The acclaimed Kurdish documentary Gulîstan, Land of Roses (2016) follows a group of female fighters in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as they battle the Islamic State in Northern Iraq. Director Zaynê Akyol conceived her film as a tribute to Gulîstan, a Kurdish activist she’d known in Montreal who left for Iraq to join the Free Women’s Unit of the PKK. Unable to find her, however, when she went to Iraq in 2010 to make her documentary, Akyol reoriented the focus toward capturing the stories of women like Gulîstan who’d also dedicated their lives to the organization’s egalitarian cause. With dozens of other fighters echoing the spirit of the title’s still-mysterious figure, the film’s homage to feminine heroism became all the more complex and compelling in scope.
Most importantly, Gulîstan, Land of Roses sheds light on the unrecognized feminist face of efforts to liberate the Middle East from the grip of Islamist radicals. Rarely does cinema or the media present images of women preparing for battle, training together, talking military strategy, and speaking in expert terms about artillery. Akyol’s documentary contains all of this. It opens with a striking close-up of the brigade’s senior commander, Sozdar, as she pulls back her hair from her eyes to show us a hidden scar. “I wish it ran across my cheek,” she says, smiling. “I think it would be more beautiful.” It’s as if she’s likening her traces of combat to a line of poetry.
The rest of the documentary is defined by more of these fascinating one-on-one interviews. Over the course of Akyol’s film, the women share their personal stories and motivations for enlisting in the PKK. Many were compelled by the atrocities committed against young women and girls in the region, who’d been kidnapped by ISIS and forced into sex slavery. Some had lived in villages under ISIS threat. Rather than wait as helpless victims, they joined the resistance. In one scene, Sozdar gestures toward a cliff in the now-liberated town of Sinjar that was once under ISIS siege: “Forty women,” she says, “threw themselves off of this cliff, rather than be raped and sold by ISIS.”
Rojen, another senior PKK member, tells Akyol she was motivated both by ISIS brutality and by Turkish society’s pervasive sexism. She expresses regret at having left her mother and sister behind but affirms that joining the ranks of the PKK was her only option, the bleak alternative being marriage. “Married women dedicate themselves to slavery,” she says. “They are never happy.” Her desire to escape this reality echoes the dark portrait of domestic and sexual violence in Turkey seen at this year’s ÉCU film festival with Merve Gezen’s “Scrabble,” as four women spell out chains of words – rape, death, incest, slap, slut, destruction, homicide – that have marked their lives.
Having chosen a radical existence over a conventional one, the female fighters in Akyol’s documentary enjoy a rare equality with their male counterparts. The film contains multiple scenes of PKK gatherings, with men and women members chanting songs together, honoring the organization’s leader Abdullah Öcalan, talking political ideology, and exchanging thoughts on military strategies for imminent combat.
Akyol offers a far more sympathetic understanding of the PKK than the Western media, which has largely emphasized the separatists’ indiscriminate clashes with the Turkish army. In Gulîstan, a clear principle informs the women’s military engagements: to never initiate strikes against the enemy, but to always come to the defense of innocents the enemy has attacked. Not until the very end of the film do we see the women prepare to liberate an ISIS-held town. Most of their time is spent tracking the Islamic State’s movements, all while training for the possibility of battle at a moment’s notice. In an age where war is hardly witnessed outside of mediatized or dramatized formats, Gulîstan is a rare glimpse into a conflict zone as combat preparations unfold in real time.
The slower pace of her film allows Akyol to engage her subjects with an intimacy and candidness that is exceptional even by documentary standards. As the tension of approaching battle begins to mount, the women never stop speaking with Akyol and drawing her into their company and daily routines. They are constantly held to high standards of discipline, yet we feel their sense of compassion remains wholly intact.
Multiple critics have contrasted Gulîstan to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which also focuses on new recruits as they are drilled for combat, yet bears cynical witness to their devolution into cruelly conditioned beings. Unlike Kubrick’s detached shots of identical-looking soldiers, Akyol’s documentary is full of poetic close-ups that “emphasize the absence of anything brutal” (POV Magazine) and fuse the women’s shared political fervor with individuality and introspective purpose.
The close-ups in Gulîstan are its salient feature. As the women speak to the camera about their fears, dreams, motivations, and preparations for battle, we feel they are confiding in us. Even Akyol admitted she hardly expected “so much friendship and openness” when she arrived at their camp to film. Throughout Gulîstan, they emanate a camaraderie which, at times, even makes us forget we’re in the middle of a war zone.
Since Halil Dag’s Berîtan (2006) – another homage to a legendary female PKK fighter – Gulîstan is the most important documentary to date about the PKK and the role of its female fighters in Middle East conflict. With a style that is patient and inquisitive, Akyol proves that even in a context as potentially radicalizing as war, film remains a medium that is immensely capable of humanizing its subjects.