A young man points a gun at a woman while she walks down the street holding a small boy’s hand. As we soon learn in the long flashback that leads us full circle to this point, the man is the woman’s, Umay’s, much-loved younger brother, and she has been trying desperately to create a life with her son apart from her intolerant, old-world family. From this very first scene, Austrian writer/director Feo Aladag’s remarkable, tough yet poetic When We Leave makes us feel we have stepped into Umay’s prisonlike existence, set in the world of Turkish immigrants in Germany.
We see Umay secretively flee Istanbul with her son, Cem, and return to her own family in Berlin, only to have her physically violent husband replaced by her small-minded father, weak-willed mother and brute of an older brother. By leaving her husband, Umay has deeply shamed this family.
Her father says they love her, but that Umay “belongs” to her husband.
“He beats me,” she explains, and her father answers, “He’s your husband. . . . A slap or two is no reason to run.”
In Aladag’s distinctive style, such confrontations alternate with quiet, beautifully composed scenes filled with emotion. As Umay and Cem ride a bus out of Istanbul, we see the relief and trepidation on her face. In Berlin, her family’s house is filled with deep blue shadows, the perfect expression of the dark world Umay has entered.
Umay is no fire-brand, but she is determined. She finds a job. When her family plots to send Cem back to Turkey, she escapes to a shelter. But her behavior has already jeopardized her sister’s engagement to a man from another Turkish family, and her family threatens her with terrible consequences.
Sibel Kekilli, the actress who plays Umay with such quiet strength, was also the lead in Fatih Akin’s Head-On. Akin’s films deal with a similar cultural setting, examining the threads between Turkey and Germany. And as Akin does, Feo uses a very particular story to extend the film’s reach beyond that Turkish-German nexus, throughout the Middle East. When We Leave immerses us in a world-wide cultural dilemma: a generation of modernized young adults tied to their far more traditional families.
Yet Aladag never loses sight of the individuals at the center of a film whose heart-breaking end is different from any you might imagine. First films are rarely this assured and eloquent, rarely send you out of the theater feeling so emotionally stunned.