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When We Leave

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Based on an “honor killing” that took place in Berlin in 2005, When We Leave, Germany’s worthy submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, starts with a mother’s simple instinct to protect her son. From there, she’s set on an inexorable path to tragedy. Giving a far more sober—though no less impressive—variation on her scintillating breakthrough role in Fatih Akin’s Head-On, Sibel Kekilli stars as a German-born woman from a conservative Turkish Muslim family who flees from her abusive husband (Ufuk Bayraktar) in Istanbul. She and her son (Nizam Schiller) return to Germany to find safe haven in her family’s home, but she doesn’t get the welcoming (or at least grudgingly accepting) reception she naïvely expects. Her family members are still deeply entrenched in a patriarchal culture, and their love and sympathy for her can’t withstand the damage to their honor. The consequences for all involved are severe.


Actress-turned-director Feo Aladag isn’t a particularly expressive filmmaker, and she hits a few bum notes toward the end that feel more like movie payoffs than real-life drama, but she tackles this story with surprising nuance and depth. What might have been a blunter condemnation of intolerance instead becomes a subtle, powerful look at cultural identity, assimilation, and the varied ways in which immigrants embrace or reject the values of their adoptive homes. Kekilli’s family members each react to her situation differently—her father and oldest brother are harshest, her mother and younger brother more sympathetic, her sister accepting only up to the point where it directly affects her—but there’s no denying that her decision to take herself and her son away from her husband has a seismic impact on their standing in the community. Aladag unquestionably honors Kekilli’s courage and determination in seeking a better life, but she’s wise to acknowledge her heroine’s tragic miscalculations, too. When We Leave is a film without villains. Instead, it features a set of circumstances that inevitably and needlessly spin out of control.