Die Fremde / When We Leave (2010)

Directed by: Feo Aladag
Screenplay: Feo Aladag 
Starring: Sibel Kekilli, Nizam Schiller, Derya Alabora
On February 7th, 2005, 23-year-old Hatun Sürücü, a girl of turkish-kurdish descent who was born in Germany, was waiting at a bus stop near her flat in Berlin-Tempelhof. Years before, she had left her husband in Turkey after a forced marriage, to live with her child, independently in Berlin. She catched up with her shool education and had recently begun an apprenticeship as an electrician. On that day in February, at the bus stop, she was shot in the head. By her own brother, who was instructed to do so by their family. 

The murder of Hatun Sürücü is the most notorious so called honour killing in Germany and Europe to date, and it added much to the heated discussion about integration of muslim immigrants that is still going on to this day. It changed jurisdiction and even found its way on to the stage, when the case was made into a theatre play. And it now also inspired a major motion picture.

In the beginning of Feo Aladags debut feature “Die Fremde” (transl. “The Stranger”, also known under the international english title “When We Leave”) the camera is right behind a young woman walking down the boardwalk. She is followed by a young man, whom she seems to welcome. They talk, but although we are very close to them, we cannot hear what they are saying. Then the boy pulls out a gun and points it at her face, shaking. After a cut, he is climbing onto a bus, breathing heavily, then watching out of the rear window at the scene he just left. We will not learn what he sees until the final minutes of the film. “Die Fremde” does not end the same way as the story of Hatun Sürücü, but I can tell you that it is not a happy ending, either.

Inside of these overly dramatic brackets lies a deeply touching story that never exploits its controversial subject, but that digs deep into the forces behind family, society, tradition, and freedom. It not only skillfully depicts Umay’s (Sibel Kekilli) fate as the family outcast, but also gives her father, mother and siblings enough room to become characters the audience cares about. Every single one of them is completely overstrained with the situation, the pressure is not only putting down Umay, but her familiy, too: The mother’s friend suddenly does not want to come for tea anymore, the engagement of the younger sister is to be broken, and the brothers are wimps in the eyes of their friends, because they have a “deutschwhore” sister: This system has no room for variations.

What Umay has done, is therefore unspeakable. “What did you say?”, shouts her older brother when she tries to explain that she is not going back to her husband. Because what must not be, cannot be. “You heard me!”, Umay talks back, in a grand mixture of sadness and anger. So nobody knows what to do, which, eventually, leads to the most archaic of all solutions.

Especially her father (touchingly played by Settar Tanriogen) is not just a patriarch, but a man downed by circumstances. There is one particular heart-breaking scene in which Umay one more time tries to regain contact with her family. She shows up for a surprise visit at Eid ul-Fitr, carrying some sweets. The deeply desperate look her father gives her when opening the door, and her bleak expression when he shuts it again in front of her, is pure melodrama, but without the kitsch.

Only the elder brother maybe stays a little stereotype as the testosterone-driven bully he is. Someone who keeps talking about the “honour” his sister had violated, and about her bastard son. He even keeps talking about honour when he is standing in front of her refuge, a women’s shelter, being completely drunk and throwing beer bottles and stones at the building.

It’s the men, of course, who ruin everything. Who have not learnt to deal with problems verbally, who never question the tradition. That starts from Umay’s beating and raping husband in Turkey, from whom she flees to her family in Berlin, but it even goes deeper. Umay’s father eventually travels back to his home village, where he meets his own father. Mrs Aladag, the director (who is also an actress), shows both men sitting in front of each other, no word spoken. The film does not spill it out, but it is quite sure that in this moment the decision to kill the dishonoured daughter is made.

Sibel Kekilli, who plays Umay with an enormous screen presence, is the actual heart of the film and for herself reason enough to see it. She became known to the film world in 2004, when she won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for her role as a rebellious turkish woman in Fatih Akin’s “Head-On”. This time, her character is a rather conservative woman who wants nothing more than to stay with her family. She stops wearing a scarf after leaving, but her rebellion is only against brutality, not against tradition in general. And though Umay and her parents are religious (there are a few scenes showing the father and his sons praying in the mosque), the faith does not play a central role. In fact, it does not play a role at all, neither as a problem, nor as a solution. This tragedy is man-made, from start to finish. “God”, someone says in a moment of resignation, “God has nothing to do with this.”

The film won best picture at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010.

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