Category: Interview

Interview: Zaynê Akyol (Gulîstan, Land of Roses)

Zaynê Akyol’s Gulîstan, Land of Roses is the opening gala film for Document 2017. Akyol’s documentary focuses on the young women of the armed wing of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is also an active guerrilla movement. From their camp hidden away in the mountains, the women lead a nomadic life, undergoing ideological and practical training before being sent out to the front lines. Even as fighting against ISIS intensifies in the Middle East, these women bravely continue their battle against barbarism. Offering a window into this largely unknown world, Gulîstan, Land of Roses exposes the hidden face of this highly mediatized war: the female, feminist face.

Zaynê Akyol gave us this exclusive interview ahead of the Document screening.


There’s often an assumption amongst Western commentators that women in the Middle East are forced into subordinate positions, one that this film triumphantly challenges. Was that your original intention?

I was born in Turkey, but my family is Kurdish, and in the village where I was born, the Kurdish guerrillas used to come pay us visits in the 1980s and 1990s. So the PKK fighters were part of my environment from a very early age. Then, when I immigrated to Canada, I met Gulîstan. She was 15 years older than I, but her story was similar. We were from the same small village in Turkey. Both of us were Kurdish and had the same religion: the Alevi branch of Shi’a Islam. I considered Gulîstan my big sister—she was my role model. Then one day, Gulîstan disappeared from my life and went to enlist in the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla forces. At the time, I really didn’t grasp all the implications of what she was doing, but as time went on, I began to understand the seriousness of it all. In 2000, I learned that she had died. After that, once I had completed my film studies at university, it was natural and necessary for me to make a film about her experience. Or at least to retrace her path through her family, through other women who had fought with the PKK, female guerrillas and her friends from that time. But in 2014, when we went to the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq to shoot this film, our trip coincided with the first strikes by Daesh (ISIS) in the region. So I witnessed the genesis of the conflict. From that point on, the subject of my film was supposed to be these female guerrillas of the PKK, but I think that the film, in its current form, necessarily reveals a side of Gulîstan as well.

It is also a way for me to showcase women who are the hope of millions of people and to humanise those faces that we see and hear about only fleetingly in the media. I wanted to live with them so that I could really understand their lives as combatants in times of war, in the mountains (where their headquarters is) and in the war zones.

Indeed, this guerrilla group proposes to found a society capable of self-governing, advocating a decentralisation of the power of the State. Very critical of existing systems of governance such as capitalism, it proposes to establish a structure in which the people participate directly in decision-making, with fair representation of minorities and gender parity. A society based on religious pluralism, multiculturalism and respect for the environment, in stark contrast to the jihadists. This new community approach is indeed one of the most progressive in this part of the world, where the two factions—the Muslim fundamentalists and the feminist leftists—are fighting.

You gain a remarkable degree of intimacy with the subjects – how easy was it to gain their trust?

I built up trust with the PKK over several years. After having written the first version of my script in 2010, I went to Europe to meet people who had ties to the Kurdish guerrillas. A year later, I decided to go to the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq to meet with the women fighters and do a demo for my grant applications. That time I was able to stay for only a week, because Iran was attacking the PKK’s positions, which made my work dangerous. But I did meet Sozdar, one of the protagonists in my film, and she and I formed a very tight bond. In 2014, I found her and we saw each other again at a temporary camp in Xakurkê, in the northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, where she and other female guerrillas were preparing to go fight in Sinjar. I didn’t know any of the other women fighters, but they were very cooperative right away. I never sensed any reluctance—quite the contrary! I think it was also because I am a Kurdish woman and was already very familiar with the PKK and their ideology.

This is also due to the fact that in my directing method, I advocate a personal and immersive approach. I immerse myself entirely in the world of my subjects and I always try to blend into their environment.

In order to realise this documentary, I focused on a small group of individuals, paying particular attention to their imagination and personality, that is to say that my protagonists will have the opportunity to suggest when and how they want to be “pictured”. Having used this method, I realised that their suggestions are often surprising and very revealing. This method of joint creation also makes them more open to my propositions and this further solidifies our bonds of trust. Consequently, they are also fully involved in the creative process of the film, and it enriches the film with certain veracity. This way of proceeding allows me to have an honest approach and allows the fighters to reveal themselves, without a filter or intermediary.

There’s a scene where a woman asserts that a married woman lives a life of slavery, and that she feels freer. Do you think that these women, while their lives are subject to military discipline, are in fact freer?

I don’t know about freer, because that’s a pretty hard question to answer. But I can say that these women fighters feel freer in their actions, because they don’t have to live under the kind of patriarchy that is so omnipresent in the Middle East, influenced by culture and religion. I think that the concept of freedom is more of a philosophical issue, because everyone has their own description.

That’s why I would rather tell you what one of these fighters told me. She said, “In these times, feeling free is almost always an illusion. How can I say that I am free when right beside me, people are being killed, women are being assaulted, and children are being subjected to violence? Real freedom is living in a world where we do everything we can so that these things don’t happen. Otherwise, I’m not free, I’m just someone who is afraid and submissive, who closes her eyes to other people’s suffering. A person who deliberately decides not to see anything or do anything. And none of that has anything to do with freedom.”

There’s been much discourse around men and their fetishisation of guns, yet there’s a lovely scene in the film where the women talk about how much they love their weapons. Any thoughts on that?

Personally, I don’t like weapons—quite the contrary. But I’m in no position to preach to them while I’m living comfortably in Canada. These women fighters live in a region that’s in a constant state of war, and if it weren’t for their weapons, they couldn’t defend themselves against the Turkish army, the Iranian army, or even the Syrian army, much less Daesh (ISIS). Their weapons are what protects their lives. Obviously, in our country where things are pretty secure, I don’t think that weapons are necessary.

One voiceover proclaims, “Where does freedom begin? It begins with the woman… She’s the fundamental source of morality”, before attacking capitalism and its subjugation of the individual. How far would you agree with these statements?

I am not a politician and neither a preacher for any ideology. I am a filmmaker trying to understand a particular situation and to be a subjective observer.

Before viewing the film, the viewer might expect something quite grim, yet the film contains quite lyrical passages where the women are enjoying their comradeship and relative freedoms. Did you expect this on making the film?

I think that this kind of comradeship exists in many communities, whether they are armies or any other kinds of groups. You have to understand that all of these women have given up their former lives to go live as soldiers, and they find and recreate a new family within this circle.

Did your views on the PKK’s aims and actions change through filming them?

There are several reasons why I wanted to make this film. First, I wanted to bring the violence and oppression to light that the Kurdish people have been enduring, to make people aware of this little-known reality, to get them interested in learning more about the situation in Kurdistan. The war against Daesh (Islamic State) is new for the PKK. The PKK exist since 1978 and that its members took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. It was created because the Kurdish people have been living with the denial of their existence for over a century, in addition to being subjected to abuses in the four countries where they live (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria). We must not forget these people once they have gotten rid of Daesh for us. We must also listen to their claims, which are completely legitimate: to be independent within the countries where they live (for the ones who lives in Turkey, Iran and Syria) and the recognition of Kurdistan as a country (for those in Iraq).

I also wanted to show a different side of women in the Middle East. Not the aspect that is often shown, especially in times of war, as the victim: women crying for their children or their husbands, women who are suffering. Instead, I wanted to show strong women: those who don’t give up without a fight, who are no longer victims of the actions of men—most of the time, it is the men who have started the war—those who stand up for their rights and take up arms when necessary. This may seem like a shocking portrait, because we are used to the image of submissive, caring women. In any case, I think that the fighters in the film break many stereotypes, not only about women in general, but also and especially about women in the Middle East.

Making this film changed me and made me think about things on several levels. At first, for me it was about maintaining ties to my Kurdish roots and reflecting on the state of the world at a time when fighting is increasing in the Middle East and the conflicts are becoming more international. Then, as I met these female guerrillas, I had to face myself and my own beliefs. Through contact with these fighters, I became increasingly aware of the grievances and condition of women in the world.

Brian Beadie


Gulîstan, Land of Roses is the opening gala screening of Document 2017, on Thursday 19th October at CCA Glasgow.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900

Gulîstan, Land of Roses

Interview: Andrea Luka Zimmerman (Erase and Forget)

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a German-born, London-based artist, filmmaker and activist who has become known for her essay films on gentrification, Taskafa, Stories of the Street and Estate, A Reverie. At first glance her new film, Erase and Forget, seems to inhabit a different universe, that of James ‘Bo’ Gritz, the Vietnam vet and alt-right hero who is best known as being the model for Rambo.

However, Zimmerman has been working on this film for more than a decade, and what links all her films is a concern with the deeper structures that create these characters and situations, such as in Taskafa, where a film ostensibly about street dogs in Istanbul becomes a eloquent exploration of the effects of gentrification and social class.

Zimmerman certainly sees a consistency in her work. “With Estate, a Reverie gentrification became the context, but it was on a deeper level about the structures that determine how we are able to live within them (or not), and everyday refusals to accept a prescribed way of being. In this way it is an inquiry into how people negotiate and navigate power. Power is quite slippery and in disguise until one is affected by it, in the case of Estate the prolonged making invisible of a community in the public eye (the rhetoric of sink estates, benefit fraudsters, deprived communities, all these ideas lead to a sense of the abject that can then be ‘fixed’ by either demolition or large-scale displacement like on the Haygate estate), with eventual demolition of the estate. With Erase and Forget I am exploring again questions of power and structural violence, this time through the relationship between covert and secret military operations and Hollywood cinema based on or inspired by them, or even shaping them. So, public and private memory are at the centre of both films, who gets to remember, whose memories are visible, whose voices are heard and why (not).”

Certainly, Bo is a fascinating, complex, but deeply ambiguous character, but Erase and Forget is no mere character study. The Vietnam War was perhaps the biggest trauma to undermine the American national psyche in the twentieth century, as soldiers in the field and protestors at home came to lose faith in their government, and question both its and the media’s motives, effects which are still at play in American society today. Zimmerman explains, “I met him during research into US involvement in Indonesia during the 1960s. I found him at a time in his life where he seemed wanting to go on a journey to find out what he was part of. Initially I didn’t think of making a long film with him, and focused on research for a different film that would show many more people in it, but the more material I found that concerned parts of his history, such as Tudor Gates’ and Patrick King’s rushes to a (never completed) documentary about Khun Sa and the CIA, the Afghan training film, the hundreds of television clips, his presidential campaign, etc, I realised that through this one person I could explore the way in which we in the West, over the last 50 years, went on a journey that we today call post-truth.”

The visual texture of the film is a disorientating montage of verite, archive and Hollywood footage, combined with Bo enacting out aspects of his history, perfectly encapsulating the vertiginous slippage between fact, fantasy and mediated reality that Bo’s life has become. After all, not only was Rambo based on him, but Clint Eastwood and William Shatner financed the mission, where he may or may not have found American prisoners still held in Vietnam.

At first, the viewer believes Bo; as one commentator notes, his experience gives him authority in the field. But as the film progresses, the viewer’s incredulity becomes strained – did he really also inspire the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith, and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, a film Bo predictably, can’t stand?

Zimmerman concedes that “Bo is an unreliable narrator. When you look at covert operations, those that succeeded we usually never know about, so we can only study their effects. I think the spaces in between official and private memory are where we might find truth. The gestures, the inflections of the voice, the words masking what’s unsaid behind them, and the action movie genre that even the news adopt at certain times speaking about war. Hollywood told its story, and people heard it and felt it. For instance, First Blood is a work of art, it is also very much an anti-war movie. Then the character became another kind of Uberhuman killing machine for the sequel (then the highest on-screen kills at that time). This I think this is another kind of fact, the making of myth, and cinema has a key part in that, which is of course used by governments all over the world, and why there is also direct support to works that are deemed favourable of certain positions. The betrayal of that myth is what is almost impossible to bear. Hollywood has always been part of the making of a truth (ideology), since Pancho Villa, Birth of a Nation etc, it is persuasive and powerful. The news tells us one story, Hollywood another, and Bo is the interlocutor, and in no way more stable. Then there is the devastating archive where he trains Afghan mujahedeen or films drug running with Khun Sa. So instead of finding out ‘what really happened’ we collated these different strands together into one montage to allow the viewer to see the way in which they all have different agendas and tear at each other, and that truth is ultimately something we need to ask for daily and rigorously, and not expecting to be told by one ‘stable’ narrator.”

While Bo enjoys the limelight, playing up to both public attention and Zimmerman’s camera, there’s a dark side to him, and a sense that his covert actions for the government have completely undermined his faith in the American state. His activities here have made him a beacon for the alt-right, as Zimmerman explains. “All of us are part of a system that makes enormous profits out of structural and political violence. Bo is really a witness to the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Given the enormous rise in alt-right activity in the US and elsewhere, it is crucial to understand where such ideologies come from, and how they express themselves over time, both among citizens, and within government and state structures.”

This puts him at odds with his devotion to the military life, where he tried to live up to his father’s memory, and the myth of machismo he attempts to emulate, trotting himself out at gun rallies, and encouraging young recruits to follow a military life. One kills himself the next day; Bo himself eloquently describes his own suicide attempt as, “You shoot yourself in the head, but that’s not where the pain is. The pain is in the heart”.

As Zimmerman notes, this is prefigured in the very first Rambo film. “In the original ending of First Blood, Rambo shoots himself in the heart (which is in my film). That ending was rejected by test audiences and instead Rambo lived on to become the segue to Rambo II, the most violent movie to date then. Sebastian Junger in Tribe writes about how in the US the suicide rate mirrors that of the unemployment rate. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 22 a day. It is addressed through medicalisation and pathologising, not as a national crisis, which it is.”

While Zimmerman may have begun making the film over a decade ago, it has, if anything, become even more relevant over that time, with the rise of the alt-right, the increasing belief in conspiracy theories, the prevalence of fake news and the spiralling levels of gun violence which continually dominate American news. “Gun culture is a myth that is tightly guarded and protected. And myth is more powerful than reason, so we need to look at the big picture of structural violence, and to have a genuine dialogue around power and privilege. The statistics on mass shootings are shocking, and gun control needs a broader dialogue on why people feel the need to have them. I worked in one of the poorest places in the US to make this film and witnessed a suicide by gun, and it took a couple of hours for the police to arrive. Why are people so against their government – many of these people served in the US army, and many are very poor. Why do we think killing is acceptable at all?

“In this sense I genuinely believe that Erase and Forget provides a useful, personal, and socially relevant framework for understanding the complexity of these issues. Because it focuses on one public figure, someone who embodies all the contradictions of post-war American society, audiences can follow the choices such a character makes, and the ‘lines in the sand’ that each of us is required to draw, beyond which we won’t go, beyond which morality and ethics start to break down.”

Brian Beadie


Erase and Forget screens at Document, Saturday 21/10 at 6pm.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Erase and Forget producer Ameenah Ayub Allen will join Director of LUX Scotland Nicole Yip after the screening for a Q&A and for a SUPERLUX Masterclass on Sunday 22/10 at 12pm.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman will also take part in the Truth and Power 2: Ethics of the Documentary Filmmaker panel discussion on Sunday 22/1o at 4pm.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900

NB the screening and masterclass are free to all SUPERLUX members. Booking through LUX Scotland website.

Erase and Forget

Interview: Roberto Minervini (The Other Side)

Your first three films, The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart, comprise what you have called the “Texas trilogy”. Your last work, The Other Side, explores and tells the stories of the people and places of Louisiana. How did you make contact with these communities?

I came to Louisiana thanks to Todd Trichell, the patriarch of the bull riders you see in Stop the Pounding Heart and the father of Colby, the boy who is the protagonist of the film. For me Todd was a sort of guide, introducing me to the ways and places of the south of the US. He has a difficult story of his own which resonates with the people of Louisiana. He saved himself, left the poverty and ruins of Louisiana to try his luck in fertile, rich Texas, and made a life for himself there. He’s the only one of his circle who succeeded in getting out. The family we see in Louisiana is related to Todd: his sister, Lisa, is the girlfriend one of the protagonists of The Other Side. Because of this, I started working in West Monroe in north Louisiana to get to know Todd’s and his family’s roots. The initial idea was to explore Todd’s past so I could better understand his present and then work backwards. But once I got to Louisiana I discovered an entire world, and I never left. I began to see this place was not a starting point for understanding the characters in Texas but instead a destination. I had to launch a new exploration. What I had thought would be the final stretch of a long cycle – meaning the trilogy – had become a new beginning.

What did you find in Louisiana?

In north Louisiana, unemployment is 60 percent. The people are ravaged by amphetamines and poverty. Initially the film was going to tell small, intimate, family stories but then the scope widened because the common denominator of all these communities is anger at everyone who isn’t like them, especially the institutions that abandoned them. The film began to take on a political cast, and this led me into the paramilitary communities. As the scope of the film widened, so did its ambition of telling a larger and less known story: the story of the Midwest, a region in freefall, jobless, anti-government, anti-free market, anti-institution, and where public opinion and government policy had been completely delinked. This was the story not just of the Trichells but also of the events that were affecting a very important area of the United States. For me, this meant a shift from an approach of observation and personal analysis to one that was more political.

The Other Side

Given this change in approach, why did you choose to tell the stories of Mark, Lisa, Jim, and the other members of the community?

It was a gradual process that began in the summer of 2013, when I travelled to West Monroe to meet the extended Trichell family. In contrast to Texas, and Texans, in Louisiana the first thing you sense is anger. The people I met immediately took me in, made me a part of their lives, and making absolutely clear their desire to be heard and seen.

I remember well meeting the future protagonists of the film for the first time at a diner. They said right off, “We never set foot in places like this. Everyone’s looking at us, rich whites and poor blacks. We don’t belong to either, or any other group, because we’re poor whites. We were cast out of this society. We’re in limbo, we’re angry about it, and we don’t want to stay this way.” The discussion immediately became political, and the film did as well.

After the first meetings, I went back between October and December 2013 to deepen my understanding and make sure that they would remain open to me in the presence of a movie camera. They did. Their desire to make themselves heard came across genuine, pure, and clear, camera or no camera. The difference between this project and the Texas trilogy is that I was led by hand, even dragged by force, into this world. The final choice of characters thus happened naturally. The characters emerged because they wanted their stories to be heard, each in his or her own way: some spoke of their suffering, others merely wanted to be seen, like the pregnant woman or the boy who dreamed of being a soldier. The actions and bodies alone of these people speak with disarming eloquence.

How did you end up among the paramilitary group, which is the second community featured in the film?

After a year of establishing contact, gathering material, and exchanging ideas, the members of the community of drug addicts made real progress in their process of self-discovery, grew more courageous, and understood that they were subversives in their own way. What had been anger was transformed into a need for insubordination. I don’t mean armed insubordination, in part because some of them cannot legally own weapons – which they feel is a violation of their constitutional right, as serious as denial of the right to vote. Unable to own weapons, they feel vulnerable. I discussed this subject with them at length, and in our discussions they made frequent mention of “the other side”, meaning, the community of those who had weapons. And thus, in what had turned into a sort of sociological study of a deep and forgotten zone of America, I sought out “armed groups” that were animated by the same rage and insubordination. This was possible, again, thanks to certain members of the extended Trichell family, who introduced me to the paramilitary world.

The paramilitary group is very different from the West Monroe group. Their ideology seems so extreme they could be considered fanatics.

The paramilitary group made radical life choices. It transformed itself into an insular community fortified by powerful ideals. Becoming the other side, crossing to the far shore, barricading themselves against other people, all this is a question of survival that is explicitly stated in the film. For these warriors, their struggle is not about politics or class or society or immigration but simply about themselves and their families, which represent the last bulwark for them. Without family, for them all is lost.

It is important to note that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the concept of National Security changed drastically in the U.S. The 2002 National Security Plan of George Bush gave the federal government significant new powers, legitimised the use of force to resolve conflicts, even domestically – like the recent escalation of police violence against black Americans – and eroded privacy protections of citizens. These changes threw into crisis the unity of the country by bringing into sharp relief the social, economic, and political differences between the various states and regions.

If the premises that American society was founded upon are in crisis, then the rhetoric of the paramilitary groups no longer sounds fanatic but is instead an expression of discomfort, the valid concern for a society that is breaking apart. They feel abandoned by the institutions and think their ancestral rights are being trampled. The paramilitary groups like white power (Mark and Jim) are on the other side of an island that is breaking away.

Your mode of filming is characterized by a closeness, almost an intimacy, with the people you are lming. Even when the subject matter is very difficult, and you are showing the characters in extreme situations or expressing repulsive ideas, the humanity of these characters emerges. Can you talk about that?

Respect and trust are born and grow image by image. I shoot just 20 percent of the time. In the rest I build up a relationship of a kind of love with the characters, a love without promises or vows, a love that takes you by surprise, that forms moment by moment. The relationship that developed with these people is honest and very mature, and obviously is not one formed in a few days. I have known the Trichell family since 2011. We have worked together on three films. That is why they introduced me to their extended family in Louisiana as someone who could be trusted completely. Then when we began shooting, my crew and I spent entire days and nights together with the characters of the film, sharing very intimate and personal situations in which we put ourselves on the line, openly stating what our intentions were. Without this initial straightforwardness, this candidness, the truth and the humanity of these characters would not have emerged.

The Other Side

I’d like you to say something about the question of the “fiction of the documentary”. Your films show real people in real situations. These “witnesses” are transformed into “characters” the moment that in the film they become protagonists in the story of their lives.

I want to capture the real, what I see. I have no orthodox film making training. I studied documentary film making but I am not a “master” of the language of documentaries, or the language of fiction. What I probably know best is the language of the still image, of photography, reporting. That’s why I say I try to capture what I see.

There is no acting in my films. There are renderings of the real chosen together with the people I am filming, selected to best represent the characters. They are not moving images but rather still images that I combine in a sequence. My eye is photographic. This sequence of photograms shares somewhat the rhythm of fiction films, one the one hand, and the content of cinema verite on the other. It lies in between the two.

Could you share something of your approach to making a film?

I’d say the essential element of the way I make films is getting out of the way. This means above all that we, the crew, come across as a non-crew, and melt into the environment.

The camera is stripped of all accessories. In fact we use a single lens and one small monitor that we all share. There is little else, a few cables, maybe a camera without a mic. This lets us come across as amateur film makers, as if we were just making a home movie. And it lets me recede as author, as omniscient film maker. This is the most important element.

The other crucial element is the length of each take. We shoot without interruption for at least 20 minutes, normally in total silence, because with such long takes the relationship between me and the characters is no longer merely visual and aural but almost olfactory. The camera essentially disappears. Ultimately this submersion in the scene also involves a loss of control over how the shots turn out, and an almost complete passing of the baton from myself to the subjects of the film.

Until now I always recorded sound with a boom, never wireless, to keep from interfering with the organic flow of the scene. In this film the situation is slightly different. Certain characters have become an integral part of the creative process; I work together with them on building the scenes, so in a way they are also the authors, directors, and film makers. Perhaps I went too far.

Had you written out anything in advance of starting to shoot, or did the structure emerge in the editing process?

During the shooting of The Other Side, Denise Ping Lee, the co-writer of the film, was always taking notes, which we would look over together at the end of each day as we analyzed each situation. It was a daily process of seeing where the stories we were telling converged or diverged, and deciding where they would go from there. We shared all of these decisions with the characters right away and adjusted them together if necessary. Denise and I are spider-writers, meaning we are happy spinning a web however intricate and complex it is. This became the basic structure of the film.

Interview by Dario Zonta


The Other Side screens during Document 2016 at 6:10pm on Sunday 23 October in the CCA Cinema. Buy tickets here.