OVER THE PAST NINE YEARS, the people of Syria have been subjected to bombings, shootings, chemical attacks, torture, and beheadings as part of an ongoing civil war that grew out of peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime. Part of the wave of mass uprisings across the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, the protests in Syria spawned an armed conflict involving various factions, including the newly emergent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Eventually, the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran each asserted a military presence inside Syria’s borders. Of the country’s pre–civil war population of twenty-two million, more than half have since been displaced, and of these, nearly half again have now fled the country, the majority into Turkey. Yet within the brutal chaos of the Syrian landscape, one of the more unique utopian socio-political experiments of the past one hundred years has taken root: the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, commonly known as Rojava.
Rojava aspires to a nonhierarchical and directly democratic system; its political structure is rooted in small, local assemblies in which decisions are discussed and agreed on collectively. Although private property has not been abolished, segments of agriculture and industry are cooperatively held. In this same spirit, the Rojava Film Commune was founded in 2015 as a collective dedicated to the production, distribution, and reception of films depicting and documenting the stateless society of Rojava, Kurdish and Arab culture, and the region’s continuing military and ideological struggles. The commune’s members also created the Rojava Film Academy, organized various screenings, and, in 2016, launched the Rojava International Film Festival. While its films have been shown around the world, the commune has more recently presented its work in a traveling exhibition titled “Forms of Freedom.” Organized in collaboration with curator iLiana Fokianaki, the show debuted at State of Concept, an alternative art space in Athens, in 2018, before moving to Gallery Nova in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2019, and then landing at e-flux in New York earlier this year.
Just as the Kurdish populations in northern Iraq were able to assert a degree of autonomy amid the geopolitical destabilization resulting from the US invasion in 2003, Syrian Kurds—alongside Arabs, Assyrians, and other groups—seized authority over their region following the uprising, especially after Assad was forced to redeploy troops from northern Syria to fight the armed resistance elsewhere in the country. But unlike their counterparts in Iraq, they sought to establish an egalitarian, socialist society inspired by the political thinking of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan (who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999). One vital component of Rojava’s program is the full participation of women in political, economic, and military life: Women played a crucial role in fighting off ISIS when it laid siege to the Rojava city of Kobanî between 2014 and 2015, and they continue to serve in the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia that at one point controlled nearly a third of Syrian territory.
War, geography, ethnicity, collectivism, and feminism figure prominently in the commune’s films, which range from full-length features to short music videos and encompass a wide range of genres, including narrative drama, documentary, lyric essay, and collage. Professionals and amateurs work together to produce them. Among the most ambitious is the nearly two-hour war drama The End Will Be Spectacular (2019), which tells the story of a young woman’s return to her hometown and her decision to join the Kurdish resistance against Turkish repression. Director Ersin Çelik filmed among the ruins remaining from the siege of Kobanî, repurposing military hardware abandoned by ISIS; many of the actors were also soldiers fighting ISIS and Turkey.
The commune’s entwining of the art and history of filmmaking with the story of Rojava and its multiethnic peoples was made clear by the mix of materials on view at e-flux. Along with six films projected or shown on monitors, a shelf of film-theory books (translated into English) taken from the commune’s library—including Gilles Deleuze’s two-volume series on cinema, a collection of interviews with Akira Kurosawa, and Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph—was installed next to a table that displayed texts such as The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism and a posthumous book of essays by the radical political and ecological theorist Murray Bookchin, a major influence on Öcalan and therefore on Rojava. Posters advertising the commune’s film festivals, workshops, and screenings dotted the walls of the gallery, as did twenty-one reproductions of full pages from the New York Times’ coverage between July 4, 2014, and October 21, 2019, of the rise of ISIS and of the US backing, and subsequent abandonment, of the Syrian Kurds as its proxy force fighting against it.8217;s just as much ideology embedded in silence as there is in speaking.#
These materials are essential to the Rojava Film Commune’s project of educating viewers. Even the lyrical and seemingly apolitical Kêra Koh (2016)—a twenty-three-minute video shot in rich color that follows two older women wearing vivid purple headscarves as they meet and sell vegetables—portrays an idyllic moment that is nonetheless surrounded by brutality. All art is a form of propaganda, some of it more openly so; still, there’s just as much ideology embedded in silence as there is in speaking. At e-flux, Kêra Koh was projected high on a wall near the books and newspaper articles and across from a small monitor that loudly broadcast video clips from Democracy Now! analyzing Turkey’s incursions into Kurdish territories. As Rojava itself does, Kêra Koh in this setting functioned as a haven of peaceful harmony—and women’s empowerment—in a world of clashing armies and rhetoric.
While The End Will Be Spectacular was not part of the exhibition, the commune’s first feature film, Stories of Destroyed Cities (2016), was projected large in the gallery, with a rug and pillows placed on the floor in front of it for extended viewing. The film juxtaposes footage of destroyed schools, streets, playgrounds, churches, and houses with the sounds of ongoing everyday life: In one instance, images of demolished shops are accompanied by an audio recording of a merchant selling goods. Coproduced by the Rojava Film Commune, although not directed by one of its members, Shadow of the Kurdish Mountain (2018) was the most conventional documentary film on view, depicting a hospital partly staffed by displaced women helping with the war-wounded. The dynamic between quotidian existence and the very real threats to it is a fundamental theme of the commune’s work. A bicycle serves as a main character in Mako Is Cold (2016), the camera lingering over details such as the colorful ribbons streaming from its basket as well as a playful kitten, yet the video’s plot revolves around a memorial service; Stories of Destroyed Cities ends with one. “Martyrs” are frequently mentioned in the commune’s substantial oeuvre; rather than being memorialized in filmic portraits, they are depicted by the voids their deaths leave in families and the larger community.
Integral to the commune’s artistic work, the Rojava Film Academy’s yearlong program is organized and administered by both students and instructors. Institutions and representation build a society in tandem, and in this sense the academy is integral to Rojava’s existence. A sampling of clips from the films shown at e-flux comprised everything from historical footage and ghostly dream sequences to scenes of battle and children jumping rope. Masi (2017) is a four-minute work attributed to an unnamed academy student in which a small fish released into a stream functions as a metaphor for Rojava seeking its freedom within the currents of history. In their films, the individual is frequently situated within a landscape and language of war. Yet the horizon beyond the rubble and graves remains one of self-determination, however precariously sustained within the geopolitics of the contemporary Middle East. As Syria collapsed around them and they witnessed death on a daily basis, the people of Rojava found the will and vision to construct a more equitable society. Catastrophe is a powerful wind that can blow in a variety of directions. As nations in the West and around the globe confront the coronavirus pandemic along with structural economic and racial inequalities and oppressions, Rojava serves as an inspiration for the possibility of meaningful social change.
Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments (Splitlevel Texts, 2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem Books, 2011), and of a collection of essays, articles, and reviews titled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press, 2006).