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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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror