East meets West in Umut Dag’s Kuma when a Turkish girl, chosen as a second wife, sets an immigrant family living in Vienna awhirl.
The Women by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In competition for the Berlinale Teddy Award in 2012, Umut Dag’s Kuma doesn’t exactly wear its queer credentials on its sleeve. But set in Vienna’s Turkish community, its tale of a young country bride caught up in a show marriage and shipped over to Austria to become Fatma’s husband’s second wife, Kuma is quietly revolutionary as it turns traditional values upside-down. It might be a man’s world, but Kuma is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women, as matriarch Fatma, battling against cancer, negotiates a second wife to look after her husband and family after she’s gone. But the second marriage is now so rare in Turkey, Fatma has to hide it under the pretence of a fake marriage with her son Hasan, and it’s a contorted conservatism that provides the catalyst for a chain of events that pits the younger generation against the traditions holding their community together.
A family of migrants living in Vienna return to Eastern Turkey so that son Hasan (Murathan Muslu) can marry local girl Ayse (Begüm Akkaya). But when they bring her back to Austria, all is not quite as it seems – Ayse is in fact intended as a second wife to Mustafa (Vedat Erincin). First wife Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas) has been diagnosed with cancer and has chosen Ayse to look after her husband and family when she is gone. Fatma’s daughters aren’t won over so easily, refusing her kindnesses and speaking in German so she won’t understand. But as Ayse becomes pregnant and Fatma goes through chemotherapy, the young wife starts to find her place in the family home. Until, that is, a stroke of fate forces the family to reconsider what they’ve let themselves in for.
Amongst the women featured in Umat Dag’s Kuma, there’s a host of issues facing Turkish-Austrian families, caught somewhere between Eastern tradition and Western progress. The second wife here is the near-extinct bastion of Muslim conservatism; for Fatma it’s unfathomable that a man could run the household and her daughters clearly aren’t up to the task – fit only for study and work or married with their own family. Women here are at war with each other, their individual perspectives irreconcilable. Like Kezvan, violently abused by her husband, and forced by her own mother to remain in the household – a good woman does not desert her husband. But they’re at war with men too, from whom they are continuously kept at a discreet distance – kept from dancing at Ayse and Hasan’s wedding and praying separately at Mustafa’s funeral.
The peak, though, of interfemale rivalry comes after Mustafa dies and Ayse, freed of her wifely burden, starts to look around for a new groom. After being rebuffed by Hasan, in perhaps the most painfully understated coming-out scene of inarticulable self-loathing, Ayse slips into an affair with supermarket colleague Osman. And when she’s caught red-handed, unveiled and defiled in the supermarket back-office, she’s dragged back to the family apartment by the hair, Fatma viciously beating her until she’s cut, bloody and bruised. For Fatma, it’s not only a sin but a personal betrayal of the enormous gift she had given her – her husband and family, her everything. In conflict with the modern dreams of the younger generation (to study and not to wear the burqa, to be gay, to leave one’s husband or to love freely) Fatma retreats to her room, alone with only her memories of a once happy family.
There’s hope, as Fatma opens the door to leave her room in the final scene, that the older generation may go some way to reconcile their old-fashioned traditionalism with the youthful progress of modern life. And with Kezvan removed from her abusive husband and Ayse in an awkward reconciliation with the sisters, it’s a very female empowerment of women moving forward together. It’s understated, unlike Umat Dag’s sudden plot turns which are more confusing than shocking; Ayse’s marriage to Hasan is confused by the bride climbing into the conjugal bed with the groom’s father on her wedding night, and there’s a disconcerting jump as Dag cuts from Fatma on her hospital death-bed to Mustafa’s funeral – Fatma eventually glimpsed in the wailing chorus. But with an explosive final reel of intense raw emotion, Kuma is the powder keg to a very domestic revolution.
Kuma is released on 16th August 2013 in the UK