01/28/2011 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Feo Aladag on Honor Killings and When We Leave

The German director tackles the hot-button global issue of traditional honor killings in her debut feature, named Best Narrative Feature at TFF 2010.

In a surprising number of cultures, when women break out of traditional (and sometimes religious) roles, or choose to leave situations in which they are in danger or unhappy, their families feel bound by honor to punish them -- in many cases, with death. While this practice seems unthinkable to the majority of us in Western society, honor killings are still horrifically common -- a fact that inspired German actress Feo Aladag to write and direct her debut feature film, When We Leave (Die Fremde).

We promise to not give away pivotal plot points, but here are the basics: Umay (Sibel Kekilli, of Head-On) is a Turkish-German young woman who lives with her husband and his family in Istanbul. In an effort to escape domestic violence, she takes her 5-year-old son to her family home in Berlin, where she announces she is not returning. Her family, in disbelief, tries to persuade her to return. When she asserts her free will and refuses, it sets off a chain of events that will break your heart. The film also goes in unexpected directions, and all the while remains free of the overt sentimentality to which family dramas can often succumb. Aladag’s light touch is quite impressive, especially when you consider the fact that this is her first feature.

After When We Leave premiered at Berlinale 2010, it went on to win the Founders’ Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. These two platforms were only the beginning -- the film now stands at 74 festivals and counting, in 39 countries on 6 continents. Along the way, it’s picked up awards -- it won Best Film at the European Film Awards, and was Germany’s submission to the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film -- and sparked global conversations about cultural change, which can take generations to sink in.

It’s not common for a narrative film to be such a powerful platform for discussion, and we recently sat down with Aladag in New York City to discuss her whirlwind year, her 7-year crash course in filmmaking, and her hope that cultural stagnation is evolving over time.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you know anyone in this situation? Honor killings are not only a Turkish issue.

Feo Aladag: It’s not only a Turkish issue. It’s not only a Muslim issue either. I mean, look to India. Also, Catholic Romania. That’s something that’s very important to me to point out. Obviously, you do have countries and cultures where it’s happening in much higher numbers, and if you look at the UN reports, they know that it’s definitely between 10,000-100,000 women being killed in honor killings per year. And it’s probably much higher, since so many people are not even registered in many countries -- especially in rural areas, it’s much easier for women to just disappear. Or if they die, you cover it up as a suicide. Or it goes to some kind of legal justice court that is not… for example, in Sha’ria law, it’s not a crime, so it doesn’t make it to court.

Tribeca: So how did the seeds of Umay’s particular story get into your head?

Feo Aladag: Eight years ago, I was asked by Amnesty International if I would like to write, direct, and produce a series of PSAs, as you call them here -- we call them social interest spots -- of 30 seconds on their campaign about to be launched, on violence against women. I said, “I have an acting background -- what makes you think I can write and direct?” They said, “We know you are very committed, once you speak up for something, and we’d like you to do it.”

I said I was happy to do it, but it’s such a broad subject -- where would you like me to start? They said, “Don’t worry about material; we’ll send you stuff.” Then came this truckload of stuff to Berlin from Amnesty, and I did four months of research, and I directed those films.

After this work was finished, I realized that, like all of us, reading those stories and educating yourself on those issues -- you are very moved, you are very angry, you have a lot of questions. And I found myself doing more and more research… So it took me just a couple of weeks to figure out, “Okay, Feo, here is something that still has a hold on you -- what is it?”

And I figured out it was this wish to understand what kind of mechanisms and pressures are so strong that it’s not possible for family members to reach out to one another, to step over your shadow of principle, in the name of empathy and love and loyalty, in those strongest bonds we have, which are family bonds. And to let the other person live the way they choose to live, even if they don’t function the way you would like them to function -- uou still love them.

So it was this picture of one hand extending out to another, which I think is such a big issue in personal relationships, in the microcosm of the family, just as much as it is in all political and social contexts. We’re not going to solve any big conflicts if we are not able to seek common ground; if we just look at the differences, we won’t be able to move.

I was also very interested in the whole thing in Germany and in Europe about minorities and majority, and how they deal with each other.

I figured out -- when there was more and more media coverage on so-called honor killings and crimes in Europe -- I didn’t have to set the story somewhere in Sudan; it’s happening right in front of my door. And there was a certain period, when I was doing research, where in four months, five women in Berlin were killed due to honor killings, which I thought was a great number for Western society. So I was interested in learning more about those mechanisms.

Tribeca: What happens to honor killing perpertrators?

Feo Aladag: You have to go back to understand… In the 60s, when people from places like Turkey came to Germany, German society considered them as workers in the workforce, not human beings, and thought they would eventually leave. Well, they didn’t leave. They brought their families, or they [created] families, and they started living there, raising children. To me, they should be considered citizens of this country. The majority figured, “It’s not something we asked for, but now they are there, and we will just let them be.” In some cities, you just put them in certain areas, where you made them stay, which was a way of ghetto-izing people.

So there was this “I don’t ask any questions” attitude in the majority -- “you do [yours] and we do [ours].” That’s not how you should live in a community, I think -- it evokes problems, especially if you have a culture clash. So there was a long legacy of a false understanding of multiculturalism, which is [covers her eyes] just looking away, so back then, many [honor killing] cases were not brought to court as they should have been, because the majority didn’t really know how to tackle those issues.

That changed in the last 10-15 years, where those cases actually made it to court and got proper procedure. Since the main thing about those dynamics is that you send in the youngest male relatives to commit those crimes -- we are talking about young boys between 15-19, often below 18 -- and when they are accused of murder, they go under juvenile law. So they are sentenced to a max of 10 years -- and they get out in 6, sometimes earlier. Some do flee to the country of their origin, and then there are legal proceedings to bring them back.

Turkey recently changed their laws -- “No matter how old this boy is, we’re going to make this not a juvenile case, because we also make the fathers accountable, and this boy could go to jail for life.” Which is a way of showing the parents: “You think twice, before ordering your kids to kill their siblings.”

Tribeca: And then the parents are sacrificing two children.

Feo Aladag: Exactly. It might not be the best solution, but it’s one way of trying to make changes -- it’s a deterrent. And it makes parents accountable.

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When We Leave opens on January 28 at the Angelika Film Center in NYC and at Laemmle Theaters in LA. Find tickets.

Watch the trailer: