Kuma: A film of wordless transmissions of longing underneath ersatz Hollywood direction

Kuma, the new migration drama from Austrian-Kurdish director Umut Dag, is a subtle movie distorted by its director's razzle-dazzle approach.

Kuma (12A)
dir: Umut Dag

Countries may forge their reputation on the world stage but the screen plays a big part when it comes to image. The Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) once explained the cultural hoops through which each nation’s cinematic exports had to jump to ensure maximum marketability: “If it’s French, it should feature lots of beautiful women. From Italy, the market demands that Mediterranean feel, with plenty of shots of food. If it’s German, it should be political and preferably involve Nazism. A German movie with food and beautiful women is unheard of.” In other words, ignore Basil Fawlty’s advice and do mention the war.

Despite the presence for the past 18 years of London’s Turkish Film Festival, that country’s cinema is not so clearly defined here. Just as the popularity of Pedro Almodóvar has dictated the kind of Spanish films that will sell abroad, so the critical acclaim for Nuri Bilge Ceylan (whose handsomely mounted work includes Climates and last year’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) may have had an effect on the films that reach us from Turkey: visually rich, contemplative pictures such as Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds, rooted in rustic hardship but still punchy and poetic. Or is it the German-Turkish Fatih Akin, director of the unsparing immigrant stories Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, who is the country’s true voice? It’s impossible to answer on the basis of those few films that clear the hurdles of funding and festival selection to make it across the finishing line into foreign cinemas. But perhaps the recent upheavals in Turkey will shape the films it produces and give us a newer, stronger sense of a national cinema there.

Kuma is more melodramatic and less artistically original than work we have seen from Ceylan or Akin. Any surprises are confined to the level of narrative but they are surprises nonetheless. Kuma is also not strictly a Turkish film: its Austrian-Kurdish director, Umut Dag, is the son of emigrants from Turkey. But it is concerned, like Akin’s early pictures, with the struggles of Turkey’s immigrants far from home – in this case, Vienna, where the delicate 19-year-old Ayse (Begüm Akkaya) has been whisked by her strapping young husband, Hasan (Murathan Muslu). Naturally, a culture shock awaits her. An entirely different sort of shock lies in store for us.

The marriage turns out not to have been as straightforward as it first appeared. As spelled out by the film’s subtitle, The Second Wife, Ayse is one of two spouses. Hasan is the front for her real husband, the ageing Mustafa (Vedat Erincin), whose wife is undergoing chemotherapy. Not that Mustafa is a heartless philanderer feathering his nest in preparation for his wife’s demise. The marriage is all her idea. She doesn’t want her husband to be bereft, or her children to be motherless in the event of her death.

 

Did I not mention that Mustafa’s senior wife, Fatma (Nihal Koldas), is also Hasan’s mother, so that Ayse in effect is married to the man who poses initially as her sort-of father-in-law? And that’s all in the first 20 minutes. Do keep up. It’s worth it.

Complications ensue but not for the reasons we might have predicted. The film’s first-time screenwriter, Petra Ladinigg, has a lot of plot strands to plait and a dizzying array of resentments, insecurities and guilty secrets to distribute among her characters, but she manages it with a deftness that dilutes the plot’s slight soap-opera quality. This emotionally fraught tale of people trapped and inhibited by custom harks back to one of Turkey’s earlier international successes, Hamam, or Steam: the Turkish Bath, from 1997, which addressed similar themes (tangled marriages, hidden sexuality, Turks abroad).

If anything, it is Dag’s direction and his preference for ersatz Hollywood camera movements that undermines our faith in the film. Anyone who resorts in such an intimate setting to the ostentatious crane shot (also known as the “eye-of-God” shot) is clearly grabbing at grandeur. The material and the performances are compelling enough; this simply isn’t a story that benefits from the razzle-dazzle approach. The most forceful moments amount to wordless transmissions of pain or longing across dinner tables or supermarket counters. Tuned in to Kuma’s wavelength, we feel privileged to pick them up.

Nihal Koldas as Fatma and Begüm Akkaya as Ayse in Kuma.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times