Touching on a Turkish taboo
‘Kuma’, a touching drama about a ‘second wife’ in a Turkish community in Vienna, has polarised opinion, but its Austrian-Kurdish director, Umut Dag, is unrepentant
Umut Dag (right) on the set of ‘Kuma’
A scene from ‘Kuma’
Umut Dag comes across as a brave sort of fellow. A young Austrian of Kurdish descent, Mr Dag decided, for his first feature, on a project that annoyed many in the immigrant communities and confused some of the domestic funders. His very moving, beautifully acted Kuma deals with the controversial topic of the “second wife” in Turkish societies. The picture begins in Anatolia with Ayse (Begüm Akkaya), an intelligent young woman, marrying attractive, introspective Hasan (Murathan Muslu), before moving to his family home in Vienna. It soon transpires that she has been deceived. Her real role is to act as a second wife (or “kuma”) to Hasan’s father, whose current spouse is gravely ill.
Almost entirely filmed in Vienna, the picture offers us images of that city rarely seen in Austrian cinema.
“It’s a funny story,” he says. “We had problems with funding from the beginning. People would say: ‘This is a Turkish movie. It’s not an Austrian movie. Why don’t you go to Turkey for funding?’ My producer did not agree. ‘It’s an Austrian movie and I believe in it,’ he said.”
It is, indeed, quite a surprising story. Dag’s producer, Michael Katz, long a collaborator with Michael Haneke, had just received a substantial sum from the state to acknowledge the success of Haneke’s The White Ribbon. (We don’t have space here to address the eccentricities of Austrian film funding).
“So Michael Katz just used that money to pay for the film,” Dag says. “The White Ribbon paid for this film.”
The notion of “the Kuma” is, understandably enough, a tricky one in Turkish society. As Dag explains it, the practice still goes on, but it would be wrong to assume that such low-level polygamy happens in a huge number of families.
“I invented nothing,” he asserts. “It remains a traditional thing in some countries. But less so in Turkey, now that it had been prohibited by law. Yes, the statistics do say that there are 186,000 second wives in the country. But there are 80 million people in Turkey. So, you have to put that number in perspective.”
Not surprisingly, Dag found it difficult to persuade women in this position to discuss their experiences with him. But he did spend time with various organisations that offer assistance. Already living within contained communities, the women are forced to turn further inwards by their semi-legal status. The subject has been touched on in Turkish cinema and television. But those works almost always tell the story from a male perspective.
“I always wanted to come at this from the woman’s point of view,” he says. “There are many stories. The first wife is maybe getting ill or she can’t bear any children. Maybe she has borne only daughters. So the husband wants a second wife who is ‘capable’ of bearing boys. I also wanted to make it about the older generation and explain how things are changing for older immigrants.”
Kuma has managed to annoy both traditionalists and modernisers in the Turkish communities of Austria. You can see why. On the one hand, the film reveals practices that some older immigrants wish to keep quiet. On the other, it offers a picture of the society that younger and more integrated Austro-Turks believe to be out of date.
“The movie has polarised the community,” he agrees. “A lot of people do love the story. They are touched by the actors and by the deepness of the characters. Yet many people hate the movie because they think it shows the community in a way that is not accurate. But this argument can only come from fear. I am not saying that all Turkish families have a second wife in their midst. That would be ridiculous. This is just one story.”