The Spectral Present: Landscapes of Absence in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Headless Woman

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia/Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011), a deceptively simple plot – the search for a murder victim in the Anatolian steppes – serves as the foundation for an investigation into the malleability of archives and the representation of mnemonic processes, as well as mortality itself. Early in the film, the character of Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) predicts that “not even one hundred years from now … Well, as the poet said, ‘Still the years will pass and not a trace will remain of me’”. [1] Ceylan complicates this lamentation, however, by exploring how the past materialises within the present. The Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza (Lucrecia Martel, 2008) is similarly haunted by the incomplete erasure of the past and the destabilisation of memory. The narrative features sustained ambiguity as to whether or not protagonist Vero (María Onetto) killed someone while driving. As the ramifications of this event unfold, Martel details a scenario in which the present is marked by active forgetting and the negation of the recent past.

Notably, Martel and Ceylan spatialise their shared concern with absence. Both directors project a haunting vacancy – an unsettling non-presence – onto the very spaces in which The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia unfold. I identify these ‘landscapes of absence’ as naturalistic settings that have been reconfigured as subjective realms. Here, spectral traces of the past infiltrate the present. On the levels of narrative and film style, both directors draw attention to that which is missing via an ongoing interplay between the external and the internal, the visible and the invisible. This troubling of perception is heightened by the directors’ masterful command of cinematic form. Through inventive uses of framing and focus, Martel and Ceylan inject a large degree of spatio-temporal abstraction into realistic environments. Such techniques make absence present within the cinematic image, recalling the films of 1960s and 1970s European art cinema. In particular, Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘incommunicability trilogy’ is a clear precursor to the aesthetic and thematic elements of both The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. To better understand these two films, the following analysis will borrow components from Seymour Chatman’s foundational study of Antonioni. [2]

Rather than only assessing how The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia conjure up the past within the present, I also consider how Martel and Ceylan imagine the present as a site of temporal convergence with the future. It is not just that the present is haunted by spectres of the past: instead, the actual nature of the present is itself spectral. Theories of temporality developed by George Herbert Mead will help me to address the ways in which Martel and Ceylan examine the relationship between time and absence. Mead is an important figure in the areas of American pragmatism and social psychology and he has received renewed scholarly attention in recent years. [3] I see Mead’s writings on time as having under-examined applications for the study of temporality in cinema. [4] Of greatest pertinence for this discussion is Mead’s theory of the “specious present” and his conceptualisation of the past as ongoing. In conjunction with Mead, I will also reference a brief point that Jacques Derrida articulates about spectrality, recording technologies and future absence. While there is minimal overlap between much of Mead and Derrida’s writings, juxtaposing their critical perspectives on temporality yields some intriguingly complementary results. Together, these two figures provide theoretical frameworks that I use to unveil the distinctive temporal operations of The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, both of which challenge discrete notions of the past, present and future.

By considering Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Headless Woman through the prism of Mead and Derrida, a hybrid concept emerges: what I describe as the ‘spectral present’. Mead’s theory of the specious present denotes a temporal category that encompasses portions of the past and the future. One aspect of Derrida’s expansive work on spectrality imagines that the awareness of our future absence contaminates the present with a fear of the disappeared self. For both theorists, absence is identified as a fundamental condition of the present – a temporal coordinate populated by past and future spectres. Martel and Ceylan illuminate the spectral present through their mutual emphasis on overlapping temporal layers that transform realistic mise en scènes into landscapes of absence. Such locations appear to be largely vacant but retain traces of what has been and what will come; consequently, these two films reveal the haunted nature of the contemporary moment.

The narratives of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Headless Woman are propelled by absent figures. In the former, a caravan that includes two murder suspects – Kenan (Fırat Tanış) and Ramazan (Burhan Yıldız) – and a group of officials – Cemal, Commissar Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan), Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and others – attempts to locate the missing body of the murdered Yaşar (Erol Erarslan). In the latter, the body of an indigenous boy, Aldo (Camilo Sueldo), is found in a canal a few days after Vero hits something on the adjacent road and then drives away. During this sequence, a dead dog is visible in the background of a shot. However, the cause of Aldo’s death (and Vero’s potential culpability) remain open to interpretation, even at the film’s conclusion.

Through various narrative events, both Ceylan and Martel showcase the relationship between gendered power structures and historical memory. In their efforts to control contemporary and future knowledge of the past, male characters actively manipulate records and archival objects. By the end of The Headless Woman, the physical evidence of Vero’s actions following the accident has been collected and disposed of by a coterie of domineering male relatives. Although Vero’s husband, Marcos (César Bordón), reassures her that she only hit a dog, he still promptly repairs the car’s dents so as to remove any evidence of an impact. Vero – whose guilt and unease appear to be barely contained beneath her generally placid visage – is swept up in these obfuscatory machinations. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Prosecutor Nusret exhibits a remarkably flexible attitude towards veracity. Nusret is tasked with drafting an official account of the recovery of Yaşar’s body yet his narration belies what is depicted on-screen. He consistently attributes fabricated statements to various characters in his report and produces a sanitised, ‘official’ narrative that is less complex than the actual events that are unfolding. This revisionist dynamic is further emphasised in the running conversation between Nusret and Cemal. Over several scenes, the prosecutor gradually details a case in which a woman predicted when she would die and then mysteriously perished. Eventually, it is revealed that this story is about Nusret’s own wife, who killed herself in the wake of his infidelity. The pragmatic, analytic Cemal continually questions Nusret’s interpretation of these events and disregard for the truth until the prosecutor has no option but to acknowledge his role in the death. As these examples illustrate, absence – in the form of the omission of actual occurrence – is inscribed into history, often by male authorities.

The contemporary cultural contexts of Argentina and Turkey inform the critical reception to The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as well as the general output of Martel and Ceylan. Both the ‘New Argentine Cinema’ and ‘New Turkish Cinema’ labels emerged during the 1990s. While these two categories cover a diverse array of filmmakers and films, there are some general similarities between them including a shared concern with social issues and the lingering impacts of history in the present. As Cecilia Sosa writes, many Argentine directors from this era “build their minimal stories by using a bare narrative without moral engagement that similarly rejects any sententious political statement”. She identifies a “fascination for the social present, everyday life and marginal languages” as recurring features of these films. [5] Much commentary on Martel’s work emphasises her indirect engagement with Argentina’s history. For instance, Deborah Martin qualifies that, although The Headless Woman “appears to allude to the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-82 and to those ‘disappeared’ by that regime”, interpretations that “reduce the film to any one political or historical reading would … deny the film’s allusive and multiplicitous nature, its polysemic inferences and metaphors”. [6] By contrast, Patricia White stresses that Martel’s examination of “the ethical failure to acknowledge culpability” intertwines commentary on “political amnesia and complicity regarding the years of dictatorship … with racialized and place-based class and gender hierarchies”. [7] Of her own work, Martel specifies: “My films are political in this sense: to make a film is to share the doubt about our reality”. [8] Martel’s provocative notion of the political is exceptionally relevant for considering the importance of absence in her cinema. To cast doubt on the stability of the visible is, for Martel, to imagine alternate political formations and to cultivate a willingness to recognise what is missing or obscured within the frame. By forcing audiences to scan the cinematic image for traces of that which remains out of sight and just off-screen, Martel’s cinema – especially The Headless Woman – trades in precisely this type of aesthetic. In other words, Martel demands that her viewers confront absence.

A sense of being haunted by some missing or unseen presence also pervades Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Related themes recur in Turkish films from the past two decades. Among other things, Gönül Dönmez-Colin explains that the New Turkish Cinema is distinguished by the “search for an identity in a changing society, the threat to physical and/or mental space/territory and the general atmosphere of fear and not belonging when faced with the questions of identity: national, social, religious, political and sexual”. [9] Similarly, Asuman Suner asserts that “new wave Turkish cinema, popular and art films alike, constantly returns to the question of belonging and interrogates it from different social, political, and aesthetic perspectives. New Turkish films revolve around the figure of a ‘spectral home’”, which is “haunted by a nostalgic yearning for a long-lost childhood”. [10] In terms of these trends, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia serves as an extended rumination on the nature of identity. The film particularly emphasises interiority and aspects of personal history that remain ever-present but shielded from external observers (including other characters and the film’s audience). Ceylan explains that he “like[s] to show the things that we hide” and that “[a]bove all, my films are about the inner world of people”. [11] Along these lines, Haden Guest identifies “the moral implied throughout [Ceylan’s] films: that you can never fully know the person before you”. [12] Taken together, these comments identify absence as a recurring theme in both New Turkish Cinema and Ceylan’s filmography. Whether it be a nostalgically remembered childhood, a lost home or a hidden aspect of identity, absence is a prominent element in these films. Time and time again, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia brushes up against the inaccessible. When characters somberly ponder prior circumstances in their lives, viewers are challenged to comprehend their interior psychological processes and motivations. Personal histories remain invisible, though, existing beyond the parameters of the frame. Like Martel’s notion of doubt as political, Ceylan generates a strong sense of skepticism towards the blind acceptance of visible reality, including the veracity of the filmic image itself. Ceylan therefore presents interiority as a form of cinematic absence.

Landscapes of Absence
Both the narratives and uses of film style in The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggest lingering, incorporeal presences. These ‘haunted’ films lack depictions of the supernatural yet hinge upon disturbing intrusions of the past within the present. One of the ways in which Martel and Ceylan generate an awareness of the unseen is through the conspicuous recurrence of negative space in the frame. As previously mentioned, the cinematic techniques of these two directors often recall the films of Antonioni. In this regard, the relationship between the Italian director’s aesthetics of space and his concept of reality warrants further examination. Decades before Martel posited that her films trouble perceptions of reality, Antonioni expressed a related sentiment:

We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is yet another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see. Or perhaps, not until the decomposition of every image, every reality. [13]

Antonioni suggests that images and reality are simultaneously proximate and distant from one another – that any attempt to visually capture reality will serve only to expose the layered and ultimately inaccessible nature of an “absolute, mysterious reality”. In many of his films, Antonioni engages with this concern by ruminating on the unknowability of others. Recurring elements such as interiorised performances and failing relationships highlight the limitations of visual perception. Even more applicable for understanding Martel and Ceylan’s films, though, are the ways in which Antonioni’s evocative mise en scène and manipulation of time reflect upon the accessibility of reality via cinema.

Drawing on the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Seymour Chatman discusses how Antonioni renders physical spaces as entities with their own reality beyond the film’s plot and characters. Often, this treatment of space involves visualising absence within the frame. Chatman elaborates:

Pasolini speaks of the prediegetic importance of the space that characters enter. But Antonioni features postdiegetic space even more prominently, by dwelling on what is left after characters depart. French critics were quick to label the practice temps mort … The prediegetic instance can often be conventionally attributed to the familiar conventions of the establishing shot, but the postdiegetic lingering is more immediately provocative because it seems on first viewing to be a mistake, a piece of sloppy editing. In either case, the whole meaning of establishing has been radically altered. What is established is not ‘the same place’ but the possibility that it is in reality ‘another place,’ perhaps even an extradiegetic place. The scene is made portentous by a delay that challenges the whole tissue of fictionality. The film says not that ‘this is such-and-such a place, in which plot event X occurs’ but rather that ‘this place is important quite independently of the immediate exigencies of plot, and you will sense (if not understand) its odd value if you scrutinize it carefully. That is why I give you time to do so’. This kind of shot does not set the stage for some other shot, but … it is itself the scene. Not that the simple place as stasis is turned into an event or action. It is rather that the camera’s lingering makes the place pregnant with significance. We contemplate intently, in a way parallel to but separate from the characters. We are engaged, even before they arrive or after they leave, in a scrutiny that we do not quite understand but that seems nonetheless urgent … It occurred to Antonioni to let the characters exit the frame and to keep on photographing what was left – to affirm that the background has its own esthetic and thematic autonomy. The effect is that the location is shown to possess an equal but separate reality. [14]

Chatman’s insights about Antonioni have much relevance for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Headless Woman. Both films include numerous scenes that seemingly begin too early or end too late; such pacing evokes a similar sense of time to that which occurs in Antonioni’s famed trilogy. In this way, Ceylan and Martel invite viewers to reflect upon the ‘autonomy’ of on-screen spaces through prolonged shots of visual absence. Along with prominently featuring shots of pre-diegetic and post-diegetic spaces, both directors utilise framing practices in which characters are fragmented or marginalised within the frame. These techniques accentuate the emptiness of the space that the characters occupy. Much like Chatman writes of Antonioni, Ceylan and Martel trouble what it means to establish cinematic space, effectively undermining the visible reality and surface-level appearances of their films.

In The Headless Woman, Martel’s framing practices often correspond to Chatman’s classifications. Most commentary on The Headless Woman makes at least a passing reference to the fragmented glimpses that Martel provides of Vero. Martel’s framing frequently renders Vero as ‘headless’ within the frame, which visualises the protagonist’s subjective mental state. Beyond obscuring Vero’s face and body, Martel produces absence by repeatedly incorporating blank spaces into the film. Rather than deploying conventional framing techniques, there are many shots in which large sections of the frame are simply empty. These vacant pockets of space insinuate missing presences that relate to the film’s narrative developments. Many frames of absence give added weight to moments of revelation regarding something that has been hidden or discovered. For instance, in a scene that would otherwise be quite innocuous, Vero’s gardener (Ramón Yapura) can be seen digging in the background of the shot as she stands in the foreground. The scene unfolds in a static long take of nearly 90 seconds, which gives the mundane proceedings a sense of unease. After the gardener’s shovel strikes something beneath the soil and clangs loudly, he announces, “It looks like they covered a fountain or a pool here”. Martel concludes the long take as it began with Vero and the gardener on opposite sides of the frame and on different planes of action. Between these two characters, Martel leaves a tremendous gap, creating a spatial vacancy that is full of meaning. The blocking is rich with class symbolism, stressing the simultaneous proximity and distance between the middle class (Vero) and her primarily indigenous workers. [15] Moreover, this sequence illustrates the ongoing ways in which Martel aestheticises absence. The setting itself is shown to have a pre-diegetic history that lingers, which resituates the present scene as transpiring within a post-diegetic space. As the gardener announces, a structure that once existed on the site has since been removed or covered. Yet traces of this structure remain just below the surface, despite being invisible to viewers and characters alike. The thematic connections between this spatial detail and Vero are quite clear. Much like the systematic erasure of Vero’s accident and her behaviour thereafter, the past state of the garden has been glossed over but is still present. Through her use of the long take and her staging of emptiness in the center of the frame, Martel shows how supposed absences may persist just under the surface of what is directly visible.


Frames of absence are also closely associated with the death of Aldo and the ensuing cover-up of Vero’s activities. Shortly before the garden scene, Vero visits the shop where Aldo and his brother Changuila (Catalino Campos) work. The owner (Andrés Siarez) remarks that one of his workers (Aldo) is “not showing up”. Aside from Vero’s guilty conscience, this is the first confirmation that viewers are given of Aldo’s disappearance. This disclosure leads directly into a sequence during which Aldo’s body is discovered to be the source of the canal’s clogging. Vero and some members of her extended family – including Josefina (Claudia Cantero) and her daughter Candita (Inés Efron) – drive past just as the body is being retrieved. Martel, however, withholds clear glimpses of what is happening in the canal. During another long take of roughly 100 seconds, the camera remains in the backseat of the car, providing only an obstructed, partial view of the proceedings. A sliver of Vero’s head occupies a small portion of the right side of the frame, the middle is blotted out by a piece of the car and the view through the back window only offers blurred, passing glimpses of the recovery work. Vero oscillates between curiously looking into the canal and guiltily averting her gaze. As the long take progresses, the landscape that is visible through the back window becomes nondescript. Martel denies audiences a clear establishing shot of the canal in favor of an obscured, distant perspective. With these shot choices, Martel insistently reminds viewers of what is missing from the image.


Once Aldo’s body is recovered, Martel integrates additional shots of vacant spaces into the film. Along with the sequence featuring the gardener, another notable instance occurs at the home of Aunt Lala (María Vaner). During this scene, family members rapidly flit in and out of the frame. Martel utilises the physical structure of the house and character-based movement to produce numerous gaps within the frame and create unbalanced compositions. Later, Vero retraces her activities following the accident only to discover that her male relatives – including husband Marcos, in-law Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) and brother Marcelo (Guillermo Arengo) – have collected her medical records at the hospital and expunged her name from the hotel ledger. [16] After inquiring about her records at the hospital, Vero briefly sits in a waiting area and then abruptly leaves. In an example of what Chatman would describe as post-diegetic space, Martel’s camera lingers on the blank white wall that now dominates the frame. Of all the empty frames that appear in The Headless Woman, this one stands out as an especially meaningful vision of absence. Previously, Vero has been fragmented in the frame or seen from an obstructed viewpoint. At this moment, her on-screen presence is substituted for a visual emptiness that matches the narrative’s processes of erasure.

Martel’s landscapes of absence provide an interesting contrast to those of Ceylan. Whereas The Headless Woman is distinguished by empty spaces and fragmented bodies within frames that reflect Vero’s disorientation, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia generally features clear spatial relationships. Ceylan’s aesthetic instead produces a sense of absence through scale and lighting. After a preliminary scene in which Kenan, Ramazan, and Yaşar enjoy a friendly conversation in the latter’s shop and the opening credits, Ceylan’s film continues with a three-minute long take of the caravan driving on a road across the Anatolian countryside. The caravan stops to survey a site before continuing to travel out of the frame. For the duration of this scene, the camera is stationary and all of the vehicles and performers are filmed in extreme long shot. Through the scene’s temporal dynamics, the naturalistic mise en scène is immediately rendered as a realm of absence. The shot begins with pre-diegetic space and ends with post-diegetic space; in other words, the countryside is an impassive backdrop that precedes and succeeds the events of the narrative. Ceylan thus uses vacant space to establish the landscape as an entity in and of itself. Much like Chatman writes of Antonioni’s spaces, the Anatolian setting is presented as being “independent of the characters and even of the narrative”. [17]

Scale and lighting are notable components of this long take. Ceylan consistently shoots the Anatolian steppes in extreme long shots, highlighting the fragility and insignificance of the men traveling within its expanse. As the caravan of officials scrutinises the surface of the land to no avail, the encroaching darkness further inhibits their ability to identify the location of the missing body. Ceylan observes that he had intended to make the film seem “more naturalistic” by using natural light sources but he found that shooting in the steppes necessitated “huge amounts of light”. [18] During the search, the men attempt to use the headlights of their vehicles to illuminate the landscape. Such efforts generate pockets of light encompassed by large swathes of impenetrable darkness. The resulting images show a space that feels more expressionistic and dream-like than naturalistic. Given the characters’ objective (the finding of Yaşar’s corpse), the surrounding darkness assumes an almost sinister feel – as if the physical setting itself was willfully countering their search. What is sought remains lurking just out of view, prompting a suspicion that the victim’s body is actually present but not perceivable in the darkness. In this section of the film, Ceylan’s repeated usage of long shots and high contrast lighting creates a landscape of absence that threatens to swallow up the caravan.


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia features numerous shots of the illuminated countryside but without the cars’ headlights being visible in the frame. Such moments affirm the vacancy of the landscape and the smallness of the bodies within it. These shots are distinguished by multiple planes of action in which characters drift in and out of light and shadows on the landscape’s rolling surface. In addition, the film features many quiet moments during which Ceylan luxuriates in the audiovisual textures of the wind gently animating the vegetation that covers the terrain. The caravan’s diggers – the men responsible for unearthing Yaşar’s body – often seem to be on the verge of disappearing into the landscape. Ceylan typically frames the diggers in extreme long shot; the two men are tiny figures who operate on the border between the flickering visibility produced by the cars’ headlights and the ominous darkness of the countryside.

Just as Martel’s techniques provide insights into Vero’s subjectivity, so do Ceylan’s landscapes of absence reflect the interior conditions of some of his characters, especially Dr. Cemal, Nusret and, to a lesser extent, Commissar Naci. Of this trio, Guest writes, “The three principal male characters are each defined in terms of distant or departed wives who seem to float in a kind of netherworld, simultaneously absent and present”. [19] Physically absent, the women of this film are only known through men (Naci’s phone conversations with his wife; Nusret’s self-serving, mythologising account of his wife’s suicide; and Cemal’s reserved and limited discussion of his divorce). Eventually, Cemal emerges as the film’s quiet protagonist. His role as introspective witness conceals a past trauma that remains stubbornly present. Cemal openly states that he did not want to have children, suggesting a potential reason for the failure of his marriage. The doctor’s contemplative reaction to the central murder (revealed to have occurred after Kenan told Yaşar that he was the father of the latter’s son) draws attention to this character detail. To some extent, it also establishes the hypothetical child of Cemal and his wife as yet another absence in the narrative. Later, as Cemal looks at old photographs of himself and his former wife, the precise circumstances of their divorce still remain unclear. Nonetheless, the lingering emotional effects of their separation cohere with Ceylan’s consistent focus on the imperceptible depths beneath the surface of things. As with Vero’s male relatives in The Headless Woman, the personal details shared by the reticent doctor and the talkative prosecutor provide viewers with additional instances of men willfully skewing historical facts while crafting more favourable ‘public’ narratives.

In the midst of what is ostensibly a police procedural, Ceylan’s emphasis on the past traumas of Nusret and Cemal helps connect Once Upon a Time in Anatolia with The Headless Woman. [20] Both narratives feature the active manipulation of personal and public records and a pervasive sense of absence manifests at the level of the image. Physical spaces are connected to the subjective states of characters who are constrained by the past. Such landscapes of absence become evident through the conspicuous recurrence of empty space within the frame. These vacant frames showcase pre-diegetic and post-diegetic spaces that suggest the existence of doubled absences: the impending arrival or recent exit of characters, as well as more existential absences (missing bodies, lost spouses or even the burden of historical memory on scales ranging from the national to the individual). Clearly, Martel and Ceylan are actively invested in examining the interplay of multiple temporalities. By doing so, these two filmmakers expose the spatio-temporal dimensions of absence in cinema.

The Specious Present and Spectrality
Both The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are riddled with multifarious traces of the past. These traces range from oblique references to national history such as disappearances under Argentina’s dictatorship to stylistic variations on the conventions of earlier filmmakers such as Antonioni. [21] Spectres abound on numerous levels in both films and are sometimes directly acknowledged in the narratives. For instance, in Ceylan’s film, Kenan has a vision of the deceased Yaşar. Later, Cemal chats with a few townspeople who purport to have seen Yaşar after his death. In The Headless Woman, Aunt Lala perceives the apparition of a supposedly deceased woman in an old, grainy recording of Vero’s wedding. An ensuing scene finds Lala deliriously stating that she detects ghostly entities in her home. These fleeting, spectral moments complement other occurrences of spatio-temporal abstraction.

Selected components of theories articulated by Mead and Derrida are useful for making sense of the distinctive spatio-temporal dynamics featured in both films. For Mead, the present “marks out and in a sense selects what has made its peculiarity possible. It creates with its uniqueness a past and a future. As soon as we view it, it becomes a history and a prophecy”. [22] This observation encapsulates, in short form, many of the complexities of Mead’s thinking about the flow of time. Throughout his writings, Mead continually emphasises the connectedness of the present to the past and to the future. As he specifies, however, “The present is not the past and the future”. [23] Instead, a specious present must be recognised as expansive. It encompasses events that began in what seems to be the past but that continue in the present, as well as present events that have begun and will continue into the future. In short, understanding the specious present entails being attentive to continuity.

In “The Nature of the Past” (1929), Mead elaborates on this concept in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

The actual passage of reality is in the passage of one present into another, where alone is reality, and a present which has merged in another is not a past. Its reality is always that of a present. The past as it appears is in terms of representations of various sorts, typically in memory images, which are themselves present. It is not true that what has passed is in the past, for the early stages of a motion lying within a specious present are not past. They belong to something that is going on. The distinction between the present and the past evidently includes more than passage. An essential condition is its inclusion in some present in this representational form. Passage as it takes place in experience is an overlapping of one specious present by another. There is a continuity of experience, which is a continuity of presents … What is taking place flows out of that which is taking place. [24]

Here, Mead insists that the perceived passage of time obscures ways in which past events linger within the present. Events or “a motion” that commenced in the past but continue to unfold in the present are part of the specious present – a temporal category that spreads across and includes numerous moments that, in their unfolding, are each contemporary or “present.” In The Philosophy of the Present (1932), Mead continues this line of reasoning by further qualifying that certain aspects of the past are “irrevocable” – that which “must have been” – while other aspects of the past are actually present in that the past’s “presence is exhibited in memory, and in the historical apparatus which extends memory”. [25] In other words, the past consists of multiple elements: events that have objectively occurred and our ever-evolving perspective or understanding of those events. These latter processes locate the past in the present.

The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia display several key aspects of the temporal dynamics that are theorised by Mead. Although the films’ central deaths of Aldo and Yaşar are irrevocably past, these two absences remain present via their ongoing effects. The relationships that the living characters have to each death and to other pieces of their own personal histories continue to evolve over the course of both films. Hence, past circumstances persistently affect the characters’ experiences of the present and the future. Furthermore, the ongoing construction and revision of official records is reflective of Mead’s emphasis on the decidedly present status of how the past is processed. From the systematic cover-up conducted by Vero’s male family members to Cemal’s emotionally-motivated omission of details from his autopsy report (to conceal the fact that Yaşar was likely buried while still alive), the past is shown to be a production of the present.

In terms of film style, the extreme long shots that Ceylan includes throughout Once Upon a Time in Anatolia visualise Mead’s concept of time as a “continuity of presents”. [26] As the caravan futilely searches for Yaşar’s body at night, numerous shots depict the three vehicles traversing the Anatolian countryside. When considered through Mead’s perspective, these shots exhibit the experience of the specious present by showing the continuity of the past to the present and the present to the future. Physical gaps separate where the cars have been, currently are, and will be yet all three spatio-temporal locations are visible in a single shot. Due to the duration of these shots, every fleeting instant is registered. The present spatial coordinate of each vehicle becomes its past location as the vehicles steadily progress into future locations; in turn, these future spaces become present locations when they are occupied by the vehicles. This continual movement within the frame demonstrates the logic of the specious present, as each changing spatial position is part of the same ongoing event. The cars’ headlights also trace spatio-temporal continuity across the meandering bends and curves of the road. After finally recovering Yaşar’s body, Ceylan includes an intriguing shot of the caravan in the full light of morning. Here, Ceylan frames the shot so that segments of the road are visibly disconnected as the cars retreat toward town. The frame is neatly divided into three planes of action: the past is the foreground; the present occupies the middle ground; and the future is the background. Although this shot shows the ongoing nature of an event – the caravan’s journey – it highlights the vacancy of the foreground space that was just recently occupied. The immense scale and layering of the shot effectively results in a simultaneous vision of post-diegetic, current and pre-diegetic spaces. Moreover, the composition of the shot reminds viewers that the actual continuity among these multiple spatio-temporal coordinates may not be easily perceptible. Still, the connective segments of the road exist, even if they are not visible from the camera’s perspective. With this striking framing, Ceylan transforms the landscape itself into a ripple of time.

Since The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are so clearly fixated on the past, the two films’ future-oriented elements may be overlooked. The ways in which Mead and Derrida frame the connections between the present to the future, however, can help bring that temporal relationship into focus. Just as the specious present stretches to include past events, so too does it incorporate the future effects of contemporary circumstances. As Mead observes, “The irrevocable past and the occurring change are the two factors to which we tie up all our speculations in regard to the future. Probability is found in the character of the process which is going on in experience”. [27] Based on the past and present of these two films, their likely futures project to be shaped by absence and erasure.

Along with Mead’s specious present, Derrida’s discussions of spectrality provide another framework for processing these films’ treatment of the future. In Echographies of Television (2002), Derrida theorises the temporal outcomes of individuals being recorded by audiovisual technologies. When discussing what it means “to see spectacles or hear voices that were recorded at the beginning of the [twentieth] century”, Derrida describes the experience as “a form of presentification” that undermines what is assumed to be “real time”. [28] Elsewhere, Derrida reflects on the changed status of the present once a recording has been made. He writes:

[W]e are already in night, as soon as we are captured by optical instruments which don’t even need the light of day. We are already spectres of a ‘televised’ … Furthermore, because we know that, once it has been taken, captured, this image will be reproducible in our absence, because we know this already, we are already haunted by this future, which brings our death. Our disappearance is already here … We are spectralized by the shot, captured or possessed by spectrality in advance. [29]

According to Derrida, the production of a televisual recording predicts a future absence that, in turn, infects the present with an awareness of absence. Because the technological record reminds individuals of their own demise at some indeterminate date, the present becomes an inherently spectral realm. Much like Mead’s specious present, absence stretches across multiple temporalities in Derrida’s iteration of spectrality. Given that Derrida contextualises his observations by referencing Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), it is instructive to review a brief excerpt from Barthes’ classic text. Reflecting on the temporality of photographic images, Barthes writes, “[W]hat I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred”. [30] Just as Derrida later argues about television, Barthes associates the experience of looking at a photograph with the sensation of a present loss. In her book Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006), Laura Mulvey explicitly comments on the passage above, asserting that Barthes’ conception of “the photographic image is a recording of absence and presence simultaneously”. [31] Collectively, these theorists reveal how the peculiar temporality of recorded images – whether moving or still – manifests absence within the present.

Although Martel and Ceylan do not explicitly comment upon the detrimental effects of audiovisual recording technologies, the fear of a future absence lurks within the narrative and thematic concerns of their films. Certainly, their shared emphasis on the manipulation of records speaks to this topic. The thoroughness with which Vero’s connection to Aldo is erased carries with it an implicit threat – that she, too, could simply be written out of existence. This is but one way in which Martel’s film alludes to Argentina’s history of officially sanctioned disappearances during the dictatorship. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan shows how a single official – Nusret – has the ability to choose what is and what is not inscribed into the record of an event. Cemal’s recitation of lines of poetry – “Still the years will pass and not a trace will remain of me” – exposes his own preoccupation with future absence, as does a scene in which he somberly reviews old photographs of his ex-wife and his younger self (both now spectral presences in his life). In these varying ways, Martel and Ceylan underscore the potential erasure of their characters and the existence of absence across multiple temporalities in their films.

The Spectral Present
Both The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia evince the spectral present in their concluding moments. Throughout her film, Martel consistently features layered images that are distinguished by shifts in focus. At times, all planes of action are clear but compressed within the widescreen frame. At other moments, Martel strategically reduces the visual clarity of the image with out-of-focus layers that denote Vero’s disoriented subjective state and the indeterminacy of who is responsible for Aldo’s death. Martel’s suggestion of a spectral dimension to the unfolding present is particularly heightened during the film’s ambivalent close. After discovering that the hotel’s records have been purged of her name, Vero attends a party. Martel shoots this final scene entirely through a set of frosted glass doors, lending the proceedings an eerie tone. Vero and the other partygoers – including her male relatives – are obscured by the cluttered blocking and frosted glass. Even when Vero is neatly centered in the frame, the glass inhibits a clear view of the troubled protagonist. She remains a blurry, obscure presence on-screen. While the camera looks through the glass, the mise en scène slips in and out of focus. During this sequence, a seemingly permanent gauzy filter encloses the present, which is reimagined as a convergence point for lingering traces of the past and the promise of future absence. Martel’s final ghostly images of Vero – herself now transformed into a living embodiment of absence – are infused with the spectral. The tangibility of the contemporary has become elusive and out of reach. In these final moments, Martel affirms that the present is now a spectralised realm of absence. Viewers are left with the knowledge that Vero’s accident has been erased from the historical record, yet her subjective relationship to that past experience is ongoing and will continue to haunt her present and future.

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the retrieval of Yaşar’s body signals the beginning of the film’s final section. This section includes revelations about Nusret’s revision of his past and Cemal’s falsification of the autopsy report. In a fascinating example of the spectral present, Ceylan leads into the autopsy scene with a quiet moment of interiority. When the caravan returns to town, Cemal goes to his office and sits at his desk. Ceylan then cuts to several close-ups of still photographs that collectively sketch out a sparse chronology of Cemal’s past. Each photograph shows a younger version of the doctor, from an image of himself with his former wife to what appears to be a shot of himself as a child. After the photographs are shown on-screen, Ceylan cuts back to Cemal placing them into the drawer of his desk. The doctor glances out the window before turning and staring directly into the camera. Ceylan lingers on Cemal’s unblinking visage and then cuts to a shot that reveals the doctor is looking into a mirror. During this startling and captivating scene, the audience receiving Cemal’s gaze is aligned with the mirror that reflects his image.


While analysing “the fundamental, and irreconcilable, opposition between stillness and movement that reverberates across the aesthetics of cinema”, Mulvey discusses the effects of incorporating still images into a film. She argues, “Although the projector reconciles the opposition and the still frames come to life, this underlying stillness provides cinema with a secret, with a hidden past that might or might not find its way to the surface”. [32] For Mulvey, the prolonged appearance of photographs within a film produces “an illusion of stillness” that reflects upon the status of “the moving image as filmstrip” and photography as a predecessor of cinema. [33] As such, the meaning of still images in a film may range from narrative considerations to extra-diegetic contexts: a character’s history, the production of the particular film or the material attributes of the medium in general. Similarly, in his discussion of still images in the films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Glyn Davis writes that such “photographs serve as referents of the absent, distant or lost, resemblances of elements of the real and/or diegetic world located beyond the currently depicted scene”. [34] Following Mulvey’s insights, Davis identifies how photographs may rupture the fictional pretense of a narrative film and engender a sensation of absence.

Comparable diegetic and extra-diegetic dynamics can be discerned in Ceylan’s use of still photographs and Cemal’s ensuing gaze at the camera. On one level, this scene provides substantial insights into Cemal’s character psychology. The doctor’s personal history is clearly a significant factor that continues to influence his current behavior such as with his commentary on mortality. In addition, his personal sorrow seems to be a motivating factor in his professional decision to omit certain details from Yaşar’s autopsy report. On another level, however, the sequence is overtly self-reflexive and challenges viewers to consider how cinema itself may be understood as spectral in nature. Ceylan draws attention to the fact that all figures on-screen are spectres of the past who, through the medium of cinema, manifest before audiences in the present. Accordingly, the concept of the spectral present encompasses a crucial aspect of film spectatorship in general. When Cemal looks at his own mirrored reflection after seeing ghostly images of his younger self, the actor playing Cemal – Uzuner – gazes at viewers from the ‘real’ past moment during which the scene was shot. Cemal’s review of photographs reflects the character’s ongoing preoccupation with being forgotten while Uzuner’s direct gaze generates broader implications. During this contemplative sequence, Uzuner looks at the film’s audience across time; like Cemal’s wife, he is present in the recording but absent as a physical presence. Echoing Mead’s notion of the specious present, a single film can be considered as something of an ongoing event; it exists across numerous ‘presents’, including the times of its production and its exhibition. Through these dynamics, a film’s performers and, indeed, its viewers are transformed into spectral presences whose future absence is confirmed. As viewers, we look at the film and when it looks back – as with Cemal’s direct gaze at the camera – we are made aware of the many individuals who, at different temporal moments, will receive that gaze in our absence.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia concludes with the autopsy scene, which has some degree of symmetry with the film’s opening sequence. The first scene features a nearly two-minute long take that begins with a close-up on the blurred glass pane of Yaşar’s shop door. The figures behind the door are initially indistinct until the camera slowly moves forward and shifts focus. Yaşar gets up from sitting with Kenan and Ramazan and walks to the window, where he is framed in a close-up behind the glass. As with the final sequence of The Headless Woman, Yaşar’s face is visibly distorted. At the beginning of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Yaşar already seems to be a presence who is not fully present. During the conclusion of the film, as Cemal directs the autopsy, his assistant Sakir (Kubilay Tunçer) notices dirt in Yaşar’s lungs. Following an extended pause, Cemal decides to record, “No abnormalities were found in the trachea, esophagus, or soft tissue of the neck”. Throughout the scene, the doctor compulsively retreats to a window to gaze out at a hillside and a schoolyard. Shown in extreme close-up, Cemal seems to be holding back tears as he intently watches Yaşar’s widow Gülnaz (Nihan Okutucu) and her son Adem (Fatih Ereli) cross this terrain. After the doctor exits the frame, the camera lingers on the now vacated window. Ceylan’s last shot mirrors the empty window of the film’s opening scene, leaving us with a view of post-diegetic space. As a final image of absence, the empty frame punctuates the film’s emphasis on the impermanence of life and the unreliability of the visible.

As this article has detailed, both Martel and Ceylan engage with issues of memory, gendered power dynamics, the recording of history and the spatio-temporal attributes of film as a medium. The connective temporal relations that are theorised by Mead and Derrida – particularly the ongoing nature of the past within the present and the unsettling recognition of future absence in contemporary moments – are also made evident in the narrative concerns and stylistic techniques of The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Throughout these two films, pre-diegetic and post-diegetic spaces repeatedly precede and succeed narrative events, visually affirming absence as a condition of the present. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan uses the vastness of the Anatolian steppes to provide simultaneous views of the past, present and future locations of the searching caravan. In The Headless Woman, Martel’s framing makes distinctive use of negative space and obstructed views. Landscapes of absence pervade both films and are accentuated by the use of empty frames. Visual elements and narrative developments combine to reveal the spectral present as a realm simultaneously haunted by the overlap of other temporalities and an unshakable sense of absence that permeates the visible.

[1] All quotations of dialogue in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia reference the English subtitles on the DVD distributed by Cinema Guild. All quotations of dialogue in The Headless Woman reference the English subtitles on the DVD distributed by Strand Releasing.
[2] Martel and Ceylan have personally identified several filmmakers as influences and critics have frequently discussed how their films share qualities with the work of earlier directors. Asuman Suner notes that “Ceylan cites Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Abbas Kiarostami among his major sources of inspiration”, while J. Hoberman observes that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has some resemblance to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). Karen Backstein associates The Headless Woman with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) because “both focus intently on a female protagonist’s subjectivity and they both construct their narratives out of an intense fascination with the smallest, generally unnoticeable and unremarkable details”. Patricia White and Deborah Martin both establish connections between The Headless Woman and work by Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock. See Asuman Suner, “Home, Belonging, and Other Aspects of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Early Films” in Robert Cardullo (ed.), Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Essays and Interviews (Berlin: Logos Verlag, 2015), p. 133; J. Hoberman, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? (London: Verso, 2012), p. 277; Karen Backstein, “The Headless Woman”, Cineaste Vol. 35 No. 1 (Winter 2009), p. 64; Patricia White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), p. 51; and Deborah Martin, The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 93.
[3] See Hans Joas and Daniel R. Huebner (eds), The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016) and F. Thomas Burke and Krysztof Piotr Skowronski (eds), George Herbert Mead in the Twenty-first Century (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013).
[4] Mead exclusively published articles during the first three decades of the twentieth century. His first book, The Philosophy of the Present (1932), was published posthumously. Much of Mead’s later work centers on time, including his unfinished final projects. Mead also briefly addresses cinema in “The Nature of Aesthetic Experience”. See George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Present (Amherst: Prometheus Books, [1932] 2002), pp. 7-8 and George Herbert Mead, “The Nature of Aesthetic Experience” in Andrew J. Reck (ed.), Selected Writings (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 294-305.
[5] Cecilia Sosa, “A Counter-narrative of Argentine Mourning: The Headless Woman (2008), directed by Lucrecia Martel”, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 26 No. 7-8 (2009), p. 251.
[6] Martin, The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel, p. 80.
[7] White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms, p. 48.
[8] Demetrios Matheou, “Vanishing Point”, Sight & Sound Vol. 20 No. 3 (2010): 28-32.
[9] Gönül Dönmez-Colin, Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), p. 180.
[10] Asuman Suner, New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity and Memory (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), p. 16.
[11] Rob White, “Nuri Bilge Ceylan: An Interview” in Robert Cardullo (ed.), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, pp. 164-165.
[12] Haden Guest, “Physical Evidence”, Film Comment Vol. 48 No. 1 (January-February 2012), p. 57.
[13] Peter Brunette, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 120-121.
[14] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 125-126.
[15] These class and racial dynamics have received extensive commentary. On these issues see White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema, pp. 48-55 and Martin, The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel, pp. 84-85.
[16] Vero’s relational status to Josefina and Juan Manuel is somewhat imprecise. Josefina and Juan Manuel are the parents of Candita, who openly expresses her attraction to Vero. Just after the accident, Vero initiates sex with Juan Manuel in a hotel. Either Josefina or Juan Manuel appears to be the child of Aunt Lala; as such, one character is Vero’s cousin and the other is an in-law.
[17] Chatman, Antonioni, p. 125.
[18] Geoff Andrew, “Journey to the End of Night: An Interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan” in Robert Cardullo (ed.), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, p. 201.
[19] Guest, “Physical Evidence”, pp. 58-59.
[20] Considering The Headless Woman and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in relation to genre provides another entry point into understanding ways in which both narratives engage with absence. For commentary on how these films exhibit and subvert generic conventions see Sosa, “A Counter-narrative of Argentine Mourning” and Hoberman, Film After Film, pp. 277-278.
[21] Extra-diegetic spectral presences shape Ceylan’s film, such as a real life occurrence that partly inspired the narrative as well as character elements drawn from stories by Anton Chekhov. In their analyses of Martel’s film, Sosa and Martin provide insightful commentary on spectres and national history. Each scholar references theories of spectrality and mourning by Judith Butler and Derrida while commenting on Martel’s abstract treatment of national history. Sosa concludes that The Headless Woman “reveals to what extent the spectres of the past still demand an answer from the present”, while Martin asserts, “The spectres haunting La mujer sin cabeza evoke … the irruption of the past in the present and the uncanny repetitions characterising Argentine history”. On these issues see White, “Nuri Bilge Ceylan”, p.166; Sosa, “A Counter-narrative of Argentine Mourning”, pp. 254-259; and Martin, The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel, pp. 85-101.
[22] Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, p. 52.
[23] George Herbert Mead, “The Nature of the Past” in Andrew J. Reck (ed.), Selected Writings, p. 345.
[24] Ibid., pp. 345-346.
[25] Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, pp. 47-48.
[26] Mead, “The Nature of the Past”, p. 346.
[27] Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, p. 45.
[28] Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler (trans. Jennifer Bajorek), Echographies of Television, (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), p. 129.
[29] Ibid., pp. 115-117.
[30] Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 77.
[31] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 57.
[32] Ibid., p. 67.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Glyn Davis, “Stills and Stillness in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema” in Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (eds), Slow Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 103.

About the Author

Adam Ochonicky

About the Author

Adam Ochonicky

Adam Ochonicky is the author of Nostalgic Frontiers: Spatiality, Violence, and the Midwest in Film (Indiana University Press, forthcoming). His work has appeared in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video and Nineteenth-Century Literature, and he contributed a chapter on Twin Peaks to a forthcoming collection on television series finales (Syracuse University Press). He serves as the Media Review Editor for Middle West Review and is a full-time Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin OshkoshView all posts by Adam Ochonicky →