Antonia Kilian • Director of The Other Side of the River
“There is this hope for changing something for the better as a woman, for other women”
by Marta Bałaga
- In this documentary by the German filmmaker, the real fight for women continues away from the frontlines
Unlike so many women her age, Hala wasn’t going to marry a stranger. Instead, she joined the Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit, with dreams of fighting ISIS but also of liberating women. Starting with her own sisters. We talked to Antonia Kilian, director of The Other Side of the River [+see also:
interview: Antonia Kilian
film profile], playing at CPH: DOX.
Cineuropa: In the case of these female fighters, there is so much rejection or shame surrounding what they do. I would assume it took some time for them to agree to have a camera following them around?
Antonia Kilian: It took a while, yes. It’s generally complicated in a warzone, trying to capture moments that go beyond propaganda images. Earning this trust is part of any documentary filmmaking process, but in this case, it was even more sensitive. It was crucial to spend a lot of time there – that’s why I stayed for over a year. I was really enthusiastic and even though they were wary at first, after a while they went: “Ok, here comes this crazy German woman who just won’t go back home!” We couldn’t directly communicate, but they opened their doors for me. They knew I supported their ideas and wanted to make a film about their revolution.
This “police academy”, where Hala begins her journey, feels like a joyful place. Were you worried about what it would be like once they are all out?
I felt a lot of joy there, but I also felt a lot of pain. I saw it in their bodies and eyes, heard it in their stories. But there is also this hope for changing something for the better as a woman, for other women.
You are right, though – once they are out, the situation is different. Especially in that city. Their ideas haven’t been established there; it was a new ground. I wanted to be there for that moment, see how much people really want it, how much women want it. I was interested in women's rights, but then I realised how complex this whole political situation was.
You mention that pain and I wanted to ask about it too, as they share many personal stories here, warning each other about marriage or relationships with men.
They are close to female guerrillas in the mountains, who have a very radical, feminist approach. Most countries view them as terrorist organisations and they have a very radical, feminist approach: they want a revolution and the idea of women’s freedom should be at the very centre of it all. The difference is, in Rojava [in Syria], they try to apply these ideas to a much bigger society. The idea of marriage, for example, as the ultimate patriarchal institution existing only to control a woman, is something they have been questioning for many years.
You can sense Hala’s disappointment when her sister decides to get married.
Of course, you can ask yourself if it really makes sense to tell all women not to marry. But I understand Hala, to be honest. Many women in this part of Syria either stay with their family or get married. If you are on your own, like she is, it’s a difficult life that is also extremely brave. And it shows others it’s possible to choose something else.
In the military, they have this tradition to criticise each other very openly. They just put everything out there, in order to learn and to develop as a human being and as a revolutionary. I was quite impressed by their methods and by their commander, who always kept her calm when dealing with them [laugher]. They run away from their families, spend a month in the academy and all of a sudden find themselves in these responsible positions. These are harsh conditions for trying to establish a new system.
I noticed you don’t really show women interacting with men much in the film. Why is that?
I was really submerged in the women’s world there and it’s a gender-divided world. They are not always working together with male officers. That being said, I like this short moment when a man asks me not to film him. Sometimes, when you watch films from the Middle East, it’s the man not allowing someone to film a woman. Here, it’s the other way around!
Every once in a while, Hala is seen braiding somebody’s hair, like she used to do with her sisters. There is a gentler side to her but she can’t afford to show it very often.
She has this almost patriarchal image of herself: she needs to be a strong woman with a gun, controlling the city. These women, they talk about sacrificing themselves openly – it has happened many times, especially to the fighters on the frontlines. When fighting against ISIS, it’s clear they will keep on going until the end. They don’t fear death. But then I also saw the part of her that’s so intelligent, that allows her to analyse her own position very well and that is clear about what she doesn’t want in her life. She is so protective of her sisters, so caring. I wanted to see that too.
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