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
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.