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 End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear