It’s only been a week since Document 2017. Thanks to everyone who makes the festival what it is – all our amazing guests, our wonderful collaborators, our incredible volunteers and, of course, the audience.
A particular thanks to everyone who filled in a feedback form over the festival weekend – we value your feedback very much. If you missed your chance then, we’d still love to know what you thought, good or bad, to help us improve the festival. We’ve set up an online survey that will only take a few minutes to complete. It can be found here.
We have more photographs and discussion of the festival to come, so watch this space. Otherwise, the conversation will continue towards our 2018 festival – starting this week, with our screening of Stranger In Paradise at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, with director Guido Hendrikx in attendance. More details of that here.
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.
It’s true—some will say that I caused the death of Mayer Vishner. That by telling his story, I gave him permission to take his own life. Others—his doctors and his close friends—tell me that the filming kept him alive, giving him a reason to carry on. Sadly, I believe that both are correct…I extended Mayer’s life while ensuring his death.
I first met Mayer when I was shooting the documentary No Impact Man—the story of a family trying to live in New York City with no environmental impact. Mayer was the only member of the local community garden growing vegetables. In his words, the other gardeners were bourgeois flower growing narcissists. Mayer was a true Greenwich Village character, and to him, everything was political. A lifelong radical, he grew up resenting the 1950s post-war conformity he was born into and then switched his focus to the fight against the draft and the Vietnam War. Mayer wasn’t content to just march—he organised, strategised, and made his home in the activist community. One of the original Yippies, he was mentored by the legends—Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Dave Dellinger. But unlike many, Mayer never stopped protesting. He never stopped fighting with the world.
The mantra of Mayer’s youth was “never trust anyone over 30.” When I met him, he was pushing 60 and struggling with a world in which the revolution never came. I proposed a documentary profile and he opened his life to me. As our friendship solidified, it became clear that Mayer was engaged in serious battles with depression and alcohol. It was six months into filming when he confided to me that he was preparing for his “last political act”—his suicide. Suddenly, this was no longer a short documentary profile—it was life and death.
I had never before been faced with the tragedy of a potential suicide victim, and I was in no way equipped to handle it on my own. I went with Mayer to his physician and psychiatrist and witnessed as he tried to make the case for his own death to them. Knowing that he was in the care of professionals was essential to my continuing with the project. But I had become part of the story. We’d become close and I didn’t want him to die, but I also understood that he was in tremendous psychic pain. To force him to live in that pain also seemed cruel. The film he wanted me to make had a sad ending, yet the act of filming was keeping him alive. I was stuck.
I did some research and learned that, although Mayer suffered in his isolation, he was in no way a rare case. The suicide rate for men Mayer’s age has increased almost 50% in the past decade. His generation, the baby boomers, a generation that has had such an impact on the way they’d lived, were now choosing, more and more, to take this unconventional outlook to the way they approached death. As Mayer said: “My suicide is part of a lifelong quest for agency for the species and for myself. And as we grow older, more and more baby boomers will feel the way I do.”
It is my hope that Left on Purpose can serve as a point of departure for discussions of the issues at the heart of the film that are so often spoken about in hushed tones—if at all. How do we care for a loved one who doesn’t want to live? What does it mean to help someone in pain? There are no easy answers, but it is important to ask the questions.
Suicide is a tragedy that is never simple and straightforward. For Mayer, I believe there were a number of factors that came together to make ending his life a viable option. Perhaps the most operative factor was his lifelong depression. As a young man he persevered through the difficult times, aided by a close working relationship with his psychiatrist and the support of the community he found in the anti-war movement. By the mid 1970s, the war ended and Mayer’s therapist died in a car accident, leaving him without the support system on which he had so depended. Unmoored, Mayer began to rely more on self-medicating through drugs and alcohol; providing temporary “anesthesia,” but leading to a cycle of depression and dependence that lasted until his death.
Psychologists have long regarded suicide as being contagious — that is, it is a behaviour that is prone to being copied or imitated. Quite a few people in Mayer’s life made the tragic decision to end their own lives. In the late 1970s Mayer’s friend and legendary troubadour of the anti-war movement, Phil Ochs, succumbed to his mental illness and alcohol addition. More impactful in Mayer’s trajectory perhaps was the well-known photo taken in 1971 of young Mayer sitting between Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and High Times Magazine founder Tom Forcade. Mayer referred to that photo as “two suicides and a procrastinator,” as both Forcade and Mayer’s close friend and mentor Hoffman took their lives. Hoffman’s first wife, as well as his daughter—both of whom Mayer knew well, also killed themselves. I believe that the suicide of these people he was so close to made his decision a real possibility.
Similarly, I believe that Mayer’s politics, while not the cause of his decision to end his life, were clearly a contributing factor. As stated in Left on Purpose, Mayer looked at everything from a political perspective. Mayer defined himself through his freethinking and his rebelliousness. (There was a time when the Hippies in San Francisco tried to “rebrand” themselves as “freemen.”) The fact that suicide is a taboo of church and state no doubt made it more than a personal act for Mayer and turned it into a statement.
Lastly, Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Thought he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organiser. Greenwich Village was just that—a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced, Mayer felt more and more disconnected.