BIFF 2011 #4: Die Fremde (When We Leave, Germany 2010)

Umay and her son, Cem

I started this screening in ignorance. I knew it was a German-Turkish film and that was about it. I hadn’t realised that it was a controversial film and in some ways I wish it had been flagged as such a bit more – if only to attract a larger audience, especially in Bradford. My first impression was that this was a Turkish family melodrama presented in CinemaScope. I was very happy to be sat in the second row watching it.

At the centre of the film is the stunningly wonderful Sibel Kekilli (whose performance in Fateh Akin’s Head On is imprinted on my brain). She plays 25 year-old Umay, mother of a small boy Cem. She has an abortion in secret and goes home to her husband and his family in Istanbul. But Cem says something to make his father suspicious and after a violent squabble, Umay takes her son and returns to her family in Germany. She might have hoped for some support but in her traditional Turkish family what she has done is unacceptable. Her parents and her three siblings want her to return to what is an abusive marriage to a man she doesn’t love.

There is nothing particularly ‘new’ about Die Fremde. Characters behave much as we might expect them to do in this kind of family drama and in relation to the genre of films that deals with issues of integration/assimilation, tradition v. modernity etc. So Umay’s older brother is the most violently aggressive, wanting to send the boy back to his father in Turkey. Her father and mother both feel constrained by traditions and they fear that Umay’s ‘disrespect’ will bring shame upon the family and that they will be ostracised by their friends. Umay’s younger brother and sister – the most ‘assimilated’ in some ways  – are at first more sympathetic, but then begin to realise that her actions are hurting them as well. But instead of relying on these generic tropes, writer-director Feo Aladag focuses on Umay and uses Sibel Kekilli’s strong performance to drive a personal drama. The film is two hours long, but for me the narrative never flagged. For a melodrama, the music was finely controlled and subservient to the performances which I thought were all excellent.

The film explodes into dramatic action in the last few scenes and there is not a happy ending. In one sense this is a relief and I’m glad that the film follows the policy of a British-Asian drama such as Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss rather than the feelgood endings of such film’s as Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham. Yet, like Ae Fond Kiss, this is a story about a migrant community trapped by tradition that is told by a writer-director from ‘outside’. Feo(dora) Aladag is an Austrian-born actress turned director who has herself married into a Turkish family and her aim is clearly to expose and question the acceptance of violence towards women in cases like this – which are far too common in many traditional cultures across the world. Her aim seems to me very worthwhile and her execution of the task she set herself deserves the praise she has received. The film was selected as Germany’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011. Nevertheless there will be reactions to Aladag’s stance. Unfortunately, one that is manifest already is the knee-jerk reaction to the film’s premise which is built on Islamophobia. When I looked at a couple of reviews from the US (where the film was released in January 2011) I found such comments on various blogs and responses to published reviews. But Islam has very little to do with the story as such. The violence towards Umay is based on village traditions. As one of the modern/assimilated German-Turkish characters (the woman who runs the catering company where Umay gets work) says “let’s keep God out of this”. The attacks on Islam come because the largest group of migrants in most European countries are Muslim but struggles over ‘modernity’ run across religious differences.

The other reaction is based on struggles to understand how post-colonial societies respond to cultural changes in relation to film production. Does it matter that Feo Aladag is not herself of Turkish descent. Perhaps it matters more that she is a woman presenting a woman’s story? I suppose that the film might be criticised for presenting a rather bland view of a ‘perfect’ German response to Umay’s plight (i.e. the police, education, health service etc. plus friendly co-workers). There is no evidence of resentment towards Umay and the trouble comes only from within her own community. I hope that the film does get a UK release and generates a wider discussion about the issues it raises. One final point: the English title of this film is When We Leave – a reference, I think, to dialogue in the film between Umay and Cem with the boy remembering that his mother has told him that when they leave one of the several places that they stay after leaving his father they should always leave something behind. This is quite an intriguing and provocative idea. The German title appears more direct and abrupt. I’m not sure of the precise idiomatic meaning of Die Fremde, but the root ‘fremd’ means ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. Can anyone help further?

Here’s the official trailer (with English subtitles):

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