In Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi), Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan honors a filmmaker, a contemporary of his, and a century-earlier writer both of whom he loves—and whom I also love. One is Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose Through the Olive Trees (1994) his film echoes, and the other is Russian author Anton Chekhov, whose final play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), it also draws upon. But there are more reasons besides to find Clouds of May irresistible.
Born in Istanbul in 1959, Ceylan studied engineering at Bogazici University and filmmaking at Mimar Sinan University. Clouds of May, his second feature film (the first was Kasaba, 1997), won best film prizes at both Antalya and Istanbul, the FIRPRESCI Award at the European Film Awards, and prizes for Ceylan’s direction at Antalya and the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. I am thus not alone in regarding it as extraordinary.
The “story” proceeds along meshing tracks, one Kiarostaminian, the other Chekhovian. Like Kiarostami’s Closeup (1990) and Through the Olive Trees, this is a film about a filmmaker making a film. The filmmaker, Ceylan’s surrogate, Muzaffer, played by Muzaffer Özdemir, has just returned from the city, Istanbul, to the country region of his upbringing in order to recruit family members into service as the cast of his film. His father, though, has something else on his mind. Shades of Chekhov: Muzaffer’s father, played by Ceylan’s father, Emin Ceylan, is trying to save his land from illegal appropriation by the state; he is aiming in particular to spare the trees that hem his land from being clear-cut. Muzaffer finally convinces his father and other family members to participate in the film that matters so much to him to make, but it’s a film that (despite his best efforts at authorial autonomy) bends to the exigencies of their lives, including his father’s heroic effort to save some of the natural beauty that has enriched his son’s life, although Muzaffer seems quite divorced from remembering this. What complexity of humanity this film embraces.
The director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s surrogate remains fixated on his film, and this both endearingly and infuriatingly self-serving motive accumulates into a self-criticism, and a criticism of filmmaking insofar as the process becomes inhuman at worst and insufficiently appreciative of humanity at best. This is wonderful territory for a film to explore, because (insofar as he or she wishes to create work that reflects his or her humanity) this is a problem every filmmaker must confront with every project. How far should making a film take you outside the realm of specifically human concerns when such concerns, not one’s own demonstration of brilliance, are the impetus for (at least humanistic) artistic achievement? How many films we watch treat matter at the periphery of art’s urgent concerns; not this one, which addresses a core concern.
Chekhov has enriched cinema. Let’s set aside the films of Chekhov’s plays, the best of which, perhaps, is Laurence Olivier’s The Three Sisters (1970), in which, as the Army doctor Ivan Romanych Chebutykin, Olivier gives an astonishingly shrewd and beautiful performance. Instead, I wish to note two films, one excellent, the other horrid, that have sought to achieve the Chekhovian stillness, or something like it, where time is rendered vertically rather than horizontally, and each given moment, pressured by eternity, releasing its grace, contains the context (past) and result (future) of that moment. Nothing that I have read has noted that one of the most beauteous American films of the 1990s, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), is in fact a transmutation of The Three Sisters (1901), set at the same time but transplanted to the Gullah community, an African-descended island folk community off of South Carolina and Georgia, some of whose visitors, dreaming of heading to Chicago (not Moscow), give powerful African-American voice to the aching hopes voiced in Chekhov’s play. It isn’t just the common plot elements that count here; Dash beguilingly distills the Chekhovian sense of time, with the stillness and fullness to which I have referred, and which in this instance echoes an African sense of time, which more directly may have been what she set out to evoke. Dash has forged a convincing and compelling Russo-African-American sisterhood—as in the play, the principal characters are female—that resounds with the emotional elasticity of universal human experience. Alas, the other recent example is more problematic. Nikita Mikhalkov had made a film from Chekhov, An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano (1977), based on Platonov (1881). The film is fine. But more recently Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994) created Chekhovian atmospherics as mere emotional set-up for a bout of Soviet-bashing as a family’s seemingly idyllic country existence is bloodily broken by the intrusion of the wife’s former lover, who is also a member of the Stalinist police. Not even the Oscar this film netted can justify the malicious use to which it puts its exquisite evocation of Russia’s greatest playwright. Mikhalkov, who is capable of substantive work (Close to Eden, 1992), required in this instance a Dash of humanity.
Ceylan isn’t similarly wanting. He doesn’t “use” Chekhov to rig a brutal message; like Dash, he delights in Chekhovian density of family relations, the collision of family cohesion against the concerns, motives and aspirations of individual members. Also, again like Dash, he creates a natural landscape of astonishing beauty in which the stilling of time ironically discloses time’s rush, which the stillness poignantly pressures to hold back. Indeed, Muzaffer’s father’s opposition to the state in an effort to save the trees skirting his land is a similar attempt to hold back time.
Armed with his camera and his filmmaking agenda, the prodigal son has come home to his Anatolian village. Because of the beauty of the surroundings, the film he shoots is full of beauty—but country beauty to which he, “citified,” is oblivious, just as he is oblivious to his father’s current struggle to help preserve the full draught of that beauty. Clouds of May belongs to the tradition of films that, with various motives, have displayed rural beauty to the full: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), Jean Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (1936), Andrzej Wajda’s Lotna (1959), Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur (1965), Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and, however misguidedly, Roman Polanski’s Tess (1980), among others. Muzaffer is caught up in the idea of making the film, and of course in making it as inexpensively as possible; he misses the beauty of his childhood place, much as he misses the humanity there that he needs to draw upon to give his film substance so it will be rooted in his own blood, that is to say, his own humanity. He will learn, however; in effect, the film we are watching, Clouds of May, is the rich and human thing to which he is headed.
Muzaffer’s self-absorption makes him like a child—and hence even farther from being like his father than it first appears. Children, anxious to do things correctly and not be blamed when things go awry, can also be oblivious to the beauty around them. Muzaffer’s single-mindedness about making his film may be seen as his attempt to hide (from himself and others) a similar childish anxiety; insisting on doing one thing with one’s life may be a mask behind which one doesn’t really know what to do with one’s life. In any case, Ceylan elegantly draws a comparison between child and Muzaffer on the subject of missing the beauty in one’s midst. The child, a schoolboy, is Muzaffer’s little cousin; further stressing the connection between Muzaffer and this child is the fact that the latter is given a special mission by his aunt, Muzaffer’s mother. She tells him to keep an egg in his pocket for 40 days and he will get whatever present he wants. The boy is diligent. On his way home from school, a woman accosts him, handing him a basket of tomatoes to hand-deliver to a party not quite on his route. The boy, with blessed difficulty, obliges, saddled with the woman’s admonition not to rock, knock or crush the contents of the basket. But, en route, a tomato falls out of the basket, and when the boy bends over to retrieve it, we hear crack. It’s the egg. A mess. He drops the basket, whereupon the tomatoes go tumbling down a hill towards the camera: sheer beauty, to which the boy is oblivious. The boy is lovingly rewarded with the gift he wants anyhow—unless I’m misremembering, a musical watch: time rendered delightful. The young rush headlong to attain the very sense of time’s passage that forms an affliction of acute and distressing awareness in their elders. The young wish to grow up; their elders, not to grow old or die.
His father isn’t the only family member whom Muzaffer disappoints. But Muzaffer learns and grows.
Clouds of May is a gracious piece of work, full of rich humor and sharp observations. Ceylan wrote, cinematographed and (with Ayhan Ergürsel) edited it as well as directed it. He has made two more films since: Distant (2002) and Climates (2006).