Olive Films releases many quality foreign language films to the American market, and When We Leave is no exception. It is an intimate, powerful and complex film about the strains put on a traditional Muslim family when their daughter begins to live a very non-traditional life.
Umay (Sibel Kekilli) is the young woman causing all of these problems. Well, depending on one's perspective, she is either causing problems by her rebelliousness, or she is simply doing what's right, and others are causing the problems because of their slavish devotion to misogynistic folkways. What is her crime? Leaving her abusive husband in Turkey , and returning to stay with her family in Germany, where she was born, and bringing her young son Cem (Nizam Schiller) along with her.
Her parents, and her older brother Mehmet (Tamer Yigit) are deeply traditional, and are not at all happy with her decision. By their lights, Umay should put up with her own misery and her husband's physical violence because... Well, because that is what one does. Umay's younger brother and sister, Acar and Rana (Serhad Can and Almila Bagriacik) are somewhat more westernized and tolerant of the whole affair, at least at first, but as minors with their own concerns, and a very aggressive and honor focused older brother in Mehmet, there is little they can do to influence things. As word of Umay's actions spreads in the community, her family begins to be ostracized. Friends make excuses to not come over, gossip blossoms at work, and Rana's fiancÚ even breaks off their engagement. The family wilts under this negative attention, and those inclined toward sympathy begin to turn their backs on Umay.
Umay is not entirely alone in the world. Atife (Alwara Hofels) is an old friend, a non-Muslim German that she grew up with, who helps her get a job and provides an open hearted friendship. And Stipe (Florian Lukas) is a nice young man who is quite smitten with her, and whose affection she returns. But these are no replacement for family, and this presents the central conflict of the film. Umay desperately wants to be a part of her family. She wants to kid around with her siblings and enjoy a family dinner at Ramadan, and for Cem to spend time with his grandparents. But how can she do this when her father and older brother call her a "whore", and mean it, and her parents help her husband try to kidnap their son? Nevertheless, she presses on, always trying to connect with her family, seeking their acceptance, or at least toleration. But her desire for a healthy life and freedom run smack into the wall of a culture that has no such place for such things, at least when it comes to women. As one might expect, things do not end well.
When We Leave is a nuanced and intelligent film. It doesn't paint Umay's family as ogres with only hate and intolerance in their hearts. They are presented as full and complete human beings, torn by two irresistible forces: their love for Umay and their deep commitment to a concept of honor that is foreign to most westerners. The tale is told with an incisive insight into human nature, and is helped wonderfully by the powerful performances all around. Sibel Kekilli is flawless, presenting the full breadth of her character, without a hint of artifice or falsity. The other standout is Tamer Yigit, as the angry and occasionally violent eldest son of the family. The frustration and rage ooze out of his pores. His is a tightly controlled ball of potential energy, and is utterly believable. All of the supporting players are quite solid as well, and director Feo Aladag orchestrates the show with subtle grace and focus. This is no cheap tearjerker. Hers is a powerful film, but an honest one. Highly recommended.