In 2005, at a bus stop in Berlin, Hatun Sürücü, a 23-year-old German of Turkish descent, was shot to death — by her youngest brother. When she was 16, her family had prevailed upon (or forced) Sürücü to return to their native Turkish village and marry her cousin, but after bearing a son, she left her husband, returned to Berlin, started electrician school, and moved into her own apartment. That's the set-up for Austrian actress Feo Aladag's When We Leave (German title Die Fremde — "The Stranger"), which tightropes between lacerating feature and message-movie documentary as precariously as its Berlin family do between their Turkish and German identities.
Aladag (whose husband is Turkish-German author Züli Aladag) teases us with an opening scene in which Umay (Sibel Kekilli, who starred in Fatih Akin's Head On) and her son Cem (Nizam Schiller) are accosted by an unseen young man who then runs away. After that, it's flashback exposition for the next half-hour: Umay getting an abortion, Umay getting slapped around by husband Kemal (Ufuk Bayraktar), Umay taking a plane from Istanbul to a barely recognizable Berlin, where father Kader (Settar Tanriogen), mother Halyme (Derya Alabora), and siblings Mehmet (Tamer Yigit), Acar (Serhad Can), and Rana (Almila Bagriacik) all live. They want to know when Kemal is coming to join her; when they learn he's not, all Turkish hell breaks loose.
It's not entirely clear cut. Kemal is no model husband or father, but Cem still misses him. Umay's family are being snubbed by the Turkish community in Berlin (a world unto itself), but she, petulant and unsmiling, sees only her own problem. (She also takes no responsibility for marrying Kemal. Perhaps she was forced — we don't know.) Yet just as your sympathies start to waver, Kader or Mehmet will haul off and hit her, and we're back to "Turkish men are shit" square one. Aladag doesn't help matters by having Umay date a German co-worker (Florian Lucas) who's too nice to be true and ride behind him on his motorcycle to the strains of what sounds like a self-empowerment pop song. (Sürücü, it was reported, also had a German boyfriend.) Throw in an unplanned pregnancy, a heart attack that you can see coming an hour before it happens, and a tragic melodrama of an ending and you have a TV-movie diatribe against "honor killing" instead of a feature film.
What elevates When We Leave is the three-dimensional acting and the larger context. Kekilli, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sürücü, is a self-absorbed and self-righteous Umay who keeps trying to go back to her family, even when it's clear they can't and won't accept what she's done. And the male family members — Settar Tanriögen as her father, Tamer Yigit and Serhad Can as her brothers (one understanding of Umay's situation, one not), Ufuk Bayraktar as her husband — are not monsters. They're simply Turkish men who've grown up in a culture where women are second-class citizens. And now they're part of a new culture where German is spoken as well as Turkish and where women can, and will, claim equality. "When we leave," Umay tells her son, explaining why she left a T-shirt at the refuge where they'd been staying, "we always leave something behind." So, if you leave the old T-shirt of male prerogative behind, what do you wear in its place?