When We Leave (Olive Films, NR)

At heart, Aladag’s is a story of clashing cultures whose values are exemplified in her characters.



When We Leave is an old-fashioned melodrama with all the heightened emotions and focus on the struggles of an almost saintly heroine that you would expect from a work in that genre. It’s a beautiful film (and Germany’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) but has to be understood within the context of melodrama, because if you go in expecting standard Hollywood fare you’ll miss most of what it has to offer.

Director Feo Aladag wastes no time establishing the film’s tone, opening with a shot of a gun pointed at the heroine Umay (Sibel Kekilli), a brief excerpt of a scene we will see in full later in the film. Then she jumps back in time, efficiently establishing Umay’s love for her young son Cem (Nizam Schiller), her husband Kemal’s (Ufuk Bayraktar) brutality, and Umay’s departure from Turkey to stay with her parents (Settar Tanriogen and Derya Alabora) and brothers in Germany.

A recent article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/movies/in-a-better-world-and-other-films-on-islam.html?ref=movies) discussed the odd disinclination of American filmmakers to engage with international issues, particularly the relationship between the West and Islam, while directors from other countries are producing many superb films that grapple with these very issues. To give you an idea, at the Oscars this year the 9 American films nominated for Best Picture were all concerned with personal and/or domestic issues while 4 of the 5 nominees in the foreign language category were at least partially concerned with how Islamic cultures and the Western world relate to each other.

When We Leave fits perfectly into this pattern because the story is built around the conflicts between the values of traditional, male-dominated, and Islam-influenced Turkish society (both in Istanbul and in Berlin) and the desperation of a young woman to escape an abusive marriage and in the process embrace Western values of personal integrity and freedom. In the secular German system of justice she has the same rights to self-determination as a man and domestic violence is a crime. In the value system of her family and community, however, her role is defined as that of wife and mother and there is no possible reason that could justify leaving her husband. As Umay’s father tells her, with a shrug, even physical abuse is not sufficient reason to leave her marriage: "He is your husband. The hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes."

Of course that’s easy for him to say (thanks to his Y chromosomes he was born to be king of his own little empire, while Umay’s X chromosomes ensure that she will always be at the mercy of the Y-chromosome people) but When We Leave is not entirely negative about Umay’s family or their moral code of conduct. They are cohesive and loving and in many ways assimilated to modern German life. But when it comes to questions of family honor they adhere to a system of absolutes that does not allow them to even consider that their daughter might be justified in her actions. It’s not only their personal feelings about the matter; if they don’t avenge this stain on their honor they will be shunned by other members of the Turkish-German community and that’s a price they are not willing to pay, even for their own flesh and blood.

The story’s action proceeds in a somewhat mechanical fashion (the main drawback of this movie) while building tension to the point where something just has to snap. Kemal denounces Umay as a "German whore" (although she’s been living with her family and there’s not the least hint of any sexual impropriety on her part) and declares he won’t take her back. However he does want his son returned to Turkey, so Umay’s father and brothers try to kidnap Cem. Umay calls the police and moves into a woman’s shelter where she begins to learn that there are value systems other than that of her family. She gets a job and starts up a sweet and loving relationship with a German man (Florian Lukas) but remains torn between her strong familial bonds and her growing sense that she is a person with her own rights. Meanwhile, to Umay’s family her actions are completely unforgiveable and they are required, by the honor code of their community, to take action against her.

The German title, Die Fremde ("the foreigners" or "the foreign woman") is a better description of this film than When We Leave, because at heart Aladag’s is a story of clashing cultures whose values are exemplified in her characters. Turks began immigrating in large numbers to Germany in the 1960s as Gastarbeiter or "guest workers" and are now the largest ethnic minority in the country, constituting a population of about 3.5 million. So as a community they’re neither recent arrivals nor an insignificant population within Germany, in some cases living there for several generations. And yet they are not entirely assimilated to Western European values, a fact that is brought to public attention in part because honor killings continue (there were 6 in the space of a few months in 2008 in Berlin). When We Leave is an attempt, by a filmmaker of Austrian descent whose husband is Turkish-German, to explore how such things are possible. Aladag spent two years researching the reality of life for Turkish-German women, living in shelters for abused women for some of that time, and wrote the script for When We Leave based on about 15 real-life cases of women she met during those years.

Although When We Leave has a strong point of view it doesn’t preach at the audience; in fact one of this film’s great pleasures is how frequently information and mood are conveyed not through dialogue but by the actor’s expressions and the superb cinematography by Judith Kaufmann. The actors are uniformly good with Kekilli ideally cast as the young beauty who must carry the burdens of two cultures on her slender shoulders. She’s been showered with acting honors in Europe since her 2004 debut in Head-On and now perhaps she’ll become better known in the U.S. as well. | Sarah Boslaugh


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