A schoolteacher watches falling snow from his classroom window; a young boy surveys the contours of his village atop a hill; a drifter observes Istanbul's heaving human traffic; a young man gazes at the Bosphorus from his tenement. This is a selection of seemingly unrelated images from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's films, but they are connected by one unique feature: the protagonists are all pictured from behind, their heads placed centre in the frame. 'In life, when we look at people from behind, we are more free to think about him or her,' says the Turkish director of what has become one of his visual leitmotifs. 'For instance, I [once] saw someone that I know in Istanbul when I was walking in the street. He was walking in front of me. I didn't like that guy in those days - but when I saw him from behind I forgave him. People appear weaker and more defenceless from behind.' So it is that viewers are left to speculate on the brooding emotions of the people whose faces are obscured. In The Small Town, Ceylan's feature film debut from 1997, a teacher's moment of reflection comes before he asks his pupils to recite from a book on rules of social behaviour. In Clouds of May (1999), young Ali (Muhammad Zimbaoglu) turns away from view, his frustration palpable as he's forced to take a difficult dog-infested path to deliver tomatoes to some faraway household. Distant's country boy Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) finds himself lost in Istanbul, harsh urban realities dashing his hopes of making it. In this year's Three Monkeys, teenager Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) keeps his despair in check as he witnesses his father serving time for a hit-and-run he did not commit, and his mother having an affair with the person who did. Ceylan has a penchant for denying viewers direct access to a character's facial expressions. It is representative of his approach to filmmaking. Ever since his directorial debut in 1995 with the short film Cocoon, he's delivered a canon heavy on ravishing visuals and symbolism and extremely light on conventional narratives. Static shots and long takes saturate his work, and natural ambience rather than witty wordplay dominates their soundtracks. The menacing silences heighten the tension bubbling within the films. In Climates (2006), Ceylan and his wife Ebru play a couple (named Isa and Bahar) whose relationship is in meltdown. He interweaves its sporadic bursts of stinging dialogue with large swathes of wordless scenes. But it's in these sequences - Bahar's nightmare of Isa burying her alive with sand, the pair sulking after a row at a friend's place - that the characters' feelings come alive. Asked about the silences which have become one of his trademarks, Ceylan smiles and says, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it might just be his style. 'I think it's the nature of humans. When we talk, we generally lie; it's not easy to speak the truth. Even now, you know,' he says from behind the pair of sepia-tinted spectacles he wears despite the heavily overcast sky above Cannes on the day we meet. 'If you really seek the truth you should prepare to see the context, from [people's] expressions and other details. I would like to make my cinema such that audiences have to be active to get it ... I find films which have everything given too didactic.' Films such as Cocoon (about an estranged old couple meeting after many years to reconcile their differences), The Small Town (four stories about life in rural Turkey, as seen through the eyes of two children) and Clouds of May (about an artistically blocked director's cynical efforts to conjure a film out of his family in his home village) could all be seen as tone poems celebrating his country's beautiful rustic settings. However, in recent years the 48-year-old has become more open to the option of actually having a story in his films. Thus, Distant, which won him his first big international honour - the Grand Prix and best actor titles at Cannes - sees him moving a tad closer to producing a narrative backbone to his stream-of-consciousness aesthetics. He centres the film around the conflict between a misanthropic photographer (Muzaffer Ozdemir) and a young relative who arrives in Istanbul with the hope of becoming a mariner and travelling abroad. And after Climates came Three Monkeys, a film which again brought him success at Cannes in the shape of the best director award. It has a story based neither on aspects of his own life such as Clouds of May and Distant nor starring any of his closest kin as Cocoon and Clouds of May did. They featured his parents. The film begins with politician Servet (Ercan Kesal, who co-wrote the script with Ceylan and his wife) fleeing a traffic accident in a country lane; hell-bent not to see his election campaign derailed, he has his chauffeur Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) take the rap instead, with a promise that he would 'take care' of his family when he's in prison. Servet's pledge takes on more meaning when he begins an affair with Eyup's wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) - to the dismay of her son Ismail. When Eyup returns home after finishing his sentence, all the secrets suppressed for years - from Hacer's trysts, to the drowning of another son - stand ready to implode, leading to tragedy. The film's title alludes to the traditional use of monkeys to counsel against hearing, speaking and seeing evil but in the narrative, the decision to leave things hidden destroys the family. Three Monkeys is different from Ceylan's previous films in another aspect: in contrast to the naturalist hues of his former work, most things are reduced to a hazy mix of yellow, grey and black, the exception being Hacer's dress, which remains darkly crimson - the colour traditional film noir reserves for its femme fatale. Again, Ceylan proves less forthcoming about such interpretations. 'The men in Turkey generally don't wear red, that's all,' he says. 'The women are more colourful, and if you want to be realistic you have to be so.' Ceylan's first artistic endeavour was in photography: he began taking pictures in the early 1980s when he decided against putting his engineering degree to use. He then studied film for two years, but it was nearly a decade before he made Cocoon. He has certainly picked up pace since and all his films have been selected for competition in either Berlin or Cannes. He has won five awards in these two festivals alone, not counting the many other titles he's won abroad as well as at home: he's already a three-time winner of the best director title at the Golden Oranges, Turkey's premier film awards. This easily makes him (alongside Fatih Akin, who was born and is based in Germany) one of the most internationally successful Turkish directors since Atif Yilmaz, Metin Erksan and Yilmaz Guney. Then again, Ceylan says being a darling of the film festival circuit doesn't necessarily translate into success at home: Climates might have secured a flurry of positive reviews when it premiered at Cannes in 2006, but it opened in Turkey five months later on just 22 screens. In contrast, during the same week, The Exam (Sinav), a comedy about teenagers employing a hitman (former John Woo collaborator and part-time Hong Kong resident Jean-Claude Van Damme) to steal papers from a university entrance examination, opened across Turkey in 249 cinemas. Three Monkeys, which has been shown in the Karlovy Vary and Toronto festivals after its screenings in France, is to be released in Turkey later this month. 'They have more information about the background of my films,' Ceylan says of his compatriots. 'But there are fewer people in Turkey who like this kind of film.' Nuri Bilge Ceylan is the subject of a retrospective at this year's Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. For details, go to hkaff.asia. Three Monkeys will be on general release later in the year.