Rojava Film Commune: "We don't mourn. We make films"

Patron is on the road with the Rojava Film Commune to screen their latest film 'The End Will Be Spectacular' for their home audience. 

“When we need a tank, we get one”, said Sêvînaz Evdike. It has to sink in before the coin drops that it’s actually about an army tank, which is provided by the SDF, the forces of the autonomously administered northeast of Syria, to the Rojava Film Commune when they need one. They can provide fighters as well, or helmets, uniforms, you name it: the SDF likes to make its contribution to the artistic work of the film community. But it’s not a one way gift. Sêvînaz, the co-leader of the commune: “Both the SDF and we are parts of the same body, which is the self-administration of Northeast Syria. We both do our best to make it a success.”

(header picture: in the big hall in Rumelan after hanging the white screen, from left to right: Hogir, film music maker Mehmud Berazi, director Ersin Çelik , Diyar Hasso, Sero Hinde.)

We were having coffee around the oil heater in the headquarters of the Rojava Film Commune, a group of some twenty four men and women who have been making independent feature films, short films and documentary films since 2015. Four of them have just returned from Beirut, Lebanon, where they had to go to the Dutch embassy to get their visa for the Netherlands. The consulate in Erbil, Kurdistan Region in Iraq, only issues business visas, while the Commune-members received a cultural visa because they were headed to the Netherlands for the Rotterdam Film Festival. Their second feature film, “The End Will Be Spectacular”, will have its European premiere there. 

In tatters

There was hammering and sawing going on around us. A carpenter had delivered wooden slats with which the commune members made huge frames, to which later the film posters of The End Will Be Spectacular were attached. Some of those showed stills from the film, others were impressions of them, beautifully sketched by the brother of one of the commune members, who is an artist. The images showed fighters in the streets of a Kurdish city in Southeast Turkey, warming their hands around a fire and drinking tea. The city surrounding them was in tatters. 

The Dutch version of this story was published in Dutch weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer.

The premiere of the film in Syria was scheduled for the second week of January. In Kurdish the film is called ‘Ji bo azadiyê’, ‘For freedom’. It’s about the city war that raged at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 between the Turkish army and the YPS, a youth group affiliated with the PKK, in Sur, the historical heart of Diyarbakır, the biggest Kurdish city in the southeast. ‘Bakur’ is the name used here for that part of Kurdistan, meaning ‘north’, so the north of Kurdistan. The war raged in other cities in Bakur too, like Cizre, Nusaybin and Şırnak. 

In the summer of 2015 a peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state ended. After that, several municipalities that were governed by the Kurdish party HDP decided to declare autonomy, which had been their ultimate goal during the peace process. The YPS took upon itself the task to defend that autonomy. The Turkish state acted disproportionately. According to human rights organisations, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced and between three and four hundred people died; Human Rights Watch speaks of ‘at least 338’.

Hanging the film poster in Rumelan.

The dividing line between civilians and fighters wasn’t always clear. Civilians became fighters, as the film also shows. A young woman, Zilan, is travelling to Sur to find out more about the death of her brother, who was a fighter. The tension in the city district is rising. When the violence gets further out of hand and evolves into all-out war, she naturally becomes a fighter too. The young fighters with their kalashnikovs and rockets stand no chance against the brutal force of the army. They are forced info a corner. Surrender is not an option. 

The headquarters of the Rojava (Rojava means ‘west’, so West Kurdistan, the part in Syria) Film Commune are in a building close to the city centre of Qamislo, the biggest city in Northeast Syria. It has a front garden and inside there are four chambers around a hall with a heater, around which chairs and couches are placed. There is a kitchen and small bathroom. The members of the commune prefer to be on the road. They make films – ten documentary films already, a few dozen short films and now the second feature film – and travel through the region to show their work in as many places as possible. Often to small audiences, like children at primary and secondary schools, or for special target groups like families of fallen fighters. 

No cinemas 

A problem for the premiere: the northeast of Syria has no cinemas. There used to be, but one fell into abeyance and the other is now a wedding hall. As soon as we, after having left from Zakho in the Kurdistan Region in the morning, cross the border into Rojava and Sêvînaz’s phone picks up the local signal, the weeks break loose. She made a short film herself – she studied at a film academy for three years in a cultural centre in Diyarbakır in Kurdistan in Turkey – but she is primarily the one who makes sure the work of the Rojava Film Commune runs smoothly organisationally.

‘This is my life’, she will later say. ‘Being on the road with the group, filming and screening our films to the people.’ About their upcoming trip to Europe, now that finally a visa application had been approved, she said: ‘It is hard these days to be a Syrian and to travel. Everybody sees you as a potential refugee. But I want to be nowhere else but here.’

The first stop on the road was the ‘Aram Tigran’ cultural centre, named after an Armenian singer and musician who mostly sang in Kurdish, in the town of Derik. Whether ‘Ji bo azadiyê’ will be screening here in the two hundred seat hall where a small white screen is available, wasn’t clear yet. Sêvînaz and also some others in the group remained vague about it. 

This vagueness had drawn attention before, for example when it came to communicating details about the premiere in the city of Rumelan. Diyar Hesso, filmmaker and producer and one of the founders of the Commune in 2015, only revealed the date after we had arrived in Rojava. He didn’t want it to be shared yet on social media. Diyar: ‘We have to take into account that ISIS can stage an attack, or Turkey. That’s why we announce the date only a few days in advance.’

Spiritual father

Next stop was Rumelan, where the cultural centre has a hall that can seat six hundred people. The biggest hall in the region. Chairs in light beige, walls in the same colour with on the back wall a row of portraits of Kurdish fighters who lost their lives in, among others, the war against ISIS. On the stage there were huge portraits of Abdullah Öcalan, spiritual father of the ideology of grassroots democracy that has been put into practice in this part of Syria since 2012, and of Mazlum Doğan, one of the co-founders of the PKK who died in the prison of Diyarbakır in 1982. The wall behind the stage was inspected. In three days, a white screen would have to be hanging there. 

That Turkey could try to wreck the premiere of the film with some well-aimed ordinance was not unthinkable. The Turkish border is close by. The city wars as shown in the film, are a period in Turkey’s recent history that Turkey doesn’t want to draw any attention to, especially not when this attention comes with a Kurdish perspective. On the last day of 2019, ‘Ji bo azadiyê’ would premiere in Sulaymanya, the second city in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, but the governor of the city told the cinema owner that he could expect the closure of his premises if he didn’t cancel the screening.  

Hanging the screen.

It was the third time that the screening of a film about the Kurdish struggle was banned by local – Kurdish! – authorities. Nobody doubts there was Turkish pressure involved. Kurdistan in Iraq is economically dependent on Turkey. If, in President Erdogan’s eyes, the Kurdistan Region doesn’t do enough to weaken the PKK and other organisations which follow Öcalan’s ideology, then the Region can expect measures to be taken. That this possibility is real became apparent in 2018, when Turkey closed its air space for flights to and from the two international airports in the Kurdistan Region for months.

But in the autonomous region in Northeast Syria, Erdogan doesn’t have anybody to pressure. Well, there is pressure from Turkey, but this is coming from military cooperation with jihadist groups elsewhere in Syria. Only a couple of months ago, in October 2019, the Turkish army in cooperation with mercenaries of the hastily founded ‘Syrian National Army’ – a mishmash of local, mostly jihadist groups also including former ISIS-members – attacked the autonomous region in Northeast Syria. 

Qamişlo also came under attack, but most of the violence happened further west, between Serekaniye and Tal Abyad, two cities that have since been under occupation by Turkey and the jihadists. Erdogan threatens to take other parts of the autonomous region as well, but for now, the Turksh hunger seems satisfied. By taking the area between Serekaniye and Tal Abyad, the city of Kobani, which is west of the occupied territory, can’t easily be reached anymore from the eastern parts of the autonomous region. This is the reason why Ji bo azadiye was not screened in Kobani this week. The commune hoped to screen it there later.

Ethnic cleansing

Sêvînaz is from Serekaniye. Many citizens, especially Kurds but also Arabs who had played a role in the autonomous administration of the city, left in a hurry when the Turkish attack started on 9 October. Sêvînaz's family too fled, first to Haseke, further east and further away from the border, but soon a befriended family provided them with a house in Qamişlo where they now stayed. 

Still from the film.

It seems rather surrealistic to stubbornly keep making films and creating the right circumstances to screen them while Turkey is waging war around a hundred kilometres to the east. In the Turkish-jihadist offensive, tens of thousands of people, mostly Kurds, have fled and it seems likely that the population structure in this area will change more if Turkey puts into practice its plan to house Syrian refugees there who are now living in Turkey. Ethnic cleansing, you could say. Sêvînaz: ‘We grew up in a society where nobody ever gave up. My father has been politically active for twenty years, he was wanted by the regime and not often at home. It was not easy for my mother but she educated herself and had always taught us never to give up. I remember worrying about my brother when he was outside while the regime, in 2004, murdered Kurds who were resisting them. My mother asked me what my brother was supposed to do. Stay at home?’

Of course, she saw a parallel with the fighters in Sur, who kept on fighting, even though it was clear already that there was no way they could win and even when they were severely wounded. Sêvînaz: ‘Turkey is close by, but if we don’t do anything, they will come even closer and will take over. That is not an option, we have to defend what we believe in and what we love. I belong to this revolution, I want to be part of it and help keep the morale of my people high by making films.’


‘We are going out to arrange a white screen’, Diyar Hesso said on the morning after our arrival in Rojava. He and Hogir, who was directing the hammering and sawing the day before, jumped in a car and drove to Qamişlo’s industrial site. It had rained the previous days and the half-paved roads lined with dozens of small businesses are now mud pools. It seems odd that Hogir stopped the car in front of a scrap iron shop, where shelving units and a courtyard were stuffed with rusting spare parts. The owner knew exactly which parts were where. Hogir chose two sprockets with a diameter of some ten centimeters. 

Elsewhere an iron pipe about six meters long is purchased. Then on to the blacksmith, a few mud pools down the road. The sprockets didn’t fit around the pipe very well, others were found and Hogier explained to the smith what needed to be done. Those sprockets had to be soldered to the ends of the pipe and then again attached to a hanging system of solid handles with holes in them for big bolts. The pipe had to be able to turn around its axis. The smith started working with great concentration. Young guys, apprentice smiths, assisted him. 

At the blacksmith.

A couple of hours later Hogir and Diyar had exactly what they wanted. Back in the headquarters  they met up with others who bought a white plastic cloth of three by six meters at the local printing shop. It was not a real film screen of course, but it was the closest they could get. They had something to eat while still other commune members quickly spray-painted the hanging system black, outside in the garden. The system was then tied onto the roof of a minibus and then driven from Qamişlo southeastwards to Rumelan, a drive of some one and a half hours. It was already dark. 

The white cloth was carefully spread on the floor of the stage in the premiere hall. Hogir screwed it with an electric drill to the pipe, while others cautiously held it. After that, the cloth was carefully rolled around the pipe, while two people were wiping dust and other particles from the cloth.  

Was there a ladder? Yes, but not high enough. Hogir used it to climb up the wooden framework at the back of the stage. Screws, bolts, nuts, balancing. After that the work on the front side could be finished. Scaffolds on wheels are driven into position from the wings. Hogir, Diyar and one of the others in the group, Şêro Hindê, climbed onto it, others handed out the film screen to them, which was then screwed to the stage wall. After that, a short pull on the screen was enough: with a muffled thud it rolled out. It bounced back a few times and then hung still, flat, straight and white as could be. On the scaffolds and stage the commune members danced. 

We spent that night at a family’s house in the same town. To the question whether the whole system had to be disassembled and transported back to Qamişlo for the screening there and how to do that without damaging or soiling it, Diyar answered: ‘No, Qamişlo will get its own screen. We’ll make another one tomorrow. ‘

Film culture

The work of the Rojava Film Commune is not just about film production, but also about reviving the film culture that once thrived. Anyone who thinks that this film culture was terminally harmed by the Syrian war, doesn’t know the history of the Kurds. 

In November 1960 the Syrian authorities directed all school boys in the Kurdish city of Amude, thirty kilometres west of Qamişlo, to the cinema. A film about the Algerian struggle for independence was playing and watching it was obligatory. The owner of the cinema warned the authorities that the film projector sometimes overheated and might not be able to handle several screenings on one day. Besides that, the capacity of the cinema was too small. The authorities didn’t listen. A fire broke out, the roof of wood and straw caught fire and fell down on the audience. A total of 238 boys perished, most of them younger than fourteen years of age.
Ever since, the Syrian-Kurdish heart hasn’t been so close to film anymore, even more so because in the decades after that, under the rule of the current dictator Assad and before him of his father, the Kurdish identity had no space to flourish. Within the democratic experiment in Rojava, however, culture has an important place, which is the reason why the Ministry of Culture finances the Rojava Film Commune. 

From this money not only films are being made, but also cooperation is set up with students of the art academy, who in that way can get experience in making short films and documentaries. The film screens that were made this week for screenings in Rumelan and Qamişlo will remain there for future use by whoever wants them. Entry to all screenings is free of charge. 

At the blacksmith.

The ministry doesn’t have any influence on the content of the films, Diyar Hesso said: ‘Every institute in Rojava is autonomous. Nobody interferes with our work.’ Why a film about the city war in Sur? Ersin Çelik, the director of the film who is from Bakur himself and now lives in Sulaymanya in Kurdistan in Iraq, said: ‘Nothing much came out about the war in Sur. No footage or sound recordings, like there are for example from the struggle in Cizre. Even the battle for Kobani in 2014 was recorded. When those in power try to destroy something, as an intellectual, as a revolutionary, as a film maker, you will have to resist, because once the destruction is completed, it’s too late. In hindsight it is said that the destruction shouldn’t have happened, but if that is the case, why did we let it happen then? The mass murder of the Armenians and Assyrians a century ago happened on the soil on which we live as well. That is why we don’t mourn about what happened now, that is why we don’t pray standing at the graves but make films.’

Diyar Hesso explained that films, and culture in general, has a much bigger function in the philosophy of the Rojava Film Commune: ‘On the one hand our films are a response to many international media, which portray Kurds as poor, uneducated but beautiful people who heroically fight against ISIS. The states in the region spread the narrative that we are terrorists. Only a few journalists who come to Kurdistan manage to rise above those two frames. That’s why we make films from the perspective of the people who live here.’

Decades-long struggle

‘On the other hand’, Hesso continued, ‘art is the corner stone of social progress. Art shapes the identity and character of a nation. Because of art we know what being in love is before we feel it. We hear about heroism, about the value of friendship, about sacrifice via films and literature. In that way, our films contribute to shaping the identity of the Kurds, which is recognized by our international friends as courageous, a willingness to sacrifice, anti-racism, qualities like that. This identity was shaped by a decades-long struggle.’

The premiere was an outstanding success. The hall was filled to capacity, a few late-comers could only sit on the stairs between the rows of chairs. There where the Öcalan portrait normally hung, the film poster shined – Öcalan was in the wings. The film lasted two hours and twenty minutes (the version used internationally lasts half an hour less). Applause broke out after a nerve-racking scene in which one of the fighters, Dicle, appeared to be surrendering to the army and handed over her diary with information about her comrades to the commander. While Dicle was being led away for further questioning, the commander opened the diary – which exploded with a huge bang. 

One sentence

During the closing credits, in which the number of deaths among the fighters was mentioned, somebody in the audience shouted ‘Şehit namirin! Şehit namirin!’ The whole hall joined in. Martyrs are immortal. Especially comrade Çiyager, a PKK fighter who was sent to Sur to coordinate the struggle and who died in the latter days of the fight, had taken his place as a hero in Kurdish history. Director Ersin Çelik said that in the film, comrade Yilmaz was a key character. Çelik read the diaries of some fighters in Sur and talked to two survivors who played themselves in the film, but the war, he emphasized, didn’t exactly happen like in Ji bo azadiyê. Çelik: ‘It is a feature film, not a documentary. For me Yilmaz was important because of one sentence that I read in one of the diaries that explained the motivation of the young people to engage in the battle, and to continue fighting until the very end against the superiority of the Turkish army: “You can not enter my house just like that.” With that sentence in the back of our minds we started painting his character and writing the script.’

Part of the fighters in the film were fighters in real life as well. Not only two survivors of the city war in Sur played a role, but two protagonists were also real fighters. The man who played Yilmaz, fought in the battle for Kobani, in which the Kurds prevented a take-over of the city by ISIS in 2014. The fighter who played commander Çiyager, Rubar Şervan, came to the filmset from the frontline north of Raqqa. That was in 2017, when Raqqa was still in ISIS hands. The filmset was carefully built in the city of Kobani and strikingly resembled the real Sur, as the writer of this piece, who wandered around in the small streets of Sur in the years before the city war, can confirm. After the fight against ISIS, Rubar Şervan retreated to the mountains in Kurdistan in Iraq, where the PKK has its headquarters. That’s where he lost his life in autumn last year in a Turkish bombing. 

At the theater in Rumelan.

The two planned screenings were not enough. There was a third one for students at the University of Qamişlo, then another one in a huge wedding hall in Hasake. As we drove to the latter city, Diyar asked me not to tweet about it: if the news spreads, maybe too many people would show up. Invitations were sent orally via the local youth organisation, a cultural association and an organisation of families of ‘martyrs’. Some two hundred people showed up. 

One day later, on the way back to the border with the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, there was one more screening in the small hall in Derik which we visited at the beginning of our journey. Director Çelik attended all screenings. In Derik he walked into the screening. When he came out again, he grinned: somebody in the audience had stood up and half the audience loudly protested – nobody wanted to miss any scene. Why did he attend every time, while he was just sitting there, waiting for the film to end? Apparently the question got stuck in his head because later, he brought it up again: ‘If you have a lover, you can send that person flowers. I prefer to deliver the flowers personally.’

Photos: Fréderike Geerdink