Dishonour killing: “When We Leave”

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When We Leave

Directed by Feo Aladag

Written by Feo Aladag,

Germany (2010)

Ironically, the winner of the European Parliament’s 2010 LUX prize, Feo Aladag’s feature debut “When We Leave”,  would probably serve well the cause of some member states opposed to Turkey’s entrance into the Union (that the Parliament’s press release uses scare quotes around the egregious misnomer ‘honour killing’ is minorly heartening). The prize, which awards the winning film funding for subtitling into the 23 official EU languages, is in the case of “When We Leave” a double-edged recognition – in the four years of LUX’s existence, this is the second film treating the subject of intergenerational  Turkish-German strife. While shedding zetetic light onto the cultural schism gnawing the union, “When We Leave” at times entangles its characters into ethno-cultural stereotyping, albeit as a counterpoint to its unmistakeably humanistic, not to say feminist drift.

And it doesn’t take a feminist to be revolted by the anachronistic patriarchalism at the centre of this family drama directed by Austrian Feo Aladag and co-produced by her Turkish-born German husband Züli Aladag. The central character Umay, played by Sibel Kekilli, is a headscarf-wearing German-born Istanbul resident who in a tone-setting entrée undergoes a secret abortion and proceeds to abscond from her abusive husband and scowling in-laws, taking along her young son.

Out of the frying pan into the fire, as it turns out that Umay’s own parents, albeit affectionate, are not about to compromise the in-laws’ ‘honour’ and denigrate them in front of the community by abetting Umay’s marital emancipation. What starts as hushed up war of attrition between the opposing stances of Umay and her family gradually escalates into overt reproof and emotional blackmail, disowning, public disavowal and eventually familial murder (incongruently termed ‘honour killing’ by a Western collective consciousness and  legal framework at a loss before this unpleasant Oriental import). Although benevolent towards the ostracised single mother, the German law-enforcement authorities and social assistance are in the end impotent against a community bullishly bent on sanitising the imago of ‘family’, conferring the occasional sacrificial lamb to safeguard its illusory stainlessness. The odd voice of dissent, such as Umay’s employer Gul or her younger brother Acar, is either hastily rebuffed by ill-concealed threats or gradually stifled by unrelenting pressure.

Even though the portrayal of the Turkish community can arguably be construed as unrealistically hidebound and insular (for example, the almost caricatural character of Umay’s brutish older brother), the author does a remarkable job of the heroine’s characterisation – Umay’s own contradictory consciousness meanders between genuine affection and loyalty towards her kin, and the impossibility to subdue herself to a conformity which is essentially foreign to her till the film’s tragic end. Sibel Kekilli’s performance is heavily reminiscent of her tour-de-force in Fatih Akin’s 2004 masterpiece “Gegen die Wand”, even though her new Aryanised look makes for a more washed-out, bland version of her edgy idiosyncrasy in “Gegen die Wand”.

While the title’s English version misses out on the numerous connotations of foreignness, strangeness and difference carried by the original ‘Die Fremde’, the film is apt in conveying the idea that the estranged visitor is not Umay but rather the community depicted as impervious to compromise with its host country’s notion of the right to individual happiness – divorce is inconceivable – and privacy. The profound conflation of the concepts of honour, family, community and homeland is one of the film’s major narrative threads – only after Umay’s father makes the circuitous journey back to his home village and elderly father, obtaining the senile patriarch’s counsel and blessing for the ‘honour’ killing is the fate of the “German whore” back in Berlin sealed.

With such an ideologically fertile raw material – cultural incompatibility, generational clash, tyrannical tradition – it’s a relief that the intensity of the personal drama and the authenticity of the performances remain unflagging to the very end of the film, an end whose cruel twist ensures a melodramatic shock compounds viewers’ inevitable moral outrage.

– Zornitsa Staneva

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