When ‘Honour’ Disavows Humanity | Sunday Observer
Film review

When ‘Honour’ Disavows Humanity

31 May, 2020

A review of the German movie Die Fremde (When We Leave)

On Friday January 24, this year the Goethe Institute in Colombo screened the German movie Die Fremde which carries its English title as ‘When We Leave’. It is a work that can be called a German –Turkish drama film written, produced and directed by Austrian filmmaker Feo Aladag. It is a tragic heart wrenching story which gives a glimpse into the topic of stigmatisation within a steadfast traditional Turkish community in Berlin, when a young woman seeks to leave an abusive marriage and find refuge with her own family. Among the themes that come out in the movie are the dilemmas of migrant communities from strict religious belief systems when they seek to establish themselves in Western Europe where there is a clear clash of value systems and ideological beliefs.

The story is centred around the fate that befalls Umay, played very commendably by actress Sibel Kekilli, who after several years of marriage with her husband living in Istanbul, Turkey, leaves him and the abusive marriage she is caught in, and taking their little son Cem goes to Berlin to her parents and siblings, hoping to rebuild her life with them.

She doesn’t initially reveal why she comes to visit them unexpectedly without her husband but they soon learn that Umay has in fact left her husband and has thereby committed a taboo that has brought ‘dishonour’ upon the family.

What follows afterwards is a scenario where family members are torn between community values which they believe they must uphold as part of their tradition and identity and the unspoken sentiment that they must perhaps be a bit sympathetic to Umay. However, what is shown is that the pressure of living in accordance with what is perceived as being ‘acceptable’ in their community prevails.

The story shows how according to traditional Turkish Islamic beliefs, the wife is more or less property of the husband and has no real choice in whether or not she may opt for a better life. Umay’s hopes of finding supportiveness from her family are shattered and she finds herself facing a situation where she may very well lose her little son if she continues to stay in her parents’ house where her elder brother Mehmet is plotting to secretly repatriate Cem with his father, to mitigate part of the ‘dishonour’ fallen on them.

In desperation, after discovering that she is being imprisoned in her parents’ house, Umay seeks the help of the police in Berlin to be rescued from what she thought was her ‘refuge’; and thereby she and Cem are provided safe accommodation in a women’s shelter.

Her actions are seen by her family as not only high handed but outright treacherous and besmirching the family’s ‘honour’. Here is a classic case of how a migrant community steeped in rigid archaic views and beliefs sees the authorities in the host country as hostile, intrusive and injurious to their ways and views of tradition that defines their ‘identity’.

Umay’s search for independence and dignity in the legal and social welfare system of the host country has repercussions on her family’s position within the migrant Turkish community. Her younger sister’s marriage prospects begin to disappear as the family is seen as ‘shamed and dishonoured’.

Although estranged from her family due to her fears that being with them will result in her son being taken away from her, Umay continuously seeks to win their acceptance and optimistically seeks every opportunity to gain their empathy. Complete disavowing and disassociation with Umay seems to be the only remedy for the family to regain their standing in the community and assure the younger daughter, Umay’s younger sister, prospects of marriage. And the family cutting off all ties with Umay, make her an outcast.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes that one comes across in the movie is when Umay with her little Cem goes uninvited to her sister’s wedding, hoping that she will be allowed to wish her sister on her wedding day and provide her son the chance to witness her aunt’s wedding and thereby be allowed a moment to be part of her family at a significant occasion. The result is one that is simply deplorable on the part of how her family treats her, especially the behaviour of the two brothers.

However there is also a silver lining in her steps taken to be independent from her family, finding work in a restaurant kitchen as she also meets a German colleague who is romantically interested in her and they find companionship with each other to the point of seeing a future together.

The promise of a future with some sunshine in Umay’s life and that of her little son is however completely shattered and heartlessly taken away from them at the end, following her visit to her father in hospital who is at death’s door.

The ending is too heartbreaking to describe. It is one that will leave you feeling shattered and shaken. How heartlessly cruel can a family be to one of their own under the notion of ‘honour’ is a matter that blares out to the viewer.

Die Fremde is a movie about family and what constructs notions of ‘family’, although it is not in my opinion one that comes into the category of ‘family movie’. It is in a significant sense a very strong critical portrayal of how notions of ‘honour’ in a community should first and foremost be based on values of ‘humanity’.