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

Thu, Aug 22, 2013, 17:04

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.”

Dag seems sincere in this. The film never comes across as a tract or a docudrama. Ayse’s unhappy position is the foundation for a complex, layered study of a family assailed by crises familiar to communities in all nations.

“Every side in the Turkish community has a position on integration,” he sighs. “Some are for it. Some are against. Therefore they are sensitive. And, if they see a movie on that issue, they tend to see it as a political statement from the film-maker.”

Still, it cannot be denied that Kuma does touch on an impressive array of issues. At one stage, we glance against the position of gay people in Turkish society. We tend, in Western Europe, to assume that this is a particularly sensitive subject in Muslim countries such as Turkey. Do we have that right?

“Oh, of course, of course,” he says. “It’s a big taboo. If you are gay, you are not allowed. There are some communities in Istanbul. But if you walk to far in the wrong direction you will get beaten up. It’s still a big taboo.”

Yes, nothing much seems to daunt Umut Dag. Growing up in a working class family, he was educated in a school around 95 per cent of whose students were from the immigrant communities. As he remembers it, the main ambition was to secure a nice office job that kept you inside during the icy middle-European winters. But he was not to be frustrated. After business school, Dag began shooting shorts and eventually won a place studying at the Vienna Film Academy.

“I was born and raised in Vienna and I have made my career here,” he says with some pride. “And it wasn’t that easy. Saying you wanted to be a film-maker was a very mad idea for a young immigrant. It was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.”

Well-informed followers of Austrian cinema will be aware that Michael Haneke, the dark lord of that nation’s film-making community, is a teacher at the Vienna Film Academy. The recent documentary Michael H: Director shows him dealing firmly with his ambitious young charges. One wonders if he is as fearsome to study under as his reputation suggests.

“No, no,” Dag says. “He is very precise in his thinking. He knows very well what he wants and what is good. You can show him a rough cut and he will know just what to do. He treats film like a talented furniture maker treats his furniture. He is careful. He is like a skilled mechanic.”

After playing successfully at a dozen film festivals, Kuma now makes its way before the British and Irish public. He’s had his fights at home. The rest is just gravy. Right?

“Well I do have to do a few Q and A sessions in English. That’s a worry,” he says (in perfect English). I think he’ll be fine.

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