German actress Feo Aladag makes her debut as writer and director with When We Leave, a moving film about how “honor” and “tradition” can lead to devastating consequences. The film tells the story of Umay (Sibel Kekilli) a German woman of Turkish decent who is married to a Turk and living away from her family in Istanbul. [SPOILERS BELOW] It is a terrible and abusive marriage and one day she has enough and flees back to her family in Germany with her son.
Her family is quite surprised once they figure out that this is not a vacation and that she has returned for good. It is against all the rules for a woman to leave her husband and take his child no matter what he has done to her. It is her obligation to endure. She says no.
She looks to her family to protect her but they are all (except her younger brother) mired in tradition. She begs her mother to protect her but she can’t and won’t. Her older brother cannot bear that she has broken the rules, and at numerous times tries to kidnap her son and return him to his father because, as he says, the son belongs with the father. Her biggest sin is that she has brought shame on the family – it doesn’t matter that she was abused.
Because her family refuses to protect her she flees into a shelter and tries to make a new life. She gets a job and meets a nice man. But she misses her family. All she wants is to return to her family and have their love and acceptance. But she is constantly rejected. The shame she has brought on them eats at her family — especially her father and older brother — so much so that they make a devastating decision in the name of “so called honor” that will change all their lives forever.
Feo Aladag has accomplished something extraordinary with this film. She tells a story and imbues sympathy into characters that could be seen as monsters. She blames the tradition and the rules and shows how people cannot break with them. They are victims too — victims of their time — but that in no way should excuse the fact that these traditions are archaic. The roles and responsibilities that are inflicted on women in this community conflict with the modern era. That conflict is best seen on Umay’s younger brother who just wants to fit into German culture. But ultimately it is the women who are victimized by these traditions, and Aladag gives us a true heroine in Umay who is trying to make a life for herself and escape from the rigid rules set for women. But the problem for her is that she wants it both ways. She wants her freedom and she wants her family. She might be ready to move on, but they are not.
Don’t be a bit frightened that this film is in German and Turkish. I was engaged from the first moment and did not look away until it was over.