Alba Sotorra on her documentary Commander Arian, which follows a group of Syrian women fighting against ISIS.
Alba Sotorra captures one side of the complex and still-evolving conflict in Syria with her new fly-on-the-wall documentary, Commander Arian. The film follows a group of resistance fighters called YPJ (in English, “Woman’s Protector’s Unit”), who are based in the Kurdistan region of Syria. The women of this all-female group are not only fighting for their land but also for socio-economic equality between the sexes. The women know that if their area were to be taken over by a more patriarchal regime, such as ISIS, their independence could vanish.
Sotorra filmed the YPJ resistance fighters over a two-year period from 2015-2017 over “five to six trips. Every time I went there I spent at least two months” with the women. At first, “I wasn’t even filming, because I felt it was aggressive to arrive in a place with a camera,” Sotorra explained. She would “stay with them and then slowly start to film things that [she] had seen before happen,” such as group meetings that tended to occur every day. For these women, the mission was the most important thing; Sotorra needed to simply “go with the flow,” instead of seeking direct address interviews.
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Making sure everyone was safe during the shooting was a huge challenge. Even when Sotorra wanted to film the guards at night they would say, “Okay, but only for a short bit, yeah?” She realized even this little bit of light on them at night was “putting them in danger.” When shooting combat scenes, Sotorra initially decided to use a tripod, but soon discovered that “if you film a war [scene], you have to [move the camera, so my shots] didn’t look like how it had felt” within the battlefield. She eventually decided to shoot combat handheld because it would provoke a stronger emotional response in the audience.
The main subject of the film is Commander Arian, who “has been committed to the woman’s struggle and rights of women since she was a teenager.” “My first trip, [I spent] a couple of weeks on the frontline, and I didn’t know [who to follow]. I knew I wanted to focus in on somebody. It would be easier than focusing on a big group. In the beginning, I met Arian, and I stuck with her.” Arian had the qualities of a captivating subject. “She embodies the energy and the ideas of the YPJ Women’s Movement. Arian was really open and wanted to be filmed.” However, Sotorra quickly clarified that she could have just as easily followed, “any of these women. They all have the same strength, power, and openness.”
“It is interesting to understand Arian’s struggles and dreams,” Sotorra explained. In creating this very personal narrative, Sotorra leveraged her own closeness with Arian to allow the audience to share in that intimacy. She uses voice-overs by Arian “to connect [the audience] with her inner thoughts and her inner feelings. She expresses her thoughts to me, as a friend. That’s very different than her speaking directly to an audience.”
Sotorra was motivated to make this film because of the YPJ’s focus on the fight for women’s rights, which she felt had universal resonance beyond Syria’s borders. “I’m a feminist, and I believe in the shared struggle of women. We have to find ways to collaborate and fight together. My tool is through film [and it’s my way] to share the struggle.”
We reviewed last year’s documentary Whose Streets?, a portrait of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Meanwhile, in Canada, Marie Clements premiered a musical doc, The Road Forward, about Canada’s Indigenous Civil Rights Movement, at last year’s HotDocs festival. And at Sundance 2017, Michelle Latimer’s VICE series, RISE, told stories of Indigenous activism around the world.