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Feo Aladag, Exploring Honor Crimes Close To Home

Vienna-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Feo Aladag spent two years researching cases of domestic abuse before writing <em>When We Leave</em>, her directorial debut.
Abdelhak Senna
AFP/Getty Images
Vienna-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Feo Aladag spent two years researching cases of domestic abuse before writing When We Leave, her directorial debut.

The director of When We Leave, a quietly intense drama about "honor killings" in Germany's Turkish community, is a Vienna-born blond. Yet Feo Aladag knows a little of what it's like to be a Turk in Germany — simply from taking the surname of her husband, fellow Berlin filmmaker Zuli Aladag.

"I became more sensitive to how the minority is treated, because I experienced it when I changed my name," said Aladag during a promotional visit to Washington, D.C. She recalls once trying to rent an apartment, and being told it was unavailable. "So I tried again with my maiden name, and then there was an apartment."

Discrimination against Germany's largest ethnic minority, 2.7 million people of Turkish descent, is just the backdrop for When We Leave. The movie focuses on a young woman, Umay, who leaves a suffocating marriage in Turkey, and flees with young son Cem to her family in Berlin. Her parents and siblings are not supportive and even assist Umay's husband in an attempt to kidnap Cem. Ultimately, Umay's father and brothers are pressured to cleanse their reputations by slaying the defiant woman.

Umay is played by Sibel Kekilli, who made a powerful impression in Fatih Akin's 2004 Head-On as a Turko-German woman in more fervent rebellion. Aladag didn't cast Kekilli at first, because she "was an obvious choice, and you don't go for obvious choices." But there was "something missing" with the first actress chosen for the role, so the director gave Kekilli the script. "She called me a few hours later, and said, 'I have to play this part.' "

Originally an actress, Aladag became a director seven years ago, when asked to make two short public-service announcements for Amnesty International's campaign on violence against women. The topic stayed with her even after she finished the project.

"I realized I was continuing to do research after I shot the commercials. At the same time, there began to be more media coverage of 'honor crimes,' in Europe and especially in Germany. These things were going on pretty much in front of my door."

Her marriage, Aladag says, was not central to her interest in directing a movie about Turko-Germans. "I'm sure I would have made this film anyway, even if I'd married somebody from Siberia. But maybe it made a few things a little easier."

To write the movie, Aladag researched for two years, even living in shelters for abused women. "I ended up with a script that came from 12 to 15 real-life cases that I studied very, very closely," she says.

One thing she learned — and has subsequently found to be true in other places and cultures — is that such women crave family as much as safety and independence. That's why Umay risks curses and beatings by returning again and again to her parents and siblings.

"When you study the cases," Aladag notes, "you realize how parallel they are. Young women flee their families, try to get some help, but come back after a couple of weeks. I talked to someone in Washington who works with women in shelters; the average number of times a woman here goes back to the family is seven. Before they are actually able to cut that bond. It's quite natural, because it's the strongest bond we have."

When We Leave's discussion of these issues could have been talky, but that's not Aladag's style; she even stages an entire trip to Turkey without a word of dialogue. "In one look, or in one touch, there can be so much more truth of the moment," she says. "I love silence because it creates space for an audience to interpret for itself."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.