When We Leave: Questioning the Patriarchal Family with Sibel Kekilli

Sibel Kekilli’s first movie Head On (2004), directed by Fatih Akın, dealt with some patriarchal family matters. The Austrian director Feo Aladağ investigates the same topic, milder yet deeper, in her film “When We Leave” (2010). Sibel Kekilli plays again the main character. Although Sibel Kekilli is by now a world-wide known actress, she is “strangely” not beloved in her country of origin, Turkey.

sibel kekilli

The film “When We Leave” (Die Fremde) is about a pure minded family, who loves each other, but cannot break patriarchal structures and feels obliged to conservative society rules.

Patriarchal Family

Umay Arslan, a young woman born and grown up in Berlin, leaves high school to marry and moves to Istanbul. She is not happy in her new home, which she shares with her in-laws, since she constantly experiences violence and also sees that her son is going to be like his father. She eventually manages to leave them and returns to her parents with her five-year-old son. However, her family rather tries to send her back to Istanbul, as they believe that a married woman belongs to her husband – no matter what. Umay insists on living her own life as she wishes. That decision brings her entire family up against her. Her longings and love for her family cause her to lose her footing in her chosen life in Berlin.

Rooted in the patriarchal family structure; educating females, allowing them to walk on the streets alone and letting them choose their own spouse bear the potential to threaten the family honor. And Umay wants to do those all. Eventually, the Arslan family concludes that rebellious Umay damages their family honor. The older son, who thinks that this shame can only be cleansed by blood, convinces his little brother to kill their sister, who once used to change his diapers as a baby.


The children in family Arslan had a strict education that blocks their rationality to question and makes them fear the father and care about what the neighbors might say about them. If they ask “why”, then they right away get a “behave yourself slap” on their face. If it is still not understood, the answer sounds like “Because your father says so!”

As the parents got the same type of education like they give to their children, they also do not ask their selves “Why do our kids misbehave?” or “Why are we unhappy?” They rather try to solve their problem traditionally; among others house arrest or separating Umay from her child.

The mother, Halime, actually is able to sympathize with her daughter, but she cannot do anything else then praying for Umay and hoping for the best. She sometimes advises her:

“Not everything in life is as we wish, my dear. Please do not disgrace us.”

For such patriarchal families what “others” say is extremely important, so they try to display themselves as if they are a happy and decent family. However in reality, their lives can be full of conflict and disasters. In such environment, where no one can manage to be an individual, this cycle never ends. Although they love each other, they constantly torment each other, as they are trapped in the patriarchal structure.

This film wishes that we not only sympathies with Umay, but with the other family members, as well. We are brought to see with the eyes of each person, who is involved in this family tragedy. Such stories of what happened to Arslan family, we otherwise learn from the newspapers, with short and simple text and big photographs.

Turks in Germany

die-fremde_400The intention of many Turkish men who came to Germany was to make money and go back to their hometowns. They afterwards found that living in Germany was profitable and they brought also the rest of the family there. However, living in a Christian society brought about a fear to lose their religion and culture. Yet, neither Germans nor the German State had the intention to convert Muslims into Christianity.

Under the felt circumstances, the conservative Turkish families became introvert. They tried not to have close friendships with Germans and sent their children rather to multi-cultural schools for avoiding Germans as in-laws. They socialized among themselves in order not to, by chance, eat pork. Indeed, “not eating pork” was one of the first things they were fully alerted of. They would not put helal meat on common grills of school fests for not getting a tiny trace of German sausages.

For those, who belong to Islam and patriarchal families, living in a modern and secular country is already a conflict. That problem becomes bigger for the ones who have daughters. Many Turkish conservative families wish to find a son in-law in Turkey.  Like the family Aslan, many Turkish families felt relieved when the daughters moved to their hometown, although they then rarely could see them and their grandchildren.

Those women, who suffer in such families, know that they are fully emancipated in Germany, but they rather keep their problems inside the family. Even if they are threatened to be killed, they would not inform the police, as they do not want to harm their family or lose their comfort zone.

So generations developed in Germany; who neither can integrate into German culture, nor can recognize the Turkish one. Like Umay, many third-generation Turkish youngsters feel themselves as if they belong to none of these two cultures. Their parents rather live a life that is completely different than German’s. Today in Germany, there are still many Turkish women, who cannot speak proper German, who did not improve any new habit or did not change their looking after living there for some decades. That is why the original title of this film is “Die Fremde”, which means “The Foreigner”. Since Umay does not feel herself to belong to either her own, nor to her husband’s family. In the same way, the family Arslan does neither belong to the German, nor to the Turkish culture.

The actual victims

The head of the patriarchal family Arslan, Mr. Kader, is actually not a bad or strict father. But, he could not tell Umay how much he loves her or cares for her. Indeed, nobody really can communicate with each other in this family. The father only said once; “You are the proof that I’m not a good father, Umay”, as he tries to send her away from home. He could guess what his sons might do to Umay. Trying to avoid a honor killing in the family and getting away from what the neighbors would talk about them, he decides eventually to move with the family to his village in Turkey. However, his children, who were born and grew up in Germany, could not even imagine such a simple life style.

The women are first of all thought as the victims of the patriarchal family, as they physically suffer. However, like in the Arslan family, they may find a way to their happiness. As they are sometimes braver than men, they can even manage to “free” their traditional bonds. The men in this family are supposedly though, but cannot always carry the burden and the responsibility they are expected to have. As they have to violate their family in order to maintain their authority, they can not express their feeling for not to be seen weak, they might also eventually get in conflict with criminal law.

The Austrian woman director Feo Aladağ

feo aladagWhen We Leave” (2010) is the first cinematographic movie of Feo Aladağ (Feodora Schenk), who was born in 1972. Her second movie is  In-between the Worlds (2014 ), a story that tells the friendship between a German soldier and an Afghan interpreter.

Aladağ started as an actress, then she maintained a career as a successful scriptwriter and commercial film director. She might be familiar with Turkey through her husband (Züli Aladağ), but that should not be enough to make such real and unbiased film. Feo Aladağ won many international prizes with her two films. ¨When We Leave¨ was chosen to represent Germany at the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

When We Leave” is a film that tells a cultural story realistic and without moral judgments. It is able to reach out to audiences of other cultures, as well. Before Aladağ wrote the script, she talked to women at women shelters. To be more authentic, she picked the actors playing the parents (Derya Alabora and Settar Tanrıöven) from Turkey and the children from Germany.

Sibel Kekilli’s messages

Sibel Kekilli was born in 1980 into a Turkish family. She gained public attention after starring in the 2004 film Head-On. Until today she received five “Best Actress” awards (Lola, Bambi, Tribeca and Antalya Altın Portakal Film Festivali). She became known also for her role as ¨Shae¨ in the HBO-series Game of Thrones. The author of the books of the same title, George R.R. Martin, describes Sibel Kekilli as “a young woman with an amazing charisma and capacity”. Over the last five years, she acts in the role of investigator Sarah Brandt in the long-running German crime series Tatort.

When she received her first Lola prize, Sibel Kekilli addressed her speech to German Tabloid newspaper Bild, which  published her nude photographs and brought up her pornographic past, just before she was to receive the prize.

“What you do is media violence. You do not have to love me, but you must respect my new life. Stop this dirty smear campaigns. Those films were shot years ago. Let’s talk about my new job.”

Sibel Kekilli as Shae in Game of Thrones

On December 10, 2015 Sibel Kekilli was invited at an International Human Rights Day event, organized by Soroptimis International, a global volunteer movement working for improving the lives of women and girls. After watching her movie “When We Leave”, Kekilli answered questions from the audience. She herself supports the organization Terre des Femmes in its work against violence against women, then she should have some opinion about that topic. But, as someone of the audience asked “What could be done against this problem that the film points out”, she gave a simple answer:

“I am only an actress, answering those questions is not my job.”

Another person in the audience asked “Why did the son die instead of her mother?”

She responded:

“Aren’t we all children? A son or a daughter of somebody. What is the difference, a human died there.”

She is not a mother in reality, but often acts in young mother roles in her movies. That she acts in those roles that realistically, might come from the fact that she not only loves children, but all human beings.

marin kekilli
George R.R. Martin and Sibel Kekilli

Who should watch this film?

The ones typically interested in watching films that handle social problems, are usually the ones who are not living such lives. They rather watch to understand the conditions and afterwards feel how lucky they actually are. Those audiences will not mirror in such films, neither will they receive a real life message. Furthermore, these movies often strengthen the stereotyped Turkishness.

The messages of those social films rather address the families they tell about and the authorities who are responsible to regulate the society. They would be useful at integration courses and can be discussed with the family members to realize the problems arising from such life style. The German Police, who tries to resolve and prevent”honor killings” for many years, might become inspired from those films, as well. As Sibel Kekilli pointed out; to solve these problems is not the cinema’s mission. They only picture the problems.

The truth is not always welcomed

After her many achievements, Sibel Kekilli is still not recognized as a star in her country of origin, Turkey. The reason should not be in her early films, since many celebrities among Turkish film actors entered this sector by undressing in front of the cameras or playing in cheap erotic movies. The actual reason might be that she acts in movies, which show the negative sides of Islam and Turkish culture, and she as an individual is brave enough to talk about those sides and conflicts in public.

“That the women are covered at early ages comes from that they are seen as a sexual object. This also threatens the ones who do not bear a scarf. Violence against women is acceptable in Islam”,

said Sibel Kekilli in 2006, at an official event in Berlin. That caused the ambassador of Turkey to leave the event. The “sensitive” ambassador might have taken Kekilli’s words as an offense to his person and his country. However, to release the negative sides of things is actually not out of our disrespect, but out of the desire to have them recognized and then improved.

Sibel Kekilli is a brave, honest, frank, talented, modest and successful young Turkish woman. Although she is know as Turkish-German actress, she is foremost respected in Germany.

sibel kekilli tatort
Sibel Kekilli as Sarah Brandt in ¨Tatort¨.

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Deniz Alan Held
1974 Ankara doğumlu ama 2 yaşından beri Istanbullu. Çocukluk ve gençliği cimnastik ve dans çalışmalarıyla geçti. 2000 yılından beri yoga yapıyor. 2002 yılında evlenip yurtdışına yerleşti ama bir ayağı hep Istanbul'da oldu. Çocuklardan sonra, Norveç'te hayalindeki işin eğitimini alma fırsatı geçti eline. Trondheim Üniversitesi'nde Medya Bilimi ve Görsel Kültür dalında lisans ve yüksek lisans okudu. İki yıl Zürih, 10 yıl Trondheim'da yaşadıktan sonra 2014 yazında eşinin memleketi Almanya'ya yerleşti. Şİmdi iki oğlu ve eşi ile sakin bir hayat sürmekte, ve Türkiye'nin Gezi Gençleri'nce yönetileceği çağdaş bir ülke olduğu hayalini kurmakta. // ENGLISH: Born in Ankara in 1974, moved to Istanbul at age 2. Spent lots of time with gymnastic and contemporary dance at early ages. since 2000 practices rather yoga. Married to a German in 2002 and move to Zurich. Later lived 10 years in Norway/Trondheim and eventually settled down in Germany. Studied Media Science in Trondheim and finished master degree in 2012. Has two sons. Looking forward to the days that Turkey is eventually led democratically by the Gezi youth.