Family secrets and new lives
by Fabien Lemercier
01/06/2012 - In the shadow of the master Michael Haneke, Austrian cinema has continued to catch our attention with often fascinating filmmakers such as Ulrich Seidl, Barbara Albert, Jessica Hausner, Ruth Mader, and Götz Spielmann. Now, we must add Umut Dag to this non exhaustive list, after his very promising talent was revealed when his first feature Kuma [trailer, film focus] opened the Panorama section at the 2012 Berlinale.
This new film director of Kurdish origin (30 years old) has made an acutely dissected family drama almost entirely set behind closed doors. The screenplay is full of unexpected twists in the plot, the acting is extremely good, and the directing is remarkable. This all predicts a brilliant future for Umut Dag, especially since his Turkish-Viennese film definitely doesn't fit the mould of a communitarian film about immigration and integration. Instead, the director distinguishes himself through his portrayal of inner motivations and in his mirror treatment of human relations, qualities that could easily translate to other cinematic ground.
Playing on contrasts, Kuma starts with a prologue in a Turkish village celebrating a wedding in a curiously tense atmosphere, especially on the side of the groom Hasan (Murathan Muslu)'s family. His mother Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas) appears to be genuinely miserable and his sister is so enraged ("Let's go to this wonderful wedding!") that her father Mustafa (Vedat Erincin) actually has to calm her down. After emotional farewells, the young bride Ayse (Begüm Akkaya) is off to Austria to live with her in-laws in an overcrowded flat in Vienna. Soon it's the wedding night ("If it's not the man of your dreams, close your eyes!") and time for a huge surprise when Ayse climbs into the old father's bed, not that of her young husband. Ayse is in fact a second wife, with the blessing of the family's mother who has cancer and wants someone to look after her offspring (six children, of which two live outside the family home).
A strange life thus starts for Ayse ("Guest of replacement mother?"), even though the real nature of her marriage stays a secret to keep up appearances in Vienna's very gossipy Turkish community. Even if Fatma is supportive ("With time, it will be easier. You have to be strong, I am counting on you, I am entrusting them all to you.") and teaches her to run the household (shopping, washing, tidying, cooking), the family's elder sisters (Alev Imak and Aliye Esra) are not. They call her "country bumpkin" and speak German together so that she can't understand. But Ayse will adapt as cancer slowly turns Fatma into a shadow of her former self, before the final twist in the plot that suddenly throws this family's fragile balance all back into question…
Agilely using elliptical narrative and exploring the variations in his characters' expressions with stunning close-ups, Umut Dag manages to skilfully define what motivates the six characters in his film as well as how their relationships evolve towards one another. He weaves a well-paced and always intriguing tale, and the fact that it is practically all filmed indoors in rather narrow spaces never detracts from the rhythm. He thus gives a beautiful demonstration of cinematic simplicity and effectiveness (with a special mention to director of photography Casten Thiele). With a happily combination of professional and amateur actors, Kuma excels in gently exploring a milieu dominated by traditions, the unspoken ("You have to keep your problems for yourself"), the resentment of sacrifice ("I cleaned the homes of disbelievers, I cleaned toilets"), immense social pressure to keep up appearances, and the emergence of different values in the younger generation. These universal "everyday" themes sit ideally with the "extraordinary" event that triggers the screenplay (written by the director) in a great film about women at pivotal moments of their lives.