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When We Leave isn’t your average German Oscar contender. There are no Nazis, no Stasi. No jackboots or history lessons. Instead, the debut film from director Feo Aladag is a story of modern-day Germany. Of fundamentalist Muslims living in a parallel world smack in the middle of Berlin.
Sibel Kekilli, the film’s star, isn’t your average German actress either. The daughter of Turkish immigrants plays Umay, a young Turkish woman caught between the constraints of her traditional Muslim family and the liberal freedoms on offer in contemporary Germany.
Kekilli knows the subject all too well. She becomes animated as she talks about Islamic honor killings, a fundamentalist tradition in which women are killed for bringing shame on their families. It is a key plot point in When We Leave.
“This isn’t just a Turkish story, it’s also a German story,” she says. “This sort of thing is happening right now, right in the middle of Europe. Just read the newspapers, look on the Internet.”
It’s a world Kekilli caught glimpses of while growing up in a moderate Muslim household (“traditional, conservative but not fundamentalist,” is how she describes it).
“It was in 7th grade, and a girl suddenly vanished,” she recalls. “We never really found out what happened, but she had two older brothers who kept going to school. We assumed she had been married off, taken out of school. You’d hear of cases like that. ”
Kekilli also heard firsthand tales of abuse and escape from her work with Terre des Femmes, a Hamburg human rights group that raises awareness of honor killings among Muslim immigrants. “I don’t want to be a role model, but I feel an obligation to speak out,” she says.
Director Aladag, a blond Austrian, spent two and a half years immersing herself in the culture of immigrant Turks to get the details right.
“I had to dive into this world, understand how it works,” she says. “Whenever I had a problem with the script, I did more research and looked to the real world to find the solution.”
Aladag’s devotion to realism was so great that she didn’t want to consider Kekilli for the lead role as Umay. The director worried Kekilli was too famous, that her star power would outshine the story.
“I didn’t want a famous face,” Aladag admits. “We looked all over for an actress to play Umay before we finally broke down and invited Sibel in for a casting call.”
Adds Kekilli: “My agent had been chasing after them for a year and a half, begging them to let me come to a casting. It’s funny. In America, when you win the Oscar, you are flooded with offers. But here, after I won the Lola for Head-On, people reacted in the opposite way. They probably thought I was too expensive, that I wouldn’t have the time or that I wouldn’t be interested.”
Although Kekilli and Aladag hope When We Leave receives an Oscar nomination when the Academy makes its picks in January, their larger hope is that the movie can help change the conversation about immigration and Islam.
“I definitely don’t want the film to be used to feed the flames of Islamophobia,” Aladag says. “In my research, what I found is that honor killings are a lot older than any religion. This has nothing to do with God.”
But When We Leave has a lot to do with modern-day Germany. The film, which premiered in February in Berlin, couldn’t be more current. Germany, like much of Europe, is in the throes of a debate over its minority Muslim population and to what degree Islam is compatible with European liberalism. So far, politicians in Berlin haven’t gone as far as those in Paris, which recently banned face coverings in public — a law clearly aimed at the veils and burqas worn by devout Muslims. Still, one of the best-selling books in Germany at the moment is Germany Does Itself In from economist-turned-author Thilo Sarrazin, which argues that Turkish immigrants will soon overwhelm ethnic Germans and destroy their culture.
“Things are becoming much more extreme — the gap between the cultures is getting wider,” Kekilli says, adding that she hopes When We Leave, in its small way, will help close that gap.
“I hope people don’t judge the figures in the film and the culture they represent but try to understand them and the dilemmas of these people,” Kekilli says. “So many films on these subjects show things as black and white. When We Leave looks at the shades of gray.”
GLOBAL DISCOURSE: Five foreign lnguage contenders on their inspiration
Cirkus Columbia (Bosnia/Herzegovina)
“I was interested in how the ordinary man next door can become a war-camp
warden, a torturer, a murderer. Common, good people can quickly turn into someone else.”
Fridrik Thor Fridrikson
Mamma Gogo (Iceland)
“The financial crisis has had a huge effect on the Icelandic film industry. The main character is a filmaker trying to get an Oscar nomination to save himself from bankruptcy.”
In a Better World (Denmark)
“I was interested in comparing the so-called first and third worlds because I wanted to make it clear that the third world is part of our world in the West. We aren’t on some privileged, secluded island.”
Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall Past Lives (Thailand)
“The film focuses on the beliefs in otherworldly elements. I think the curiosity and fear of ghosts arises when we are young and when we are dying.”
Life, Above All (South Africa)
“I was fascinated by the idea of telling a story about people dealing with open secrets. One person is drinking, another betrays others, and the next one is too ashamed to admit being unemployed.”
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