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Nuri Bilge Ceylan • Director

"Maybe this is a Turkish western"


- Ceylan’s acclaimed film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a sort of Turkish western based on memories of true events

Based on memories of true events, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Competition entry Once Upon a Time in Anatolia [+see also:
film profile
, winner of the Jury Grand Prix, is a witty, slow-paced police procedural, turned on its head by Turkey’s subtlest lyrical realist. Ceylan talks to Cineuropa about how he approached the subject.

Cineuropa: You grew up in a rural area much like the one in your film. Is your depiction of it based on childhood memories?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I know these people very well, because my father was one of them, a small town bureaucrat, and much like two of the film’s main characters, life for them is a true struggle. They really isolate themselves from local communities, because if you’re a judge, for instance, it’s not easy to be objective about someone you might know very well. So they only socialize amongst themselves, which creates a power struggle where everyone’s trying to humiliate the others.

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But it’s not based on my memories, it’s more than that. My co-scriptwriter was one of those people as well. He’s a doctor and in Turkey when you get your license you’re required to spend at least two years working in remote places in Anatolia. He worked in the town depicted in the film, and had an experience exactly like the one in our story: a murder happened and they spent an entire night looking for the body.

Did he remember it better than the murderer in the film does?
Not really, he didn’t remember why the murder happened or where the body was buried exactly, but he remembered the atmosphere. What one remembers doesn’t make it into a script most of the time, so we changed a lot of things when we wrote it, and once done we re-wrote it again, also using some quotes from Chekov stories.

Your film feels like a variation on film noir, with a lot of humoristic talkative elements.
I don’t know if it’s noir, or something like that. We just tried to be as realistic as possible. We didn’t try to be funny either, but sometimes real life can be very funny.

The title also alludes to westerns, as does the film’s structure.
The title was an actual quote from one of the drivers in the real story, and even though I like Sergio Leone, there’s no reference to him in this film. Maybe this is a Turkish western, but I never thought about it.

The film ends with you main character making a very dubious decision. What leads him to it?
I have at least five reasons for that, but I cannot tell you. I carefully put these five reasons in there, but you need to use your own imagination. That’s the way life works anyway, we get information, we gather the details and we need to use our imagination to guess the right conclusion.

You mention you struggled to keep a realistic approach, yet you have the killer see the victim alive while searching for the body, and later on there’s talk of his ghost wandering around town.
When the killer saw the victim it was in a dream, and dreams are part of life, they are realistic elements. As for the villagers talking about the ghost, after a murder there’s always such talk in small towns, that’s also a part of reality, even if just small-town reality. They love mystical ideas and they talk about them constantly. I actually shot a lot of scenes in that vein, but the film was long enough as it was.

The film is packed with dialogue, mostly small talk, so I take it you care deeply about what these people have to say.
Yeah, small town people are a very different sort of people for me. They show you a different part of life, you learn a lot from them. If you only live in the city, I think you’re missing out on something in life.

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