A tale of a Turkish woman seeking emancipation from her conservative Muslim family.
Sheer acting, lensing and helming smarts elevate “When We Leave,” a not-unfamiliar tale of a Turkish woman seeking emancipation from her conservative Muslim family, into something special, with considerable emotional payoff. Debut feature by Vienna-born TV actress-turned-helmer Feo Aladag (nee Schenk), wife of Turkish-German helmer Zuli (“Elephant Heart”), succeeds at a purely metaphysical and character level, without any strident sexual politicking, thanks to sensitive, dignified playing by lead Sibel Kekilli. Picture will carry extra resonance in countries with Turkish communities, though the film is still essentially specialty fare beyond the fest circuit.
A dreamlike opening sequence, which only makes sense at the very end, shows a boy pointing a gun at a young woman in the street and then running away. Visuals eventually dissolve to Istanbul, where an extended family is gathered at dinnertime, including wife Umay (Kekilli), her old-fashioned, brutish husband, Kemal (Ufuk Bayraktar), and their young son, Cem (Nizam Schiller), who throws a tantrum that precipitates Kemal hitting Umay in anger.
For Umay, 25, it’s the final straw, and one day she clandestinely leaves with Cem for her parents’ home in Berlin. When her father, Kade (Settar Tanriogen), and mother, Halime (Derya Alabora), discover she’s not just visiting but has returned to Germany for good, they’re far from happy. Her younger brother (Serhad Can), and teen sister (Almila Bagriacik), who wants to marry a man she’s met, are more supportive, but her brooding elder brother (Tamer Yigit) is almost a carbon copy of her husband with his stone-age attitudes toward a woman’s role in the family.
Though Umay pleads with her mother for support, Halime won’t break ranks with Kade, who’s embarrassed about how this will affect relations with the in-laws in Istanbul and how word has already spread through the local Turkish community. But Umay stands her ground, even when her father and brother try to take her son away and ship him back to Kemal. She eventually calls the cops and is taken with Cem to a safe hostel, where she’s protected by law from harrassment as long as she has no further contact with her family.
Stories of oppressed femmes from conservative foreign families are nothing new in Euro cinema, especially in Germany, which has large Turkish urban communities. But halfway through the pic, when writer-director Aladag has staked out her ground in a clean, simple way, the movie starts to mix it up, as Umay tries to forge a new life in Germany but is still conflicted over breaking off ties forever with her family.
Despite help from her best friend (Alwara Hoefels), who finds her a job, and emotional succor from a nice German guy at work (Florian Lukas, in a role that just escapes cliche), Umay still tries to patch things up with the elders in her family. Final reels, which contain a couple of unexpected twists that play on aud’s sympathies, are genuinely heart-wrenching.
Kekilli, who was so good as a suicidal Turkish woman in Fatih Akin’s flashier “Head-On,” reps the heart and soul of the movie, in an impressive perf of quiet strength marbled with inbred loyalties. Tanriogen and Alabora develop the parents’ roles into fully shaded personalities rather than pure stereotypes, to moving effect, especially in the father-daughter relationship. Only Yigit seems trapped in a one-note role.
Much of the film’s credit is also due to ace d.p. Judith Kaufmann (“Four Minutes,” “Vivere”) who, shooting in widescreen with narrow depth of field, emphasizes the claustrophobia of Umay’s existence as well as, in almost lustrous closeups of Kekilli, her fragile state of grace. Atmospheric chamber score by Max Richter and Czech-born Stephane Moucha is a further plus in a film more of feelings than of words.
Weak English title would benefit from a rethink. More resonant German original can mean “exile,” “the alien,” “the stranger” or “strangers.”