A kidnapped woman talks to her family over the phone. We cannot see her, but hear her voice, as do her family and siblings. Some are adults, others small children, but all are listening whilst crying silently. The woman explains that there is bombing nearby, but that she is not afraid. She only wishes the bombs would hit her house. “I want to either die or escape, they treat us like animals.” She is Yezidi, but the IS forced her to convert. They took her husband away, and gave her to an IS-fighter. The woman wants to flee, but is unable to take her children, whom the IS want to train to be soldiers and go against other Yezidis. “What kind of religion teaches children to kill their own parents?” she asks rhetorically. Her voice is strong and lucid, with an underlying anger, no tears or whining.
It is not hard to sympathise with the thousands of Yezidi women who were abducted when the IS attacked the Sinjar mountains in 2014. Some managed to flee, or were ransomed by relatives or aid organisations. To others, the assaults are never-ending: slave auctions, forced marriages, repeated rapes. What has to happen for us to acknowledge these fates, for them to become more than just statistics? At this year’s IDFA, the Amsterdam documentary festival, three different films highlighted this theme through moving individual encounters.
Ransom. The phone scene forms part of Shingal, Where Are You? in which Greek director Angelos Rallis visits a Yezidi family who have sought refuge in a disused coal mine on the Turkish border. They are desperately fighting to regain their daughter from the IS, by buying her freedom through various middlemen, something akin to a labyrinthine fight against the clock. The film title ‘Shingal’ does not refer to the daughter, but the village they fled and continue to long for. When they return, the village lies in ruins.
I am not going to reveal the conclusion of the search, but the pain in the film is affected by a situation where nothing is clarified. The refugees wait in a state of limbo, where they still do not know the extent of what they have to deal with. The result is a commute between action and paralysis, as when a sibling quietly comments, during the phone call, that it feels almost pointless to talk to the sister, because they are unable to help her. They have to hide these feelings for their sister, whilst the mother simultaneously reassures her on the phone not to be afraid, as she probably will be rescued.
Compassion. In the Swedish-produced documentary The Return, director Zahavi Sanjavi takes us to a more organised refugee camp, where a large share of the 20,000 people are Yezidis. The director has a Kurdish background, similarly to the main character, Swedish nurse Shilan Atroushi. She volunteers at a Swedish-run hospital, and we accompany her around the camp.
How do you respond to individuals’ horrific and heart breaking stories? Shilan solves this by taking time to listen, and to be ready to help with practical problems. It is winter, the weather is cold and grey, and there are is seemingly no vegetation on the plains to help keep the wet soil together. Shildan has a physical handicap, and swings her leg laboriously as she strides around in the mud. Around her run poorly dressed children, joking and chatting and wanting to have their picture taken with her, as if a local celebrity. It is great to see them joying life, despite the fact that many witnessed their mothers being shot right in front of them, whilst others do probably not understand that their parents will never return.
Trauma work. The short documentary Yezidi Girls provides an intimate look at freed women, and focuses on three teenage girls (16-18 year olds) who spent several months with IS. Lasting a mere 14 minutes, this is the only film that touches upon the Yezidis’ religious practices. Their religion is monotheistic, with elements of Islam and Christianity, and featuring more esoteric directions such as Zoroastrianism. It is impossible to become Yezidi through conversion, it is only possible by birth. IS consider them lapsed Muslim, an added excuse to use brutality against them.
Kurdish-Dutch Reber Dosky was given permission to film in Lalish, the Yezidis’ spiritual centre. We catch a glimpse of several rituals, but none are explained. The girls enter a room and kiss the door frame, they loosen a knot on some fabric and kiss the corner, or catches a bundle of clothes that is thrown at them, kiss it and throws it to the next person. The rituals seem calm, almost meditative, as filled with a devotion based on deeds, not argumentation.
Whilst with the IS, the girls were forced to convert to Islam, and it is powerful to witness their gratitude for being incorporated back into society. Traditionally, Yezidi women are expelled following sexual relations with a man outside of their religion, but the extent of the latest tragedy meant the religious leaders united in setting this custom aside.
Confidentiality. All three films are directed by men, which would have been a real challenge when uncovering shameful information. This is most evident in Yezidi Girls, when none of the three girls provide a direct answer to the question of whether they were victims of sexual abuse, instead they stare coyly at the ground. The strength of this film is instead its cautious joy, as we see the girls, wearing white, light head veils, forget themselves in spontaneous smiles.
The Return’s main character, Shilan Atroush, provides invaluable access by inspiring confidence through her open-heartedness. The refugees’ daily lives become concrete and animated as we hear what she asks and emphasises, whether she exhorts a girl to wear proper shoes in the cold, instead of flip flops, to avoid getting sick, or explains to someone’s depressed husband and father that he should not hide himself away in his tent all day. In the end, she takes him along for a stroll in the mud, back and forth between the rows of tents.
The more neutrally observing Shingal, Where Are You? uses technology to convey us confidential information. It is not hard to immerse oneself in a family’s powerlessness, where they have to sit and listen to the abducted girl, not knowing where she is or whether they will ever see her again. Never before have I witnessed a more heart breaking image of the ambiguity between near and far, real and unreal, of today’s digital communication. Where the film becomes a little too longwinded journey between gloomy outer and inner landscapes, the phone scene in itself is strong enough on its own to carry the project.
Wellies. The Yezidis are today, quite possibly, the most persecuted ethic group in the Middle East, and in danger of being completely eradicated there. It is not the first time a regional conflict makes them suffer – they consider the IS-attack the 74th genocide on them. From earlier, larger groups are exiled in Europe, mainly Germany, which also boasts a Yezidi library and an academy for Yezidi cultural studies, in Hanover. In addition, there are also visible Yezidi minorities in Great Britain, France and Sweden. The total number of Yezidis worldwide is unknown, with calculations varying between 200,000 and two million.
The portrayal of the Yezidis in film and writing could help putting them on the map as a group, and remind us that a genocide not only kills human lives but also unique mind sets and ways of life. This way, it is vital that the films do not only emphasise the aspect of suffering, although this evoke a common human empathy. All the aforementioned films feature powerful, individual scenes, but as a narrative, The Return is the most solid. The reason for this is found in the same hopeful, unpretentiousness which dictated the young nurse’s condition for featuring in the film: That the film team donated 600 pairs of wellies to the refugees in the muddy camp.