Austrian actress/writer/director Feo Aladag makes her feature debut with When We Leave, entwining her fictional plotline with an account of the very real crime of honor killing. And with 5,000 reported crimes per year, says Kimberly Gadette, this is a story worth telling.
The official German submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, When We Leave, has received a great deal of attention and multiple awards at film festivals over the past year. Though not a documentary, filmmaker Feo Aladag was inspired to make the film based on actual honor killings that had been committed in Germany six years ago ... but she also states that she is not specifically pointing to Turkish/German hate crimes.
As defined by the United Nations Population Fund, "an honor killing (also called a customary killing) is the killing of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief of the perpetrators (and potentially the wider community) that the victim has brought dishonor upon the family or community. Honor killings are directed mostly against women and girls." Such dishonor entails: dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community; wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by choice; engaging in heterosexual sexual acts outside marriage; or engaging in homosexual acts. While the UN estimates that as many as 5,000 females a year are killed by members of their own families, other women's groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect that victims number four times the currently reported figures.
The film's German title is Die Fremde, or The Stranger – which perfectly describes the Turkish/German young wife and mother Umay (Sibel Kekilli), who can no longer live with the constant physical abuse that she and her five-year-old son Cem (Nizam Schiller) suffer at the hands of her husband. The two of them flee from Istanbul to Umay's family home in Berlin for safe harbor. But once her family realizes that she's a runaway, she is not welcome; their religious customs forbid the wife from deserting her marriage bed. Considered a "whore," Umay is expected to salvage some shred of her family's honor by sending her son back to his father. She refuses – and holding tightly onto her child's hand, turns into a transient, a "fremde" as it were, constantly on the move from one place to another. When a safe house gets too dangerous, she camps out on a girlfriend's couch. When she's imposing too much, she'll visit her new lover at his apartment – but there's no hiding from aggressive family members who are always one step behind, always trying to snatch her son.
The acting is terrific. In particular, Kekilli's Umay is breathtaking, a frail woman who will fight to the death for her child. She is strong yet vulnerable and loving, unable to believe that her once-caring family would shun her. When she falls for a co-worker, she radiates such joy, it is heartbreaking ... particularly since we sense that this story won't end well.
Umay's mother, played by Turkish actress Derya Alabora, gives a beautifully measured performance, her character torn between religious obeisance and maternal love. When she sees the scarlet scars on her daughter's back, she barely reacts. She herself comes from a similarly violent past ... if she can accept it, she expects her child to do the same. And new young actor Schiller is a natural, the varying expressions of fear, confusion and adoration playing easily on his angelic face.
Unfortunately, Aladag's script falters, specifically as it relates to the characters' actions. Umay is undeniably bright, full of ambition, determined to attend school and land a good job. How a bright woman can be so surprised by her family's reactions to her decision to flee, given that she's grown up within the very same culture, is puzzling. As is her constant rush back to the family that's disowned her. She takes her boy with her as she attempts to interrupt her sister's wedding with a tearful apology and no surprise to us, she's thrown into a dark alley. But instead of the family keeping the child – as they've been trying to do for the first two acts of the film – they let him join her in the alley. Huh? Even more puzzling, she's in grave danger, yet never considers leaving the country. Given that her son's safety is her primary concern, knowing that any of her male family members or their friends might kidnap him at any time, her naïveté grows increasingly annoying.
Script problems aside, the fact that the filmmakers have created such a strong-hearted drama, getting our attention and making us care, opening our eyes to such a senseless crime, is no small feat. By bringing this situation to global attention, uncovering this enshrouded world of misogyny ... who knows what revelatory light might shine.
Rating on a scale of 5 mother and child reunions: 3.5
Release date: US: 28 January 2011; UK: TBD
Written and directed by: Feo Aladag
Cast: Sibel Kekilli, Settar Tanriögen, Derya Alabora, Florian Lukas, Nursel Köse, Nizam Schiller
Running time: 119 minutes