Introduction : he makes films with a small (familial) crew, an autobiographical work also on the modern face of Turkey.
There he corrects the autobiographical claim. The subjects are close to him, the characters contain a lot of himself, on a profound level, but this is all fiction, and the superficial stories are not the portrait of his own life events.
Since Three Monkeys, he writes his scenarios with the collaboration of his wife, Ebru Ceylan, and his friend Ercan Kesal, who is a doctor in real life, and also plays a non-actor in his last film. He say he prefers to work with co-writers, because the collective discussion helps to solve problems much faster. Testing out whether an idea will work out or not can be sorted out in 5 minutes, while it would take a week by himself.
Chekhov, the Russian writer who strives to understand mankind, was a major influence for him, a passion he shares with co-writer Ercan Kesal.
Young, he thought that he was different from everyone else, who were "normal", and felt a sentiment of guilt leading to neurosis and solitude. Notably the sound of the Muezzin call to prayer was a trigger and reminder of guilt for him, because of the religious moral it evokes. That's why we hear the Muezzin in the background when the boy slaps his mother in Three Monkeys.
He decided to escape his neurosis by embracing and studying philosophy and the arts.
Watching Bergman's The Silence (1963) at 16 was a revelation to him. Finally he would not feel alone, and different, anymore, because he could relate to Bergman. This gave him taste for cinema.
"As Bergman said, there is maybe more reality in dream than in wake life."During 10 years he would watch a lot of films and read on film theory, without thinking about making films himself. He studied as an engineer at the Bosporus University. He then travelled abroad. During his time of military service, he met people from every corner of Turkey and this gave him the envy to make his own films.
(in Positif, #551, Jan 2007)
"There are filmmakers who shook me inside. The first one was Bergman. When I was 16, it's when watching The Silence that I had the impression to wake up from a dream, because it was so different from everything else I saw until then. This impressed me a lot. Then, I discovered Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu who transformed me. Amongst contemporary ones, there is Kiarostami, and some critics even found certain resemblance between our films. What is sure is that he gave me a lot of energy and the courage to make films based on simple subjects. [..]
I deeply love Satyajit Ray's Pather Pantchali , as well as the whole Apu trilogy. I think that Tarkovsky must have been touched by this film too. It was a work of beginner with modest means. Like Bresson, I believe that luxury is not an advantage for artists. I'm very sensible to bareness and simplicity ; that's why I prefer the later works of Ozu to the preceding ones."
(in Positif, #482, April 2001)
In an interview to Time Out (Jan 2007), he declared he decided to become a filmmaker upon reading Polanski's autobiography : "Roman by Polanski"
A recurrent theme that obsess him and come back in every film is the way truth hides within our mundane behaviours, our acts. We lie to protect ourselves. The family is a condensed model of the world, but the tensions to conquer power are not limited to the family environment. We also use and abuse power with our friends, or at work.
Ceylan is the antithesis of Turkish cinema politically engaged, like Serif Gören and Yilmaz Güney (Yol, 1982).
He's not interested in politician politics because he believes neither things nor people change. He rejects the label of "political films" because the audience would focus on the wrong elements, on conjunctural positioning, on superficial labels. In fact, he doesn't make activist propaganda to make political statements, or comment political issues. He wants the audience to concentrate on more essential issues, like human relationships. Political issues (like unemployment of young students, machismo, the shame of the female adultery opposed to the valorous and encouraged male adultery) are only implicit and neutral, not to alienate the audience on a specific topic.
What is important is how people live through these problems, and to observe how they react and evolve.
Ceylan says he tries to understand life, it helps him to understand how to live better.
"I hate to explain, to insist, to convince : the audience shall guess. (...) I think the point of view of a film should be close to life. As if you observe a couple of strangers in a cafe, trying to figure their relationship, their problems." interview in Libération (01-17-2007)His films are more viewed in France than in Turkey, but he believes that it's only a matter of proportionality, because there are comparatively less movie-goers in Turkey than in France [see here]. He doesn't think that Turks understand his film less. It's a question of minority.
"Robert Bresson is one of my mentors. To tell certain things, image is useless, sound is enough." interview in Positif #575, January 2009.
His first feature film, Kasaba/The Small Town (1997), was like a draft, and the next one, Mayis sikintisi/Clouds of May (1999), was its "making of". He says he was unsatisfied because he was not concentrated enough. Lots of things didn't work out. The latter was more satisfying.
Uzak/Distant (2002) was his way to confront his fear to make a film in the big city, Istanbul.
When a man in the attendance asked him why the guilt of the boy who slaps his mother in Three Monkeys was more perceptible than the guilt of the mother, he replies that every viewer engages with the film on a different level, according to their emotional experience and past stories. Some will relate to the runaway wife, some with the betrayed man... But critics, who watch so many films, give a cold dispassionate analysis of every point of view offered by the film to measure/compare them and are not touched by the characters like the average audience would be.
Lastly he recounts an anecdote that happened to him today, on his way to this conference. He was in a car with Ercan who received a call from a friend of his in Istanbul. He hadn't heard of her in 2 years. She tells him that her father has died. So Ercan feels embarassed and helpless. He keeps repeating "I'm in France" as an excuse. Ceylan's take of this little daily life event is that the circumpstances we're in (in this case, Ercan was no longer a doctor and a nextdoor friend in France, he was an actor/scenarist attending a festival) may temporarily alter our social role, our connection with others, project us in a different dimension. If he were in Istanbul, Ercan's reaction would have been natural, evident, he would have given his condoleances and asked the time of the funeral to pay his homage. But in Paris, he was unable to fulfill his role of friend and support, he could only apologize for not being there. And this causes a certain guilt of being someone else, of being a personality on a trip abroad. Sometimes the mundanity of daily life is irreconcilable with other prospects... And this is the kind of micro-drama that could be developped in his films.
- Read also my notes on an earlier interview, at Screenville (January 2007) about Climates.