(German title Die Fremde, meaning The Stranger)
At this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, the movie When We Leave received the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature. And its star, Sibel Kekilli, walked away with the Founders Award for Best Actress in a Narrative Feature.
It was no surprise to me when I heard the announcements because I'd been raving about this film and about Sibel's performance for days. I consider When We Leave one of the best movies I have ever seen. It is Bicycle Thief good, and the kind of movie I like the most: a simple yet meaningful story told without bells and whistles and with a small number of major characters. Prior to winning the Tribeca awards, the film had won the Lola (the German equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Picture, and Sibel had won the Lola for Best Actress.
At the beginning of the film, we see a young woman, a young man, and a small boy walking down a nondescript street. Without a word of dialogue, we feel the tension in the air. The young man pulls a gun and points it at the woman. Stop! We are then swept to the beginning of the narrative and taken on an emotional ride rarely equalled on any screen. When we are brought back to a reprise of the opening scene, we witness the perfect ending to a perfect film.
Another reason I love this film so much is the screen presence of the fabulous Sibel Kekilli, one of the most talented actresses working today. Her eyes are so expressive that she doesn't have to grit her teeth to show anger or smile ear to ear to show delight, although she does have a beautiful smile. A slight movement of her head at just the right moment can bring a tear to the eye. She can carry a film like Atlas carries the heavens.
In When We Leave, Sibel plays Umay, a young mother who flees her abusive husband and leaves Turkey to return to her family in Berlin. What ensues when she gets to Germany is a devastating journey through the darkness of a perverse patriarchal tradition.
Umay's younger sister is going into an arranged marriage, and it is implied that Umay's marriage had been likewise arranged. It's a marriage Umay can no longer tolerate. Along with other viciousness, her husband has beaten her and locked their five-year-old son in a closet. Yet after revealing this to her father, he tells her that she must return to Turkey. "You belong to your husband now; you are a married woman." When she emphasizes that her husband repeatedly beats her, her father says, "The hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes." There's no way she can win. In sharp contrast to her marriage, the relationship that eventually develops between Umay and a German boyfriend is truly natural and loving, one based on mutual respect. Her father will no longer speak to her when she brings up the possibility of divorcing her husband.
Having grown up in Germany, Umay is a German citizen, not a foreigner. So she struggles with questions of identity: Where does she belong? To whom are her responsibilities greatest? Does she have the right to live her life the way she wants to? She still loves her family, and she knows that in their minds she has brought great dishonor upon them. She tries to make amends, but every attempt is snubbed. When her family continues to insist that she return to Turkey and her husband, she burns her passport in the kitchen sink. It is a very bold act, a point of no return. But the family's ties to the community are stronger than those to a daughter. In one heartbreaking scene, Umay's boss at a catering company tells her, "If the choice comes between you and the community, they will not choose you." The look in Umay's responsive eyes is indescribable.
In one revealing scene, Umay's older brother throws her down in an alley outside of the hall where her sister is getting married. As she's crying in the gutter, he says to her, "I never want to see you again." But then, as he's walking away, he stops for a beat or two as he climbs a short flight of stairs. That moment visually shows his ambivalence about what he has just done. He loves his sister, but he can't break away from his perverted sense of "honor." This is an inspired moment of filmmaking. In one second, the conflict between love and tradition is illustrated.
In another remarkable scene, Umay's father, in the hospital after suffering a heart attack, apologizes to Umay, but the apology turns out to be terribly ironic in a way that is devastating to both Umay and the audience.
This is a very important film because it raises the horrible worldwide issue of "honor killings," those that occur when male family members kill girls or women who have "dishonored" their families. In some cultures, including the one examined in this film, if a woman has sex (even if she is raped) with a man not her husband, or if she leaves her husband and demands a divorce, she brings dishonor upon her family. Killing her is the way to win back the family's respect within the community. The film's director, Feo Aladag, a very engaging and articulate woman, told the attendees at a round table discussion that 5,000 such killings are documented each year and that many, many more go unreported.
Ms. Aladag called the tradition of honor killing an "absurd mechanism. What is being killed? The future. They all suffer. Everything is destroyed. All are traumatized. The ending of the movie is the essence, the greatest tragedy." The whole family is emotionally torn apart, and the entire cast is able to make us believe it. The director said that it was vital to the overall success of the film to employ actors with authentic Turkish backgrounds "whose faces would not overshadow the characters."
She added that the larger tragedy evoked by this film is that governments continue to respect such backward traditions as "honor" killings to the extent that the punishment for such atrocities is not as severe as it should be.
When We Leave is a remarkable artistic achievement. You must see this film.
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