When We Leave

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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When We Leave (Die Fremde) (2010)

Directed by: Feo Aladag
Starring: Sibel Kekilli, Derya Alabora, Settar Tanriögen, Florian Lukas
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 119 minutes

in Turkish and German with English subtitles


When We Leave opens with a montage of scenes—a woman waiting for a bus in a desert landscape, the same woman walking along a city street carrying her child, a gunman drawing a gun on her, a jump cut to rural domestic scenes in Turkey. The viewer then enters the domestic world of Umay (Sibel Kekilli), wife to Kemal (Ufuk Bayraktar) and mother to Cem (Nizam Schiller). It slowly emerges that Umay is trapped in an unhappy marriage and has been secretly saving up cash to escape. With minimal strokes, director Feo Aladag sketches the patriarchal, that is to say, intensely chauvinistic, society Umay is trapped in. Man is king over his family and women have merely to obey. Sons are to be raised to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and girls are to submit.

The film cuts to a brief establishing scene, of a Turkish Airlines plane in mid-flight. Umay then arrives with Cem in tow at the apartment door of her parents, and warm greetings are shared all around in Turkish. Both parents ask where Kemal is, to which Umay offers no reply. Umay’s brothers and sister each greet Umay warmly as well, but do so in German.

This is the tip-off to the German audience that Umay has flown home to Germany. She is a second-generation Turkish German. And the stage is set for what American audiences, descended from generation upon generation of immigrants, know to their cultural bones—of the conflicts in basic values that arise between the generations in immigrant families. Umay and her siblings appear to be at least as much German as they are Turkish, while their parents remain steadfastly true to their own root values.

The familial conflict at the center of When We Leave is a microcosm of the cultural conflicts, between German and Turkish values, between a secular Christian society and a secular Muslim one. Berlin is home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. Germany first recruited Turks to come to Germany as “guest workers” in the economic Wunder years of the 1960s to do the unskilled labor that Germans disdained. Some fifty years later, those “temporary” guest workers are still in Germany, and well into raising a third generation of often unassimilated, Turkish-speaking offspring.

As the West has learned in the post-9/11 world, Muslim subcultures have steadily failed to assimilate to Western values, and Berlin’s Kreuzberg ghetto is still as Turkish as Istanbul. A surprising percentage of German Turks have never learned German and live in profound cultural isolation from their surrounding environment. Ethnic Turkish Germans who have sought integration into the German public school system typically fare poorly, a problem which bilingual students in the United Sates face as well. The xenophobia toward these unassimilated cultures, in the US and Germany, are comparable, but the specifics are, of course, very different.

Umay is a culturally westernized Turk who has done the unthinkable-she has left her husband and taken their child with her. She places her parents in an impossible situation, as she seeks refuge with them. Her parents, Halyme (Derya Alabora) and Kader (Settar Tanrögen), are forced to choose between their daughter and their German-Turkish community. This is a patriarchal honor society, in which Umay has deeply shamed her husband, her father, her two brothers, and the family as a whole. As these conflicts unfold, the obvious, if unstated, underlying issue-honor killing-hovers just below the surface. This film is based on a factual case, the much-publicized 2006 murder of Haxtun Sürücü in Berlin.

When We Leave is spared being a simplistic melodrama or openly didactic exercise through the incredible performance of Sibel Kekilli, the brightest new star in German film. By turns head-strong, vulnerable, deeply insightful or frustratingly oblivious, Kerkilli carries the viewer on a roller-coaster ride through her trials and tribulation. Observing Umay play with fire, the camera captures Umay’s many subtle and not so subtle mood shifts and swings. Sometimes the victim of a rigidly macho society, at other times willfully self-sabotaging, Umay would seem a latter-day Antigone railing against the logic of a culture she herself is not actually free of.

Sibel Kekilli has been honored with several best actress awards, including the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, the German Film Awards, and the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de Montréal in Canada. When We Leave also won several Best Film awards in 2010. This film is highly recommended.

Les Wright


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