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.