One of the documentaries competing in the Documentary Feature section of this year’s SXSW Film Festival is Alba Sotorra‘s masterful The Return: Life After ISIS, that focuses on the former ISIS brides that were rejected by their home countries due to their previous support of the terrorist group and are left in a camp with their children, learning how to become members of the western society and atoning for the previous mistakes. You can read our full review here and we got to talk with Alba so that she could explain the many challenges of filming this raw, thought provoking documentary that certainly raises awareness of the conditions these women are facing in order to search for a better, more bright future for themselves.
CineAddiction: Hi Alba! What were the biggest challenges of filming the documentary?
AS: There were emotional challenges because our crew was mixed and we had problems of trust from both sides. Me trusting the women in the camp and the women from the camp trusting us, so in the beginning there were tensions and also a lot of pain involved between the shooting crew. Within the group, we were sleeping together in a house near the camp and it was difficult, but that was only in the beginning of the shooting, and after all went very smoothly. And of course we had challenges from working during a war. In the first day of shooting, the camera was not working and we didn’t had an extra camera, so we had to delay the shooting and wait for a camera to come from Europe and the most extreme handicap we had was during the shooting period, in October, when Turkey was threatening that they would launch a military operation, so all the Kurdish troops concentrated on the border and told us we were not safe because ISIS could attack us at any moment and that was very scary and then we went shooting on another area but it wasn’t in the border, because Sevinaz, one of our protagonists, wanted to shoot a scene with her father, was when the Turkish troops attacked! At the end, literally, we had to run and our Turkish colleagues, from the crew, put their army uniforms and they had to stay. It was really heavy for us! It wasn’t dangerous for us because we left, but for them, because they were our friends, it was frightening! There were a lot of emotions involved during the process!
CineAddiction: What are your hopes in showing this film to the world?
AS: I really hope that the film can help to change the narrative on the topic. On what is the responsibility of the governments to help the women and children in the camp. I think now we are living in a narrative that is based on hate and fear. When I was in Syria, not only for this film, but also for a previous one, about a Kurdish woman commander fighting ISIS, I saw the war through weapons and through bombs and you cannot fight violence with violence. The experience of the film is a powerful attempt to prove how women together can find another way of solving problems and not through conflict solutions. I really hope it opens people’s minds, because I think it helps people to look at the topic from a different perspective, because it’s what the film’s about. It shows you a thing we have seen in the media, but through a different point of view.
CineAddiction: What was the story that touched you the most?
AS: I’ll have to say Shamima’s. What she has been through I think it’s too much for such a young girl. She has been living and seeing things that nobody should be dealing with in their whole lifetime.
CineAddiction: Do you think the countries where they’re from will eventually accept them all?
AS: I hope they will, although it is difficult, especially for Hoda Muthana, from the USA. Her case is the most complicated one and I don’t know what to expect… I really hope they can go back, otherwise they are left with no other home, they’re stateless… It’s not right to leave somebody staying in a camp. I really hope they can go back, not only Hoda, but also her kid. He only knows the camp and he doesn’t deserve staying there.
CineAddiction: How do you think the children are coping with the situation. Do you think they are showing signs of trauma and were they visible while you were filming the documentary?
AS: Kids in a camp like that are hanging out with other kids, they play, they are with their mothers, and they seem happy. The children from our bootcamp were from different ages and have grown up seeing and felt the war. There were warplanes flying and kids would feel very tense and were crying and this would be in their hearts and if we also feel tense when they pass by, I can only imagine what they feel. It’s difficult… for the very small ones, they are with their mothers all day, they don’t feel that way, but they feel the cold of the winter and the hot of the summer, but as you grow old and you don’t have access to a good education, it’s going to be harder for you.
CineAddiction: How do you envision an ISIS free Syria? Do you think it will be hard for the country to pick up the pieces and start a new life?
AS: The situation of Syria is complicated. After a civil war, the wounds of reconciliation are very difficult to overcome, but I think examples like Sevinaz, and how the Kurdish are dealing with people that were with ISIS, both women, children and the men, it’s how you can work towards a peaceful solution. It’s going to be long though… It is still an ongoing war.
CineAddiction: Do you recall another situation when you felt in danger?
AS: With the experience of my previous film, I was very used to the context of staying in the front lines, but we were an all female team and we were staying at a house near the camp and we would fall asleep and leave everything open, and at the same time we were told that there were ISIS sleeping cells in the region and we should be very careful and I don’t know if we were safe or not. I mean, we felt safe all the time… but I don’t know. The very tough moment was when this attack from the Turkish army toward the Kurdish and because we worked with the Kurdish, of course if it was meant for the Kurdish, it was meant for us. But in other moments, we understand that the threat is there, but fortunately we never felt it.
CineAddiction: What do you think about extremist groups or terrorist groups manipulating people through social media?
AS: I think it’s really an issue and I think we really need to, again, change our perspective on how to deal with this. In order to understand how this works, and to understand we need to listen and have an open dialogue with women who have been recruited to learn from their experience. One of our protagonists says in the film: “as long as there is injustice is the trigger that these groups use.” This feeling of injustice is instrumentalized to make people do anything. If you feel your community is treating you unjustly you are ready to do anything, because the feeling of injustice is really heavy, especially when you are young, because when you are young you think you can change the world and that you have to take part in trying to fight these injustices. If we have an unjust world, these kinds of groups will have more possibilities to brainwash people.
CineAddiction: Do you think the girls will have an happy ending?
AS: I hope they do! It’s so hard the situation they are now that nothing can be worse. They have been through hell and for them this has been a learning experience. They learned a lot through their problems and traumas and now they all are a new person and I think they deserve a second chance.
CineAddiction: How did the camp workers helped you during the filming?
AS: They were amazing and we had a very exceptional access. The camps are locked and nobody is allowed to go in at all and the journalists that enter are only allowed to stay there for one/two hours. You go, you do the interview, and leave, and you are always supervised, but because of the connection we had with the Kurdish army we got the access we needed. My friend called and they gave us access, and they were amazing and very helpful because it’s important for them that the world knows about these women’s situation. They are taking caring of them when that was the responsibility of the governments and the western governments are not doing it. They would like the western governments to take the responsibility so that’s why they were open to journalists coming and interview the women, but then they realized that instead of helping, all these interviews created such a negative image of the women that now nobody wants them back, and everybody thought: “well, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let them in!”, so the chances of allowing another type of work done inside were very slim. Of course we had restrictions with security, we couldn’t just go alone anywhere we wanted, because some woman in the camp may not like your presence there, but they were very helpful.
CineAddiction: Do you have other projects in store for us?
AS: Yeah, I’m finishing a film that I’m shooting in Barcelona about a woman, who is a dear friend to me, one of my best friends and when I was doing these films in Syria I was always thinking that I need to make a film in Barcelona with my friends! It’s a funny film about women’s emancipation and what it is to be a woman in their 60s with yourself and your body and your art. So yeah, I’m really excited!
CineAddiction: Thank you so much for this interview Alba, the best of luck, I’ll be rooting for your film! Keep going and showing these stories!
AS: Thank you so much!