Chronicling women of the YPJ

CONFLICT / Dream's Gate offers a bracing perspective on female fighters battling IS.

«A woman who is no longer willing to become a military achievement goes and fights.»

When filmmaker Negin Ahmadi, a native to the mountainous town of Paveh in the heart of Iranian Kurdistan, saw images of Kurdish girls from Kobani waging a David-and-Goliath battle against the Islamic State (IS), she was engrossed in their intrepid fight. The second oldest daughter in her family, Ahmadi, was headstrong and obstinate, and she saw part of herself in these Kurdish fighters. Her decision to travel to northeastern Syria to film the female-led Women’s Protection Units (YPJ, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF) was born out of her desire «to meet and live with them.»

Dream's Gate Negin Ahmadi
Dream’s Gate, a film by Negin Ahmadi

Women at war

Ahmadi’s 2023 documentary Dream’s Gate traces her journey as she sets out for Rojava and becomes embedded with women of the YPJ. What unfolds is a film that is probing and unabating in its emotional intensity, yet it breathes long enough for us to absorb the reality of women at war. Ahmadi’s camera is there, in the thick of the militia’s fighting against IS. Bullets fly, and blasts echo across the debris-strewn terrain; for these female fighters, IS are not an abstract enemy but are real militants, positioned at times only metres away. Remaining rather episodic and loose in narrative structure, the film weaves together poignant, emotional vistas that open into the interior lives of the YPJ women. The camera continues to roll even in quieter moments of the women’s daily lives, between the YPJ’s military campaigns and away from the battleground. When weariness sets in, and moments of sheer terror are ousted by ennui, some women languish while others keep their hands busy and bodies engaged in simple routines: doing yoga, performing assorted beauty techniques like face threading and hand-washing military uniforms, letting sopping garments then dry on a clothesline.

Have we gotten used to wars and inhabiting the world where killings go unpunished?

Embedding with the combat forces comes with daunting challenges that put certain limitations on the filmmaker and what her camera can capture. There are safety and security concerns, of course, which ought to come above any of the film’s narrative aspirations. As a YPJ fighter with long, raven hair explains in the film, revealing one’s face and identity may inexorably place their family in peril. Still, the film offers a bracing perspective on female fighters. Unwavering YPJ commander Nasrin (Nesrin Abdullah), who has «a kind, smiling face,» carries on with her mission, questioning the rigidity of the chain of command in combat units. Refusing to replicate the troubling power dynamics, informed by power hierarchies and patriarchal impositions, she treats her troops cordially and with a sense of camaraderie because they are her fellows, her friends. «I don’t want them to love and respect me because I am their commander,» she says. «If they don’t love me as Nasrin, obeying me as their commander isn’t important to me.»

Dream's Gate Negin Ahmadi
Dream’s Gate, a film by Negin Ahmadi

Camera confidant

Ultimately, Dream’s Gate is a very personal film of Ahmadi, with the camera turning into a confidant for her thoughts and reflections that are entwined with cinematic observations of the YPJ women. Her camera, Ahmadi contemplates, does not only seek to record events. It wants to hold all these memories together and preserve human feelings. «It feels as though my camera is filled with despair, just like me,» she notes.

There are a few questions the filmmaker poses as her restlessness grows, becoming almost her daily companion during the filming, but there is one that leaves you stumped. In the span of decades, we will all be «as good as a written line in a history book,» as one shrewdly observes, but beyond the existential fight for justice and freedom, what draws us to warfare? Have we gotten used to wars and inhabiting the world where killings go unpunished?

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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