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Monday, 06 July 2020

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's ‘Uzak’: Can one make it through life alone?

Uzak (Distant) screened on Saturday 5 November as part of the Carte Blanche section of the 9th Panorama of the European Film

Amina Abdel-Halim, Sunday 6 Nov 2016
Uzak
(Photo: still from Uzak)
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Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 2002 film Uzak (Distant) was screened at art-house cinema Zawya on Saturday 5 November as part of the 9th Panorama of the European Film.

The film was selected by Egyptian director Mohammed Hammad to take part in the Carte Blanche section of the festival.

Born in 1959 in Istanbul, Ceylan is a Turkish film director, photographer, screenwriter and actor.

Ceylan made his feature debut in 1998 with his film Kasaba (Small Town), which scooped the International Federation of Film Critics award.

He also received the Best Director Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and his 2014 production Kis Uykusu (Winter Sleep) won the Palme d'Or.

Uzak tells the story of Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), a young factory worker who travels to Istanbul to stay with his relative Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) after he loses his job.

Mahmut is a relatively wealthy and intellectual photographer living with a great existential conflict, whereas Yusuf is much less sophisticated, but of a much simpler and kinder nature.

Yusuf goes on an unfruitful search for work as a sailor, while Mahmut deals with his dull, unsatisfactory job, and the fact that his ex-wife moved to Canada with her new husband.

Through the two men's mundane struggles, differences and occasional quarrels, the film deals with much deeper themes such as the estrangement of the individual, and, in the midst of such monotony, the quest for purpose and meaning.

After the screening, a Q&A session was held with Egyptian director Mohammed Hammad, who spoke of the various reasons behind his choice to a lively and engaging audience.

Hammad, born in Cairo in 1980, holds a degree in communication from Helwan University.

Between 2006 and 2012, he wrote and directed a number of short films including El-Geneh El-Khames (The Fifth Pound, 2006), Central (2008) and Ahmar Bahet (Pale Red, 2010), which received the Best Short Film Award at the Alexandria Film Festival and the Kazan Film Festival in Russia.

His feature debut, Akhdar Yabes (Withered Green, 2016), was screened at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur in Belgium, as well as the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.

Hammad highlighted the great effort that Ceylan puts into his films, all of which he financed independently and worked on as a screenwriter, director, producer and sound engineer.

He also praised the Turkish director's slow and steady journey to success: from his humble beginnings taking passport-style photos, to his “somewhat late” entry into the world of cinema at age 35, and his refusal to work with well-known actors even after receiving numerous awards.

He also noted that Uzak's director poured much of himself and his personal experience into his artistic creation.

Actor Emin Toprak, who plays Mahmut's cousin Yusuf, is actually Ceylan's cousin. The actor was involved in a car accident and passed away shortly after filming was completed.

The apartment where most of the action takes place is Ceylan's own flat, where the actors lived for the entirety of the shooting. He could thus relate to the main character's feeling of personal invasion, and of having his own living habits turned upside down by outsiders.

Furthermore, Mahmut shares many traits with his creator, from his love of photography to his existential angst, loneliness and vague despair, which Hammad believes to be that of the director, manifesting through his character.

Another point emphasised throughout the discussion was the importance of symbolism in this minimal production. Ceylan's work is proof that from limited resources and a restricted budget, a moving, thought-provoking artwork can still emerge. With little action, basic décor and scarce dialogue, the film's key scenes and messages lay in seemingly trivial details.

In one scene, the pair wakes up to find that a bothersome mouse, a running gag throughout the film, was finally caught in the mousetrap. Yusuf takes pity on the suffering creature, and kills it to end its pain rather than leave it to the cats. The scene reveals all about the young man's character and about both his and his cousin's conflicting natures, which are central to the film's plot.

Uzak invites the viewer to see more than what is actually shown on the screen. As one audience member suggested, through Mahmut's ex-wife's definite departure and Yusuf's silent retreat from his cousin's life, the film raises an essential, universal question: can one make it through life alone?

The influence of such symbolism is evident in some of Hammad's own work.

In his 2010 film Ahmar Bahet (Pale Red), the young female protagonist washes her bright red underwear in chlorine, trying to wash out the “provocative” color.

Following her grandmother's orders, she does so to avoid bringing shame upon herself when she hangs it out to dry in front of all her neighbours. This key scene represents the countless attempts one takes to hide their private life in an intrusive society.

As Hammad said in one interview, “she [the female protagonist] struggles to hide what is already hidden.”

Moreover, in his 2008 short film Central, Hammad adopts a very minimalist approach. The plot revolves around a woman who works at a call center and eavesdrops on all her clients' conversations. This renders her the keeper of everyone's dirty secrets. The unspeakable acts committed by the characters are never shown on screen. Instead, everything is told through the phone conversations, as heard by the young worker.

The two films thus reveal much more than what is actually shown on the screen, as is the case in Ceylan's work, which, as the Egyptian director stated himself, had a great impact on him.

Uzak will be screened again on Monday 7 November at 10.30am, Cinema Karim, Cairo. 

Check the complete programme of Panorama for Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said here

Ahram Online is the media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya

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