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When We Leave - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
When We Leave
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

To American audiences, When We Leave offers an unusual take on the theme of domestic violence. It's not always easy to watch, but neither is it as hard as one might imagine given the subject matter. Because this is less about domestic violence itself than it is about cultural reactions to it.

The culture, in this instance, is Islamic. This is the tale of a mid-twenties Muslim woman named Umay (Sibel Kekilli), fed up with the abusive husband with whom she lives in Istanbul. The story takes very little time to get to this point, and mercifully, doesn't bother to show too much of actual abuse. We see her get thrown against a wall. The husband locks her in one room and locks their young boy (an adorable Nizam Schiller) in another. But we are meant to understand that this sort of behavior, ignored at worst and tolerated at best by the husband's parents with whom they live, has been going on a long time.

So, Umay, who is German, packs up a couple of bags, grabs the boy, Cem, and heads back to Germany to stay with her family. We never see the husband again; this story is concerned with how Umay's actions affect her own family in Germany. One might assume this to be a bigger problem in the Muslim country of Turkey, but even in Germany, the primary issue amongst these people is the shame brought on their family.

Writer-director Feo Aladag, here offering an impressive feature debut, gets to the basic point about halfway through: Umay's employer, concerned for her well being, counsels her about her family: "If they are forced to choose between you and the community, they'll never choose you."

Umay is convinced they will choose her, "one day." Part of what we are to find out in When We Leave is not just that she's deluded, but to what extent. Contradictions abound, particularly among her parents, both of whom make statements about her being their family, but then turn around and make ultimatums and tell her she's never to be seen again. It is indeed heartbreaking to watch.

It's interesting to see how the older women of these families behave under such circumstances, first with Umay's briefly seen mother-in-law, and then, throughout the rest of the movie, Umay's own mother (Derya Alabora, fantastically understated). Only their eyes betray how they're feeling most of the time, and intermittently at that; most of the time they simply keep their mouths shut. In one scene, Umay suddenly turns on her mother and shouts, "Do you want me to end up like you?" But then even she immediately apologizes.

Here is a world where community standing is everything. The best advice that Umay's father can give her, aside from the assertion that Cem needs his father, is that "the hand that strikes also soothes." Umay is literally fearful of her physical safety, but that is of no concern to her family. What matters to them is their honor, which cannot remain intact so long as their daughter has left her husband.

When We Leave makes relatively vague allusions to German laws designed to protect women like Umay, but people, of course, find ways to skirt them. Umay is unusually resourceful, however, and uses those laws to her advantage: When she finds herself locked inside the home after overhearing a conversation detailing plans to return Cem to his father, she calls the police. Their opening of the door is what gets her out of the house and into a shelter, just one of many temporary places she and Cem stay.

Umay has two brothers and a sister. The sister has a near-miss with a marriage she must go through with just to preserve her own honor; it's broken off once her fiance's family gets wind of Umay's situation. Her older brother is furious with her from the beginning; her younger brother, a teenager, is sympathetic at first but grows more resentful as time goes on. The whole family begins to lose community standing, and eventually it's decided that drastic measures must be taken.

This is not a story that ends well. Tragedy is inevitable, albeit in a rather unexpected way. It's impossible not to feel sympathy for Umay, even if it's not always easy to understand her actions. Crashing her sister's wedding seems unduly desperate for someone as independent-minded as Umay is ostensibly becoming. And although she's suffering a great amount of emotional distress, Umay's face is often incongruously serene.

The very last scene borders on going over the top, but the point is well taken. When We Leave has its flaws, but it is both eminently engaging and illuminating. It does seem to have a message: This is something that happens. Whether to come away from it with sad resignation or staid determination is up to the audience.

Nizam Schiller (L) and Sibel Kekilli are a mother and son caught between community and independence in 'When We Leave'.

Overall: B+
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