A Turkish teacher practices the art of manipulation in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Competition drama

About Dry Grasses

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘About Dry Grasses’

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Turkey, France, Germany. 2023. 197mins

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest tale of alienation asks much of the audience, and the result isn’t as simple or rewarding as previous works Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep, or The Wild Pear Tree, his last film to play at Cannes in 2018. About Dry Grasses is a ravishingly cinematic piece of work that seems designed to spark animated, if not acrimonious, debate. A surprise Best Actress win at Cannes for Merve Dizdar’s magnetic performance may help it find its way commercially.

The fate of the film will rest on whether audiences find this exasperating, intriguing, or even brilliantly post-modern. 

Ceylan is an allusive director, fond of characters who reveal new and sometimes contradictory facets from scene to scene. His films tend to be a mix of Chekhovian drama with state-of-Turkey allegory. About Dry Grasses is all that but it is also oddly difficult to read, revolving around a complex central character, a cynical, manipulative monster of a high-school art teacher whose spiritual and moral void is revealed gradually in a series of masterful brushstrokes. Until, that is, this interpretation is unraveled in a series of diary-like voice-overs spoken by the teacher himself, which may be intended as an appeal for sympathy – or may simply be one more attempt on this ethically bankrupt man’s part to manipulate not just his students, his roommate and his love interest, but the audience too. The fate of the film will rest on whether audiences find this exasperating, intriguing, or even brilliantly post-modern. 

Deniz Celiloglu plays Samet, who teaches art in a provincial school in rural Anatolia. State teachers in Turkey, it becomes clear, don’t get to choose where they are posted, at least not at the start of their careers. Samet, who can’t wait to get back to Istanbul, is on the final stretch of a four-year stint in a village that goes straight from barren winter wasteland to barren summer steppe with barely a smudge of green in between.

He shares a house with fellow teacher Kenan (Musab Ekici), whose peasant background, it is suggested, has grounded him in a posting that most teachers see as a temporary limbo. One day, Samet and Kenan are hauled up before the local government director of education to face charges that they behaved inappropriately with female students. They are lucky, the director tells them; he was able to quash the story before it became a scandal, and no further action will be taken.

We, however, already know that something did happen. Samet has been encouraging the schoolgirl crush of Sevim (Ece Bagci), a pretty girl in his class. It is clearly a form of self-validation for this insecure man who gradually displays a vicious, autocratic, pettily vengeful side, one that is also revealed in his relationship with Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a fellow teacher and left-wing activist who lost her leg in a terrorist attack. Dizdar is magnetic as an independent woman whose wariness conceals great strength. We see the same fire behind the eyes of Sevim, who learns gradually to resist her teacher’s shallow attempts to bully her emotionally, presenting a passive resistance over which the teacher has no purchase.

In the background, buried beneath the frozen surface, we see cracks and fissures: the shadow of terrorism, a gun brandished in the village bar, the struggle for Kurdish independence, men (and they are all men) in positions of authority who care more about the way an accusation will be spun rather than whether it has any merit. Brilliantly played by Celiloglu, Samet is a sentimental nihilist who nevertheless, in the course of one of those long intense, ideological debate scenes in which Ceylan specialises, tells a sceptical Nuray that he is all for order in society.

The only visible art this art teacher makes are a series of rather beautiful photographs of Anatolian steppe dwellers. Are these sprinkled in to humanise a man who is, in a generous reading, a bundle of contradictions? In one baffling scene that breaks the fourth wall, Ceylan himself seems to answer by throwing up his hands and saying “search me ­– all art is artifice, so make your own minds up”. Not every viewer will find that answer useful, especially after 197 minutes of patience.

Production companies: NBC Film, Memento Production, Komplizen Film

International sales: Playtime, info@playtime.group

Producers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Mediha Dida Turemen

Screenplay: Akin Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Production design: Meral Atkan

Editing: Oguz Atabas, Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Cinematography: Cevahir Sahin, Kursat Uresin

Cast: Deniz Celiloglu, Merve Dizdar, Musab Ekici, Ece Bagci, Erdem Senocak, Yuksel Aksu, Munir Can Cindoruk, Onur Berk Arslanoglu