Feo Aladag’s When We Leave opens with a child quietly murmuring in the background. The sound of stormy weather joins the child’s whispers. A gun is pointed. The murmurs disappear, and are replaced by the sound of breathing. Each breath becomes increasingly harder to catch. The screen fades into darkness.
In the film, Umay (Sibel Kekilli) is a Turkish-German woman fighting to protect her son Cem (Nizam Schiller) from her abusive husband Kemal (Ufuk Bayraktar). Her plan to start a new life is thwarted by her family’s traditional Muslim values. Emotionally visceral and captivatingly directed, When We Leave leaves nothing unsaid in the familial reaction to a Muslim woman’s refusal to continue passively struggling though her abused life.
The opening scene of When We Leave is telling of the director’s method of relaying the story. Aladag does not simply focus on captivating the viewer’s attention through visual elements; the ensnarement of the auditory sense is also a large consideration. Aladag’s inspiration for this movie was drawn from hearing about the honour killings of women who had tried to escape situations similar to that of her protagonist in Germany.
Kekilli’s Umay is the embodiment of an emotional struggle. After Kemal hits Cem at the dinner table when he refuses to eat his supper, Umay quietly disappears into the Istanbul night with her son in tow. Hoping to start anew, Umay goes to her parents’ home in Berlin, to their pleasant but soon disapproving surprise. In her parents’ eyes, Umay has brought shame upon her family, no matter what the reason for fleeing from her husband. After her hotheaded, conservative brother Mehmet (Tamer Yigit) forms a plan to return Cem to his father, Umay escapes to a battered women’s shelter.
The need for family approval is at the heart of When We Leave. Though she is able to start her life over, Umay can never really move on without the forgiveness of her parents (Settar TanriÃ¶gen and Derya Alabora). Her continual attempt to reconnect with them is the constant reason for her downfall. Unwilling to lose her family, Umay meets different members on separate occasions, only for them to reiterate that Umay has brought shame upon their family that can never be lived down. In a telling scene, Umay’s boss tells her that if she wants her parents to choose between her and the community, the choice will never be her.
Each actor brings life and invested emotion to their character. Schiller’s Cem personifies childhood innocence while Kekilli’s emotional investment in her depiction of Umay leaves no doubt as to why she won for Best Actress at the 2010 Festival du Nouveau CinÃ©ma. When We Leave keeps the audience gasping for her breath as they feel the suffocation of Umay’s family values. The stomach-turning lengths the family goes through to purify the actions of their “whore” of a daughter may bring a tear to the eye of even the most composed viewers. For a cinematic experience that will leave cheeks tear-stained, hearts heavy, and minds thinking, When We Leave is the ultimate destination.
When We Leave opens Feb. 7 at Cinema du Parc and Feb. 11 at AMC Forum.