If there's any doubt that patriarchy is alive and well — in some cultures more than in others — consider this wrenching drama exhibit A. It's a remarkably assured first feature from writer/director Feo Aladag, and it has already amassed a handful of well-earned honors around the world, including the German equivalent of Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress as well as comparable awards for narrative film at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The story is quite simple: A 25-year-old woman flees an abusive husband and sets out to forge a new life for herself and her 5-year-old son. Cultural dynamics, however, thwart her at every turn, especially her own yearning to sustain a connection with her family despite the harrowing consequences.
When protagonist Umay leaves Istanbul with her young son and tries to return to her Turkish émigré family in Berlin, the weight of her heritage comes crashing down on her. At first, she's warmly embraced by her parents and siblings, who then turn on her when they realize her intent is to end her arranged marriage. "You belong to Kemal," her staunchly traditional father asserts. "He beats me," Umay tries to explain. "He's your husband," comes the reply, as if to say the matter is closed.
In desperation, Umay burns her passport, and when the less sympathetic of her two brothers tries to prevent her from leaving the family home, she calls the cops, who help place her in a women's shelter. In short order, she finds a job, enrolls in school, and even enters a hesitant relationship with a young German who treats her with respect.
But establishing a new life is not so simple. Neither she nor her family is willing to let go completely. Her drunken, hot-tempered brother tracks her down and makes a scene, and once again she flees, this time to the apartment of a concerned coworker. For her part, Umay stirs the pot by putting in a disastrous appearance at the reception for her younger sister's wedding. (The sister and the other brother are sources for some of the story's most intriguing undercurrents.)
The crux of the conflict is that Umay's son, like Umay herself, is considered literally the property of her husband back in Turkey. Her disruption of this arrangement brings dishonor upon her family in their own tightly knit Turkish-German community, and there can be no peace until balance has been restored.
When We Leave is a startling reminder of the wretched conditions under which so many of the world's women still exist. "You think we live in a postmodernist, postfeminist world?" the movie seems to be asking (it's worth noting that the filmmaker is a woman). "Think again." Umay's family may outwardly embrace the contemporary world — they use cell phones, watch television, and drive fancy cars — but in many crucial regards, they are still mired in the Middle Ages.
A final caution: Don't let the story's potentially confusing first couple of minutes throw you. By the end, everything will make sense, more or less, even if you may wonder whether the director has earned that beginning. Do let yourself be swept away by the highly expressive, fully inhabited performance of Sibel Kekilli, who confirms the promise she showed in 2004's excellent Head-On. As the tragic heroine Umay, she establishes herself as one of the finest actresses in the non-English-speaking world.