Film review: “Jiyan’s Story”

Reimar Heider reviewed the movie “Jiyan’s Story” (2017) by A. Halûk Ünal.

Reimar Heider, one of the spokespersons of the International Initiative "Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan - Peace in Kurdistan" reviewed the movie “Jiyan’s Story: Women’s Revolution” by A. Halûk Ünal. 

The murder of three YPJ fighters in Syria has pushed a film that was already released already in 2017 into the spotlight: “Jiyan’s Story: Women’s Revolution”. The eponymous Jiyan is Jiyan Tolhildan (Salwa Yusuf) who was slaughtered by a Turkish drone in the vicinity of Qamişlo (North-East Syria) on 22 July 2022, on her way back from a women’s conference celebrating 10 years of the women’s revolution. Together with her Roj Xabûr and Barîn Botan were killed.

The murder of three women, one of them very prominent, reminds of the murder of Sakine Cansız (Sara), Fidan Doğan (Rojbîn) and Leyla Şaylemez (Ronahî) in Paris almost a decade ago, in 2013, by the Turkish secret service MİT. In the wake of that massacre, several documentaries featuring the murder victims have been shot, like “Hêvî” (2014), “Sara – My Whole Life Was a Struggle” (2015) and “Autopsy of a Triple Murder: Sakine, Fidan, Leyla, Kurdish Militants” (2020).

In this case, the film was made before the crime: “Jiyan’s Story: Women’s Revolution” was already published in 2017. It tells the life story of Jiyan Tolhildan from her childhood in a village close to Efrîn until the women’s revolution that has been taking place in Rojava/North-East Syria from 2012 on. Unlike many other films about the revolution and the struggle against ISIS, this one does focus on neither the military struggle nor on the political struggle alone. It tells the whole story of where the different struggles are rooted, how they are integrated and why women are the vanguard of the revolution.

By focusing on one protagonist, director A. Halûk Ünal is able to highlight many different aspects of a life of resistance: Jiyan grows up in Efrîn close to the border fence that separates Kurdistan and tears her family  apart. In school, she is subjected to the racism of the Syrian Arab education system. She rebels against the separation of boys and girls in the village and refuses to be married out against her own will. Running away from her family and joining the freedom movement, she widens her horizon and gets to know the other ethnic and religious groups of her region. Knowing first hand how Christian and Muslim women, educated and uneducated women share the experience of patriarchal oppression, Jiyan realizes how central women’s oppression is for all power structures in the Middle East. In the mountains she learns the strength of women who have been forming autonomous guerrilla units since the mid-1990s.

When the Arab Spring starts in 2011, she returns to the cities to help organize the peaceful uprising against the Syrian state while at the same time secretly organizing the women in a way that the men wouldn’t notice: “They were deceiving us for 5000 years. Our deceiving didn’t even last a year”.  

As she states, without weapons you can’t get far if the enemy is determined to use force. So the YPG/YPJ is built up, pushes the Syrian state forces out without firing a shot and later plays a decisive part in defeating ISIS first in Kobanê and later everywhere.

The film shows all of this, but the real focus is the political struggle to change the structures of society and the minds of women—and men. The Kurdish women’s movement takes the next step towards abolishing patriarchy by providing anti-patriarchal education for men. In the movie we see some young men boasting about how much they have changed, while others are shyly lowering their eyes.

“Jiyan’s Story” shows better than other movies the contradictions in the society. We hear heartbreaking stories of women who were married when they were 12. Then we see the same women empowering themselves and each other in an all-female environment in the YPJ.

The movie finds great pictures for every aspect of the story. According to the filmmakers, 110 hours of footage were filmed and 40 hours of archive material used. “Jiyan’s Story” is more complex and looks better than all comparable films about the Rojava revolution I know of. Also, it explains better than any other the background of the women’s movement in Rojava that is admired throughout the world today.

The final minutes of the movie deal with death. Death is omnipresent in the life of Jiyan Tolhildan, and she explains how it is not sad because it helps to build a new life. As the director puts it in a tweet: “Those women have death on one shoulder and joy on the other. Just learning this will change your philosophy of life.” Death has now found Jiyan in the form of a Turkish drone strike, one of many against prominent figures of the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria. The illegal murderous attacks by Turkey far beyond their borders have become almost a daily routine by now, apparently approved or at least tolerated by all fellow NATO countries.

But “Jiyan’s Story” sends a positive message. The revolution has deep foundations and won’t be uprooted easily. The enthusiasm of the women shown in all their struggles is pervasive and contagious. The joy in their faces bears witness to a strength that will overcome all nefarious attempts to silence and kill them.

“Jiyan’s Story” is a monument for Jiyan Tolhildan, an iconic fighter for women’s freedom and against all forms of oppression. It is an absolute must-watch for everybody interested in the women’s revolution. We are very fortunate to have this film, even though the occasion to (re-)watch it now is very unfortunate and enraging.

The 80-minutes documentary was shortened into a 51-minutes TV format and shown on several TV channels including ORF (Austria), ZDF (Germany), RTF (Portugal) and the Turkish language Kurdish channel Medya Haber. On the British YouTube channel Real Stories, the shorter English version has proven very popular with more than 800,000 views so far.

However, I warmly recommend watching the longer version that is now available on Vimeo. 

The short TV version is available under several names, including “Jiyan: Story of a Female Guerilla Fighter”, “Inside the Women’s Army” and “Syrien - Die Frauen-Armee der Kurden”.

You can watch Jiyan Tolhildan’s last speech, delivered merely a few hours before she was murdered, with English subtitles on Women Defend Rojava’s channel.

Ünal’s previous films, “Little Black Fishes” (2014) about the Children of War in the ‘Southeast’ and “Hidden Lives” (2011) about the Çorum massacre in 1980 and its consequences for Alevis are also available with English subtitles on Drama İstanbul’s Vimeo channel.