When We Leave: Germany’s Entry for the 2010 Oscar

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By Jeff Farr

Germany’s Entry for the Oscar

A harrowing flash-forward at the start of Feo Aladag’s “When We Leave” hangs over everything to come in this film. We know that this young mother, Umay (Sibel Kekilli), and her young son, Cem (Nizam Schiller), are not likely to find any happy ending here.
The story proper begins in Istanbul, where Umay lives unhappily with her abusive husband and his family. He beats her regularly and punishes their son harshly, leading Umay to dream of returning home to Berlin, where she thinks things will be much better living again with her parents and siblings.
Umay decides to abort a second pregnancy rather than bring another child into these circumstances and saves up money in secret for her escape. Like Jane Fonda in Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978), she stares into space unmoved as her husband makes love to her.
But it is out of the frying pan, into the fire when Umay and Cem land in Berlin. Her mother (Dertya Alabora) is immediately nervous about how Umay’s ultra-traditional Muslim father (Settar Tanriogen) will react to his daughter having left her husband and having taken “his son” to another country.
Umay’s father, together with his two sons, runs this family with an iron grip. This household is a man’s, man’s, man’s world. The tragic element is that Umay, who obviously grew up in this family and must know the reality, would come back to it expecting any understanding.
In fact, Umay’s naïveté drives the film to a great degree. Time and again, she puts herself into situations where it is clear that she is going to wind up again beaten down by these men. Especially by her older brother, Mehmet (Tamer Yigit), who is just as dangerous as the husband she ran away from.
Aladag is not afraid to depict the recurrent violence of Umay’s life, but after the first hour, the film itself seems stuck in a cycle of violence. The second half gets bogged down in Umay’s steadfast refusal to do the things she really needs to do to protect herself and her son. For some reason, never made convincingly clear, she holds onto this faith that her family will, in the end, choose her over their strong allegiance to their culture.
The title of the film refers to the many departures Umay must make, although she never moves far enough away from the monster. Unsettling to her son, she leaves Istanbul, then her family home, then a women’s shelter, then a friend’s house, and so on. Kekilli looks every bit a star in the making in this role, but she never completely owns it. This is a young woman with, on the one hand, a fierce streak of independence and, on the other, a very unhealthy dependency on her wildly dysfunctional family. Whatever could hold these two extremes together does not comes through in the performance.
Umay comes off as a woman with not much of an inner life. Since her character must carry the film, we are left wanting more.
It is hard to know why Umay loves her family as much as she does, which could also be the fault of Aladag’s wonderfully melodramatic but oftentimes surfacey screenplay. Umay’s subservient mother, authoritarian father, selfish sister, and idiot brothers are all too close to one-dimensional: the regular bad guys. Her brother Mehmet, who is actually her biggest threat, is unfortunately also the most undeveloped character.
As much as we would like to see at least one of these family members discard the rulebook and switch to Umay’s side—or come over halfway—it never comes to pass. Too bad, for the times surely call for a more nuanced film portrait of a Muslim family. “When We Leave” in many ways reinforces old stereotypes.
This is a film about patriarchy that sadly does not posit any way out for its heroine. Even getting a job, going back to school, and falling in love with a decent guy are not going to help Umay break free from her father’s relentless need for control.
“When We Leave,” which is Germany’s official entry for the 2011 Academy Awards, makes for an interesting companion piece to Claire Denis’s “White Material.” Although Aladag has a more conventional approach, both are films by European women directors that center on headstrong, possibly delusional women who find themselves suffocating under oppressive patriarchy. The important message being: patriarchy is still alive and well, and it probably needs to be examined more closely in more films such as these. The task should of course not be left to women directors alone, but Aladag and Denis deserve respect for keeping the dialogue going this year.
While Aladag’s work in “When We Leave” lacks Denis’s visual mastery and subtlety, this young director does introduce an astonishing sequence near the end of the film. Umay’s father is suddenly on a return trip, for reasons never revealed, to his small hometown, perhaps in Turkey, where he climbs many stairs to a ramshackle house. He visits a mysterious, silent old man, perhaps his father. It is at this point that Umay’s father seems to make a fateful decision that will change his daughter’s life forever and alter his entire family’s future. The turning point is conveyed without a word of dialogue and gives us one poetic glimpse into the psychology behind her father’s ugliness. This poor Umay, she is up against considerable history.
Umay – Sibel Kekilli
Cem – Nizam Schiller
Umay’s father – Settar Tanriogen
Mehmet – Tamer Yigit
Umay’s mother – Dertya Alabora
An Olive Films release.
Produced by Feo Aladag, Zuli Aladag.
Written and Directed by Feo Aladag.
Director of Photography, Judith Kaufmann.
Editor, Andrea Martens.
Production Designer, Silke Buhr.
Music, Max Richter, Stephane Moucha.
Running time: 119 minutes.