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November 03, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - When We Leave

when we leave.jpg

Die Fremde
Feo Aladag - 2010
Olive Films

There are so many films playing at the Starz International Film Festival. My own coverage reflects a combination of films available as DVD screeners, screenings, entreaties by filmmakers, persuasions by the writers who describe the films on behalf of the festival catalogue, and my own interests and biases. By the time I'm done, some might ask, as I sometimes ask myself, why I saw one film when there were others that might have been other worthy (or worthier) choices. It's a chance everyone takes with a film festival this big. In any event, I feel it necessary to publicly thank my BFF (Best Festival Friend), PR maestra Tammy Brister, for all she has done to make it possible for me to cover the film festival this year.

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One of the films to put in the "must see" category of this years Starz Denver Film Festival is Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Not because the film is a possible nominee, as if that was ever a reliable gauge of quality. When We Leave is for the most part both a quiet film and quietly effective film, with an ending managed to catch me by surprise. Even when the film's concept may read like a set of cliches, I was not prepared for a conclusion that packs an emotional punch.

Feo Aladag's film follows Umay, a young mother who takes her five year old son with her from Istanbul to Berlin, leaving behind a physically abusive husband. Umay hopes to live with her parents and family, only to find that cultural traditions regarding the role of the husband are as cemented in Germany as they are in Turkey. Umay's parents seek to return the son, Cem, back to his father. Umay's refusal to abide by cultural traditions makes her an outcast to her family, bringing dishonor in the eyes of other members of Berlin's Turkish community. Umay's employer at the restaurant where she works even says as much, that for all of Umay's hope and wishes for reconciliation, community will be chosen over family.

Throughout much of the film was for me a sense of space, of a kind of emptiness, both a physical and emotional distance between people. Part of this is achieved with the scenes taking place in rooms that are barely furnished, or on deserted streets and roads. The English language title refers to a discussion Umay has with Cem, about leaving something as a form of remembrance at the homes where they have stayed. The original German title translates as "The Strangers" which has greater reverberations. Umay is a stranger in Turkey, speaking German, and concepts that would be considered more European, but as one of Turkish descent is considered an outsider in Germany. Add to that her alienation from a family that can only accept her within limited terms because of her gender. When Umay asks her father about an uncle who is admired for his independence, her father is unable or unwilling to explain why this is not allowed of Umay. Umay's family can also be said to be strangers, responding in ways not expected either by Umay or the film viewer.

There may also be allusion to Albert Camus at work here. Camus's famous novel is titled "Der Fremde. That could be a case of literally reading too much here. What I see are various inversions based on the cultural dynamics, the gender of the main character, and how that main character responds in the role of the stranger. The obvious difference is that while Camus' character of Meursault is seemingly passive in response to various outside influences, Umay is constantly in conflict with only intermittent respite.

Feo Aladag discussed We We Leave in this interview, worth noting in part not only because the filmmaker explains what motivated her to make the film, but also how the film has been received in Turkey and remarkably, Pakistan, the country noted for the high number of "honor killings". Mention should also be made of Sibel Kekilli, the actress who plays Umay. Kekilli is probably best known for also staring in Turkish-German filmmaker, Fatih Akin's, Head-On, playing a young women of similar independent bent, if much more hedonistic. When We Leave is scheduled for theatrical release early next year, and will hopefully get the kind of exposure it deserves, with or without the blessing of an Oscar nomination.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by peter at November 3, 2010 01:22 AM