By Don Simpson | January 27, 2011
Director: Feo Aladag
Writer(s): Feo Aladag
Starring: Sibel Kekilli, Nizam Schiller, Derya Alabora, Settar Tanriogen, Tamer Yigit
When Umay (Sibel Kekilli) flees Istanbul with Cem, her five-year-old son (Nizam Schiller), in order to escape her abusive husband (Ufuk Bayraktar), she never truly contemplates just how unwelcome her family reception in Berlin will be. Never mind that her husband beat her regularly and cruelly punishes their son, the worst evil committed is the loss of honor to her conservative Turkish immigrant family name. (“The hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes… A slap or two is no reason to run.”) Umay is dubbed the “deutschwhore” sister and shunned as the family outcast. Exiled from her family home Umay soldiers on, lugging her son between safe houses and friends’ homes all the while attempting to rebuild her life in Berlin. (It is worth noting that the German title, Die Fremde, translates to “The Foreign” or “The Stranger” — Umay is clearly viewed by her family, as well as Berlin’s close-knit Turkish immigrant community, as a stranger.)
Her father (Settar Tanriogen) is not just the family patriarch, he is a man drowning in his family’s circumstances. As much as he appears to love Umay, he cannot risk his family’s happiness and well being for his rebellious daughter. It is the Muslim men of When We Leave who have never learned to discuss their problems (a situation that becomes most apparent when Umay’s father travels back to his home village to meet with his own father—both men sit facing each other, but no words are ever spoken); it is the men who never question tradition or their repressive conservative values. Umay’s older brother, Mehmet (Tamer Yigit), is the most close-minded and conservative of Umay’s family, therefore he holds the most resentment towards her. Unfortunately for Umay, Mehmet is a raging testosterone-fueled bully who only knows how to deal with his problems by using aggression. It is only Umay’s youngest brother, Acar (Serhad Can), who is able to see his sister as a human being, not a filthy monster. (It is not without bitter irony that Acar is the one who is holding a gun to Umay’s head in the opening scene.)
Umay must not only free herself from her abusive marriage but also from the entangled web of related cultural prejudices. Umay stops wearing a headscarf as a sign of rebellion, but she is not rebelling against Muslim traditions in general, only against the brutal treatment of women. It is also interesting that even though Umay and her parents are practicing Muslims, it is very clear that their religious faith is not in question. Umay’s predicament is purely a question of societal pressures. (“God has nothing to do with this.”)
A heart-wrenching saga of a woman who attempts to dodge extreme cultural prejudices and judgments in order to escape domestic abuse, Austrian director Feo Aladag’s When We Leave brutally — yet quite effectively — examines Umay’s struggle for personal freedom; it is through the brutality that we discover When We Leave is also a story about the struggle for compassion and the inescapable pull of family love.
When We Leave is based on the real life story of Hatun Sürücü, a woman of Turkish-Kurdish descent who was born in Germany. Sürücü escaped her arranged marriage in Turkey with her child, to live independently in Berlin where she returned to school and commenced an apprenticeship as an electrician. Sürücü met the same fate as Umay, because as the saying goes: What must not be, cannot be.
When We Leave has been collecting awards around the world: Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film Award and the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival; LUX Cinema Prize for Best European Film; Outstanding Individual Achievement – Actress and third place for Outstanding Feature Film at the German Film Awards (where When We Leave was nominated for eight awards and competed against The White Ribbon and Everyone Else); Mostra Award for Best Film at the 34th São Paulo International Film Festival; Public’s Choice Award – Best Actress at the 39th Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de Montréal.
When We Leave has been nominated for seven German Film Critics Awards (Best Film, Best Debut Film, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Soundtrack, and Best Editing) and was submitted by Germany as their official selection for the 2011 Academy awards. If nominated, When We Leave will be my choice for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year Oscar.