On January 28 2011, When We Leave, Germany’s official Oscar entry will see release for North American audiences. The film has already collected a number of accolades, including the LUX prize for best film and Tribeca prize for best narrative feature and hopes to continue its run when the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film are announced later this month. Besides offering a startling window into the life of a Turkish woman who, after leaving her abusive husband with child in tow, finds no support from her family, the film takes a direct look at the act of honor killings (and the invisible hardships that minorities often face and yet are underrepresented in mainstream cinema).
Last week, first-time director/producer/writer Feo Aladağ was kind enough to stop by to answer a few of my questions:
Tell me a bit about your involvement with Amnesty International; you had previously done social spots for them?
Feo Aladağ: I had been asked by Amnesty International eight and a half years ago ‘would you like to direct, write and produce two social spots, 30 seconds long’. And I said on what? And they said ‘well, on the new campaign to stop violence against women’. (I didn’t go to film school to study directing. I studied acting, I studied psychology and communication science.)
And then I did research for a couple of months before I started writing those scripts and I came across a lot of stories that touched me and made me angry and raised a lot of questions within myself. They were all over the world. You kind of figure out mechanisms that are very similar in their core principle. So when my work was finished there I realized that there were still a lot of questions within myself and things that I wanted to understand that really had a grip on me.
Why did Amnesty come to you?
(laughs) That’s a very good question! I knew some people there and I asked them the very same question when they asked me, I said why don’t you just ask some commercial buff? I think that they wanted somebody they thought would be passionate about what they do. I was brought up by parents who tried to teach and educate me in a way that raises my own awareness and feeling of how women are treated in the world and how minorities are treated in the world.
What was your inspiration behind making this movie?
At the same time there was more media coverage and articles on so-called ‘honor-crimes’ in Europe. I dived into those issues, very much related to what I did before, and suddenly I found myself doing research to an extent that you and I would call—not special interest anymore—but work. You ask yourself when you’re writing what is it that keeps me there? What kind of picture do I want to get out of my head… what is it that I want to communicate? Once I figured that out, I decided I wanted to write that story and make that film.
But anyways, I figured out that I didn’t necessarily have to go to very far away countries in order to talk about certain dynamics. They were happening right in front of my door, they were going on in Europe, and they were going on in Germany—where I was living at the time. When I started doing the research there was already a very high rate of ‘honor-crimes’ in Berlin. In four months, there were five honor killings just in Berlin. There was even more of a validation that it was okay and necessary to tell a story like this.
What obstacles did you face getting the film from script to screen?
I was producing it myself so the obstacle was to set up the company. I come from a very creative background, I don’t come from a numbers background. I haven’t studied business. The biggest challenge—I wouldn’t say it was raising money—I think I had a very clean, orchestrated script. I came in with a great deal of passion, asking people to join in and to hop on board and basically saying no hard feelings if you don’t want to trust my debut that’s fine but this is what I want to do and this is the finished script and it’s not really up for some debate. And that’s had a certain power I think because you generate a feeling of ‘I will do it anyway and I’d be glad if you would join in’.
It wasn’t really a pitch then, it was more of a ‘come onboard’.
Absolutely. I’m the worst pitcher in the world. So getting a film financed is of course always hard but it wasn’t the biggest challenge, I think the biggest challenge in pre-production between writing the script and putting it on screen was probably just finding a structure for my company—switching from being very creative to going to the office every day and doing the numbers.
It’s hard, it’s eighteen hours a day, and it’s seven days a week.
So basically, you haven’t slept since 2009?
Honestly, if you asked me what I wished for most you would probably hear sleep.
In November, you won the LUX Prize for the film. I noticed that not only did you win the award but you were the first woman to even be in competition for it. What did that mean to you?
A lot. First of all, standing there in front of the European Parliament and it’s full… this is where so many decisions are being made and you just stand there and you get this award and you’re allowed to say something… obviously, you’re really tempted to say something political.
Like Michael Moore?
(laughs) Exactly. So it made me very proud because when the president of the European Parliament gave the speech on the award, I heard a lot of women in the parliament just going ‘YEAH!’ and whistling—so it meant a lot to me because it meant a lot to a lot of women in the room. And I thought it was quite amazing because I didn’t even know I was the first woman to ever be nominated or awarded. The LUX prize hasn’t been around forever but I think twelve years is quite a long time. So I was quite amazed.
Well, it’s the same with the Oscars. It was only last year that a woman won for best director.
True. More and more women are getting in the business hopefully. But it’s still an interesting issue to figure out, especially in directing. And especially in directing big budget movies.
It seems to me that ‘honor-killings’ and real violence against women in general is underexposed in mainstream cinema. Every time you see violence against women in movies it’s for thrills—horror etc—or the fridge trope. Films aren’t using violence to raise awareness, they’re using it as a device.
I agree. They’re instrumentalizing it in a sense. And therefore making themselves part of it.
In receiving the LUX Prize, you stated “I made Die Fremde (editor’s note: the name of the film in German) because I believe we live in a multicultural society which can no longer rest on promoting consensus but must rather find new ways in dealing with arising divergence” how has the film promoted and accomplished this notion of arising divergence?
I think in a way, the film helped promote an ongoing dialogue, which I’m talking about there. We’re talking about how does a majority deal with its minorities? It’s a two-way street. It’s about focusing on the similarities rather than the differences. If we want to change something within the society and if there’s a problem with how majorities deal with minorities then the first thing we have to do is encounter each other at eye level and give each other the feeling of being welcomed.
One of the questions that I took away from the film was what sacrifice is independence worth? And what does it mean to be free? Umay managed to break away from that abusive marriage but in reality she was still bounded by tradition and her family.
I think we only really feel free if we accept the other person’s freedom. It’s not chaining affection and love to some sort of condition if we’re talking about the closest bonds we have which is family.
So what price is independence worth? I think it’s worth a lot. What’s most important is that we don’t take away loyalty and love and solidarity from those we love by chaining it to some sort of condition of how they behave or how they live.
What message do you want North American audiences to take away from this film?
Reach out to one another in empathy and focus on the things we have in common and not on our differences. I’d be very happy if an audience member took away a question or just a moment. You and I have seen a lot of films in our life and you never remember the whole film but there are certain films that have certain moments that stay with you—or raise a question, and therefore stay with you. And that’s something I would wish for.
Cross-posted on Ms. Magazine Blog.
All photos courtesy of Olive Films.