These lands are not unclaimed, a review of recent films and series on Rojava

Director and producer Diyar Hesso reviews recent films and series about Rojava and the Kurds

No Man’s Land. Or ‘Land without People and Owners’ as the creators of this series have written in small shy letters in Kurdish under the English title. The first time I heard of it was when a friend mentioned it and asked me if I had seen the series, “the French have made another work about the Kurds…,” he said.

I tried not to be prejudiced, but the name of the series was not helping to be honest. Why without people and owners? Then who are WE then? The war being waged on this land, is it not against the owners of that same land in the first place? The land where the revolution took place, did not the people of that land rise up with that revolution?

The famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek last year wrote an article after Turkey's invasion of western Kurdistan, northeast Syria. The article criticized the attack, the American betrayal, the attitude of Europe, and some leftists. He said that the Kurds are ‘exemplary victims’ because everyone attacks them. The Turkish state, the Syrian regime, ISIS, Russia, and the United States, militants affiliated with Iran, Israel, intelligence organizations, and many others are all against the Kurds and the Kurdish freedom movement in Rojava, for some reason(s).

At a time when even the press and media are working against it, I argue that there are ‘artists’ and especially filmmakers who are also against it now. Because in the last three years, three or four films and now a series have been made about Kurdish fighters and revolutionaries, and all of those works are against them. How are they against them? In many ways, I would say. A common point among all is that always the most ignorant, the most ruthless and conscienceless, are Kurds. If it was up to the Kurdish fighters, they would kill civilians, torture them, and cause the death of their comrades, and so on. These movies all say that!

Internationalists are always better, more knowledgeable, more sincere, and more revolutionary. Now, I’m struggling to understand this: in someplace in the world some people are holding a revolution. This revolution has an impact on other parts of the world. Some people - because they have been affected by the revolution – come to join the revolution, but somehow they seem to have understood the revolution better than those who carried out the revolution! We are also forgetting that Rojava did not fall from the sky, and just out of the blue. It did not build itself, but the people of Rojava and the leaders and revolutionaries of the Kurdish Freedom Movement did. The revolutionaries carried out this revolution.

In this sense, those films are just getting worse and worse. 'Girls of the Sun or 'Les Filles Du Soleil' was bad, then “Sisters in Arms” or 'Soeurs D'armes' was even worse, and one that was screened just the other day at the opening of the Kurdish Film Festival in Berlin, 'Sisters Apart' was just the worst; in terms of profanity and disrespect against the Kurds, and especially against the female guerrillas and revolutionaries. There is another film that is not finished yet, which is being made by a Catalan woman director, and I believe it will be the worst of them all.

Another thing they have in common is that their stories focus heavily on women fighters. Their directors are also women. With the Women's Freedom Movement in Kurdistan, a new reputation has been created for Kurdish women. It spread even more around the world through the revolution of Rojava and the YPJ. Women are the vanguards of the struggle and revolution in Kurdistan and Rojava. This is neither just a word, nor a slogan, nor an analysis. This is a basic fact now. I would argue that if women had not led the revolution, the revolution wouldn’t have succeeded in Rojava, and it wouldn’t have had so much influence in the world.

One might think that this way some international anti-revolution “forces” use their media outlets and their propaganda tools, and political consciousness against the revolution, and want to target, dim, and at least misrepresent the women's freedom movement. Maybe this is not what the filmmakers had intended, but this is the least that can be said; misrepresenting! The marketing and fashioning of fighters' uniforms, the previously circulated pictures of 'female Peshmerga” who tore living animals with their mouths, the promotion of certain types of Kurdish female “artists and intellectuals”, and of course these films and series are all, one way or another, part of the same effort. Most of this, I believe, is being done deliberately.

On the other hand, I do not believe that liberal men or middle-class ‘feminists’ can interpret the women's liberation struggle and the Women's Freedom Movement in Kurdistan artistically. The liberal-modern storytelling is very shallow compared to the depths of the subject. They simply fail and cannot tell the story of a leading woman who exists by herself and for herself, who is liberating herself and other women and a country and has her own beliefs and ideology. In those films, it’s always about how she wants to save her son, or to save her brother from ISIS, or to hug her sister who is in the German army and almost goes with her to Germany, and for other reasons, but all related to the idea that she is fighting for her family! This way of portraying women; that they care more about their families than they do about the country's revolution is the product of male imagination. All of these scenes in these films and series, portraying the relationships of female fighters, their brutal killing of ISIS members, the way they torture ISIS members or beat 'ISIS prisoners' in the series; all created and fantasized in the minds of men.

That been said, we can go back to the ‘No Man’s Land’ series in particular. It is a co-production between Israel and France, the German-French ‘Arte’ television, and the American digital media network ‘Hulu’. They had the shootings, as in the films we mentioned previously, outside of Kurdistan, in Morocco, in a semi-mountainous area. There are a lot of geographical flaws in the series, but it's not a problem. ‘It’s not a documentary’ says one of the screenwriters, Maria Feldman. She says that initially when she saw on the news that ISIS members were afraid of the ‘voice of Kurdish women fighters’ (the ululation) and that it scares their cowards, she wanted to do something about these female fighters. However, the story, of course, is told through the eyes of a foreigner. ‘We wanted our series to be global’. There are some Kurdish characters, but they are secondary characters and have no story of their own, apart from one YPJ commander who is initially wounded, utters a few harsh words and actions, raises her voice, then sacrifices herself; as if they say “The job is done, Kurdish woman not needed anymore, and we go back to the real heroes!” There is another Kurdish fighter, but she is also ‘French’, she has grown up in France since her childhood and has been forced to return, and it is also played by a Swiss actress with Tunisian origins, and she says a few Kurdish words, too. But she has nothing to do with neither Kurdishness nor the ideals of the Women's Freedom Movement.

Now all of this can be understood, but do Kurds not speak their language either? In world cinema, however, especially in Hollywood, the issue of representation and self-expression has been much debated. African American people could not participate in films, then they were portrayed in a bad way, then they lied about their truths, and eventually, they were given very stereotypical roles. The same was the reality of portraying women and other minorities and religions. But this changed with the struggle of the artists; they played their roles and wrote themselves. Of course, we as Kurds should tell our own stories. But this does not mean that those who make these films are innocent and ‘make them from their view’.

The portrayal of Kurds and Kurdish revolutionaries in this way is disrespectful. Could they not sit down and discuss with someone from the Freedom Movement? An important part of the screenwriting work is research. When people want to write about a topic, they research it, look, ask. There are 3 ISIS characters in the series, who are childhood friends, who come from Britain to Syria to join ISIS. Their story, the reason behind their connection to Islam, the reason for their involvement in ISIS, the hardships they face, the human aspects of this, everything is told very clearly, almost dragging the people to empathize with them, just perfect! I even believe that, perhaps, the creators and the writers have spoken to people related to ISIS, have interviewed them, and conducted research about it. Spying and intelligence agencies are also a big part of the series. Author Ron Leshem says himself in an interview that they worked with intelligence agents, met them, and researched the topic. But whoever reaches them, can not reach a member of the Kurdish Freedom Movement easily? No, because they did not want to. They didn’t bother.

The Intelligence services, which include ‘Mossad’ in this series, are portrayed. Of course, the Mossad, the CIA, MI16, and other such services are sending agents to Syria and Rojava; they do their work uninterruptedly. But in the series, they pretend that Mossad is almost as active and dominant in the region as the YPG and YPJ. As if they are fighting ISIS, and helping the Kurds, and that they do both of these things well. They even support democracy throughout the Middle East. Another main character is Anna (she is also French), an archaeologist and activist. She later became a Mossad agent. She goes to places like Iran, but when she sees that civilians are being killed because of her work with the Mossad, she tells them that “she will not work with them anymore” (Of course, criticism is levelled here at the Mossad and western countries, but in a way, the audience would say that ‘they are not doing good but have to’) then, that character, Anna, joins the YPJ. She shares everything with her commander, she doesn’t hide anything. But over time, she also becomes a ‘killing machine’ and kills wounded ISIS members too! She becomes this ‘powerful’ and ruthless. But in Rojava, she collides with members of the Mossad on the road and gets confused. Later on, a comrade gets wounded, but the YPJ commander, who says only a few words, ignores the situation (the fighters sacrifice themselves for their comrades, but they do not even try to medically treat and save them!). So Anna works with Mossad to save the other YPJ fighter. As in the other films, the Kurds seem to carry out a revolution, save their country and region, build their system, but they are always in need of the West! Either Coalition planes would come (even in the times there were not any), or Mossad agents, or an International fighter, or…

If we look at the big picture, the question that comes to mind again is “why?” Why do they do that? Why are they doing such a show? Because they are not portraying the Kurds as bad people, no, they are showing us as the good guys, but they are just missing a lot, simply not real. They want to say that we are all just the same. The fighters of Rojava are just like the Mossad members, the American soldiers, and all the rest. ‘They are good, they do good things, but they also have to do bad things.’ But it’s not like that! Everyone knows. ISIS also knows: When Baghoz was liberated, a lot of news came out. In a France24 report on women who were evacuating Baghoz, a woman said: ‘Our prince, the caliph, has ordered that we evacuate. Our men told us to surrender to the Kurds; they are not going to harm you. "If the Syrian or Iraqi forces had captured us, they would have raped and killed us." Despite all the ISIS attacks and our loss, we were the only people to treat them as human beings. Many of them were exempted and returned to their families and tribes, some are awaiting trial, some are being trained, and none of them were tortured and beaten, as this series shows. The revolutionaries of the Kurdish Freedom Movement taught everyone a great lesson in humanity, freedom, and democracy. But obviously, some westerns cannot handle this. That's why they make so many attempts to ruin the image of the Kurdish fighters.

Finally, I would add just one summarizing sentence which I believe in; ‘’any film about the Kurds, made without them, is against the Kurds’’.