The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;) Cihat Butun, Emin Ceylan; Mehmet Toprak
viewed on Mubi 4th March 2021
As light as a feather
There are four things I remember about Ceylan’s ‘The Small Town’: the feather, the tortoise, the long night and the final shot in which Asiya’s tentatively lowers the fingers of her hand into the waters of the stream.
What I finally understood about the film is that it is styled as a gentle satire, a satire that is as light as the feather that mesmerises the children in the classroom, and as captivating. Ceylan’s film satirises the state’s use of education as an opportunity for institutional indoctrination; satirises the family’s role in the inevitable victory of the adult over the child and its inability to stop the replication of the cycles of judgement through its generations. But although the satire is gentle the substance of the film centres on an inner psychic structure of emotional ambiguities and conflict, innocence and cruelty that describes within an 80 minute scenario a cycle of time that connects childhood to old age and death.
Ceylan’s film observes interactions observes relations between both people and people and their environment. ‘The Small Town’ is shot in a particular place and time, provincial Turkey in the late ‘1960s’. But it uncovers something of what is universal in the experience of people, highlighted in the discontinuities and intensities of immanent life which is concentrated in its black and white photography that in particular during the long night sequence draws out the expressive qualities of the individual faces which are stamped like etchings on the film stock. Ceylan choosing to exploit the feature of texture rather than colourisation.
The opening sequence establishes a theme that runs through the “The Small Town’ like a thread running through human nature: cruelty. The cruelty of the world of the child and the cruelty of the world of adults. The cruelty of the child stems out of innocence, a disconnection between action and pain. In the opening shots, laughing and enjoying the spectacle of his discomfort, children cause the town’s simpleton to fall in the snow; later in the film, Ali hearing from his sister Asiya, that tortoises are helpless and die if turned and left upside down, does precisely this to the little creature they have been looking at. The act haunts him, as it haunted me after viewing the film. Ali is innocent in his actions in the sense that he has not yet come to realise how precious life is. There is no such excuse for adults. Nor do they seem to want any.
The long sequence in which the family gather together during the night around the fire in a small grove gives voice to both individual cruelties and those endemic in the world that have shaped these people. This scene shot amidst the trees around the fire, closes in about the viewer evoking a feeling of intimacy and awareness with the participants. The camera draws in on not just the individual’s present, but also on the fire which claims a presence of its own, as do the immediate surround of tree and field. The family gathering with its hesitancies lacuna and discontinuities, is presented as a dialogue of men; but the women have presence. At critical moments it is the women who assert a dominance controling the ebb and flow of the talk, the what ‘can’ and the what ‘cannot’ be said. As the men talk the cruelty of war is related both as personal experience by grandad and then triumphantly glossed as a glorified history by his son brushing off the questioning of his nephew, Safet, as to the vainglory of it all.
After the war talk, the conversation becomes more personal. The life of Safet from the failed side of the family, becomes the focus of the family’s barbs of disappointment. Safet whose prematurely dead father was also the black sheep of the family suffers the cruelty of judgement. There is nothing good to say about either Safet or his dead father. Not that his father’s loss wasn’t deeply felt, but both father and son are cast as lost causes. Cutting away from this night talk one of the memorable shots in the film sees Safet leaving home to join the army. Waved off by his grandmother he walks up a long road. The shot observes his progress away from everything he knows. He looks back once. It is a lonely shot that captures the lost boy nature of his spirit.
Ceylan’s ability to conjure satire out of thin air is marked in the school and classroom sequence. At assembly the children listen to the reciting of the catechism of Turkish nationalism. Dismissed to the classroom they are subjected to more of the same as they are tasked by their teacher to read aloud in rote the solemn justifications for enforcing the rules of social and family solidarity. But as these rules of the game are intoned there is a feather at large in the room. A feather that has possibility. A feather that becomes an amusing entertaining game as the children by deft and targeted blowing attempt to keep it up in the air as long as possible. Light as a feather it defeats single handed the didactic weight of the Turking state.
The last shot stayed with me. It seems to be part of a dream sequence in which Asiya, standing by a stream sees the body of her grandfather lieing on the ground; she also spies Safet, close by, bare bodied without his shirt. The which shirt in the next shot she holds up wet and like a shroud, before kneeling down to tentatively dip her fingers into the flow of the stream where the film ends on a freeze frame of her hand in the waters. It is hesitant nature of her action that holds attention. I can’t say I know its significance, but it feels like a premonition of death foreseen. The boyish vulnerability of the actor who played Safet caught my eye. Later I looked up the career of Mehmet Toprak who played him and see he was killed in an automobile accident in Turkey 2002, just after completing Uzak, his second film for Ceylan.
This was Ceylan’s first feature film. Watching it is an extraordinary experience. ‘The Small Town’ is a film that opens up vistas on life and living, enveloping the viewer in an immediacy of seeing. Ceylan implies questions but supplies no slick outcomes or answers, just the opportunity to reflect. The film has nothing to do with the one thing after another mechanics of script or technicalities of film making as such. The Small Town is simply an understanding of time and space, and how to communicate them.
Caylan happens to be a film maker; at this stage of his career he is also a poet.