Spanish director Alba Sotorra Clua’s film about women who traveled to Syria to join ISIS and now find themselves stateless is, among other things, a masterclass on detention.
The Return: Life After Isis features deeply personal testimonies from so-called “Isis wives,” many of whom have become the subject of tabloid notoriety, including British Shamima Begum, American Hoda Muthana and Canadian Kimberly Polman. Sotorra Clua spent two years filming with them in the Kurdish refugee camp of Al Roj.
One of the many bitter ironies at work here is that the Kurds, relentlessly targeted by Isis in Syria, are now among the only people to take responsibility for these women. The countries where they were born are, we learn, in some cases ready to welcome their children again, but never their mothers. Another irony, then, is the film’s title: for now, at least, there is no turning back for them, as their home nations have disowned responsibility.
The testimonies of Begum, who was 15 when she left London for Syria with two schoolmates (both have since died), and Muthana have the most space here, but we also hear from women from the Countries -Lower and from Germany. There are parallels in many of their stories – many were young, lonely, disconnected from their families, newly zealous or born again into their religion, easy targets for radicalization online – but striking differences too.
A woman was eight months pregnant when she followed her husband after his defection. Another believed her family would be safer in an Islamic state, amid rising Islamophobia at home. Canadian Polman, older than the rest of the women, was an empty nester who fell in love with a jihadist “alive” online. All, however, found the reality of life in Isis-controlled Syria to be very different from the propaganda videos. “It was hell on earth, really,” Muthana said. Marriage was the only way to leave the locked “women’s house” where they had been sent upon arrival; when they had children there was never enough food and clean water to feed them (many have died of malnutrition; a mother talks about feeding her son grass).
We learn that during Isis’s last days in the Syrian city of Baghuz, hungry children learned that they could eat chicken in Heaven. When they arrived at the refugee camp, they thought they had reached heaven. Another of the film’s most compelling scenes also focuses on the children at the camp, swinging through metal pipes and playing in the rubble. A little boy tries to gain the attention of his peers as he begins to parrot jihadist propaganda. “Jihad is an important thing,” he shouts in a small voice. “No one can harm you… if you are a jihadist, you will go straight to heaven. “
Sotorra Clua has compassion for her subjects, but she is also careful, even scrupulous, in the contextualization of their words, and does not shy away from their contradictions. A montage of news footage of various Isis atrocities, including the London Bridge attacks and the Manchester Arena bombing, is a reminder of exactly what they pledged their allegiance to. It is possible to feel sympathy for the horrors experienced by these women and to be dismayed at the violence they tacitly tolerated by joining the regime.
This moral mess makes the film a grueling and constantly disturbing watch. He doesn’t offer easy answers because there aren’t any – he does, however, give us a silver lining in the form of Kurdish activist Sevinaz Evdik and others like her. Evdik’s close friend was murdered by Isis’ forces, and yet she now dedicates her time to working in the camp, guiding the women through workshops, encouraging them to confront their pasts and helping them to come into the world. contact with their home. “It is our duty to help the dead … without feeling revenge,” his father says, when discussing his work in a moving scene. Their striking humanity is an example to all of us.
The Return: Life After Isis is on Sky Documentaries and now, June 15 at 9 p.m.