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

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Behind Carol: the photographers who influenced Todd Haynes’ award-winning film

“It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

Variously dubbed “woozy” “stunning” and “gorgeous”, Todd Haynes’ Carol has earned widespread critical praise for its visual splendor. The film’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, was awarded the Golden Frog, the top award at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival, which is devoted to the art of cinematography. The jury declared it a film of “aristocratic grace and elegance,” noting its “delicate and precise exploration of emotion through color and light”. They added, “It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

Speaking at a 35mm screening of Carol at the Picturehouse Central on Tuesday, Haynes emphasised the importance of contemporary photography in deciding upon the visual landscape of Carol, explaining that he complied an “image book” of visual references that was shown to almost every person working on the film along the way: producers, set and costume designers, make-up artists, and actors.

The book collected a selection of 1950s photojournalism that revealed a “distressed, dirty, sagging city” that jarred with their own romanticised notions of New York at the time. Aptly for a film that proritises female perspectives, many of these photographers were women: Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier were all major influences for the team behind Carol. Haynes added that this was where the film developed its “soiled colour palette”.

Esther Bubley’s “Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill” (credit: Wikimedia Commons) and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

One key photographer, though, was Saul Leiter. As Haynes said to the Guardian, “He’s known for shooting through windows, for using reflection. His work is impressionistic: these exquisite frames, and then that blown colour palette, muted overall with flashes of colour. I’m so proud that people look at this and think: wow, that’s the film. It means that we got it.” His influence is so great that the Southbank have put together a selection of Carol stills next to Leiter photographs in their South Wing: Through a Lens: Saul Leiter and Carol.

Teju Cole wrote in 2013 that “the overriding emotion” in Leiter’s work is “a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.” Despite its setting, Carol posseses a slowness that mirrors the contradiction in Leiter’s photography: Therese and Carol’s relationship is gentle, silent and moves at a glacial pace.

Haynes also emphasised that Leiter’s focus on frames, mirrors, and glass was equally influential for the film, which often lingers on characters gazing at each other through car windows and camera lenses. In the documentary film about his life and work, In No Great Hurry (2012), Leiter says, “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.” For a significant portion of the film, Carol is a magnetic but inscrutable character: like Therese, we’re enthralled by, but remain distant from her. Haynes plays with this by including several shots where Carol is partially concealed or abstracted by rainy windows or snowfall. As the film, and its central relationship, progresses, we join Carol on the other side of the glass. Haynes told the Telegraph that when the film opens, “Therese is starting [...] but is not yet ready to put human subjects in her frames. And in many ways you feel like that’s also a process of putting herself in her frame, and seeing herself in the world. Which seeing Carol helps her to do. Carol becomes the first human subject in her lens.”

Saul Leiter (credit: gooseotter on Flickr) and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.

As Haynes concludes in another interview, “We yearn for the desire to triumph, and it almost never does in the greatest love stories, because we’re left yearning for it more in the end and we wish the world were different as a result. I do love that. You see these people functioning, where their gestures and their words have a limited range of possibility, and so it forces us to read between what they’re saying and what’s possible, to look at what’s between the glass separating them, the glances separating them, or even linking them at times.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.