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Review: The Return: Life After ISIS (2021)

The Return Review


Documentary section at this year’s SXSW Film Festival is bringing new, fresh and extraordinary life stories that will resonate for years to come. One competing in the Documentary Feature section is Alba Sotorra‘s deep and intimate look on the controversial ISIS brides who are waiting for the decision by their home countries to accept them again as members of society. Living in poor conditions in a camp in Syria, we meet Shamima Begum, from the UK, Hoda Muthana from the USA, and other women who married and were under the influence of ISIS manipulation until the terrorist group was defeated, leaving them and their children homeless and in need of shelter.

The Return: Life After ISIS deals with frightening moral perspectives that only a brilliant director would know how to expose the vulnerabilities shown by these women and how hard they have tried to justify and change their mentalities towards ISIS extremist values. Sotorra’s ability of not demonizing these scrutinized women is an extraordinary humanitarian achievement, never holding back showing that everyone is allowed a second chance after being under the influence of such a manipulative and oppressive terrorist organization. Although not every woman that is featured in the film is young, its two leading ladies, Shamima and Hoda, were only teenagers when they met their ISIS husbands, being seduced in following their own beliefs and radical doctrines.

But this is not just a question of age, as being young easily becomes a “tactical excuse” to make the audience empathetic with them. The Return: Life After ISIS does not stop until we get to know everything about how these women grew, their troubled past, what influenced them in travelling all the way to Syria and joining one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world. These women have nothing left to hide and we can see how the training they are receiving from the caretakers of the camp is shaping their mentalities and beliefs. But, most importantly, how the hardships they have endured, the suffering they have been through, the trauma that consequently came from their options, is genuinely reflected in their tears and their desperation of wanting to be reintegrated in their home countries.

The Return Review
Shamima Begum©TheReturnLife After ISIS 2020[1]

Religion doesn’t define their characters, or had an influence in the worst life decisions they made; but the men they believed in were the ultimate reason. They manipulated their way into convincing these women that by hating the modern western values they would be closer to achieving the true essence of being islamic. While this isn’t enough to convince an entire nation that redemption can be achieved, Sotorra manages to work her way to strip the religious factor away and leaving the audience focusing on the horrors every single one of these women faced throughout their journey. This is The Return: Life After ISIS‘s biggest triumph, as we now begin to see these women not as monsters, but as human beings, who are still waiting for a second chance to prove they renounced their previous ideals and are ready to show how these terrifying experiences redefined and reshaped their personalities. It will definitely be controversial, but the ultimate goal here is to see that these women are still human despite their unfortunate life decisions previous to the recent reality they are now facing, and that spreading horror and inticing terrorism is not part of their characters, but rather a consequence of a naiveté in allowing manipulative men forcing their ideals upon them. Even though their actions were reprehensible, what will become of them? They are mothers, they have children in need of healthcare, food and a home where they can grow and learn how to be regular children. They are human beings who are learning from previous mistakes and have to live all their lives with the burden they carry for what they did, but does that mean they don’t deserve a second chance?

The Return: Life After ISIS is a thought provoking documentary, a tough and ultimately raw portrayal of how humanity is still crucial for mankind to survive as a diverse and inclusive society. It’s essential cinema; an intimate approach to being on the other side of horror and the obvious hardships of clearing out your name, dragged through the mud by careless decisions made under the influence of cruel male dominance. If they didn’t do what they were told or acted the way they did, would they still be alive now? The viewer is forced to take in all of the possible scenarios these women faced, making this journey even more dense and intimate. Alba Sotorra‘s direction is crucial in bringing the audience close to the core of these women’s past, present and uncertain future, providing knowledge on some of the most vulnerable renegades of modern day society. Even if some footage could be added to enhance the relentless power of devastation ISIS caused in the world, The Return: Life After ISIS is an ode to humanity and a character study that isn’t affraid to take risks in order to show the reality of their subjects. It doesn’t try to be empathetic, it just shows that redemption can be achieved and that bad decisions are part of the way we grow.

Never trying to soften the situations, The Return: Life After ISIS is a tremendous act of bravery, while searching for the forgiving side of western society in a cinematic letter that the whole world should see.

CineAddiction will have film festival reviews written in English to respect and endorse the festival norms. The Portuguese version will arrive later and will be featured in our social media. 

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Title: The Return: Life After ISIS

Original Title: The Return: Life After ISIS

Director: Alba Sotorra

Runtime: 90 min.

Trailer | The Return: Life After ISIS