Austria (2012) Dir. Umut Dağ

When we are born, our parents may already have our futures mapped out for us, but chances are they won’t coincide with whatever we eventually decide for ourselves. Many of us should also consider ourselves lucky we live in a society that allows us to choose our own path, especially women, as some are never afforded this luxury.

It is the wedding day of 19 year-old Ayse (Begüm Akkaya) to Hasan (Murathan Muslu) in Ayse’s home village in Turkey, though the couple will be living in Vienna, Austria with Hasan’s family, his mother Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas), father Mustafa (Vedat Erincin) and three of Hasan’s five siblings. Living with one’s in-laws is not an uncommon arrangement but there is a stark difference on this occasion.

The marriage between Ayse and Hasan is a sham – Ayse in fact has been chosen to be the kuma, second wife, to Mustafa to look after the family in lieu of Fatma’s ongoing battle with cancer. Hasan’s teen sisters take a dislike to Ayse as they are barely younger than her, Hasan shows no emotion towards his faux wife whilst Ayse herself struggles with adapting to a new life culture, language barriers and fulfilling her uxorial duties.

Arranged marriage is something we in the west will never get our heads around; if we could understand the traditions and mores of another culture I suspect we wouldn’t find them half as fascinating; then again, we are less likely to be angered or bemused by them as well.

For his debut, Umut Dağ doesn’t follow the usual route of critiquing these traditions per se, nor does he vent about the religious undercurrent for much of the decisions made. Instead, the theme is family and Petra Ladinigg’s screenplay creates an oddly elliptical ideal of what family is supposed to mean within Turkish culture, the arcane practices of its traditions, and how it is viewed in western society.

Polygamy is illegal in Austria hence the fake marriage taking place in Turkey to get Ayse into the country which itself is a shady way to operate, but the whole scenario is to fulfil what was expected to be Fatma’s dying wish – for someone to take over the household after she has passed on. Morbid but proactive, though morally questionable, the huge onus this puts on Ayse as a 19 year-old who has barely lived her life has an air of cruelty about it.

Now she is meant to be the de facto matriarch figure to two teens of similar age, and wife to a man old enough to her own father! With dissension growing amongst the other siblings towards Ayse, the one person who grows closest to her is Fatma, which engenders jealousy from eldest daughter Kezban (Alev Irmak), who secretly resents her mother for the abusive arranged marriage she is in.

As time passes, these icy walls gradually thaw but never fully even when Ayse becomes pregnant with Mustafa’s seventh child just as Fatma’s chemotherapy intensifies, preventing Ayse from being the extra pair of helping hands she was assigned to be. Just when we though the drama was getting predictable, Dağ throws in a huge mid film twist that upsets the equilibrium of the entire plot as it does the family dynamic.

The emphasis is still on how this disparate unit is going to face the future – together of course – but the endgame is now different. At this point, Ayse’s role in the family is brought into question but it is insisted she is family without question. But she is young and in doing her bit to fit in with the others and Austrian culture sets her on a path of discovery with mixed fortunes.

In many ways this comes a little late in the film but works undeniable well in the wake of a frank and tender scene between Ayse and Hasan that pours more fuel on the fire, but with a brisk but fully realised 88 minute run time, Dağ tries to cover too many issues in one go. It may still be within genre boundaries but is handled expertly, deriving some unexpected moments of breathless dread and tension in what is ostensibly a mundane set up.

But it is because the surrounding perspective is one foreign to many of us that creates a more palpable sense of discomfort and concern for the protagonists, as the ramifications are informed and driven by a different set of values to ours. Making it equally compelling is the subtext of this occurring within a diegesis where the rules and attitudes are less stringent, where an argument of “when in Rome” might have some loose validity to it.

Dağ has said the intent for this film is to give women subject to arranged marriages and similar cultural facets a chance to have their story told. Opinion will be divided as to whether the domestic drama of the first half is more satisfying and believable or if the electric charged culture clash of the second half is where the real meat is. The one constant is Ayse as a sympathy figure but the scope of being trapped by the rigidity of the family construct expands to other characters too.

Much of the film’s success hinges on the two central performances of Begüm Akkaya and Nihal G. Koldas as Ayse and Fatma respectively. They gel effortlessly on screen, making an intriguing duo of shared emotional qualities yet opposing philosophical foundations, where youth and world-weary experience lead them down the same volatile path. This complimentary dichotomy is the backbone of the drama, Akkaya impressing with a star making turn.

Kuma lifts the lid on a number of pertinent social issues but only lets a few out to breathe where there is scope for wider discussion and education for international audiences. For Dağ, it is a confident and stirring debut of earnest concern that provokes enough to raise questions but not proffer answers for them.