'The Return: Life After ISIS': new documentary tells story of women who want to restart their lives

Filmmaker Alba Sotorra Clua talked to wives in refugee camps, such as Shamima Begum, in a bid to create a 'balanced' exploration of the contentious situation

The Return: Life After ISIS (2021). Photo: IDMb
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Spanish director Alba Sotorra Clua's thought-provoking new documentary, The Return: Life After ISIS, jumps compassionately into the debate over the repatriation of people who joined the extremist group.

The documentary features wives of ISIS fighters of different nationalities who remain in camps in Syria as they long to go home.

"Sympathy? You must be kidding," blasted British tabloid The Sun when teenage runaway Shamima Begum's citizenship was revoked.

Begum, who left the UK for Syria aged 15 with two friends, and was 19 at the time of filming, is probably the most recognisable of the women Clua interviewed at the Roj detention camp in north-east of Syria.

The director, whose film screened at this year’s Sheffield DocFest, SXSW and other events, offered the women in her documentary the opportunity to talk about themselves, in a bid, she says, “to give as much context as possible to make a film that was balanced”.

Director Alba Sotorra Clua, right, during the filming of 'The Return: Life After ISIS'. Courtesy Alba Sotorra Productions
Director Alba Sotorra Clua, right, during the filming of 'The Return: Life After ISIS'. Courtesy Alba Sotorra Productions

“These women had belonged to a group that had done horrific things and they want to return, but their countries, and even our societies, are against this. So, how can we move to a different perception? How can we look at this in a deeper way?,” she says.

Clua’s eyes were wide open. She had filmed on front lines for years, in hot spots including Raqqa and Baghouz in Syria. She lost friends, and in the aftermath of the battle for Kobane in northern Syria, saw “tonnes of bodies piled up because ISIS killed children and women and old men”.

When she entered Roj, she had “a lot of anger inside”, as did her mainly female Kurdish crew. However, for Clua, this changed during the battle for Raqqa, when a woman came running from an area being bombed, clutching a child. “She was looking for help but when she reached the point where we were, the child was already dead.”

Clua’s first real contact with an active ISIS supporter was a mother in Iraq whose sons had been killed fighting.

“It was very difficult to listen to her at first,” the filmmaker recalls, “because she was defending ISIS ... But slowly, as we spoke more, I realised that all her emotions were connected to her sons. There were a lot of open wounds.”

While filming her acclaimed 2018 documentary Commander Arian, about a Kurdish female battalion advancing on Kobane, she found it hard to comprehend how "young western women could be seduced by an ideology that puts women at this level of oppression and lack of freedom".

Strikingly, she discovered that Kurdish women’s rights activists were reaching out to their enemy in the camps. As governments washed their hands of people like Begum and Hoda Muthana, an American woman who had tried to incite homeland attacks via Twitter, “Kurdish women, despite what they have been through, were taking this responsibility”.

For Clua, it was inspiring. “They were somehow trying to open a bridge for dialogue.”

In Roj they ran a workshop in English that encouraged women to explore what had happened to them, their reasons for coming to Syria, and who they’d become.

“I really wanted to see what would happen during this process and how it would be for Kurdish women to open up with a group of women who have been in ISIS, and how it would be for these women to be part of this workshop,” the filmmaker says.

If we don't understand what happened, we cannot work to prevent it

Clua gained access to Roj through her association with Commander Arian and chose the women featured in the documentary by chance. "When the workshop started, the condition was that there would be a film crew filming the process."

It was not mandatory to be part, and at the beginning Begum and Muthana “preferred to sit in the background. It took them a few days to say, ‘We also want to participate.’ They didn’t trust the media. They felt that journalists had twisted their words.” The picture that emerges is of young women who often felt isolated, alienated or without purpose.

On social media, ISIS exploited their vulnerabilities, tailoring their message, says Clua, to the individual. It was sold as a land of freedom and community. If they didn’t like it, they could leave. However, in reality, their passports were seized upon arrival and they were confined to a house until they were married. “It was hell on Earth,” says Muthana.

The Return: Life After ISIS (2021). Photo: IDMb
Shamima Begum, whose British citizenship was revoked after she was found in a refugee camp in 2019, appears in 'The Return: Life After ISIS'. IMDb

Making the film didn’t happen without resistance from others, says Clua. “One day we arrived and they’d destroyed lighting we’d left. Another day they had cut the tent where we were working with knives. They wanted to scare us. And we knew that the women participating in the workshop were being threatened.”

Besides wanting to tell their story, Clua says that the women she met could, arguably, be instrumental in the fight against radicalisation.

“They are legitimate persons who can help us detect women that like them can be vulnerable to radicalisation and can be the voices that these other women can listen to, because they have been through it.

“If we don’t understand what happened, we cannot work to prevent it.”

The Return: Life After ISIS is screening on Sky Documentaries and Now from Tuesday, June 15