By Anna De Filippi
Posters for Zaynê Akyol’s documentary film Gulîstan, Land of Roses—depicting a PKK woman fighter’s profile against a mountain backdrop, her military green uniform entwining with the Kurdistan brush—burned spatiotemporal holes in Montréal’s winter landscape. She looked out from subway platforms, the bulletin boards of groceries and cafés, the creases of discarded newspapers. What did she see there, those months, if it was not only her own territory and comrades she looked out upon? She saw another contested territory, that of the unceded Tiotia:ke of the Kanien’kehá:ka people, devastated by settler-colonial antagonisms for 350 years. She saw those who risked their lives crossing the border into Canada after Trump’s election to apply for asylum. She saw right-wing anti-immigration organizing in the wake of the U.S. airport ban, bomb threats against Muslims at a Montréal educational institution and the Québec City mosque attacks. She watched images from Syria flitter across smartphone news feeds and subway platform monitors. She saw resistance to all this, here too, though different. Now still, she looks both determined and at peace—and as her image begins to move across the cinema screen among and for others, so does her aesthetic ethical education. It is possible, close, already here, inevitable, necessary. Akyol’s film is not an ordinary documentary. Carefully framed cinematic images, in all their affectivity, dig tunnels through political facticity. At the training camp, the camera weaves between individual monologues and collective exercises, laughter and tears, meals and washing, iPhone footage and video journals. The camera, for Akyol, is inseparable from her own person, perception, breathing rhythms. Invited to battle, the flickering lights of Daesh on the horizon represent a limit. A camera is not a gun. I spoke to Zaynê in February before she left for Raqqa.
ANNA DE FILIPPI: What led you to first make a film about women in the PKK fighting Daesh?
ZAYNÊ AKYOL: It’s a very personal story. When I emigrated from Turkey to Montréal I was four years old. I’m from a really small town in Turkey. PKK fighters used to come to the east of Turkey to visit Kurdish villagers, so at a very young age I was in contact with them. It’s actually one of my only memories from before emigration—that image. And suddenly, in Montréal, there was the freedom to speak Kurdish and live our culture that was forbidden in Turkey. A Kurdish cultural center in Montréal was created, everyone was going there, with a lot of conferences, a lot of Kurdish deputies coming to speak about what’s going on in Turkey. There were also a lot of demonstrations. Already from a young age I was surrounded with this kind of environment.
When I was around six I met Gulîstan. Gulîstan was a young woman, eighteen years old, who used to babysit when my parents were out. She was like a role model for me because she was from the same village. She spoke both Kurdish and Turkish. And one day she disappeared in my life. I learned she joined the PKK, which stuck in my mind. When I grew up, I found out she died in a fight in 2000, in a Kurdish region. While studying cinema I started to write a script about Gulîstan and why she decided to do that journey. She didn’t leave Turkey, she left Montréal, with this comfortable life and everything. But still she decided to go there.
I started the first script in 2010. Then in 2011 I went for the first time in my life to the north of Iraq, where the autonomous Kurdish region is. I met a lot of women who knew Gulîstan. I made a small screen test and then applied for grants here in Montréal. In 2014, I received all of the grants that I had applied for. When we went there to do the movie suddenly the war had started. The idea wasn’t to do a movie about Daesh at all. Because before, Daesh wasn’t there. I tried to find these women who knew Gulîstan again but some were dead, some had quit the PKK, others were in the war regions…so it was really impossible for me to do the movie.
AD: As it was originally scripted, you mean?
ZA: Yes, exactly. They were not there. But Sozdar, who I met in 2011, was in a temporary camp. I asked the PKK to see her again. It was at this point that I decided to do a movie about the life of the PKK women fighters because even if the movie is no longer about Gulîstan, it’s still saying a lot about Gulîstan. Gulîstan means “land of roses.” I kept the original title to dedicate it to her. It’s not about Gulîstan, but it also very much is.
AD: Rojen—one of the other fighters in the film—her sister is also named Gulîstan.
ZA: Yes, it’s by chance.
AD: By chance.
ZA: I didn’t expect that, but…
AD: You met Sozdar before, in 2011, on your first trip?
AD: Then you kept the contact and went back to see her.
ZA: Yeah, exactly.
AD: That makes sense why she’s such a central voice in the film.
ZA: And she has a lot of experience. She’s really academic, which made it very interesting to follow her. She has a strong ideology.
AD: At the Cinemathèque here in Montréal we see a series of your photographs of the fighters before entering the theater to watch the film. Their stillness made me think of the possibility of the moving image. But of course there’s also a limitation to cinema, especially in a war zone.
ZA: I don’t have a photography background at all, but I decided to do some photos in December 2014, after my initial shooting, when one of my friends began filming about what was going on in Kurdistan. He didn’t have any people to link him up with the PKK, so I went too. My first idea was to do a book. But I couldn’t get the grants so it remains an exhibition.
My intention was not to be a photographer at all. I was just trying something else. It’s also another approach because I’m alone with the women.
AD: That’s very different.
ZA: Before going to do the shooting—with Etienne Roussy, who is the DOP—we tried a lot of different camera set-ups. We decided together that we want the camera to be very close to their faces. Because I think that the face revealed more sometimes than words. The first part of the movie is very close to them and intimate with their daily life. We found the focus on the face really interesting because it allowed us to…because usually when the camera is far away, somehow the territory possesses them. But with a close shot, the women possess this territory, in a sense. I think the philosophy behind the choice was the idea that they possess this territory.
There are also the video journals, which we decided before going to do the shooting.
AD: That was another question I had. The film includes a video journal by Sozdar.
ZA: We did it with a lot of women. But editing, we found that Sozdar was really interesting, and she’s the main protagonist, so we just kept it that way. Otherwise it would have been very mixed with a lot of talking heads. That’s why we only kept her video journal.
And the second part of the film was really in the war zone. It was a lot of waiting, as you can see in the movie. We could see Daesh’s lights in the distance. They’re really close to them, which demanded another way of filming. The film is really in two parts.
AD: Another way of watching them possess the territory. They’re watching. We watch them watching.
ZA: Exactly. And historically the PKK have always been in the north of Iraq in the mountains. They really do possess the north of Iraq.
AD: I found the opening scene with Sozdar so beautiful. Especially now, as you’re telling me about the choice to focus on their faces. She wishes for a scar on her face so she could see it. All her others scars she can’t see with her own two eyes. But through the cinematic image we see the scar on her head that she can’t. She speaks about the memory of their revolution making marks. Your film becomes a physical mark tied to the body. A scar according to Sozdar’s philosophy.
ZA: It also confronts us with the meaning of beauty. What does beautiful mean for her and what does it typically mean in western countries, for us? For her, a scar shows that she’s doing something for her people, for the Kurdish people, and you can see right away that she’s a revolutionary. That’s why she wishes for a scar on her face. At the beginning of the film, we also didn’t want to give information about where we are. We don’t know. There’s only a woman talking and she’s explaining a revolution…she’s explaining the soul…it really confronts us with what we’re thinking. It’s also a moment where she doesn’t know where to look and I’m behind the camera saying, I’m the camera, you can tell me. The whole movie is constructed as if I’m the camera. Because it’s a very intimate movie. I’m also a protagonist. At some points I include iPhone footage, which was very personal…
AD: You were able to be alone with your iPhone, without the crew.
ZA: Yeah, I can see them alone. And it’s a direct relation because they’re calling me by my name and looking straight at the camera. That kind of image also allowed for a more powerful image, more personal.
AD: It seems like that personal dimension is also tied to your choice not to include a voiceover, with no overarching history of the PKK, you know, more details about the war…or political status of the PKK, their leader…there is an immanence rather than a photojournalistic, historical documentary. And maybe for the viewer it calls their own soul because of that personal relation.
ZA: I really want to make a link between us and them. Because here, when we hear about the war, we don’t feel much concern. It’s them, it’s their war, we’re not involved in this. But that’s completely false. We’re selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that go straight to Daesh. We have to be concerned. My way of showing people is to make the link. Their relation to me is so close that then the viewers can see themselves as me in the movie. And they’re revealing a lot of very intimate thoughts and ideology, how they feel. It’s a triangular relationship—it’s not only me and them. It’s also them and the viewers. Documentaries are more about the relation you create with people than the information you’re giving. Because people act according to the relation they have with the filmmaker. The whole idea was to make a link between all the people watching with those performing in front of the camera.
My way of doing this movie was very particular. I told them my idea and they wanted to help me to do it. But then they were really enthusiastic and came with ideas about this kind of scene, that kind of scene. I never felt like I was trying to take something from them. They were giving to me. There’s one scene in the movie where they’re all cleaning their guns together, which was completely their idea. They just made this up for us. Usually they don’t clean all together because it’s dangerous. A bullet can go…
AD: I was thinking that.
ZA: They take care of the guns and are extremely careful. They had just cleaned their guns before the scene. I came and they were all ready.
AD: They start to organize their life around the camera.
ZA: I let them say whatever they want to say. It’s very generous to be filmed almost 24-hours during the day.
AD: How long were you in the mountains?
ZA: The whole movie was shot over two months.
AD: In the scene with the guns their faces take up the screen. We see their guns mostly through their eyes and gestures, which is very different than the stock image of armed PKK women in the news. There was never just the image of the woman with a gun. And we hear that in the PKK philosophy too—that it’s not just about your gun, you can’t just think about your gun. If you don’t think about your breathing and your soul your shot is no good.
ZA: The gun is the only thing that can save their lives. Which is also why they are so attached to them and give names to their guns. They also have a really strong relation with the guns.
AD: There was one moment when Rojen asks you not to include the part with her crying in the film. She’s speaking about not being able to have said goodbye to her mother. Then she immediately relates her choice to join the PKK as a sacrifice not only for her own mother but “all the mothers in the world.” This scene is also tied for me to the one with the male fighter, who returns to the mountains very shaken after witnessing the horrors of combat. One woman tells him, don’t be emotional, forty women jumped off a cliff to their deaths to escape Daesh.
ZA: During the assemblies we see the women in the front and the men in the back. Everyone could say everything that they want. There’s a free speech. And with Rojen, you mentioned how she said not to put that in the film, but at the same time she says it—and she continues. She says it because she knows she’s getting emotional and then she continues the story. That’s why I still included it. And we had also spoken afterwards where she said, okay, of course you can put it in the movie.
AD: Sozdar speaks in one scene about the destruction of “personal quests” by capitalism. For Sozdar, there’s the critique of alienation under capitalism but then there’s also the importance of a self-knowledge that’s made possible through struggle, a “personal quest” within the collective. How did you feel that tension between individual and collective that Sozdar speaks to? Did you begin to feel differently, at a personal level?
ZA: I changed after this movie. Before, it was a really personal idea. I was thinking about Gulîstan and why she joined the PKK. I didn’t know that much about the PKK. The PKK is known in the Kurdish community but if they don’t research it, they won’t know exactly what they’re fighting for. Because it’s not only for auto-gestation…how do you say?
AD: Self-organization? Autonomy?
ZA: Yeah, it’s not only about that. It’s also about feminism. Because what they’re talking about…they’re defending a system called Democratic Confederalism. And this is based on feminism and on direct democracy. The idea is to accept anyone with any cultural and religious background. It’s a very strong ideology, very avant-garde, also. I wasn’t so informed before arriving. I thought, okay, they’re Kurdish, and they’re defending the people who have been killed between those four countries. But then I discovered this, so I began to read a lot about feminism. I tried to understand what they’re talking about. I grew with this experience. And I think every documentarist always grows with a movie. You learn a lot. It’s also a therapy.
And they’re not only critiquing what happening in the Middle East. They’re also critiquing the west who think they are free and they are not free. For them, in the west, you’re under control of capitalism and you’re under the control of men’s law. Your countries are always run by men in a system which is not even considering the proportional voting, so the system is not representative. Who is deciding for you? Indeed, Kurdish guerrillas propose founding a society capable of self-governing, advocating a decentralization of the power of the State. Very critical of existing systems of governance and capitalism, they propose to establish a structure in which the people participate directly in decision-making, in an equitable way (equal representation of minorities) and in parity (women-men). It’s a real democratic system, which confronts your preconceptions.
AD: I felt changed getting out of the film—at the sensory level of my body and my surroundings. I carried myself differently the next day.
ZA: That’s interesting. It’s exactly what I wanted people to feel. That they’re more close to them, to feel in some way what those women are feeling. After the movie, without overloading with factual information, people could search on the Internet and make their own opinion about the political issues going on. You don’t have to literally give all the information in documentaries. It’s only a perspective, a relation that I have. And it’s enough that people get interested in that.
AD: We also don’t hear about the afterlife of the struggle, what happens to Sozdar when she leaves that day, with a post-script, for example. We watch Sozdar leave for battle out the door and her life is suspended, like all the lives we see. We’re kind of left with your initial desire, to find out about Gulîstan and what happened to her.
ZA: Yeah, you’re right. How I felt at that moment…when she went to war, and I couldn’t follow her, it was…I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if I was losing her. So I tried to reproduce in the image and sound this exact sensation I had in that moment. That’s why we’re observing this meditative preparation and then suddenly the sound is lost on her. There’s only the image. And then we’re also losing the image. People in the cinema can then hear their own breathing and feelings. That’s what I tried to do. I didn’t want to give information but a feeling, just like I didn’t give geopolitical facts. I think, anyway, when you watch this movie…it’s true that they will die somehow. Because they’re in a war zone and they’re fighting. You don’t have to say this woman, she’s dead now, and the other, no, she’s there. It’s not only about ten women. It’s about thousands of women who are having this same life. Unfortunately, if you want to know, half of the women died in Kobani in 2015.
ZA: Fighting against Daesh. And Sozdar, she’s still in Makhmur. She’s very involved in education and is trying to build this new university for people there. The people living in Makhmur, this small city in the second part of the movie, is a city constructed by the PKK. People there are from a town in Turkey that was bombed by the Turkish army. It’s a very strange situation because you’re running away from Turkey to Iraq.
AD: To a war zone.
ZA: And the PKK took these people under their protection and constructed this city for them, Makhmur. But unfortunately the people couldn’t speak Sorani, which is the dialect spoken by all the Kurdish in the north of Iraq. And they’re also not considered to be Iraqi citizens. They have their own primary and secondary schools, but they don’t have their own university. So Sozdar is building this university for the young people there. She’s super involved in this. Now it’s her goal. It’s very inspiring.
AD: May I ask you about your next film?
ZA: I’m doing a movie about retaking Raqqa, which is the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, by the Americans alongside Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF are 80% Kurdish, from the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG). The YPG is considered to be the same thing as the PKK. So the idea for this next movie is to really be in a war zone and to film all the strategies they have to take back the city. It’s also about the militarization of women and about how the guns…finally…they are possessing humans. Even if we can’t really be opposed to this revolutionary idea, which is such a…beautiful idea…constructed upon feminism. A lot of violence is also happening. It’s about women fighters again, but from another perspective. For me it’s less personally involved. I’m watching from afar what’s going on and how they’re planning to take back the city. Which would be historical, because after Raqqa, Daesh would be very powerless.
AD: And then what happens in the territory after, especially with the presence of foreign powers.
ZA: Yeah, absolutely. And if I have the chance, I want to film what is going on in the Kurdish region, and how people are adapting to this new ideology based on feminism. People are not at all feminist. They’re from a Muslim background and are culturally very far from it. The YPG are installing that. They have assemblies where it’s the women giving orders to men, with women speaking loudly and constructing things. So it’s very interesting from this point of view as well…
AD: …after the rapes and deaths of so many women in the region.
ZA: They’re constructing this whole new system based on décentraliser le pouvoir. Decentralize the power. People have to make their own decisions in districts and small cities.
AD: How to decentralize the power is a question asked more and more around the world since the 2008 financial crisis—we need another concept of freedom all together.
ZA: Exactly. And this is happening in the Middle East, in Syria. They’re more progressive than in Canada where we live. And that is really interesting.
Zaynê Akyol is an award-winning filmmaker of Kurdish origin who was born in Turkey and raised in Quebec. She studied at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Communications, concentrating on film. In 2009, Akyol produced her first short documentary, Isminaz, which won the Jury Prize in the Radio-Canada International Roots competition. Akyol completed her degree by winning the René Malo Chair/National Film Board of Canada award for most promising documentary filmmaker. In 2010, she followed up with her medium-length documentary, Iki Bulut Arasinda (Under Two Skies), which won the Jury and People’s Choice awards at the Festival Vidéastes Recherché(e)s, as well as the Vox award at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois festival before touring the international festival circuit. Exile, immigration and expectation are at the heart of Akyol’s first film essays, which alternate between Quebec and Turkey.
Balancing practice with theory, Akyol is currently completing her master’s degree in Communications, concentrating on “film and moving images.” Her research focuses on creative and relational issues in documentary film, which she frequently encounters in her own filmmaking efforts. As part of her research, Akyol is producing a memoir entitled Shared Relation and Creation in Documentary Filmmaking. In 2012, Akyol devoted herself to writing her first feature documentary, Land of the Roses: My Name Is Gülistan, whose script-in-progress was selected from among 4,400 projects for the Doc Station (Berlinale Talents) at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is now being released as Gulîstan, Land of Roses. With this highly personal look at the daily lives of women fighting in the ranks of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against ISIS, Akyol addresses some of the political issues she occasionally lectures on. Akyol says this allows her to not only stay connected to her Kurdish roots but to also contemplate the state of the world at a time of increasingly global conflicts. The film is a co-production between Canada and Germany.