The fight for Kobani

NO PLACE FOR TEARS. Director: Reyan Tuvi. Turkey, 2017

One of the main parties fighting ISIS in Syria at the moment are the Kurdish militias, among whom are the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the Women's Protection Units (YPJ).
Director: Reyan Tuvi
Country: Turkey 2017, 84min.

As they become an important contributor to the fight against ISIS in Syria, and backed by the USA, today they find themselves under attack from Turkey once more. It is a schizophrenic situation with different and double agendas.

With No Place for Tears, Turkish director Reyan Tuvi (Love Will Change the Earth… 2014; Offside 2010) sheds light on the war in Syria from a Kurdish perspective. The film follows a number of Kurdish-Syrian refugees from Kobani, a Kurdish city under siege by ISIS for four months between autumn 2014 and winter 2015. Kobani is situated only a few kilometres South of the Turkish border. The refugees have fled to the Turkish village of Maheser, where many have family. They are sheltered by their new fellow villagers, who guard the village themselves against any unwanted visitors. From a distance, they stare across the imaginary line we call border with their binoculars and witness the destruction of their beloved city and its inhabitants. They hope their chants of support are carried to the city and heard there. What they hear in return is mainly shelling, jets and bombs exploding. Columns of smoke rise up continuously.

In an observatory style, Tuvi follows the villagers as they celebrate their culture, keep their stories alive and concern themselves with the care for their fellow Kurds, while also keeping track of the news reporting on Kobani. One of the new inhabitants is the charismatic young Botan, who crossed the border alone through barbed wire, and regards himself a grown-up man, although really just a boy. He and others share their stories with the villagers and each other.

Tuvi offers little to no explicit explanation in his film, but lets the story unfold as the film progresses, relying, to a large extent, on a carefully constructed, strongly visual narrative. She enables the images speak for themselves.

«It is a celebration of the communal struggle»

The narrative not only addresses the current struggle for Kobani, but also the continuing fight for unity and independence for the Kurdish people, as scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Where a boundary usually functions to separate nations, the borders here divide a people. (These same, rather arbitrary and invisible lines in the field currently also mark the difference between life and death.) Performances of resistance fights are held to boost morale. It is a celebration of the communal struggle.

Tuvi travels to a Kurdish refugee camp, where another former fighter, Ape Nemir, tells the story of his resistance, while a woman recounts her supporting efforts behind the front lines. As she praises Kobani excessively in propaganda-like texts (“Our children wake up and ask for Kobani… Kobani’s soil is sweeter than sugar, heavier than salt.”), it is hard to understand their personal perspective and feelings. As all people are introduced without names or additional information, it takes a while to understand the added value of what seem quite generic images of the refugees. However, as the film progresses, the few main characters slowly get more colour and become individuals.

Initially, we simply witness everyday life in an otherwise uneventful village in rural Turkey, or so it seems. Slowly, however, ISIS is driven out of Kobani and the city is liberated by YPG and YPJ forces. This is celebrated in Maheser as a major victory. It opens the doors for the return to the city that now lies in ruins. Although roads seem cleared of rubble and debris (some time may have passed), shells and bullet cases are all around. As people meet acquaintances and share more stories and experiences, inevitably accommodated with tea, they also start rebuilding their lives, and the city itself. School starts with an introduction on how to survive in a post-war landscape. As citizens return they put life back into Kobani, making it a symbol of survival.

But, although Kobani is freed from ISIS, the struggle continues outside the city and beyond the conflict in Syria. With political tensions between Turks, Kurds, Americans, Europeans, Syrians and ISIS in abundance and political ties weak and, depending on the occasion, quite flexible, the Kurds are bound to find themselves at the short end of any resolution to this conflict. Or, as The Guardian journalists Martin Chulov and Fazel Hawramy recently observed: “Here, the most complicated corner of the war in Syria looks certain to get messier.”  Although they demand their place in the history of the struggle against ISIS, given their larger agenda and the conflicting interests with other powers that be, the question very much remains whether they will get it.