Film director Alba Sotorra spends five months at the Kurdish frontline in Syria following the life and struggle of the female Kurdish fighters belonging to the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
The YPJ (Women‘s Protection Units) is the lesser-known Kurdish women’s army – allied to the YPG (People‘s Protection Units) – fighting in northern and Kurdish Syria. Alba Sotorra’s new film Commander Arian focuses on one of its commanders – Arian Afrin – whom Sotorra follows both at the front line and behind it. When we meet Arian she is in a women’s shelter, recovering from being hit by five bullets inflicted on her one and a half months earlier. Scenes from her recovery period are intertwined with scenes from the front shot the preceding year. First impression: she misses the front, the combat, the comrades, the suffering and the thrill of success. Her thoughts reflect a romantic idea of war, which in reality is often rather both messy, especially in Syria with the many different groups fighting each other (see Francesca Borri’s piece), and boring.
A feminist perspective
Commander Arian is yet another film about war in the Middle East, but indeed it is different from films such as Peshmerga and No Place for Tears reviewed earlier at MTR. First of all, it offers a distinctive female and arguably feminist perspective. YPJ stands for «Yekîneyên Parastina Jin» or «Women’s Protection Units.» The army started as a defence army when ISIS attacked Kurdish areas. Troops in both YPJ and YPG choose their own commanders. As Commander Arian explains in the film, the goal of the YPJ army is to defend women’s freedom. Although the women combat alongside and in cooperation with male soldiers, they are explicitly prohibited to confide in them.
«After experiencing a case of honour killing as a child, Arian decided to fight for her own freedom rather than succumb to a traditional female role.»
Arian is part of a group involved in liberating villages and towns around Kobani, like the town Tell Abyad within the Raqqa Governorate. The fighters wear camouflage gear with colourful scarfs but no helmets. There is a limited amount of ammunition available. What they are doing is not made explicit and at times it all seems uncoordinated. What to do with an alleged ISIS prisoner or with the civilian population of freed villages? It remains unclear, and questions about justice and revenge are evaded here.
The focus of the film is firmly on Arian. Sotorra spent five weeks at the front with her and another two months while she was recovering. While we witness Arian both in her role as commander and as recovering patient, her voice-over gently informs us of her past, her motivations, her experiences and reflections. After experiencing a case of honour killing as a child, Arian decided to fight for her own freedom rather than succumb to a traditional female role. Appalled by ISIS’s atrocities, specifically against women, when the opportunity arose she became a guerrilla. Arian argues she defends not only her cultural rights and her right tied to the land but also her rights as a woman: She wants to free her society and her gender.
When not fighting in the YPJ, the women take care of themselves and each other. They share their stories about their past, their families. Arian transfers her personal goals to the group by discussing the YPJ’s motivation and ideals with new recruits. She encourages them to think about the women they want to be and fight for that, reproaches them when she does not like their responses and urges them to take control of their lives. She and other more experienced fighters share their own stories of how their YPJ experiences boosted their self-confidence. Combat as an alternative education.
The Kurdish road ahead
Recovery, first at the shelter and later at the YPJ headquarters in Kobani, is slow. There is not much more to do then to have wounds tended to, speak with comrades and family members and just wait until things get better. In the end, they do. As Kobani is being rebuilt and life returns to the city, Arian also returns to life, eventually working at the wounded women’s centre in Afrin.
There are not only successes. Troops meet setbacks along the way. A car explosion and a landmine both claim victims. How to deal with these losses and what they mean remains unaddressed. Maybe it is the lack of discussion about topics like justice, revenge and loss that causes the film to remain somewhat aloof. Though Sotorra films Arian closely, it never really feels intimate, and Sotorra herself remains invisible.
At the end of the film, titles inform us that the centre of Afrin has been destroyed by a Turkish missile. It reminds us that the fight against ISIS is an intervention in the continuous fight for Kurdish independence. An intervention of which the value remains questionable: what will be in it for the Kurdish people and their armies if the war in Syria should come to an end, let alone for the women? In an earlier film, director Bernard-Henri Lévy showed himself to be optimistic given that the Kurds have proven they can provide stability in «their» region (see the Peshmerga review). But history is full of examples of disloyalty for former allies, so it is hard to share such optimism.