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The Other Side of the River

Director: Antonia Kilian (Germany, Finland). Year of Release: 2021

The Euphrates, North-Eastern Syria. 19-year old Hala has fled her family to avoid the fate of her 16-year old sister, who has been married off to a member of IS. Hala has 9 sisters and 2 brothers, to whom she is very devoted, so leaving home has been a wrench for her. But it’s now time to show a little independence. So, she moves to Minbij in Rojava to train to become a police officer.

This is police work which is not likely to be defunded by activists in the near future. The Rojava police force is part of a people’s militia aimed at defending the community against IS incursions. While the policepersons do carry guns and hand grenades, this is also not the macho policing that you get from early evening cop shows. Hala’s unit is female only, and alongside weapons trading they also get lessons in how men are responsible for most of the major problems in society.

The women have good reason to believe this. There is a particularly horrific story of a woman whose family were forced to stone her to death. As they hurled rocks in her general direction, her father, who seemed to care for her more than any of the others, was the only one who aimed straight at her head – better that she died quickly than have to endure protracted pain and suffering.

We also hear stories of domestic violence and forced marriages. Some of the forced marriages were with leading IS members, and you might think that these came through outside political duress. But there are other cases. Hala tells her own story with the son of a business partner of her father, who she had known since childhood. He paid the appropriate amount to her father, who promptly announced that she was now engaged. She told her betrothed, “I’ve lived 20 years without a man and I’ll carry on like this 100 more”.

We watch the women, some wearing headscarves, others not, engaging in military training. This is serious stuff – an attack can come any minute. During one interview, we hear a shot in the background. Someone asks if it was the emergency alarm. No, they are reassured, it was just a practise. And yet the troops seem woefully underequipped. As they practise their manoeuvres, only some of them have actual weapons, The other hold up their hands as if carrying a gun.

Director Antonia Kilian interviews Hala and her fellow policewomen using a smattering of Kurdish and some helpful translators, who were needed to communicate with Hala, who speaks only Arabic. And yet at no time does Kilian feel like an intruder. Every so often, her head comes into shot showing both the low production values (the film was made for about €300,000) and an intimacy that is lacking from films with a much larger budget. Apparently Kilian stayed a year living amongst the fighters, and the trust that she was able to build up shows through.

Killian follows Hala’s return to Minbij, where she is reunited with her family. She rents a flat with her sister and is delighted to have contact with her other sisters (I guess her brothers are accepted too). She hopes that she can contribute towards freeing her younger sisters from her overbearing family. Her parents continually suggest that she finds a different job, and the familial relationship is, shall we say, somewhat uneasy.

In a perfect world, the film would have gone a little more into the contradictions of Rojava – a liberated area which owes its survival, at least in part, to a stand-off between the equally reprehensible forces of IS, Assad’s Syria, and US imperialism (one of the reviews of the film mentions that Hillary Clinton is currently developing a tv series about the women of Rojava). I’m not sure that the community that we are shown here will be able to survive. But maybe that’s for another film, maybe.

There is also an interesting discussion to be had about sexuality. Now I’m all for the general argument that’s being put forward about marriage being slavery and all men being bastards. But it does also seem to be a slightly puritan streak about it. Do none of the women in the battalion have sexual desires? (for men, or women, it doesn’t really matter at this point). It seems that if they do, this is something to be wished away, maybe as something that’s counter-revolutionary.

There is a scene towards the end that reminded me of Mustang, the superlative film about girls in Turkey fleeing their oppressive family. Two women run, fully clothed, into the Euphrates. They carry with them a feeling of liberation. I’m not sure if the reference is deliberate, or even conscious. But it does seem that The Other Side of The River is part of a new wave of films where women take centre stage. Despite any faults, we need more of this sort of thing.

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