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Umut Dag, director of this week’s feature film review, Kuma, talks to us about his compelling new drama.
Litro: Can you give us a brief rundown of what Kuma is about?
Umut: Sure, the movie’s about a very traditional Turkish family living in Vienna. The mother thinks that she will die, because she is very sick, and therefore decides to get her husband a ‘second wife’. It’s a very uncommon thing – to her daughters and everyone else, it’s insanity – but she was determined, and the film is about the relationship of the two women, and the mother’s reasons for her decision.
Litro: Given your own background – as an Austrian of Kurdish origins – was such an immigrant community always going to be the setting for your first feature?
Umut: I am always interested in subjects and characters that I don’t understand; the desire to research and try to understand them and then to pass this feeling, this exploration, on to the audience. I was really interested in characters like that of the mother who have come, thirty years earlier, from the Middle East to Europe, bringing their traditions with them and holding on to them tightly. Women such as this, these mothers, have sacrificed themselves for the sake of their families and children without ever reflecting whether that was a good thing or not. I couldn’t understand this and therefore found it interesting.
Litro: The premise and story often suggest avenues the narrative might take before you turn away from them. Was that a deliberate decision to try to avoid cliché?
Umut: We didn’t want to make plot twists in an artificial way, we just wanted to tell the story of these two women and explore their relationship. How these they react to each other was the main thing for us and the things that happen were really just there to facilitate this.
Litro: There are also instances in which potentially incendiary topics rear their heads – domestic abuse, homosexuality – without ever becoming full subplots. Were there particular reasons for their inclusion?
Umut: They were not included to fill the movie with multiple subjects, but to understand further the character of the mother. The homosexuality was really important for us as the mother’s illness alone would not have given a realistic cause for the idea of the second wife. Even though they don’t speak about it – it’s the biggest taboo imaginable – the mother has a feeling that something is wrong. The thing with the eldest daughter, the domestic violence, was also very important in highlighting what the mother has taught her children is important.
Litro: Both of the lead performances are fantastic, especially Begüm Akkaya. How did you go about casting and directing her?
Umut: The duality of the second wife – as being both traditional and open to new things at the same time – was all in the screenplay. We searched for a long time for a young woman with whom all of that would be believable. This was something you couldn’t direct, you can’t cast the wrong actress and make it work. We were very happy to find Begüm in Istanbul; she’s a young acting student and it’s her first leading role, but when we saw her in the audition, it felt like we had written the part for her.
Litro: The movie is entirely led by your female characters; was this something that you wanted from the outset, or a product of the story?
Umut: This whole subject [of second wives] is often found in Turkish cinema and television series and it is often from the point of view of the husband, desiring a second wife – a much more common reason than in our film. For me, therefore, it was extremely important to tell the story in a fresh way, so I wanted to focus it more on the women in this rare family situation.
Litro: Speaking of family; that theme has cropped up both the subject of your short film, Papa, and now this. Do you think there is a particular reason that you find it so fascinating?
Umut: *Laughs* Yes. Actually, my next film is also a family drama. I’m not sure; to be honest, it’s only a coincidence really. Of course, in families you have so many subjects, so many dynamics, so many characters, so many relationships; they’re all full of tensions. It’s a subject from which so many stories can be made.
Litro: What was the thinking behind the visual style for Kuma?
Umut: For the visuals we didn’t have storyboards as such, but we talked through the screenplay at great length. We discussed the scene – how we see it, its core ideas, the directions. It’s a long process but we wanted to reach a level of feeling in the visuals. We watched movies for inspiration.
Litro: Which movies?
Umut: Nothing that influenced it directly but it was good to find moments in films that did great things that moved me. It helped to give us ideas about things that we could try to do, to help our story; it was hard work but it was all very intuitive.
Litro: You mentioned your next film earlier; what’s upcoming?
Umut: I already shot my next feature, actually – we’re in post production now. It’s called Cracks in Concrete and is a story about a father and son; an emotional drama about a father coming out of prison after more than ten years to reconnect with his fifteen year-old son. Big drama, big emotions, somewhere between Fish Tank and A Prophet.