In director Antonia Kilian’s documentary, The Other Side of the River (2021), we are taken to Rojava in northern Syria where we meet Hala, a young woman who has fled her conservative Arab family. She is enrolled at a military academy that trains women to become soldiers in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which is part of the Syrian Democratic forces controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Hala comes to represent the complexity of the region, the politics, family life, religion, feminism, and the possibilities of challenging existing power.
With a delicate touch, beautiful cinematography, and a dynamic protagonist, Kilian unveils the intricacies and layers of the situation without ever judging. Her camera and narrative eventually take us across the Euphrates River to Hala’s hometown of Manbij where she is employed as a policewoman and tries to put the feminist theory and military training she has learned into practice.
Kilian’s feature debut is hitting the film festival trail and will hopefully be shown soon in North America. Speaking with PopMatters at the Biograph Film Festival in Bologna, Italy, Kilian discusses her interests in understanding how ideological training is applied to life experiences and in being true to the local people and their way of seeing and living the situation.
When you first decided to go to Syria did you already have an idea for a film and did you go there with the intention of making a documentary?
Yes. I went with the intention to make a film about the women’s revolution and I had some ideas about how and where I wanted to start the film. The idea that I already had while still in Germany was to start at an academy where I would follow one woman or possibly more and how they get trained physically and ideologically.
Actually, how the film ended up was how I imagined it. It was really important for me to understand the ideological background, the basis of the women’s movement, and then see when they leave the academy how this looks in reality. In a way, this was similar to my experience in learning a lot of theory but having no idea what it meant and how to put it into practice.
At what point did you meet Hala?
I went to Rojava and I started to do research. When I went there, the women’s movement welcomed me. They introduced me to the political structures and I did research about all different areas where women gained their autonomy and territory, and [I learned] about the politics. After about a month, I came to this police women academy. I immediately met Hala and it was the first time that I had the feeling, “I can do something.” There was some sort of connection and I felt I had something I could work with. She wanted to tell her story and she was good in front of the camera.
She is definitely dynamic and also able to show many aspects of herself, from her toughness to her direct way of being and also her tenderness, especially with her sisters.
She has many different sides. For example, you cannot really correct her easily, she is really rebellious which can make her very difficult to work with for a director or a women’s movement. This is because she is not very predictable. She might change her mind easily and do something that is very emotional. I really love all these parts of her character, especially the fact that she has a serious problem dealing with all kinds of authority, which I found very interesting in this context.
What was it about Hala’s story that interested you?
Apart from falling in love with her character and her personality, there is the fact that she is Arab and joined the Kurdish movement. She’s from Manbij, which I found extremely important and interesting because it was not a city where the women’s movement had a stronghold. Manbij had just been taken over and it is a super interesting setting because it was one of the first cities that rose up against Assad at the beginning of the revolution and then different powers took it over.
I also wanted to discover these other parts of the Syrian revolution and war. I felt very attracted to the city and I really wanted to see complex situations through Hala’s family story in that city as well.
What effect did the fact that you are a European woman have on your going there and filming? Were there any problems with you being able to enter their world?
Firstly, it was the Kurdish Women’s Movement who let me in. Without their letting me in, it would not have been possible to make this film. To begin with they needed to approve me. I was part of a solidarity movement, so they approved me and then told me I could work there.
At that point they opened all the doors, which I found quite remarkable because they are very strict about their, let’s say, propaganda and how they are being portrayed to the outside world. So it’s a bit tricky. They trusted me and I was backed by the women’s movement. Of course, it was complicated and I didn’t know the language. I just went there full of curiosity but without knowing much about the situation so it was really challenging.
I was incredibly lucky to meet three amazing people who supported me in this project. One Iranian journalist, Arash Asadi, who also went there as an activist, became the film’s editor and co-author. I also met Sevinaz Evdike, a Kurdish student filmmaker who was running a film school/film collective. They both supported me enormously in the project. They didn’t go filming with me but when I returned from shooting, they watched the material with me, translated it together with me, and we discussed the whole situation.
When I returned to Germany after one year in Syria, I met Syrian Kurdish Guevara Namer, who became my creative producer and co-author. Together we did a second shooting trip for one month to Syria. I am very proud to work with this team who are also my dear friends. The film was just the starting point for a deep friendship.
I think this was really important so that I could make a film that goes beyond a European-oriented perspective and I could really reach a deeper level regarding the reality over there. I often hear from people born in Syria and the Middle East who, when they watch the film, say they felt like it really doesn’t stay on the surface or it doesn’t portray certain clichés. It seems to them to be quite authentic.
In reading about Kurdish women fighters in various Western newspapers, they often seem to objectify the women and to reduce their stories into how “tough” (and often beautiful) these women are. In your film, we finally have a different perspective, as we are given background information along with the motivation behind why women choose to study, train, and fight. It seems there are so many more levels that need to be explored.
Yes, and I think it can be something very empowering to take up arms and fight for your liberation. Yet there are very tragic downsides to this along with controversial aspects about the whole movement in relation to other areas in the country, especially with respect to the other side of the Syrian revolution. I found it very interesting to give space to something like this without making a political analysis. Instead, I wanted to show a situation that is a bit vague so that people from different backgrounds can maybe connect to the life experience that they have had over there.
How aware are these women who enter into the academy regarding the political and feminist training they will receive? Do they embrace that part of their training?
I think that there are very different aspects. I believe they are aware of what they will learn because it’s kind of known that the Kurdish fighters are like this. I don’t know if they understand what the reality means, because you may know something in theory but when you live it, it’s something else.
Specifically, when it comes to these questions of how you should live your life such as when they train them to not get married, to not fall in love, to focus on the revolutionary path, which might be a quite authoritarian one. About these things, I’m not sure how much they were aware of beforehand. When you are a policewoman you get a salary, so this is quite important. It is a factor for women choosing to do to the training. Basically, it’s a job opportunity, which I find very important to mention.
I imagine that many women enter the academy with a personal mission, as in Hala’s case. She had a very specific goal in mind. She wanted to graduate, work, get her own apartment, and eventually bring some of her sisters to live with her. During one of the lectures, the instructor talks about “genuine freedom is when all women are free.” Do you think that message gets through to the women at the academy?
I can only guess, but I felt that Hala had a very strong sense of women’s emancipation, a really strong inner sense. For example, she really didn’t want to get married, which I find quite remarkable, in that not only do you not want to get married, but you really do anything you can to avoid it and to fight it.
Also, she understood that she was not like the other women, not like her sisters or the others around her. Even if this is a personal choice, it is a very revolutionary and strong decision. I found that she really could connect with this ideology and that she was really excited about it.
She also had this not very politically aware side to her where she just wanted to be herself and then she could turn into this very politically aware woman who could teach and repeat the ideology she had learned. I think she really took it seriously, she really believed in it and tried to apply it in her work as a policewoman and also luckily for her sisters, who she truly wanted to help. But even the small steps are important. There is a need for extraordinary figures who might also be an example.
I guess now they are starting to create some role models that these women can look up to. In starting as a grassroots group from the ground up, they didn’t really have that before.
Exactly. It definitely has an effect on the whole society. For instance, when you know as a woman that if something is happening to you, there is a place where you can get your rights, or be protected. But again, I am also questioning in the film if it really is like this or where are the limitations of the promise of women’s liberation.
Can you discuss this concept of honor which came up a lot in the film? Hala mentioned it in terms of herself and her father said something about it regarding the family. Also one of the instructors who was talking about suppressing sexual desires said, “Honor is the honor of your community. Try to preserve that by forgetting your desires and lusts.”
I think it’s a very old patriarchal concept carried on by the family, by the males of the family, and then through our virginity, through our being “clean” and being good girls, we preserve the honor of our families. I think it’s the same everywhere in the world that you should behave as a good girl and then get married to the right husband and be the good wife and not bring shame to your family, to your father, to your husband.
I think it can have the meaning of a value system that controls the individual within the society, more precisely, to control women and force violence on them by a patriarchal power system. I don’t believe that the concept of honor is family-based or something belonging to a clan or a society or to poor countries. Maybe in these places, its power aspect is executed more openly. But I think it’s one of the core systems of how men place their power over women all over the world.
I want to underline how beautifully filmed this documentary is. There are some scenes where the light and composition are exceptional. I really appreciated the small details and the way that the story was able to emerge on its own without being necessarily told to us. How did you arrive at this way of telling your story, artistically and narratively?
I did the cinematography myself and so many times I was there observing details, basically, and trying to understand through my camera what was going on there on a very emotional and visual level. As something that unfolds itself, we started in the core of both Hala’s story but also the revolution’s story. Slowly it tried to unfold from there to its bigger dimension until we reached the other side of the river, until we reached the family, until we reached even the ISIS territory and go completely on the other side of a war zone and ideological territory.
It was a process that I was kind of living when I was there, to really start to discover more and more. In the same way, we tried to do so in the editing. Along with the editor Arash, we used a very dialectical approach, without pushing or being too much in your face, but trying to unfold the complexity of the situation.
That definitely came across. The power of the story reveals itself because it isn’t forced on the viewer. You weren’t imposing any kind of judgment. Instead ,you were observant but also very intimate. In this way, you also were able to get very close-up, personal points of view.
The process of searching, of trying to understand something without judging is an approach that I had in mind while filming and we tried to show in the style of editing. We purposely tried not to say it’s like this and this is good and this is bad. Instead, we tried to question things with each image.
By working so closely in the editing process, was it difficult to choose the material to keep and what to let go of?
It was not so much about that I couldn’t let go of certain images because there had been a lot of material. It was more for us to find the right balance so it would come across slowly as a story that is contradictory, that each image could be contradictory. It is important that you don’t fall on one side or step into the trap of propagandistic narration. Instead, the goal is to really show a complex reality.
Who would you like to see this film? Are you aiming towards a certain audience?
Basically, I think that it should be shown all over the world, but I’m super interested in the discussions among the people who have a relationship to Northern Syria and to the political life. This means basically Syrian people , including those living in Europe, but also people who go there and who know what we are talking about in the film.
Then, of course, I’m very interested in showing it to feminists all over the world, as well to anyone who is interested in challenging existing power and emancipation struggles.