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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, Turkey 2011.

Posted by keith1942 on March 21, 2015


This is the film that has most impressed me in this new century of cinema. I saw it three times during its UK release. The third occasion was at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. One of the volunteers there, Rachel, grades films from 1 to 10. She explained that a ‘10’ is a film she needs/wants to see twice. I told her this was my third viewing of this film: she reckoned that would make it an 11. After the screening I saw her again in the foyer and we both praised the sequence which includes an apple rolling down a slope into a stream. It is that sequence that I want to discuss in more detail.

First to contexualise the film. It is directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, already well known in ‘art film’ circles for earlier films like Climates (Iklimler, 2006) and Three Monkeys (Uc maymum. 2008). The film was scripted by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan [married to the director] and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. An outstanding feature of the film is the luminous cinematography by Göhkan Tiryaki: and there is an excellent sound track edited by Thomas Robert and fine art direction by Dilek Yapkuőz Ayaztuna.

The setting is the Steppes in Central Anatolia; part of ‘Turkey in Asia’. The film commences at evening, continues overnight and through the next morning: the setting is clearly contemporary: witness the mobile phones and computers used by characters. Bizarrely the UK distributor’s trailer suggested that the tale is a flashback to ’20 years ago’, clearly misinterpreting a line of dialogue in the film.

The film opens with Production Company credits, and then a short sequence with a shot of men through a clouded window. The camera dollies slightly and we see three men in conversation, drinking and laughing. There is a cut to an exterior long shot as one man comes out and feeds a dog: there is a roll of thunder. A passing lorry acts as a wipe and we are presented with the cast and production credits. The sound of the lorry braking carries on over the credits, followed by bird sounds, the wind, distant barking, and an animal [the dog?) shaking. Such noises are frequently heard on the soundtrack. As the film progresses we learn that the men we have just seen are Yaşar (Erol Erarslan) who apparently owns the garage, and two brothers Kenan (Firat Taniş) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz).

The story proper opens in a long shot at night on a lonely road as dusk deepens: the landscape is hilly with long valleys. The headlights of cars appear travelling along the road. These night-time scenes are beautifully lit and photographed. Night-time driving and thunderstorms are two tropes that appeared in earlier Ceylan films. The cars, two saloons and a jeep, pull up at a spot with a stone fountain and a solitary tree. We will visit several sites with these features over the next hour: the first three lie above the roadway. The cars contain ‘Mr’ Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and his driver Tevfik (Uğur Arslannoğlu), Abidin, the court recorder (Şafak Karali) and Hayrettin (Fevzi Müftüoğlu) and Ethem (Turgay Kürkçü), two ‘diggers’; the second car contains the Commissar/Chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdoğan) and his assistants, the driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Müntaz Taylan) and Izzet (Murat Kiliç) together with Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Kenan, now a suspect in a murder case. The jeep contains a Sergeant Őnder (Emre Şen) of the Gendarmes together with a subordinate Mehmet (Hamam Scrubber) and Ramazan, also a suspect. The convoy is trying to identify the spot where the murdered man [Yaşar] is buried, but Kenan is vague about the whereabouts apart from the presence of a fountain and a tree.

The first stop is not the right place. The convoy drives on and we hear a conversation among the police about ‘Buffalo Yoghurt ‘. They reach a second possible site. On this occasion the diggers are called to check a ploughed field alongside the fountain, but this is not the spot either. At this point we are starting to get close-ups of the different characters and a sense of their identities.

The convoy travels on and Naci receives a call on his mobile phone from his wife, she is just an inaudible voice in the background. There is also a brief stop, as the Prosecutor Nusret has to take a piss: the police joke about this.

At the third site, whilst Naci questions Kenan about whether this is the place, Doctor Cemal walks up the hill to take a piss. He stops by a small rock outcrop; thunder and lightning have now started up. And a flash illuminates a sculptured head in the rock. Back at the cars the convoy travels on.

Then a new site which falls away below the road. The Gendarme’s jeep is manoeuvred to illuminate the area. Naci sets off downhill with Kenan. Meanwhile there is a conversation alongside the car between the Cemal and Arab Ali. However, on second viewing I realised from the camera angles that part of this is not a conversation: it is two interior monologues, first by Ali and then by the Cemal, though all of it could be in the mind of the Cemal, who is privileged in close-ups. It is here that we get the line from Arab of ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’, however, he is suggesting that the doctor will look back at these events in the future. This technique of rendering exchanges ambiguous is one that recurs in the film.

The convoy sets off again and we arrive at another site, also down below the road. Here, 35 minutes into the film, is the sequence on which I wish to focus.


Nusret intervenes between Naci and Kenan.

Nusret intervenes between Naci and Kenan.

It opens with an establishing shot lasting about 30 seconds, as the cars’ headlights follow a road into hills: behind the sky is full of dark clouds. They are approaching a bend in the road at a fold in the hillside. There is a cut to a camera angle at the bend. The cars arrive, stop and the occupants get out. Naci checks with Kenan, then points “It could be there”. Naci sets off with Izzet and Kenan, first calling for the gendarmes to turn the jeeps’ headlight on the spot. They head downhill into a culvert with a stream: Naci gets his foot wet, to his annoyance. They walk up the slope on the other side where there are a number of trees. Naci calls the diggers to follow. The camera makes two small pans to follow their progress. Two minutes into the shot Nusret moves into the left foreground. The camera cuts to a mid-shot and we see the Cemal standing nearby. There follow a series of mid-shots, in shot/reverse shot, as a conversation gets underway. Nusret asks, ‘Got any children. Doctor?”. Cemal responds that he has none and that he was divorced two years earlier. [We also later learn that Cemal has moved from the city to this rural area]. Nusret responds ‘Good thing” and goes on to muse pessimistically about life and his work, ”there’s no sense in it.” Then he starts to recount a story: “There was this woman. A friend’s wife. One day… she said that she’d die on a specific date five months later. [after the end of a pregnancy] And sure enough … when that day arrived … she dropped dead.”  “for no reason at all.” The camera dollies behind Cemal round a tree to a new angle with both men in the frame; there is silence. There follows a shot of tree tops, a reverse shot of the two men illuminated from below by the headlights, and then a high angle shot of Nusret through branches, followed by a low angle shot of the moon through branches.

We hear the voice of the Sergeant, “Mr Prosecutor.” A new mid-shot of all three men runs for nearly two minutes as the Sergeant offers both men a biscuit and then asks Nusret about responsibilities in the case. He leaves. There follow more shot/reverse shots of Cemal and Nusret, as the former asks if any doctors ascertained the cause of the woman’s death.

They are interrupted again, this time by a fracas involving Naci and Kenan, in a new long shot of the other side of the stream. Naci, exasperated by the seemingly fruitless searches, turns on Kenan. In three shot/reverse shots Nusret crosses the stream to intervene, watched by the rest of the party. Nusret separates Naci from Kenan and takes him aside; the camera pans with them. Nusret tries to reason with Naci about controlling his anger. After a minute, with the dialogue continuing on the sound track, we get shots of Ali standing by a tree, Cemal watching across the stream, and Kenan looking back, [possibly at the doctor]. A further shot shows Ali shaking the branches of the tree and apples falling to the ground. A sequence shot, running about a minute, follows one apple as it rolls down the slope, into the stream, rolls then bobs down the stream till it reaches an obstruction and rests with other fallen apples, [presumably shot with a Steadicam]. Meanwhile the dialogue between Nusret and Naci continues on the soundtrack and includes the comment, “Is this how we’ll get into the EU?”

The apples.

The apples.

The camera returns to Nusret and Naci in long shot, running for nearly three minutes, including a pan back to the others gathering under a tree. Nusret decides they should have a break. Tevfik suggests the village of Cecili: Ali is not keen, [it transpires his wife comes from that village}. Nusret decides to go there anyway and tells Tevfik to phone the Mukhtar [mayor].

A short ellipsis and we see Izzet in mid-shot bathing Kenan’s face at the fountain. In a series of mid-shots we see Naci drying his socks, Cemal inspecting Kenan face where Naci hit him; Kenan asking ‘Doctor’ for a cigarette: Cemal getting a cigarette from Ali for Kenan; Naci objecting, ‘first you have to earn it’, and then this group getting into their car. The final shot has Kenan seated as Cemal gets in the back seat and saying quietly “Thank you.”

There is a lap dissolve to a frontal shot of the car’s headlights as they drive to the village.

We are now 52 minutes into the film. The sequence uses light and shadow, the main lighting source being the headlights of the jeep and other cars. We have the regular tendency in Ceylan films to use long shots and especially long takes. The whole sequence has a luminous palette. The soundtrack is naturalistic and we hear wind, a solitary birdcall, the water running, and the engines of the cars at times. In terms of themes as the narrative progresses Nusret’s story returns and there are increasing parallels between characters. This is a long and complex sequence, the cinematography, the lighting and the sounds all contribute to a sense of the place and the time, but also, in a way that is difficult to describe in words, add to our sense of the characters. Certainly the visuals includes comments on and metaphors for the characters, their thoughts and actions. The apple rolling down in the stream is an object driven by several external forces, including gravity: this seems an apt metaphor for the characters in the story.


Cemal observes Cemille.

Cemal observes Cemille.

The convoy arrives at the village of Cecili where they are greeted by the Mukhtar [Ercan Kesal). A meal is provided whilst the Mukhtar puts to the prosecutor that the village needs to “Build a nice morgue with a body washing room.” There is a power cut and the lights go out. Lamps and drinks are bought in by the Mukhtar’s daughter Cemille. She serves them silently whilst the men admire her beauty. Cemal and Kenan are especially struck by her, as if she has conjured up a memory. After she serves Kenan she appears to serve a second man – Yaşar! Is this Kenan’s imagining: he exclaims ‘aren’t you dead?”. Then Naci and Izzet take Kenan outside and into a barn. Here he confesses another aspect of the crime to them. Meanwhile Nusret continues with his tale to the Doctor, who asks ‘was there an autopsy’. Naci appears and tells the Nusret what he has heard from Kenan, information that complicates the murder and the investigation. There is another visual symbol as moth circles an exterior lamp and is consumed in the flame.

The search now continues. With early morning they arrive at another site, on a relatively flat plateau, with a fountain and a nearby tree. This is a field of stubble, harsh in the early morning light. And here they find the body, slightly uncovered by a stray black dog. Nusret dictates a report to Abidin, which he types onto a laptop. Then the body is wrapped in a blanket and placed in a car boot. Ali surreptitiously adds melons that he has picked up in the field. During this episode Ramazan has made a confession, but Kenan tells him to be quiet.

Early morning.

Early morning.

The party now returns to the town. When they reach the hospital a hostile crowd is waiting. Insults are hurled at Kenan, a boy throw a stone that hits him on the forehead. We learn that the boy, Adem (Fatih Ereli), is the son of Yaşar’s widow Gűlnaz Toprak (Nihan Okutueu). The prisoners are led away.

The doctor goes to the hospital. In his room he looks at some photographs of a young woman, then of young men: possibly including himself at an earlier age. Naci arrives in his office and the doctor writes a prescription for his sick son. Cemal leaves the hospital: after a Turkish bath and a coffee he returns for an autopsy. First we see him in his office with Nusret, who returns to the subject of the woman who died and asks the Cemal what could have caused the woman’s death. Cemal asks again if there was an autopsy: he suggests there may be an explanation. Like the earlier conversation with Ali it is unclear whether this is an actual scene or is in the mind of the doctor.

The identification of the corpse by the wife follows. She is given the belongings of the deceased. Nusret leaves for an important meeting in Ankara. Cemal and his medical technician Sakir (Kubilay Tunçer) then conduct the autopsy. During this examination another facet of the murder emerges. Cemal makes a decision, a decision which is a response to the different situations of the characters that he [and we] have learned in the course of events. The film ends as Cemal looks out through a window, observing the widow and her son returning home past a children’s’ playground in a long shot and long take. Intercut is a close-up of Cemal with a speck of the victims blood on his cheek. The sound of the children playing continues over the end credits.

What seem to me to be the fine qualities of this film flow both from the components parts [e.g. the excellence of the cinematography and sound) but also from the overall effect. The film is downbeat but there are also many moment of humour. There is the conversation on yoghurt; jokes about Nusret frequent stops to relieve himself; and recurring comments that he looks a little like Clark Gable. During the meal in the village Ali is ragged about his pretensions. The film is a rather sorry tale of human foibles, but it also seems a complex comment on the larger society of Turkey in the C21th. The characters cover a range of classes in that society: a member of the governing elite, administrators and bureaucrats, the professional, a petit-bourgeois and ordinary working men. The characterisation by the actors is completely convincing; it is the expressions of Cemal, Kenan and Nusret that receive particular attention. It is the men who speak and act throughout the film. However, the issue of gender emerges forcibly in the very silence of the women. [Intriguing parallels with The Silences of the Palace, Tunisia 1994]. We encounter six women in the film; Naci’s wife only heard inaudibly on the end of a mobile phone; the unnamed female protagonist in Nusret’s story; the Mukhtar’s daughter, Cemile,  in the village; her aunt who gives  Ali bread; the unnamed young woman in Cemal’s photographs; and the murdered man’s widow, who speaks at the identification, once with a solitary ‘yes’, otherwise with several nods and ‘uhum’.

An intriguing comment about women in rural Anatolia argues that whilst women suffered under patriarchy in traditional society, modernisation, which includes rights for women, has led to political institutions that are predominately ‘male domains’. This film seems to offer a poetic comment on this condition.

It offers more of course. I found that my understanding of the main characters changed and developed over the film, but that also developed when I returned to watch the film again. Like most good art there is not a simple set of values posited by the film. But the complexities of the characters relationships and experiences illuminates their condition and their decisions and actions. Cemal, the doctor, is clearly the key character; but it also seems to me that the film draws parallels between him and Kenan and also between Kenan and Nusret. It is a long film [158 minutes] and spends much time on small and often seemingly insignificant details: such as Ali’s surreptitious fruit gathering. But these small details feed into the illumination of character. The use of the wide screen means that, even in mid-shots, one is aware of the setting and of sets and props, which also feed in to our awareness.

In interviews Nuri Bilge Ceylan has spoken of his admiration of Anton Chekhov. In my early viewing of this film I was reminded in particular of his play The Seagull. There are parallels between the film and the play both in the relationships of characters and in the tragic events that play out. However, there are also parallels with another play by Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: including the character of the doctor. The final sense of Chekhov’s plays finds echoes in the final sequences of this film by Ceylan. At the end of Uncle Vanya Sonia has a long speech, which opens:

“Well, what can we do? We must go on living! … We shall go on living, Uncle Vania. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings. We shall patiently suffer the trials which Fate imposes on us; we shall work for others, now, and in our old age, and we shall have no rest.” (Translated by Elisaveta Fen). The speech ends on a more optimistic note, something that is there tentatively in the last moments of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The speech also suggests parallels with Ceylan’s other films, in particular with his more recent Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu, 2014). Probably as fine a film which I need and want to see again.

The status of the temporality in the film is somewhat ambiguous. A film fan I know queried the opening shot of the main film, which he suggested implied knowledge of the story to come. This interested me. The film can be seen as a playing out of Ceylan’s recollections or exposition of the story. In this case the opening shot would fit with his point-of-view. So whilst contemporary one could read the film as flashback, another aspect of its complexity.

The film is in colour and CinemaScope [2.39:1] with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. Whilst it originated on 35mm. in the UK it was only available on DCP. The UK release has English subtitles, used for the quotation in this article.

The author’s original review of the film can be found at http://thirdcinema.wordpress.conm: the Blog also has a review of The Silences of the Palace.

Note, this was originally written as an article for Media Education Journal for a regular shot on sequence analysis’s, but the editors found the sequence in question to long for the article’s function, presumably the A Level Film Studies.


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