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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

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