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Interview with Feo Aladag – writer and director of When We Leave

Interview with Feo Aladag - writer and director of When We Leave

When We Leave, Germany’s entry for the Academy Awards, is written and directed by Feo Aladag. It is a powerful film that tells the story of a young Turkish German woman who leaves her unhappy and abusive marriage and how the family handles the cultural shame brought on by her stand for independence. It opens in limited release in NYC and LA on Friday, January 28.

Writer and director, Feo Aladag spoke with Women and Hollywood about her film.

WandH: How did you become interested in the topic of honor killings?

Feo Aladag: I came to this issue because people I knew worked for Amnesty International in the German speaking areas of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. More than eight years ago they came to me and asked if I would write, direct and produce a global campaign about violence against women. I said that I’m an actress and I don’t know why you would think I’m able to do this.

It’s just that it’s a very broad issue and I asked them where they wanted me to start and they gave me this truckload full of material that took me four months to read. I wanted it to not look like a typical PSA so I used Mercedes Benz as a model and people thought at beginning that it was a car commercial. And it turned out to be the perfect show reel and car companies called me up asking if I wanted to shoot car commercials.

But even after I was finished with the PSA I found myself doing research. I didn’t need a lot of time to figure out that something was holding on to me. There were too many questions. And at the same time as I was seeing more media coverage on so-called honor killings and honor crimes in Europe and Germany.

WaH: What made you make the transition from acting to the writing?

FA: I think I’ve always been very interested in, apart from working on good scripts, good material and process oriented work, which is not always the case when you’re talking about the daily business in the TV industry and sometimes the cinema industry in Europe. People are not always able to give what you need if you’re really looking for the process. I’ve always been interested in the syntax of filmmaking, the language of filmmaking, and figuring out for myself what is it that this specific lens, with this color, with this lighting, on this line, and with this rhythm, means to an audience. I think that has always been a part of my way of consuming films. But to be quite honest, I was quite scared they were never going to let me act again. They would never bear working with me again…

WaH: Because it was a provocative film?

FA: No. Because if an actor makes a transition to directing, which is much more common here in the States than it is in Europe. I decided I wanted to do this so I knew I needed the best script I could write so I started researching. I did two years of research before I started writing the script. You experience all this research, you meet all these people, you ask, you listen for so many thousands of hours and you educate yourself and you read and you look — you get like really pregnant.

And then you reach this point where you say now I’ve got it. I was literally sitting in the summertime in my bedroom with the laptop on my knees and the curtains closed and I started writing. And I knew I need to write the script in a way that people, that people would get the feeling about the film I intended to make, because I had no material to show them. I had nothing on which they would trust me if I came up to them and was like, listen I’m this blonde actress, but I intend to write, direct and produce this thing and my company is called Independent Artists and you better get out of my way. I tried to write it in a way that they would feel, the taste, and smell of the film, and really tell them about the inner moments of the character. They liked the script and I funded it without no actors on board and with no names.

WaH: It was a small budget I would imagine?

FA: It was a small budget. To me and you it’s a lot of money. But for a film, it’s a very small budget.

WaH: It was important for you to be involved with every aspect of this movie?

FA: Yes. It was a condition not up for debate. I knew that if I did this film, as my first film, I needed complete creative freedom and independence, otherwise I wouldn’t be free. I’d lose too much and struggle for my vision, and I needed the energy to put it into the film. It’s a hard topic. And if you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a big production office – you end up working seven days a week, eighteen hours a day. You do this for many, many years. Sometimes I was so tired, I slept in my car in front of my door because I knew I had two and a half hours of sleep, and my body was too tired to go up into my apartment. You better really want to tell what you want to tell or otherwise you better step away because it’s a great journey but a lot of work. You have to love it. And I love it.

WaH: The reception for the film has been very positive. You won a lot of awards in Europe and Germany. What is the response out in LA?

FA: I learned the expression — it’s a crapshoot. It’s all a big crapshoot and it’s also politics. We’ve only gotten very good feedback and as you know, the people who hate your film probably won’t come up to you and your team and tell you.

WaH: What about you getting an agent here to direct more movies?

FA: Oh, yes.

WaH: So you’ve seen that kind of movement?

FA: Yes, absolutely. I met a with very strong agency with lovely people.

WaH: So you’re going to sign?

FA: Yes.

WaH: Violence against women is such a big topic. How do you think your film could bring awareness to this issue?

FA: The film has traveled to 74 international film festivals since April and it has covered more than six continents, 30 countries including Pakistan and Brazil. If you bring a film like this to Pakistan you maybe add something to the ongoing dialogue. I realized how much the film communicates and resonates with people. For example, in South America, I’m getting emails from women sharing their stories to an extent that is amazing. And I wouldn’t have expected that.

WaH: You’re a white woman in Germany making a movie about a woman of color. Did you have any issues with that?

FA: Interesting enough, not really. Really, not at all. But I had this fear. I kind of figured that if I go out and do this film, they would nail me from the left and right and say, “Hey blondie. Go back to your place. Shut up.” But this didn’t happen – I think it was due to research. It goes through very, very fine details in a sense. When the father goes back to Turkey you see going back through an area where they speak with a certain accent there. So we worked on this dialect. These fine little nuances were obviously picked up by people who speak Turkish.

First of all, they were happy. They never go to the movie in Germany and see a film that is forty percent shot in their language, which makes them happy. I think one of the things to help us live together is to be interested in each others cultures, languages, needs… whatever it is. It’s important in Germany to figure out the issue of the Turkish language.

The key answer to your question would be, I think that we maybe succeeded in what’s most important, which is telling this story with empathy to all the characters portrayed – – that was the key.

WaH: How did you have empathy for the people who did such horrible things?

FA: Because I met with people who had done so wrong and they sat with me. Sometimes they would sit with me for ten sessions because they wouldn’t open up on the first one, the second one, the third one… Some of them are raw and open and some are not. But you could sense the hurt from the very moment you shook their hands. Those were traumatized families. This is a father who gave an order once that his son would hurt his daughter and try to kill her, but he didn’t succeed and went to jail anyway. The sister was burnt very badly, she was shot. And the father tried to keep up the set of rules. He was trying to communicate to me why. But I could see… I could feel the pain.

WaH: I had more sympathy for the father than I did for the older brother and lots of sympathy for the younger brother who just wanted to fit into the German culture.

FA: Yes, and he loves his sister. Of course, the older brother looked up to the father whose appreciation and validation he obviously needs so much. Thinking of his father as not being strong enough, wanting to be the strong one, having no job, not being accepted by German majority.

WaH: In the notes you wrote that it’s Umay’s mother who says she wants too much from life. That is such a telling sentence. That women cannot want too much. They have to know their place. She loved her daughter but she was stuck. Elaborate a little bit on that.

FA: Women like you and I say no. We don’t take the place that is reserved for us. We go out and grab much more. What really touched me doing the research was thinking about those specific dynamics. You would think oh my God, why wouldn’t a mother just stand up for her daughter? Well, I believe it’s very hard to standup and question your own concept of life and look back and say, ever since I was 16 and married this guy and gave birth to all his children, and then go out and question all of this. It’s so fucking hard.

So it’s so hard for us to ask that from somebody else but it’s still a question that should be raised. Because I think most parents are unable to let their children really be children of their time. And it’s not restricted to one culture. But it is of course much harder coming from traditions and cultures where the self esteem of men and the identity of men, is so much defined by the controlling of the sexual innocence of their wife and daughters. Because if you have to keep control over this and you constantly fear losing control you end up having aggression and violence that comes from a place of fear. And that’s a viscous circle. You read, you travel the country and you see stuff and of course there is part of that says, Ok girls – grab the weapons. We’re not going to take it anymore. But you can’t do it. This is not how we’re going to solve this. I have very little means. I just tell stories. That’s what I do right now at this time in my life.

WaH: It’s about the value of women…

FA: And to value yourself enough as a mother to stand up and fight, It’s a lot to ask, I know. But it’s a very crucial line for me.

WaH: Share some advice you might have for other female filmmakers who want to tell important stories.

FA: I my experience there is nothing like filmmaking. I love filmmaking. I love writing. The journey itself is great but it’s also very demanding journey. It’s not really advice but my opinion. It’s about commitment. This really great journey comes with a price tag on it so you better mean what you say. For me, it needs to be relevant. You can put the world in a love story between two people. You can negotiate the politics of this world in a great love story. But it needs to have some substance to me if you make a film. The next thing is to be totally committed. Trust your instincts and trust yourself. Go out and do it. If somebody tells you that this is going to be hard, yes it is, but I love doing it.

W&H: What was the hardest part that you didn’t expect to be as hard as it was?

FA: How little sleep I got over seven to eight years.

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