About Dry Grasses Is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Literary, Feminist Epic

Movies Reviews Nuri Bilge Ceylan
About Dry Grasses Is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Literary, Feminist Epic

Veteran Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns to Anatolia, a place he previously explored in his Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, in About Dry Grasses. Although Winter Sleep is both more explicitly interested in exploring class dynamics in rural Turkey and more literary than About Dry Grasses (Winter Sleep is an Anton Chekhov adaptation), these two stories could be taking place side by side.

About Dry Grasses opens with a lone figure making his way through the snow. Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) is a young art teacher working in Anatolia, but his ultimate goal is to shake the dust of what he sees as a crummy, rural town from his boots and return to the more modern Istanbul. What he plans to do in Istanbul is unclear. He just knows he’s ready to go, without giving much thought to the effect his departure will have on his community. Samet is a big fish in the small pond of Anatolia, a place where he can make a real difference in his students’ lives and in the lives of those around him, if he so chooses. Istanbul is a much larger pond, and especially with no direction, it’s clear that Samet would stall at best, flounder at worst, if he were to make it to Istanbul at all. 

Samet’s aimless goal is jeopardized when Sevim (Ece Bağcı), one of his students, accuses Samet, along with his fellow teacher and roommate Kenan (Musab Ekici), of misconduct. Sevim’s accusations come as a real shock to Samet, as he’d considered her a trusted mentee; she’s a real Hermione type, wild mane and all. There’s so much more to Sevim than meets Samet’s eye, if only he’d be curious enough to look.

But Samet is far more preoccupied with puffing himself up, with controlling the given situation around him, which leads to his woefully miscalculating of a number of personal encounters. Samet takes wonderfully alive photographs of the students and villagers around him, but he doesn’t do anything with them. Samet sees when his students are uncomfortable with their privacy being infringed upon when school administrators execute largely performative bag searches, but he doesn’t stand up for the kids.

The second narrative thread of About Dry Grasses also concerns Samet’s inadequacies with women, and almost reads like a Woody Allen subplot. Samet is set up on a date with the quietly magnetic Nuray (Merve Disdar), an English teacher who draws for fun, and they have a lot in common. Instead of seeing where things go, Samet dismisses her outright due to his plan to relocate to Istanbul, choosing instead to introduce her to Kenan. Kenan and Nuray hit it off—she takes his picture, he teaches her how to drive—but when Samet learns of Nuray’s familial connections to Istanbul, he is suddenly interested again, needlessly entangling the three in a love triangle. 

Samet’s gross misunderstandings may not be cruel in intention, but they are distasteful and off-putting, and grow in cringe value over time. One striking example of this comes near the end of the film, when Samet’s office is packed up at the end of the school year. Samet feels that Sevim owes him an apology, and feels inclined to express this out loud, and can’t comprehend why that might be inappropriate. It’s not exactly a laugh-out-loud moment, but my jaw was on the floor.

Samet’s arc, from pathetically arrogant man-child to not-a-totally-selfish prick, is satisfying, but it’s the women of About Dry Grasses who carry the epic, which clocks in at a lengthy 197 minutes. Nuray is a principled woman chiseled by experience, both passionate about her left-wing political activism and willing to have long conversations about her beliefs. Their conversations all take place in warm, inviting living rooms and cafes. Tea is always nearby. Dizdar won the Best Actress award in Cannes for her performance, and it’s easy to see why: Dizdar not only boasts one of the most arresting faces in cinema right now, but she is also supremely talented.

Dizdar notably used her acceptance speech for the Cannes award to highlight the struggle of Turkish women, dedicating the speech to “all my sisters who take action to strengthen the struggle of women, who risk everything and never give up hope no matter what, and all fighting spirits waiting to experience the good days they deserve in Turkey.” According to the Human Rights Watch, Turkish femicides have been on the rise, with many attributing this to a conservative government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Dizdar’s speech was immediately polarizing in her home country, garnering both support from women’s rights activists, and criticism from conservative media officials.

Especially in the light of Turkey’s political position when it comes to women’s rights, it is difficult not to see Nuray and Sevim as kindred spirits, even though they never meet over the course of About Dry Grasses. Sevim is a smart girl, both eager to please and ready to grow into her rebellious phase. Nuray’s gorgeous, wide-set eyes and steadfast, silent gaze cut right through to Samet’s insecurities, in the same way that Sevim is able to communicate everything she’s going through with one cutting look. Slowly, as the seasons change, Samet learns to interpret these looks instead of putting his foot in his mouth. It’s these intense, beautiful women—who have their flaws, but possess traits that Samet cannot find within himself—that he comes to admire. 

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Akin Aksu
Starring: Deniz Celiloğlu, Merve Dizdar, Musab Ekici, Ece Bağcı
Release Date: February 23, 2024

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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