“I make films to show realities differently”

Alba Sotorra

Alba Sotorra Clua (Reus, 1980) makes documentary films out of a desire to become acquainted with realities and provide a different perspective to the one conveyed by the Western media that fuels stereotypes. Many of her documentaries are related to her travels, especially in the Middle East. She has filmed women artists (Unveiled Views), Kurdish women at war with the Islamic State (Commander Arian) and Western women currently detained in Syria to support Daesh (The Return). Also the author of Qatar: The Race and Game Over – which earned the Gaudí Award for Best Documentary in 2016 –, she will shoot her next film in Barcelona, ​​a project starring visual artist Francesca Llopis.

I talked to Alba Sotorra when she had just got back to Barcelona after a week on the road to present The End Will Be Spectacular, a Kurdish film that reconstructs the siege perpetrated by the Turkish army in the Sur district of the city of Diyarbakir, between late 2015 and early 2016. The director, Ersin Çelik, who has moved to the film world following an extensive career in journalism, portrays the resistance of the Kurdish residents of Diyarbakir, especially young women and men. The Erdogan regime in Turkey made life so impossible for the Kurds that they rose up against the regime. The response was appalling military violence during the siege: there were many casualties and wounded and the district was virtually destroyed.

Alba Sotorra has collaborated in the film’s production on account of her links with the Kurdish people. To present the film, she travelled with members of her team (Mar Garro, Andrea Vilches and Nabil Bensedick) and the Kurdish producer Diyar Esso, to San Sebastián, Bilbao, El Ferrol, Santiago de Compostela and Madrid. At the beginning of last November, having managed to premiere in Girona, Barcelona and Cambrils, the screenings in Catalonia had to be interrupted to comply with COVID-19 measures.

The End Will Be Spectacular is a good reflection of the spirit of resistance: the struggle for existence linked to life and for the identity they want to snatch from you.

If the Kurds were no longer Kurds, they would have no problems in Turkey. They fight to continue to exist as Kurds. This incites state aggression, which can sometimes be especially violent, such as the siege of Diyarbakir. The clashes lasted more than 100 days, until 12 March 2016. On that day, 42 fighters perpetrated the final attacks to break the army’s siege; 35 militants gave their lives for seven people to come out alive who, with the duty of telling the story and preserving the memory of the dead, have disclosed the facts that the Erdogan regime has hidden. They are aware that the rest of the world is never sensitive enough to the suffering of the Kurdish people. What sets the film apart is that it is conceived, filmed and starring people involved in the events it recounts, even two of the seven survivors (“Haki” and “Servan the Pirate”) play themselves. The important thing is that everyone’s voice is included, the voice of the living and the dead; the script is based on the diaries of those who took part in that resistance and salvaged by those who managed to escape the siege.

It constitutes the first film produced in Rojava in the wake of the revolution that made it an autonomous Kurdish community within Syrian territory.

It is a revolution that brewed in the war against the Islamic State’s army in which many Kurdish women, the militia of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), have actively participated under the motto: “Resistance lies in the spirit of a free woman”. This liberation struggle has spawned a revolution in Rojava: an absolutely equal political system, with no equivalence around the world and collective forms of economic organisation.

This struggle is also depicted in your documentary Commander Arian, in which the lead character, who gives the film its name, encapsulates the free spirit of these tough women.

Commander Arian was surprised that I didn’t film her comrades-in-arms more. I felt the film should focus on this brave woman with a heightened awareness of the reason behind her struggle, which is also to exist, and who endured a painful recovery after being seriously wounded: resistance in the experience of extreme fragility. When I went to Rojava, when I found out about this all-female group of Kurdish militia, I had no idea what I’d do or if I could make a film about it. First of all, I had to earn their trust to live alongside them and get to know them. I succeeded, but what I filmed during the first visit didn’t interest them much, because it portrayed their day-to-day life in non-combat times, cooking, doing laundry, talking or singing, a very common pursuit amongst the Kurds. They wanted me to show them as female guerrillas and so they took me to the front, protecting me at all times.

It takes a lot of courage to make this film.

Much less than these women have. Kurdish women rallying together to fight against the Islamic State’s army, which abused them and killed them if they did not submit to ISIS, strongly piqued my interest. For me, making documentaries stems from a need to experience a reality, to understand it and explain it afterwards. The ability to understand the other comes through an emotional bond. I listen through involvement, not through distant observation. That’s why my documentaries are wholly tied to a life experience and I’m fully involved in it.

Unlike other documentary filmmakers, your subjectivity is not expressed through the narrative use of your voice or your presence in the images.

It is not by choice. In the case of Commander Arian, the production company insisted that I express myself and I resisted. I found it superfluous because my experience is already featured in the film: without it, I couldn’t have made it. But most of all I thought my voice could steal the limelight from Commander Arian. It is a conscious decision and not at all removed from a political intent: my mission is to give a voice to others.

You are finishing a film in which you give a voice to women on the other side of the female Kurdish guerrillas: women from Western countries who joined Islamic fighters in Syria and are now in detention camps and whose countries of origin are not demanding their repatriation.

Alba Sotorra en el terrat on s'ha fet l'entrevista, amb vistes a Sagrada Família i la torre Agbar al fons. © Laura Guerrero Alba Sotorra on the roof of the building where the interview was conducted, with views of the Sagrada Família and the Glòries tower in the background. © Laura Guerrero

Yes, it will be entitled The Return: Life After ISIS. Once again, I was moved by the desire to discover, to listen and to understand from a perspective other than absolute hatred and condemnation – propagated by the Western media – that supports the idea that they are left to rot where they are. I want to provide a document that will make you think and draw your own conclusions once you hear the voices of these women. Hailing from different countries and different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, they went to Syria to help the fight against the oppressors who were bombing women and children and that, they believed, had to be for freedom. They encountered something else: they were married off to Islamic soldiers and were practically enslaved. What’s more, each of them has their own story and reasons for being involved, and their reaction to what they have experienced varies. Some have become even more radical while others regret it or feel strange about themselves because of the decision they made. This does not mean that you have to agree or you have to understand them; their testimony reminds us of the complexity of this case, like so many others. I make documentary films with the idea of rethinking the viewer’s standpoint on something. And this begins with myself: In my documentaries I try not to face a reality with preconceived ideas, but to question such ideas. I make films to know the reality, not to confirm something I think I know.

There is a documentary practice, associated with the television format, which appears to seek to illustrate a previous idea and search for evidence. In the “creative documentary”, more related to cinema, based on a desire to ascertain a reality, there is a certain leaning towards the unexpected, a search for the unknown. There are also experiences in which the boundaries between documentary and fiction are blurred.

The interest in and beauty of making documentaries is that when you start out you don’t really know what will come of it. As you say, there are other ways of making them, but I’m less interested in them. The ones I like coincide with the fictions that unfold unexpectedly without just staging a closed pre-script. The division perhaps ought not be established between documentary and fiction, but between a standardised commercial cinema, which defines certain guidelines through a closed script, and another (I don’t know whether to say independent) that allows a territory to be explored and in which the film is an open process that can take you to places you couldn’t have imagined when it first began to take shape.

Going back to The Return, is it the return of Commander Arian?

It somehow complements it, but if it has been possible it is because of the relationship I forged with the Kurdish guerrillas while filming Commander Arian. They control the camps where these women are detained and gave me access. This also says something: they do not prevent these other women – in principle their enemies – from being able to express themselves and be heard. In fact, they even listen to them. In the film, a Kurdish woman engages in the task of listening and ends up “forgiving” them. I have noticed that the Kurds do not have a vengeful attitude: existing is what matters to them. Who am I to judge them? The truth is, I didn’t expect to empathise with them so much or to feel hardly any different to them in some ways, such as feeling dissatisfied with a world fraught with injustice and inequality. Another thing is the decisions and actions they have taken in this regard.

Women are at the heart of most of your films, starting with the first, Unveiled Views (2008), based on a hitchhiking trip to Pakistan.

The idea was to portray women in the Muslim world who stand out from the stereotypes – laden with prejudices – conveyed by the Western media. I affirm that this is always the idea: to show realities differently. There are five women associated with creation as a form of freedom: a Bosnian conceptual artist performing in minefields; a Turkish singer focused on her work as a lawyer to advocate human rights; an Iranian filmmaker with the courage to address taboo subjects in her country, such as drug addiction and prostitution; an Afghan woman who, in the Taliban era, cultivated the only art allowed: poetry (and in privacy); and a Pakistani dancer who had to leave her country when dancing was banned. Women also star in Commander Arian and The Return, and my next film will be about Francesca Llopis, but the other films I’ve made (Game Over and Qatar: The Race) have a strong male presence. In Qatar: The Race (2011), I addressed the country’s contradictions with the fastest growing economy on the planet by way of three interrelated men: a Qatari man who made his fortune camel racing, a Sudanese immigrant and an engineer from northern Catalonia. The more you succeed in the system, the more its alienation grabs you. One of the things I explore in my films is the impact of the capitalist, consumerist and patriarchal economic system on people.

An example would be Game Over (2014), in which a boy from Santa Coloma de Farners (Djalal), who had played war games since he was a child, discovers the reality of the war in Afghanistan.

And war is very different to how he had imagined as a child playing with toy weapons. In war he sees that there are real people in the line of fire whom he could kill. He filmed himself feeling this uneasiness, and I had the material recorded by Djalal himself. When he returns from Afghanistan, he doesn’t know what to do with his life, as is the case with many young people today. Djalal, from a middle-class family, undergoes a crisis that stems from following a model: the values of a man as a fighter who, as if it were also a triumph, sees himself with a house and a car. I present him without judging the person.

The End Will Be Spectacular shows that Kurdish women have become guerrillas because they had no other choice to save their lives and be free. I remember an interview in which they mentioned that, while the men celebrated victories after fighting, they remained silent, aware of the deaths on their side and the other.

It’s a testosterone thing, although the Kurdish men in Rojava have done a critical job of shedding patriarchal and sexist values. In any case, the fact is that women experienced victories and war itself differently.

What do you think feminism should be?

For me, a fundamental issue is how we understand empowerment. It is sometimes confused with being part of male organisational and power structures, in which women have to dispose of their identity in order to adapt to them. New non-patriarchal structures need to be built. Is it a victory for women to become leaders? Indeed, leadership must be challenged. It is not about who is the leader, but about transforming society so that there is more equality. A point has been reached in which many women are no longer talking about men and women, but about how to escape from upper-class, white male-dominated structures. It is not a question of having power, but of calling it into question, and it being shared and not being monopolised by some to exercise control over others.

You mentioned that your next film will feature visual artist Francesca Llopis.

Yes, it will be called Francesca and Love. It will also call into question what society determines you should be, in this case in relation to a woman after a certain age, when your body is no longer that of a young person and has allegedly ceased to be attractive, so she is forced to give up certain things. What Francesca does is rebel. On the other hand, I’m excited to be shooting in Barcelona for the first time, and I plan to pay tribute to the city.

Precisely, after filming and travelling around the world, you will do so in Barcelona, where you haven’t lived for long. You didn’t even study film at UPF [Pompeu Fabra University] or ESCAC [Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia], like other directors of your generation.

I have lived here before at different times in my life. The first time was when I was 18, after spending the previous year studying in New York. It was just before I went to university. It is true that the ESCAC was already up and running and there were studies in Audiovisual Communication at UPF, and also at other universities in Barcelona, but I decided to study at the Complutense University of Madrid. There I had the opportunity to find out how the film industry worked because the university had contacts for internships, and I also realised that I didn’t want to make industrial films. The last year of my degree, I did it at a university in Puerto Rico, which works in the same way as the United States. When I finished, I hitchhiked for a year to Pakistan and Unveiled Views is the product of that experience.

Retrat d'Alba Sotorra. © Laura Guerrero Portrait of Alba Sotorra. © Laura Guerrero

When you returned from this trip, you did a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies at the Rovira i Virgili University, in Tarragona. I find your getting educated beyond film studies and in relation to your interest in the world, which is reflected in your films, very meaningful.

These studies were very interesting. Above all, the master’s afforded me knowledge of the Mediterranean world. Then, I moved back to Barcelona. I later resided in Berlin while continuing to travel the world. Returning to Barcelona is tied in with the fact that, while presenting my first films at international festivals, I met people from the Catalan audiovisual world, such as Marta Figueres, who has become my co-producer.

Around the world, what is said about Barcelona?

It’s amazing how it’s associated with football. Barça is renowned in the most remote places. More recently, you are asked about the political situation in Catalonia. Especially in the case of the Kurds, who consider us their comrades-in-arms. Actually, I think their conditions are much harsher than ours. The fact is that they are acutely aware of us. Much more than we are of them.

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