The German director tackles the hot-button global issue of traditional honor killings in her debut feature, named Best Narrative Feature at TFF 2010.
In a surprising number of cultures, when women break out of traditional (and sometimes religious) roles, or choose to leave situations in which they are in danger or unhappy, their families feel bound by honor to punish them—in many cases, with death. While this practice seems unthinkable to the majority of us in Western society, honor killings are still horrifically common—a fact that inspired German actress Feo Aladag to write and direct her debut feature film, When We Leave (Die Fremde).
We promise to not give away pivotal plot points, but here are the basics: Umay (Sibel Kekilli, of Head-On) is a Turkish-German young woman who lives with her husband and his family in Istanbul. In an effort to escape domestic violence, she takes her 5-year-old son to her family home in Berlin, where she announces she is not returning. Her family, in disbelief, tries to persuade her to return. When she asserts her free will and refuses, it sets off a chain of events that will break your heart. The film also goes in unexpected directions, and all the while remains free of the overt sentimentality to which family dramas can often succumb. Aladag’s light touch is quite impressive, especially when you consider the fact that this is her first feature.
After When We Leave premiered at Berlinale 2010, it went on to win the Founders’ Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. These two platforms were only the beginning—the film now stands at 74 festivals and counting, in 39 countries on 6 continents. Along the way, it’s picked up awards—it won Best Film at the European Film Awards, and was Germany’s submission to the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film—and sparked global conversations about cultural change, which can take generations to sink in.
It’s not common for a narrative film to be such a powerful platform for discussion, and we recently sat down with Aladag in New York City to discuss her whirlwind year, her 7-year crash course in filmmaking, and her hope that cultural stagnation is evolving over time.
Tribeca: I met you for a second last year on Awards Night, which must have been a crazy night for you! What did winning the Founders’ Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival mean to you—from Robert De Niro, no less!
Feo Aladag: It was huge! That was crazy. [laughs] I think it was Jane Rosenthal who read what the jurors had written. She did the first sentence, and the second sentence, and I was like, “Okay, could be my film.” And the third sentence, I was [nervous] because… I had scripted nothing! Then I remember being up there and being really, really happy for all of our team. The next thing, they drag you off and put you on the red carpet…
It was such a great honor. I was just completely taken by surprise. And it helped so much for the market here—it was important for the film.
Tribeca: Congratulations on all the awards your film has received, especially for a first-time filmmaker.
Feo Aladag: Traveling so much with the film has been the best thing. Winning awards has been great validation for everybody’s work, but just bringing the film to so many places—like traveling from Pakistan to the Hamptons! Those changes really educate you on life a great deal.
Tribeca: And just to have your film be seen—
Feo Aladag: Yeah, the exposure has been great, and the real interactions with audiences all around the world. That’s just something that doesn’t happen [that often]. Some films are just more prone to… travel the world; they have issues that are of interest to a lot of audiences.
Tribeca: What have you learned in your worldwide travels?
Feo Aladag: In Pakistan, I traveled areas where women’s shelters are being built; I tried to educate myself on what measures have been taken by the government on honor killing mechanisms. So you learn a lot.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you know anyone in this situation? Honor killings are not only a Turkish issue.
Feo Aladag: It’s not only a Turkish issue. It’s not only a Muslim issue either. I mean, look to India. Also, Catholic Romania. That’s something that’s very important to me to point out. Obviously, you do have countries and cultures where it’s happening in much higher numbers, and if you look at the UN reports, they know that it’s definitely between 10,000-100,000 women being killed in honor killings per year. And it’s probably much higher, since so many people are not even registered in many countries—especially in rural areas, it’s much easier for women to just disappear. Or if they die, you cover it up as a suicide. Or it goes to some kind of legal justice court that is not… for example, in Sha’ria law, it’s not a crime, so it doesn’t make it to court.
Tribeca: So how did the seeds of Umay’s particular story get into your head?
Feo Aladag: Eight years ago, I was asked by Amnesty International if I would like to write, direct, and produce a series of PSAs, as you call them here—we call them social interest spots—of 30 seconds on their campaign about to be launched, on violence against women. I said, “I have an acting background—what makes you think I can write and direct?” They said, “We know you are very committed, once you speak up for something, and we’d like you to do it.”
I said I was happy to do it, but it’s such a broad subject—where would you like me to start? They said, “Don’t worry about material; we’ll send you stuff.” Then came this truckload of stuff to Berlin from Amnesty, and I did four months of research, and I directed those films.
After this work was finished, I realized that, like all of us, reading those stories and educating yourself on those issues—you are very moved, you are very angry, you have a lot of questions. And I found myself doing more and more research… So it took me just a couple of weeks to figure out, “Okay, Feo, here is something that still has a hold on you—what is it?”
And I figured out it was this wish to understand what kind of mechanisms and pressures are so strong that it’s not possible for family members to reach out to one another, to step over your shadow of principle, in the name of empathy and love and loyalty, in those strongest bonds we have, which are family bonds. And to let the other person live the way they choose to live, even if they don’t function the way you would like them to function—you still love them.
So it was this picture of one hand extending out to another, which I think is such a big issue in personal relationships, in the microcosm of the family, just as much as it is in all political and social contexts. We’re not going to solve any big conflicts if we are not able to seek common ground; if we just look at the differences, we won’t be able to move.
I was also very interested in the whole thing in Germany and in Europe about minorities and majority, and how they deal with each other.
I figured out—when there was more and more media coverage on so-called honor killings and crimes in Europe—I didn’t have to set the story somewhere in Sudan; it’s happening right in front of my door. And there was a certain period, when I was doing research, where in four months, five women in Berlin were killed due to honor killings, which I thought was a great number for Western society. So I was interested in learning more about those mechanisms.
Tribeca: What happens to honor killing perpertrators?
Feo Aladag: You have to go back to understand… In the 60s, when people from places like Turkey came to Germany, German society considered them as workers in the workforce, not human beings, and thought they would eventually leave. Well, they didn’t leave. They brought their families, or they [created] families, and they started living there, raising children. To me, they should be considered citizens of this country. The majority figured, “It’s not something we asked for, but now they are there, and we will just let them be.” In some cities, you just put them in certain areas, where you made them stay, which was a way of ghetto-izing people.
So there was this “I don’t ask any questions” attitude in the majority—“you do [yours] and we do [ours].” That’s not how you should live in a community, I think—it evokes problems, especially if you have a culture clash. So there was a long legacy of a false understanding of multiculturalism, which is [covers her eyes] just looking away, so back then, many [honor killing] cases were not brought to court as they should have been, because the majority didn’t really know how to tackle those issues.
That changed in the last 10-15 years, where those cases actually made it to court and got proper procedure. Since the main thing about those dynamics is that you send in the youngest male relatives to commit those crimes—we are talking about young boys between 15-19, often below 18—and when they are accused of murder, they go under juvenile law. So they are sentenced to a max of 10 years—and they get out in 6, sometimes earlier. Some do flee to the country of their origin, and then there are legal proceedings to bring them back.
Turkey recently changed their laws—“No matter how old this boy is, we’re going to make this not a juvenile case, because we also make the fathers accountable, and this boy could go to jail for life.” Which is a way of showing the parents: “You think twice, before ordering your kids to kill their siblings.”
Tribeca: And then the parents are sacrificing two children.
Feo Aladag: Exactly. It might not be the best solution, but it’s one way of trying to make changes—it’s a deterrent. And it makes parents accountable.
Tribeca: Is there a real-life Umay in your life? Did you meet women in her situation?
Feo Aladag: Yes, because in my two years of research, I stayed in women’s shelter houses over time, and when girls and women make it to some sort of shelter, after a while, they try to reunite them with their families… So I got to talk to parents, to brothers and sisters, and of course, to the women. I was very fortunate to have a lot of families share their stories with me.
Tribeca: In the film, Umay is just so brave—she keeps trying to reconnect with her family, after they so clearly shun her. She really doesn’t think she’s in that kind of danger.
Feo Aladag: That’s the weird thing: when you study the cases on paper, it’s extraordinary to see the parallel developments of their story arcs—the women try to go back to the family—it’s shocking. You go, “Why don’t you just leave the country, or change your city, or accept the offer to get another name—just cut [the ties].” But it’s just so hard to do. It’s hard for all of us; we all carry our rucksack—our backpack. It’s even harder if you have migration in your family history—it’s an astonishing achievement to go someplace and make a better place for your people—you need your family even more; there are very strong family bonds.
So it’s not the smartest thing to go back, but in life, we don’t always go for the smart things—we go for the things that resonate most within us. If we were always smart, we wouldn’t have any relationship problems at all—[laughs] we’d probably all be happily single!
Tribeca: Have you shown the film in Turkey?
Feo Aladag: Yes, Turkey was actually the first country to buy the film before its opening at Berlinale 2010. It showed at the Istanbul Film Festival before its release, and then it traveled to rural areas as well; it didn’t just show in the big cities.
And it had an even bigger release in Germany, which made me very happy.
Tribeca: As an actor, how did you learn to become a director? And also, your film is so ripe for being sentimental or melancholic, but it’s just not.
Feo Aladag: Thank so you so much. That was a big trap!
Tribeca: How did you learn to be so subtle?
Feo Aladag: Well, I’ve always watched a lot of films. And coming from an acting background, I think I’ve always been interested, while watching films—not consciously—in analyzing what does what to me. What kind of lens does what to me? Why is it used this way? So being interested in the syntax of filmmaking, in the language of cinematic form of expression, has always been very much a part of me watching films.
Tribeca: You learn from being curious—
Feo Aladag: Being curious. It’s very much an instinct-driven thing. It was never on my life agenda to be a film director. But as a woman, [I came to find] it’s very hard to find interesting and strong parts—really solid material—unless you go back to theatre. So I’ve also always been writing.
It all fell into place somehow. When I knew I wanted to write the story, I also knew I wanted to direct it. I went back to film school—I wanted to learn from people older than me, people who have made films, because I have made zero films. I learned from wonderful directors, and had the chance to absorb things. But I wouldn’t say you learn filmmaking from school.
Tribeca: Did you love directing?
Feo Aladag: I loved it. [smiles] You have to love it—it’s 18 hours a day, 7 days a week—but I loved every minute of it.