The Oscar nomination list is out, and I'm sorry to find that the German fictional film "Die Fremde" (or "When We Leave") did not make the list for best foreign film.
I saw it in Washington at a film festival last week, nudged to the theater by an email from a German nonprofit group. The email's thumbnail description said the film depicts the "cultural conflicts of a German-born Turkish woman who is unhappy with her married life in Turkey. The protagonist wishes to return with her son to Germany but gets no support from her parents still living in Germany."
Germany and Turkey. I lived in the former country as a foreign correspondent and have traveled several times to the latter. For the price of a theater ticket, I looked forward to visiting both places again.
I probably would not have gone, however, had I known that the film was really about an "honor killing." I don't do well with violence in films. I closed my eyes three times in "True Grit," though I should have known given it's the Coen brothers (loved the movie, not the violence).
In retrospect, I'm very glad I saw this German film. It made for engaging cinema, working toward its surprising, aching conclusion gradually and masterfully. Its characters – German and Turk, well- and ill-behaving – earned my empathy. But its real value was its message.
For years I've known about honor killings in parts of the Middle East and Asia, in which a member of the family or community is murdered for bringing dishonor on said family or community. Usually the crime is committed against women, usually for perceived sexual disgrace: adultery, being raped, leaving an arranged marriage or refusing one, premarital sex, and even for wearing clothing deemed too revealing. The United Nations estimates 5,000 such killings per year, globally. Human rights groups say it's more like 20,000.
It had not dawned on me, however, that the practice follows immigrants to Europe, in this case, Germany, and continues to the next generation. In 2005, Der Spiegel magazine reported 40 documented cases of honor killings in Germany since 1996. At the time of the magazine's publication, Berlin had seen six Muslim women murdered by family members in just four months. They had brought shame on their families by divorce, for instance, or dating German men. About 2.5 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany.
Die Fremde depicts its protagonist, a modern, Turkish-German mother who grew up in Germany, as torn between the patriarchal family that she loves and the male members who regularly enforce their will through beating. This scenario is not unusual. A German government study from 2004 reports that 49 percent of Turkish women in Germany said they had experienced sexual or physical violence in their marriage. That honor killings occur in a society governed by Western laws, and in a country that long ago learned its own human rights lesson, adds wattage to the film's powerful and disturbing subject.
After the screening, director Feo Aladag took questions from the audience. She said the film has been widely shown (54 countries so far), including Turkey, where it was well received and sparked honest conversation.
It sounds trite, but it's true: Awareness and conversation are the first steps in solving any societal problem. An Oscar nomination could have helped to raise awareness and spread the conversation. I guess we'll just have to do that ourselves.