It is difficult to discuss When We Leave (Die Fremde, 2010, written and directed by Feo Aladag) without mentioning lead actress Sibel Kekilli’s earlier role in Head-On (Gegen Die Wand, 2004, written and directed by Fatih Akin). In both films, she plays characters that are similar in situation—the assimilated daughter of a conservative German-Turkish family—although quite different in personality and in the strategies they adopt to cope with their problems. In Head-On, her character (also named Sibel) is rebellious and self-destructive in the extreme, willing to risk suicide or a sham marriage to a down-and-out alcoholic rather than remain trapped within the narrowly circumscribed life imposed on her by her father and brother. In When We Leave, her character Umay is an obedient and loving daughter and sister who has followed the more traditional path that Sibel rejects; now, however, she finds herself a young mother trapped in an abusive marriage and living with her husband’s family in Turkey. I’ll avoid too close a comparison of the two films since i can think of very few films that would not be eclipsed by the head-banging, punk-infused, adrenaline rush that is Head-On. But the influence of that film is clearly at play here and must be noted. In one scene, for example, Umay accidentally slashes her arm with a knife while engaged in a heated argument with her father over whether her son will remain with her in Germany or be returned to his father in Turkey. Both Umay and her father react with horror at the sight of her blood-soaked arm, shocked—however briefly—out of their roles as adversaries. The visual reference to Head-On is inescapable. In that film, Sibel makes numerous attempts on her own life by slashing her wrists and forearms, in one case smashing a bottle in a crowded bar and slashing furiously at her arm with the jagged edge. Sibel’s self-injury is not a cry for help but a cry of rage; she defiantly holds out her bleeding arms as if to scream at the world, “Look what you’ve done to me!” Umay, in contrast, is by nature a gentle soul pushed by circumstances to fight for herself and her child.
At the opposite end of the emotional register is a pair of scenes that are perhaps the most closely paralleled moments in the two films. In one of the most memorable shots in Head-On, Sibel is seen blissfully strolling down the street, still wearing her wedding gown, after having spent her wedding night with someone other than her bridegroom. A striking parallel to this memorable “walk-of-no-shame” shows Umay walking home, happy and at peace, after spending the night with her new German boyfriend. With Sibel, the viewer is struck by the outrageousness of the image of this wild-child who seems—at least for this brief moment—to have succeeded in becoming totally free of all social restrictions. The scene in When We Leave, seems quite conventional by comparison: Umay doesn’t want to be utterly free in the way that Sibel does; she merely wants to be free of the abuse and subjugation of her husband, father, and brothers, and to enjoy a relationship with a loving man.
While Head-On is as dark and gritty as the seedy bars and graffiti-ed Hamburg squats in which it is set, it is ultimately a hopeful film that allows for the possibility of redemption. In this sense, When We Leave paints the more pessimistic picture: it seems that despite every right move she makes, despite her good intentions, despite the tidy Berlin streets and the well-ordered social service mechanism, there is no escape for Umay. Her desires are modest and reasonable: she wants to raise her son in an environment where neither of them is subjected to violence. But, as is made clear early in the film, she has no power to protect either herself or her child within the marriage. Her husband uses physical force and confinement to maintain control over both of them. When at one point she objects to his treatment of their son, he drags them both off and locks them in their respective rooms, where neither of them can do anything more than cry until the husband/father decides to let them out. But Umay does not remain trapped in that room or that marriage. She does, in fact, what the viewer hopes she will do: she grabs her son and leaves the bastard. She returns with her child to Germany, where she has every expectation that she will be welcomed back into her parents’ home; but as soon as it becomes clear that she has left her husband, that welcome evaporates. Her mother commiserates when she sees the bruises on her back, but she is powerless to even imagine how to help her. By leaving the abusive marriage, Umay becomes a liability to her family, making them the object of gossip and derision, and threatening to ruin her younger sister’s chances of getting married. Faced with the threat of losing her son and subjected to the same level of physical abuse from her brother that she had already suffered from her husband, she once again takes action, calling the police to get an escort to a women’s shelter. Umay loves her child, she takes him and herself out of a dangerous situation, she goes to work, she returns to school; she does everything right, except that she refuses to reject her family in the way that they have rejected her. Though it would clearly be best for her to start a new life away from her family, she continues to try and force them to make a place in their lives for her son.
The film does not entirely succeed in avoiding stereotypes, particularly in the two-dimensional treatment of Umay’s two main adversaries: her husband and her older brother. For the most part, however, the characters reflect the complexities and tensions of a crosscultural existence, particularly across generations. Umay’s parents are torn between their traditional values and position within a conservative community and their love for their child and grandchild, but they are firmly rooted in their cultural values and belief system and must ultimately and regretfully, choose them over their rebellious daughter. Most interesting are the younger family members: Umay, her sister Rana, and younger brother Acar. Among themselves they speak German, while their parents speak Turkish. They wear western clothes and appear to be comfortably assimilated into German mainstream culture. At the same time, however, all three must deal with the conflicting demands of tradition: Rana with little choice but to enter the sort of marriage that her sister is trying to escape, Acar constantly chided to “be a man,” and most especially Umay. Sibel Kekilli conveys a wonderful combination of almost childlike vulnerability and sphinx-like stoicism in this role. When We Leave opens with a brief look at the end of this family tragedy then moves back in time to follow events as they unfold. I won’t disclose the ending here, but from that opening scene it is pretty clear that things will probably end badly for Umay. Yet I found myself hoping for a different ending and rooting for this determined young woman as she tries again and again to find a place in the world where she and her son can live without fear.