By Maya Dukmasova
While Fatih Akin has stepped away from his usual treatment of heavy subjects such as the search for identity and experiences of immigration with “Soul Kitchen,” Austrian Feo Aladag has picked them up again in the powerful drama, “Die Fremde” (When We Leave).
The plot focuses on Umay (Sibel Kekilli), a young Turkish woman whose family lives in Germany. She is married and has a son, Cem, but is trapped in a miserable relationship in Turkey. At the opening of the film Umay gets an abortion and after another bout of violence from her husband, decides to go back to her family.
But upon arrival, the circumstances of her escape and her refusal to surrender Cem to his father are cause for the shame and disgrace of her family. As she resolves to continue her life independently in Germany and to raise her son alone, her parents, two brothers, and sister reject and condemn her. Her siblings’ own lives in the community are threatened and their reputation tarnished due to Umay’s decisions.
Eventually the tensions, especially between Umay and her brothers, escalate to a point of violence and the plot takes a final dramatic turn after their father suffers a heart attack.
Though the cultural context of the film is set in the Turkish immigrant community, the film speaks to social problems that transcend many ethnic and religious groups. The pressures of communal expectations are often at odds with our personal desires and ambitions. Yet the need to belong within communal and familial groups often push us to surrender and sacrifice to the detriment of the self.
If we refuse, the consequences can be fatal. Within communities with strong religious or cultural customs, these tensions often lead to physical and psychological abuse of the transgressing individuals.
The central tension of the film is between the family’s love of Umay and their desire for her return to their midst, and the impossibility of breaking established social norms. They would like her to return, but they also want to return Cem to his father. Umay refuses this option, and so chooses an estranged life with her son over submission to traditions. Umay’s refusal to obey makes her a pariah.
Aladag’s portrayal of these tensions is especially moving as the family is never presented as a uniformly antagonistic element. We are shown all of the drama and pain of their struggle to maintain familial bonds and traditional social values.
However, the ultimate result of this struggle is summarized by Umay’s boss in one simple sentence: “Maybe your parents will forgive you, but if they have to decide, if they have to choose between you and the community, they’ll never choose you.”
Truly this is the crux of the film, and also the key to understanding the broader issues of violence and exclusion which inspired Aladag. The director had previously worked with Amnesty International when she was asked to write and direct social interest spots for their campaign to end violence against women.
As there has been increasing coverage of honor crimes and honor killings within the immigrant communities in Germany and other parts of Europe, Aladag said in a recent interview at the Venice LUX prize: “I just had to tell a story about this issue because I was angry, I was sad, I wanted to understand what kind of mechanisms and dynamics are going on in a family that is dealing with such issues and living through such a drama.”
Aladag insisted, however, that these dynamics between individuals and communities and their occasionally violent resolutions, can be understood by anyone.
“I think the universal core of the story has nothing to do with cultural backgrounds but it’s something that is very universal, and we all know it to a certain extent,” she said in the same interview. “Whether you choose to love the wrong sex, you have the wrong partner in the mind of your parents, or you choose the wrong profession, you don’t live the way they want you to live … I think we all want to be loved for who we are rather than for the way we choose to live. And I think it’s so important that we focus on our similarities rather than our differences in overcoming diversity.”
The highly emotional nature of this topic required a great deal of dramatic input from the cast. After all, the psychological assaults these characters experience are often transferred to their physical bodies as reality conflicts with expectations.
As the central character, Kekilli, herself a German-born child of Turkish immigrants, delivers an earnest and emotional performance. She poignantly portrays the difficulty and uncertainty of making decisions and the desperate acts we are capable of when fear reduces us to bare instincts for survival.
Interestingly, Kekilli’s own life has included a rejection by her family and the experience of choosing between individual development and the expectations of the community.
After her first starring role, in Fatih Akin’s “Head-On” (2004), a German tabloid revealed that the actress had previously starred in pornographic films under a pseudonym. When Kekilli and Akin admitted to the allegations, her family ceased contact with her. Today, it is not clear whether their relationship has been restored.
Despite this unsavory start to a film career, Kekilli’s talent has been recognized by several major awards, including Germany’s prestigious Lola prizes for Best Actress in “Head-On” and “When We Leave.”
Aladag’s film is must-see at this year’s Panorama of the European Film both as a beautifully crafted perspective on contemporary identity issues, and as a vital element of public education on the problems of violence against women.
“When We Leave” is screening at CityStars cinema on Friday, Nov. 5, at 1:30 pm and on Monday, Nov. 8, at 9:30 pm.