Honor killings -- the barbaric practice of Sharia law and some Latin American cultures in which men are allowed to murder women who allegedly have brought shame on their family -- seems like something so prehistoric that it's hard to comprehend just how often it happens in modern society.
And not just in the Middle East or South American backwaters: As Feo Aladag shows in her gripping drama, When We Leave, opening in limited release Friday, it happens wherever that kind of primitively fundamentalist thinking holds sway.
In When We Leave, the setting is Germany (and Istanbul). Umay (Sibel Kekilli) is unhappily married and living in Turkey. But she decides she can no longer put up with the beatings from her brutish husband, Kemal, so she flees to Germany, where her parents and brothers have lived since she was a little girl. And she takes her young son with her.
She mistakenly assumes that her family will provide sanctuary for her -- but their community is tightly knit and the fact that she's left her husband is considered not just an embarrassment but a social stigma. Both of her brothers attack her verbally at the dinner table and her parents make it clear that she is no longer welcome in their home.
More to the point, she realizes that, in fact, her parents plan to return her to her husband. So she calls the German police and has herself removed from the household as a victim of abuse. They put her in a shelter for battered women, where she lives while finding work at a food preparation company.
The ramifications ripple through the family. Her sister, engaged to marry a wealthy man's son, finds that her engagement has been called off because of the blot on the family's reputation caused by Umay's apostasy -- at least until their father can bribe the father of the groom-to-be.
Umay repeatedly is undone by her own belief in her family's love. Her older brother tracks her to the shelter and tries to recapture her, without success. Her husband shows up in Germany and tries to kidnap their son -- with her parents' assistance. Umay shows up at her sister's wedding, convinced that her family will embrace her if only for the sake of her son, but is dragged from the premises by her brother. When she returns and gives an impassioned speech, she finally pushes them too far.
Aladag's film is not a sermon or lecture on honor killing. The term itself is never uttered. And yet the message is clear: In this society, women have the same rights as animals and are treated worse -- because animals aren't expected to cook, do housework and raise children.
The movie doesn't try to explain or excuse the culture, or put it into context. Neither does it generalize about immigration issues or point a finger of blame at specific cultures - Islamic or otherwise. Rather, it lets the barbaric attitudes speak for themselves as this quiet, long-suffering woman attempts to carve out a life of her own.
But Kekilli also captures the anguish of a woman brought up in a strong family tradition, suddenly wrenched from that context and forced to live on her own, knowing that she's doing so because of her family's choice, rather than because of her own. She gives a performance that shifts from quiet strength to searing emotional pain without ever being showy.
When We Leave is a film whose simplicity ultimately raises complex issues and feelings, one made with clarity of vision that uncovers layers without preaching.
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