As a feminist filmmaker, Antonia Kilian was inspired to travel to northern Syria after forces of the Kurdish autonomous region known as Rojava liberated the city of Minbij from ISIS militants.
It was in Minbij that Kilian met Hala, a young Arab woman who had fled her conservative family and the prospects of a forced marriage and found safety and emancipation at a Rojavan military academy, where she trained to become a soldier in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) — part of the Syrian Democratic Forces controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Hala is the subject of Kilian’s film “The Other Side of the River,” which is screening at Danish doc fest CPH:DOX and also unspools at next month’s DOK.fest München.
Speaking to Variety, Kilian says she was familiar with the ideological background of the Rojava autonomous region, but was interested to see how it actually operated in practice. “It was really important for me to see how this theoretical concept of grassroots democracy and feminist revolution would look like in reality.”
Rojava’s young female guerrillas have made headlines around the globe for their part in the fight against ISIS, so much so that even Hillary Clinton is developing a TV series about them via her HiddenLight production company, a project based on Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice.”
Kilian says it was important for her “to try to understand the situation there through the eyes of a woman who is joining them and through the people living there, to see the options they have and what it means for them.”
While Hala became the focus of the film, Kilian also explores aspects of Rojavan culture and life in Minbij, which in 2016 became the first major city liberated by PYD forces outside of its core Kurdish region.
Kilian depicts the culture clash that takes place in Minbij between the liberated Kurdish women and the more traditional Arab women of the city. “It’s an Arab city and my film is about an Arab girl joining a Kurdish army, so it’s also about this.”
Like Hala, other young women from the area eagerly joined the Rojavan forces. Women had been in a precarious situation in the city under three years of ISIS rule and now some felt empowered and welcomed the idea of having a gun in their hands to protect themselves.
Kilian points out that using women’s weaknesses to recruit more fighters for an army can be seen critically, but adds that it’s a complex situation.
Indeed, Kilian notes that the whole concept of a self-organized Kurdish region is based on the political ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish nationalist and founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.
The PYD claims it wants to create a democratic confederacy inside the state of Syria that would recognize all ethnicities and religions, Kilian says. It was important for her to see how an Arab city would react to Kurdish forces coming in and taking control. Nevertheless, the more territory the PYD and its Syrian Democratic Forces took over from ISIS, the more Arab women and men joined their ranks, she adds.
The PKK itself emerged from the revolutionary left in Turkey in the 1970s and female fighters have been part of the guerilla movement since the early 1990s, she adds. “The Kurdish people in Rojava are familiar with this concept of radical feminism in a military framework.”
Whether Clinton’s TV series delves into that history remains to be seen.
In making the film, Kilian traveled twice to northern Syria. She lived for a year with a family in the city of Serekaniye, located on the border with Turkey. The house she stayed in and where the family had lived their whole lives was burned to the ground by the Turkish military after the U.S. withdrew its troops from the region, she says.
“I am wondering if Hillary Clinton wants to include this part in her [project] about female Kurdish fighters.”
Kilian has also criticized the decision by the Danish government to revoke the residency permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees, who will likely be repatriated to the war-torn nation. “Syria is dangerous for everyone, not only for international filmmakers going there.”
Kilian is currently working on two other observational documentaries about women and the immigrant experience. Via her Kassel-based production company Pink Shadow Films, she is producing and serving as DOP on Bahar Bektas’ “What Happened,” about a Kurdish woman in Germany dealing with the question of exile and racism.
She is also shooting “Familiar Places,” a documentary by director Mala Reinhardt and an all-female crew about a young German-Ghanaian woman and her life and family between Germany and Ghana. After lensing in Germany, the production will head to Accra this summer for further shooting.