owing to the fact that prior to the arrival of digital it was very expensive to make a feature. Do you think young directors have a big advantage these days due to digital?
In practical terms, I can agree. It is true for starting the profession, testing one’s self and shooting incidents that cannot be taped by heavy cameras. It can also be said that this has brought some kind of democracy and justice to film producing. We know that there are many talented directors who would maybe never get a chance to make movies in the absence of digital opportunities. Thus, one can think that it saves filmmaking from the hands of a privileged community. Still, the easiness in some work can sometimes bring some compromise in quality and elaboration. We can’t disregard (the fact) that the best films in the history of cinema have been made in the pre-digital era.
Speaking of digital, I believe you now use a digital camera. Am I right? If so, when did you stop using celluloid?
I quit celluloid at a point when I believed digital cameras reached a considerable quality in terms of my criteria. “Uzak” (” Distant”) was my last celluloid film. “İklimler” (” Climates”), which was shot in 2004 and 2005, was my first film with digital.
Of course the whole festival is going to be digital. Does this aspect of the festival intrigue you?
A “virtual” festival can by no means substitute the organic human relations and the ritual of watching a film together on a large screen. However, with no other options emerging in this environment of pandemic threat, it is still better than not doing it at all.