All eloquent diction aside, “When We Leave,” which premiered at the 9th annual Tribeca Film Festival, is very simple and familiar. It is a universal story about the need to love and be loved. “When We Leave” is a thoughtful and heartbreaking film about a woman who must free herself from an abusive relationship, as well as the cultural prejudices and judgments that keep her there. Director and writer Feo Aladag gives a lot of attention to the nuances of Islamic, Turkish and German cultures, providing a rich setting for the film. The film is not solely trying to grapple with profound social issues. It zeros in on the plights of one specific woman and one specific family to create a story packed with real human yearning and emotion. Given its dramatic premise, the film had the potential to be at the very least, mediocre and melodramatic and at the very best, truly remarkable.
Umay (Sibel Kekilli) is strong enough to withstand generations of Muslim tradition and yet, as a daughter cast aside by all those she loves, she is vulnerable enough to have depth to her character. Umay attempts to build a decent lifestyle for herself and her five-year-old son Cem, but is incessantly drawn back to her family, even after it has officially cut ties with her; this is painful to watch—as nice as it would be to have the family take her back, it’s not going to happen. She shows a lack of good judgment when she shows up to her sister’s wedding, fully aware of the shame it would bring her family.
As antagonizing as the family sounds, the film is powerful partly because of the brief moments and shots that humanize them. Umay is not the only member of the family who feels the pain caused by her separation; all the characters experience plights of their own. Umay’s oldest brother, the pinnacle of conservative Muslim chauvinism, frequently attempts to bring Cem back to Istanbul despite Umay’s resistance. However, beyond all the anger and anguish, his eyes show hints of regret and remorse. Umay’s father, who vehemently shuts the door on his daughter on multiple occasions, lies on the bed of a hospital and quietly apologizes to her. The entire cast of “When We Leave” provides the impressive acting necessary to give the nuances involved in exploring the unavoidable pull and connection of family.
Much of the 119 minutes of the film is filled with silence. While this does leave room for logistical confusion (at an early scene of a family dinner in Istanbul, there is no explanation for who is whom), it also creates a sense of quiet, hovering intensity that is the stylistic driving force behind the film. Aladag chooses to show, rather than explain, each step of the journey. The silence creates a focus lens for the characters’ emotions. When Umay is eating dinner with her husband’s family, the tension and Umay’s fear are depicted through the silence—no words are necessary.
The theme of one woman’s struggle for personal freedom has often been explored, but rarely with the subtlety, craftsmanship and humanity as that of “When We Leave.” It is no surprise that the film won best narrative feature and actress at the TFF, or that prior to the festival it also received the Label Europa Cinemas award at the 2010 Berlin International and six nominations at the 2010 German Film Awards.
While the narrative concentrates on Umay and her family, examining the Muslim communal complexities that arise from Umay’s actions, the story is not one specific to the plights of Turkish immigrants in Germany—it is a universal story about the need to love and be loved.