... but to show it the way it is. Umut Dağ on his new film CRACKS IN CONCRETE celebrating its world premiere  at the Berlinale's Panorama Special.

The title of the film refers to a very hard material. Cracks in Concrete tells the story of an extremely relentless milieu. Was the hardness a leading motif in this story? What attracted you to this world?
Umut Dağ: The hardness was definitely one of the leading elements, one of the core points that aroused my interest in this milieu. I wanted to look behind the facades of these people, people we think we know from the media, and instead of allowing myself to be palmed off with the superficial, clichéd hardness I wanted to tell a story that can show it breaking open a little. I was already familiar with this milieu from my music videos and a documentary film.

The milieu of rap music or of petty crime?
Umut Dağ: It often isn't possible to draw a clear dividing line: the two areas merge together. You hear a great deal of German and English rap in the milieu of petty criminals, maintaining repeatedly that the criminal element is necessary because it's the only way out of a hopeless life. That constituted one of the starting points for me. I myself listen to hip-hop, and I know people from my school days who very quickly gave up all hope because they got to the age of 20 and hadn't graduated from school - they weren't even interested in doing so. It staggered me to see people giving up on themselves like that, clutching hold of certain values that didn't provide them with any way out. The aim in this milieu is to get hold of some money quickly without appearing subordinate to anyone. Being subordinate, either at school or in a job, is absolutely unthinkable, which means all these people are in a Catch-22. They end up in an existence where criminality isn‘t questioned, because it's part of everyday life. Thinking about the situation, and the desire to work again with Murathan Muslu who played the leading role in Papa – prompted the scriptwriter Petra Ladinigg and I to develop the story, which initially seemed very complicated and intricate. It could actually be seen as an unofficial sequel to my short film Papa, which wouldn't really bother me, because it would mean that a short film would have a conclusion, and often short films aren't given enough attention.

Your feature film debut, Kuma, presents a mother figure with a complex family structure woven around her. In Cracks in Concrete we see a father/son relationship with no integrated structure at all: on the contrary, the characters are complete loners without any emotional network to hold them together. Were you making an attempt to tell a story that was fundamentally different from the first film? Or on the other hand, were there things which you consistently developed?
Umut Dağ: I don't know whether I was trying to develop anything. For me, Kuma was an extremely important and enriching experience in every way. I'm really glad the film enjoyed such international success that it gave me the opportunity to make a second film. And I made use of the freedom I was given to make this film according to my own concepts. I'm of the opinion that every film needs an individual signature, which can be created by the script and the content. The harshness of the material and the fragility at the end dictated that the film should be made in the way it was, the way it now looks. Our approach was very unconventional, not least because we were using a large number of untrained actors. My premise was that we should subordinate ourselves to the actors in order to discover from them what kind of film would be necessary to tell a story we might only have been previously familiar with from prejudices and clichés. In order to break away from that you have to tell the story as uncompromisingly as possible, so that it won't be doubted. The only way of doing that was by means of the actors. So we completely revolutionise the way we shot the film, and instead of lighting it for each shot and reverse shot, as usual, we adopted open set lighting in an attempt to obtain as much spontaneity as possible. We regarded this way of shooting the film as crucial in order to accommodate these actors. They couldn't behave like professional actors. Maybe it took 10 takes or more, or maybe they aren't really so good if you point the camera straight at them. But maybe they are good at precisely the moment when you turn the camera away from them, and then you have to be able to react really spontaneously and carry on shooting. If we had lit the set in classical style and then had to change the lighting every half an hour, we would've found ourselves in a dead-end; it would have created the kind of bad performances that would have destroyed the film itself.

The actors obviously form the backbone of the story; where did you find them?
Umut Dağ: We started casting as soon as we had a first, very rough version of the script, because it was obvious that it would be a long search. Eva Roth und Alev Irmak were on board at a very early stage, and then we spent six months in Vienna looking at hundreds of kids. I wanted to find young people who knew what we were talking about. The dialogue had been written in advance, but I wanted them to say the words the way they would normally speak. We auditioned kids between 14 and 16, but it turned out that generally the 14-year-olds were a bit too young and the 16-year-olds slightly too old. That cut down the possibilities and didn't exactly make things easier. I was really pleased when we finally found people who brought the film to life, in the way they acted and in their authenticity. I didn't have to explain much to them. In fact, I learned from them.

Where were they from?
Umut Dağ: Alechan, the second leading actor, is Chechen. One of the others also comes from Chechnya, and the others from Croatia. We weren’t looking for people from certain countries or with particular accents. I didn't mind where they came from. I would also have liked to have an Austrian with a stronger Viennese accent. The important thing was to find male actors around whom the rest of the cast could be constructed. It was notable that a lot of people who came to addition were second or third generation immigrants. That surprised me a lot. Incidentally, there were also people who decided not to come into the audition when they read the name of the director. Of course, casting the children of immigrants gives the film a slight feeling of the second/third generation, of “a film about people from an immigration background”. That wasn't intentional, but I go along with whatever I think is best for the film. In this case it was the leading actor. Alechan was the best possible person; he himself had very similar experiences. He is simply the person I made the film for. Young people like him are the reason why it was so important for me to tell the story. I myself sense a feeling of impotence, of being unable to do anything to shake these kids awake. I find it baffling that people can have such unrealistic ideas, can walk through the world so naïvely and at the same time have the feeling they know best about everything. Throwing away their own lives but managing to act tough because that's what the milieu demands from them. Why do people have to be so trapped in a cage of values? That really drives me crazy. Years ago, when I made a documentary about this milieu at the Film Academy, it deeply upset me. This boy personifies what the film should be.

The dialogue was set down, but it was modified by the actors. Did the rhythm of rap music also influence the way the dialogue was spoken?
Umut Dağ: This quick, abbreviated style of speaking is simply the way young people talk. I mean, there isn't one universal dialect for youngsters, but there is a way of speaking for a certain milieu, and that's how they talk. The scenes were written clearly and simply. We had a particular idea of how each scene should go. Then we revised the dialogue in long, intensive rehearsals, and went through it sentence by sentence, trying it out, playing around and then rewriting it and modifying it. It was a long, drawn-out process that took place during the shooting. It would have been ridiculous to make the boys learn something that isn't the way they are, and it would have made the film impossible to watch. At the beginning the boys didn't have the courage to throw themselves into this process completely. Often they hesitated to say something, because they're from a milieu where they are constantly being told that whatever they do is wrong. Suddenly they were confronted with people who said: "You can't possibly do anything wrong." For them it was a new experience, and they had to get used to that.

Was Cracks in Concrete a fundamentally new experience for you in terms of the acting as well?
Umut Dağ: No. As a director you have to treat each person differently. So my behaviour towards the boys was different than to the other actors. For the rehearsals we had at the weekends I was happy that we always had our coach Alev Irmak there; she was very strict with them. That was extremely important, because they were boys, and if you give them your little finger they bite off your hand. It was necessary to behave differently towards them. That wasn't easy on set, and we had to be very careful about discipline, because we knew they would take advantage of that freedom, which would have had terrible results for the filming. It was always the same: Alev and I would drum into them the need to learn their lines, but they still came on to the set without being prepared. Which meant it took all the more takes until they were in the place where we wanted them. At times it was exhausting, but we were trying to make a film that was as authentic as possible, so it was simply the price we had to pay. Or it would have been a film I wouldn't want to make because it would make me cringe so much.

Murathan Muslu seems to have become your favourite actor. What is it that fascinates you about him, as a director?
Umut Dağ: He's the best male actor of his generation, in my view. He has something very deep inside, something instinctive, and I know he could play anything. I'm lucky in that he is often cast as a baddie in television productions, but I want to use him for different parts, and I'm going to do that. Nobody else would have cast him for the part of the father in Cracks in Concrete. That's because his appearance and the charisma he has makes him seem very suitable for evil characters. For Kuma I auditioned for a very long time, in Turkey as well, but I only found the depths and the latent strength I wanted with him. Michael Haneke once said what fascinates him about a good actor is the mysterious quality buried inside him. He saw a very early rough cut of the film and was extremely impressed by Murathan, comparing him with Marlon Brando and Javier Bardem. I'm really pleased I was able to discover him and encourage him. I hope this film will represent the next step in his career.

The film features a rap concert. Why did you choose the rapper Azad?
Umut Dağ: The boy in the film dreams of giving Azad a mix tape he’s made, which is going to be the climax for him. It was important for me that it should be a rapper who isn't a popstar, like Bushido or Sido, for example. They might been idols for our protagonists in terms of their material success, but not for their authenticity. Since our boy was going to be as real as possible, it had to be a rapper who could embody his dreams. In the mid to late 1990s Azad began to make a special kind of rap music. He brought something more raw and less playful to the scene. He was one of the people who invented the German version of street rap. I wanted a veteran who has been successful but hasn't turned his back on the scene. I was pleased that the concert scene worked, although I wouldn't film that way again. We organised it like a regular concert of Azad’s, with a real audience, and we only had an hour to film the whole scene.

You have already shown very clearly, with Kuma, that you refuse to be pigeonholed as someone who makes films about problems of immigration and integration. Cracks in Concrete is a film about sheer survival, and it isn't at all significant that the film is set in Vienna. It could be anywhere else.
Umut Dağ: It was important to me that it should be a universal film. Although Kuma was successful, it featured a phenomenon that hardly anybody would know about unless they were familiar with a certain cultural background. This time I wanted to tell a story that didn't need any explanations. The idea was to make the story universally comprehensible. At the same time, the risk of failure was greater with Cracks in Concrete, because it didn't have the bonus of that exotic aspect. Festivals and distributors were curious about Kuma because of its exotic flavour. Now that I'm working on a universal theme that has often been dealt with before, I have to confront much broader competition.

Austrian films have the reputation of not being feel-good movies. That may well also apply to Cracks in Concrete, but at the same time it creates a universe that hasn’t previously featured in Austrian films. The Austrian film scene is enriched by this new world.
Umut Dağ: Every film is a new world. Of course there are films that are set in similar worlds. If this is a new world for Austrian films, that's really quite sad. If you look at Germany or Holland, things like this are much more common. In that sense we are lagging two generations behind. They did some research in Germany which indicated that there are three phases in the process of actors from an immigrant background establishing themselves in any country. Phase 1 is being ignored, which generally lasts a long time. In phase 2 you get the parts of the token foreigner, usually something like a taxi driver or kebab seller. But in phase 3 you appear as a doctor or a lawyer without anybody raising an eyebrow. We're stuck somewhere between phases 1 and 2, while in other countries they reached the 3rd phase long ago. Of course I might well wonder whether I'm a token foreigner trying to break down the barriers. All I can say is that I'm not consciously trying to do that. Maybe in future film-makers who want to try something similar will be encouraged by my example. They might think that if he can do it, so can I. I'd be really pleased if I could open the door for other talented colleagues, but it still gives me a queasy feeling. Why do I have to be one of the first, in the year 2014? Why hasn't anybody taken a good look at this milieu before now? Why does it take so much longer in this country until a second or third generation is developed to the extent that they aim for professions which were previously unthinkable for them?

The protagonists in Cracks in Concrete are dragged down by a relentless force, and they encounter unremittingly harshness and hatred. The audience is pushed to its emotional limits. How did you and the scriptwriter Petra Ladinigg manage to go through with this radical process?
Umut Dağ: It's a very ambivalent situation. As soon as Petra and I developed the story and decided on the characters, it meant we were trapped by the milieu. Since we wanted to tell a story that wasn't just a sequence of documentary scenes claiming to be a narrative, it had to be as real as possible, including the dramatic content. A story has to be rounded off, whether it's told in conventional or unconventional style. In the end it has to be a story that isn't trying in some fragmentary, intellectual way to be something that may well exist only in the heads of the director and screenwriter. That meant we were caught up in the process. The spiral kept on turning, and things became increasingly dramatic and intense. That's the story. Unfortunately, life isn't a rose garden. At least not for the people in our film. If his brother had forgiven Ertan, the leading character, then everything would have been ruined. Why should he forgive his brother after he caused so much trouble? It wasn't our intention to make a feel-bad movie. And that's why we left the end open, with hope and reconciliation as a possibility for the future.

In Kuma female characters are the centre of attention. In Cracks in Concrete they are "marginalised". I say marginalised in inverted commas because I don't see it as a value judgement: in my view the separation describes an absence of female characters in this male-dominated world. An absence which damages men as well as women. How do you regard your female characters?
Umut Dağ: In Kuma the women played the main roles, but at the same time they were victims of their own patriarchal society. They had internalised the rules to such an extent that although they structured the family like a matriarchy for all outward appearances, it was based on a patriarchy. The women in Kuma were victims of a male-dominated system. And, as I hope is apparent in Cracks in Concrete, they are the ones who suffer within a milieu and a system which is dictated by men. What kind of director always presents women as victims? Naturally they aren't victims in essence. But in the milieu where we set our stories, where people have to have two jobs in order to bring up children as single parents, where you always owe money and never have time to think about your own life in a socio-political context – so you’re just happy when you get home and can get some sleep - that's the way it is. Ertan’s mother weeps because she is impotent. In Cracks in Concrete the women try with all the means at their disposal to achieve something in bringing up their children – and can't do it. It would be very presumptuous to condemn these people for that. Our aim wasn't to depict the world the way we'd like it to be, but to show it the way it is. Otherwise we wouldn't have needed so many auditions; we wouldn't have needed people who were authentic if we’d wanted to make a fairy-tale.

The gloomy world of the protagonists in Cracks in Concrete is reflected directly in the camerawork. You use a lot of dark, dimly-lit scenes, and when there is daylight, it's a harsh light. What was the camera concept?
Umut Dağ: I was very keen to work with Georg Geutebrück, after making Papa with him. I quickly developed a common language with Georg, and we had film examples that showed which direction we should adopt. I'm a great fan of Un Prophète, Fish Tank and The Wrestler. It became clear that the film needed a raw quality, but that also came across in the spontaneous reactions of the actors, and I didn't want the film to appear bleached, pseudo-documentary; I wanted it to have a colourful aspect that you don't get only with desaturated images. Achieving all this was quite a challenge. We did some things that an experienced cameraman probably wouldn't have done. Combining all these sometimes contradictory aims was incredible, and George devoted himself to this amazing challenge for seven weeks, carrying a camera weighing 25 kg around on his shoulders. It was a huge challenge, and it made everybody on the set and in the production team nervous, because for a long time they couldn't see where the journey was heading. It wasn't until the first rough cut that it became clear how everything was coming together – the effort we put into it, the concept we'd been following from the first version of the screenplay. Everything.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2014