Do you remember, years back, those images of women taking off their black niqabs, after the Northern Syrian city of Manbij was liberated from ISIS by Kurdish forces? Taking off those black covers revealed colourful dresses and big smiles, a powerful symbolic image of joy living underneath oppression, and now coming back to light. Those images fuelled German director Antonia Kilian’s desire to go there.
As the city of Manbij was deemed too dangerous to enter at the moment of her arrival, Kilian eventually ended up at a military academy in Rojava, the largely Kurdish de facto autonomous region in the north east of Syria. There she met Hala: a 19-year-old Arab woman who, after the liberation of her home city, decided to join the liberating forces and become a policewoman, at great personal cost. The Other Side of the River tells her story. And through the strength and dreams of this young woman, it portrays the customs and realities of this complicated region where, to define a place of her own, a woman must fight beyond the battlefield, in her own family and home.
No space for neutrality
Rojava declared its autonomy in 2014 – an effort to establish a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy, while fighting ISIS. The local laws guarantee equality for women, who play a prominent role both on the battlefield and within the political system.
The images of Kurdish women fighters are almost iconic – mostly young girls with long braided tails, colourful scarfs and massive rifles in their hands. The Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), as these militias are called, are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. But not all women in them are Kurdish. Hala isn’t.
She comes from a large Arab family in Manbij, with ten sisters and two brothers. From her clan, many joined the Islamic State. In one scene, Hala’s mother makes sure to mention twice: they as a family have nothing to with ISIS. She feels it’s good to mention that in front of the camera. But the reality of it is more complex.
Living in a region going through such a complicated conflict, leaves no space for neutrality. A family has to choose between being with or against sides, a decision that is as much about cost and opportunity as it is cultural and religious identity and belonging. It’s a society built along these defining lines, structured in clans. With a large part of one’s clan joining one side comes pressure, to also join or, at least, keep a low profile. But Hala left her family neither of these choices.
Breaking trail in a conservative region is no easy thing.
Sticking to her guns
After witnessing life under ISIS, seeing first-hand the kind of cruelties no one should see, and also facing a future in which a woman’s destiny is only marriage, Hala decided that her life should be her own. She escaped from the family home, together with one sister, and joined the Rojava Military Academy.
In her culture, in which honour is important, this individual decision brought shame to her family, isolating them. The parents constantly threaten her and try to make her give up her dream and return home. But she is undeterred.
The suffering she has seen is only one reason for her to stick to her guns, literally and metaphorically. The other reason is her younger sisters, two little girls she loves, and helped raise. She knows their only future is marriage, but she wants them to have other opportunities. Her plan is to remove these little girls from the family as soon as possible.
Stripped from the context, Hala’s story could be told as one fierce woman determined to live a life on her own terms. But the context is essential, as it makes her story. And it is amazing just how much of it comes just to life, nuanced, through Kilian’s lens, without her spending time explaining it. The ‘show, don’t tell’ rule usually applied in writing, is vividly illustrated in this film. Her film is not about explaining, instead she captures the whole context, of past and present, and women’s role in a shifting cultural and political landscape.
The camera follows Hala from her school days in the police academy to becoming a policewoman back, living with her sister in a rented place. Things take a different turn when Hala’s sister decides to marry. Having escaped a previous marriage arrangement with an ISIS fighter, Hala sees her sister’s choice to marry now as failure, a fall onto the beaten path.
The weight of marriage is a recurrent theme throughout the film. It is a danger that can deter any woman from continuing in the forces, whether Kurdish or not. Breaking trail in a conservative region is no easy thing. The laws have changed, but changing culture takes much longer. It is an ongoing topic of discussion within the academy. Young women speaking about wanting to make something of their own, not needing men. Teachers encouraging their students to repress their sexual needs. Marriage and an individual path outside of home don’t mix. There are no social structures to support that yet.
Kilian’s lens makes no judgements. The reality of life unfolds its complicated details by itself. The emptiness of a war torn city in recovery, the memories, the poverty, the lack of options – are there if one looks beyond the surface. And beyond that, the film has atmosphere, and glimpses of tenderness and poetry in details, such as textures, moments of love, the girls doing their hair.
The Other Side of the River captures the opacity of cultural norms in that society’s structure, with the ongoing conflict at its core. The conflict and the women’s contribution carve new ways for women to show themselves as different kind of players in society, different from what they, for many years, have been assigned to. Resistance and eventual isolation come into play, making it all a challenge that is heavy for one single young woman.
Hala’s struggle has the taste of fear, but she seems to have none at all. Because there is nothing more frightening than giving in to the alternative of a life she is determined to decide for on her own. The price of freedom is her loneliness. But that’s worth it because the price of belonging is so bitter she cannot conceive it.