Award-winning film shows the triumphs and challenges of Rojava's feminist revolution

February 17, 2022
Filmmaker Antonia Kilian. Photo: ANF English
Filmmaker Antonia Kilian. Photo: ANF English

A new documentary film, The Other Side of the River, follows the path of a young Syrian woman, Hala, who leaves her family — which was sympathetic to Islamic State (ISIS) — shortly after the liberation of Manbij in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to join the security forces on the other side of the Euphrates River. The documentary was released in German cinemas last month.

When filmmaker Antonia Kilian came to the Asayîş training centre in Serêkaniyê in 2016, she wanted to document the process of women's liberation in the shadow of the war against ISIS. One of the young women who had started their training there was willing to be accompanied by the camera and to share her story.

The film accompanies 19-year-old Hala on her way through military and political training at the centre in the city now occupied by Turkey and its Islamist militias. The audience learns that Hala has fled to the other side of the river with her sister to escape being forced to marry an ISIS follower.

She joins the Women's Liberation Units with the declared goal of returning to Manbij and freeing her younger sisters from the hands of their oppressive father. After completing the training, she is transferred to her old city and Kilian follows her.

The men and women of the security forces are confronted with a population including many ISIS sympathisers and a precarious security situation. For Hala, the confrontation with her family is also very hard, and her father threatens her with death because she has violated the family’s “honour” by fleeing. When she learns that her twelve-year-old sister is about to be forced into marriage, the family conflict escalates.

The film shows both the liberation that women in particular experienced when they defeated ISIS, but also the arduous struggle to spread democratic ideals in a society shaped by dictatorship and patriarchy. In addition, the audience learns about the difficult personal considerations and decisions of the people rejecting and fighting this patriarchal mentality.

The Other Side of the River is an impressive snapshot from the time of the revolutionary liberation in Rojava and, through Hala’s viewpoint, condenses the problems, possibilities and hopes associated with the revolution. The film’s score, by the band Shkoon, takes up quotations from the characters in song and gives them a musical voice.

During a festival tour last year, the film was awarded the Hessian Film Prize and the Documentary Film Prize from the DOK.fest Munich, among others.

ANF met filmmaker Antonia Kilian in Hamburg to discuss the film and the conditions under which it was made.

The Other Side of the River is being screened in Germany. Have you been able to gather feedback from the audience yet?

Last year we participated in 35 festivals all over the world. The feedback is very diverse, depending on how much people have already dealt with the Kurdish freedom movement. Many said, "Oh wow, we didn't even know that something like this existed". Many cannot even imagine that there is such a thing as feminist women in Syria. These are people who have never heard of it. And then there are those who have met and known the revolution and showed solidarity. Then there are other questions to be asked.

I always find the feedback and discussions with people from Syria, Turkey and Iraq really exciting, ie people whose reality this film is portraying. It's extremely important to me to hear what people think about the film and how they feel about it.

You were in Rojava for a year in 2016. When was the movie finished?

We had our world premiere last year in May at the documentary film festival DOK.fest in Munich and unfortunately that was online because it fell in the middle of the second [COVID-19] lockdown. It was a pity after five years of work to then have to present the film online. So it's all the nicer now, of course, to do this cinema tour throughout Germany, to really sit in the cinema with real people.

I was in Rojava from 2016‒17 and then I went back for two months to finish the story. After that, there was a year and a half of raising funds for the production. There was an incredible amount of material that had to be translated, prepared for editing and then it took us another year and a half to edit it. So with my editor, Arash Asadi, whom I also met in Rojava, who was a journalist and filmmaker himself, we then edited the film in Germany. It's a long process, of course, but overall there were very difficult conditions under which we worked and lived.

It's impressive how much insight the film gives into the life and family of the main character, Hala, in particular, but also of other people. Do you still have contact with the protagonists?

Yes, I am still in contact with Hala. With her commander, too. I have her phone number and sometimes we text each other. And, of course, with the film team. So we are very, very close friends and are in daily contact.

You met the friends you worked with on the film during the filming process, right?

Exactly, I went to Rojava alone and the first person I got to know was Sevinaz Evdike. She is a filmmaker herself and one of the co-directors of the Rojava film commune in Serêkaniyê. I lived with her for a year and she helped me a lot to make the film. Whenever I came home from shooting to see Sevinaz, we viewed the material together, she translated a bit, we discussed and I learned a great deal from her. We now have a deep friendship.

Then, as I said, I met Arash Asadi, an Iranian journalist and filmmaker who had also come to Rojava. We started editing the first scenes together on site in the film commune. Arash is also the co-writer of the film. When I returned after a year, I met the Syrian-Kurdish filmmaker and photographer Guevara Namer in Berlin, who then joined the project as a producer and co-author. I was then also on the second trip with them. That's the team and I think it's a very competent and strong team. It was a lot of fun working with them.

You were already active in the solidarity movement before you started making films. You've been in touch with the ideas of women's liberation as well. How did this affect you?

There was a lot going on, yes. Of course, I learned a lot. I went there because I was fascinated by the ideology and by the women I had already met in Germany or the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and with whom I felt connected and from whom I could get support to my own emancipation process.

What was important for me was also to better understand the specific situation in Syria, what the country had experienced so far, also in relation to Turkey and Northern Iraq. This was only made possible through discussions with my team and other friends. They helped me to understand the connections on site much better and more deeply. So we managed that the film didn't stay on the surface, but also shows contradictions, shows complex situations, gets close to families, gets close to Hala and also makes a difficult and torn situation vivid.

It was important to me that all of these questions that I have find their space in this film. I wanted it not to be just a dull narration, but really show complexity and contradictions. I believe this is the case in all revolutionary processes, that there are simply a lot of contradictions that have to be faced and dealt with. It is important for a democratic process to point out such contradictions, to discuss them and to be open to such discussions.

[Reprinted from ANF English.]

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