DIFF ’10 Review: When We Leave
Does this domestic violence-themed German drama prove to be any good?
On DIFF Day 2, I went towards First Group Theater in Jumeira very early in order to meet none other than Sean Penn himself in a ‘In Conversation’ interview. Alas, he was a no-show and the event was canceled.
Having spare time on my hand until the premiere of ‘Six, Seven, Eight’, I shuttled back to Mall of the Emirates and decided to watch another movie until then. Out of quite a few choices, ‘When We Leave’ struck me as something relatable and one that had amassed some good buzz. So I headed in.
Read my review of the flick below.
The first thing that movies based on domestic violence issues are not are ‘unique’. In fact, there have been so many movies about the topic that you might lose count. But they’re also instantly relatable and very grounded in reality. ‘When We Leave’, a German-Turkish drama, is emotional and hard-hitting when it’s honest about today’s society and the plight of a single mother. It only falters in the third act when the pacing takes a hit and a few unbelievable character decisions are made.
The film follows Umay (Sibel Kekilli) who takes her son Cem and leaves her abusive husband Kemal from Istanbul to Berlin to live back in her family’s home. But all isn’t as rosy as planned as her family including the over-conversative father and aggressive elder brother encourage her to go back so they don’t face shame in the community. When Umay gets a job and refuses to return to her miserable life, their actions to re-unite the son Cem with Kemal escalate.
Early on in the film, there are some very powerful silent scenes that make it very clear that Umay’s life is a wretched abusive hell at Kemal’s home so much so that even the well-being of her son is in danger. The movie doesn’t let Umay’s decision to run away with her kid remain some kind of gray area and fully supports it and in turn so does the audience. And it’s all pretty rosy by the time Umay takes a trip to Berlin and arrives at her parent’s house. But one disappointing part of our Muslim culture of today is the thinking that a woman is her husband’s property after marriage and leaving him is not an option no matter what the sequences. Part of the reason why is of course the narrow-minded ‘society’ that will backbite the father and the family, hence the major resistance. On that front, ‘When We Leave’ is realistic and deals with the effects of a single girl living in such a society.
Driven by calm dialogue scenes that are grounded in reality, the film moves at a deliberate pace as tensions in the family begin to rise. We almost always follow Umay’s point of view and experience the story through her eyes as she begins to rebuild a new life for her. Hence, the first half is the strongest suite of the movie as the undercurrents of tension are brilliantly played upon and the whole subtlety of it all makes for great drama. The family dynamics are built as each character is introduced and has his or her own traits that help or hinder Umay’s goal of a peaceful life.
The success of the movie can be credited in no small part Sibel Kekilli’s performance as Umay. It’s a deeply layered performance that exudes innocence of a young girl facing an arduous task of resisting society’s pressure. She’s also strong-willed and willing to go to lengths to protect her son. Kekilli’s underdog quality is what carries her role perfectly as she protects her child and constantly tries to fit into her family despite their constant resistance. She even takes physical abuse for it. Considering the crux of the film is based on her performance, she’s the best thing about the film.
Not all is rosy though as the movie tends to majorly drag out in its final act. So far, the one thing that held the movie back was the cliches it gave into. This meant that the audience already knew the resolution the movie was building towards. Yet still, those scenes took too long to get to the point and brought the pacing to a crawl. But an even bigger problem here is the increasingly ridiculous actions of characters that strained credibility for the sake of amping up the tension. For example, it’s understandable for parents to try to re-unite their daughter with her husband or possibly even taking the child away from her in an effort to do so. But how many of them resort to more violent and deadly actions? They could have set the motivation to do that much better, and unfortunately that is why the ending suffers. Although the final twist is a shocker and is gut-wrenching for the audience, it still doesn’t wring true thanks to the way it is staged and that takes away some of its impact. If only the final act would’ve been more careful in its writing, we would’ve had a very strong movie.
‘When We Leave’ is an interesting account that will not only appeal to the niche Turkish-German audiences (despite some cultural references) but to a wide audience thanks to its universal and pressing theme that is always appreciated when explored in cinema. It disappoints a bit during the final act, but it’s an emotional journey of a woman that benefits from strong acting and direction.