In 2019 a crew of experienced documentary makers travelled to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), commonly known as Rojava. The cameras followed Janet Biehl as she got to grips with the role that her late partner Murray Bookchin’s ideas played in the region’s Kurdish-led revolutionary movement.
That documentary, called Road to Rojava, is now reaching its final stages of production. The team isasking for help to complete the crowdfunder and finish the film.
This is an interview with directors, Danny Mitchell and Ross Domoney, and looks at the experiences they had making the documentary. The pair met at a screening of The Accidental Anarchist and realised they shared a vision of documenting daily life in Rojava.
What motivated you both to make the documentary?
DM: I have been interested in the revolution in Rojava since I first heard about it around 2014. I wanted to explore what was happening there as a filmmaker and go behind the news headlines because at the time, most of the news was primarily focused on the battles with ISIS and there was hardly anything about the political project being developed in Rojava. I had tried different ways of approaching the story but nothing had materialised but had heard Janet speak at various conferences and was intrigued by her story. I was interested in her connection with Murray Bookchin and how Abdullah Öcalan had used some of Bookchin’s revolutionary ideas as part of the political framework for the revolution in Rojava. I thought this could be a good way to approach the story and may help to bring it to a wider audience.
RD: I had been interested in the politics of Syria since the beginning of the uprising against the authoritarian regime of Bashar Al Assad in 2011. It was not so easy for me to go to other parts of Syria amongst the conflict and I am not a frontline war reporter. The politics of North and East Syria where the Rojava revolution happened, particularly interested me and it was more accessible with the right connections. I had tried to go there twice in the past but the situation was too dangerous so the trips had not gone ahead. I wanted to explore with my camera the radical democratic experiment that was being played out amongst the ashes of war. And where I was interested in the politics of the ecologist Murray Bookchin, I was most interested in learning about life there from the people of North and East Syria. I wanted to spend time with them, and find ways to use the film-making process to put the most value cinematically to their stories. I wanted to go beyond the poster images some western leftists where imagining of the Rojava revolution. We saw a lot of people re-sharing images of women with machine guns taking on ISIS. Of course this is amazing bravery (and we have also captured some of these images in our film). However I wanted to use the film-making process to go further and explore the different layers of the revolutionary society in Rojava.
How did you come to work with Janet Biehl?
DM: I had been thinking about contacting Janet for some time and then Turkey invaded Afrin in Rojava and there was a sense of urgency to tell the story. The future of the region was very uncertain. I had met Ross at a screening at the Sheffield Film Festival and we decided to team up and do the project together. I contacted Janet and she got back to me immediately saying she was up for it. Five months later Ross and I met her in Iraq to travel to Rojava and begin filming the documentary.
What was the reaction and reception of locals like to you, a Western film team?
DM: The reaction was mostly very positive. Being with Janet certainly opened doors for us. With the help of our amazing fixers, Ossama and Hesen, and other local contacts we had made during the lead-up to the trip, we were able to meet a variety of people involved with the revolution in Rojava. As we were mainly getting positive feedback about the different revolutionary structures, we wanted to find some level of criticism as we felt it was important to include both sides, so we did random interviews on the street and asked people what they felt about the revolution. Mostly they wanted to speak to us and were very positive but some didn’t want to talk to us.
RD: I would say 95 percent of the time we were welcomed with open arms. People were always very keen to talk to us. There was a warm culture where we were invited so many times for beautiful meals with families. Copious amounts of sugary chai was offered to us too. Of course we know very little going over there for just a month to film. We scratched the surface of the complexities of a multi ethnic society that was recovering from the trauma of a civil war. The threat of new wars was always just around the corner too. Having Janet there with her personal connection to Murray Bookchin was very helpful for gaining access to people who were connected to the revolutionary society in the North and East Syria. And as always with documentary film, especially projects taking place in countries unknown to you, the unsung heroes of the film making process are the fixers.
Danny, what criticisms did you hear from people in the streets?
DM: Some people we spoke to on the street were not completely supportive of the revolution. We interviewed a mother and daughter, and the mother was grateful for the level of security since the revolution but she felt some opportunities that existed before the war were no longer available. Her daughter had planned to go to Aleppo to train as a pharmacist but this wasn’t possible any more. However other people we spoke to said that there were more opportunities all over Rojava and people were moving to the region. Another person we spoke to explained how the bad air quality was making people ill and more people were developing cancer as a result. There was an obvious problem with pollution in parts of Rojava caused by the lack of infrastructure; they can only refine oil in a very basic way which is more polluting. We spoke to some men who expressed their respect for the women’s movement in Rojava but although they agreed with many aspects, some felt women’s empowerment had progressed too far and too fast and was becoming an issue with some local traditions and customs. But it was quite hard to find this criticism because most people we spoke to were very supportive.
And Ross, did anyone seem surprised you were there to make a documentary or did most recognise the global significance of what was happening?
RD: We were very welcomed in most places of North and East Syria when we were making this story. When we were filming in Raqqa though, which is a majority Sunni Arab populated region there was some tension. This was not directed towards us, but you could feel an uneasiness about the recent liberation. It also shows the fragility of peace after the civil war. Raqqa was liberated from ISIS rule by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF was a mixture of Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian/Syriac forces. Some 60 percent of the SDF was made up of Kurdish forces. When Raqqa was liberated the SDF flew a large flag of the imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in the cities main square. For a majority Sunni populated region, I can imagine not everyone was fully welcoming of this action. Outside of Syria of course many friends where supportive of us making this story. Within the Syrian diaspora there was support for this documentary too. However, and understandably so, not everyone was supportive of the struggle in Rojava. The whole of Syria was engulfed in a war, and there were many revolutions across the country. Millions of Syrians are still fighting for social justice, and for information on the whereabouts of the their loved ones. It is not to be forgotten that the uprisings in Syria started against the totalitarian regime of Bashar Al Assad. His regime brutality killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians so he could stay in power. Thousands more vanished in torture dungeons. The Western left has jumped onto the Rojava revolution as a bastion of hope amongst the ashes of war. In the last decade throughout Syria there have been millions of revolutionaries who have risked their lives in unimaginable acts of bravery. This has happened both within, and outside of, the Rojava revolution.
Did you both see the revolutionary politics that Rojava is famous for playing out in day to day life?
DM: We were aware that due to the nature of our project our trip would be largely focused on people and places involved with the revolutionary aspects of society and this might not represent life across the region. However, yes we did see revolutionary politics being played out in various ways. We visited neighbourhood assemblies where local issues were being discussed. These ranged from defence to the mental health of residents following the war. We visited women’s academies where women’s rights and ideas about democracy were being taught and a women’s council meeting where women from across North and East Syria were coming together to discuss the future of the women’s movement in the region. Many of the women we met talked about their sense of empowerment since the revolution. Some said they felt gender equality had advanced so much it could never go back to how it was before the revolution.
RD: This is hard to answer because we arrived in a place we have never been before, and we were bombarded with an overwhelming cocktail of feelings, senses and experiences. With our drivers, we drove between regions and through Janet explored different elements of rural and urban Rojava and its politics. Revolutionary Kurdish music played from our car radio. Sometimes we were caught in traffic for a funeral of a recently fallen fighter. In Qamishli there were still some Syrian regime check points dotted amongst the mostly Kurdish governed city. If you took the wrong turn, and did it without a fixer having your back, you could suddenly find yourself on a plane to Damascus on route to a regime prison. In other parts of the city, there were communes taking place. Or assemblies led by women to tackle the threat of domestic violence. In Kobani visited a peace committee, where people can discuss how to deal with acts of criminality without going to an official state court. Many of these cases where solved through a process of community reconciliation.
Danny, can you elaborate on the community assemblies that you saw including those looking at mental health?
DM: We attended a neighbourhood council meeting where different issues were being discussed. One person highlighted the need to focus more on mental health issues as this affects many people after the war. We also found there was an emphasis on tackling domestic violence and other social care issues. We met with an organisation called Sara which supports women affected by domestic abuse and held meetings in the community to raise awareness about these issues. Jinwar is a village for women run by women that provides a safe space for women who flee domestic violence. They have regular meetings where they educate and empower themselves and discuss issues such as patriarchy.
Ross, with what you said earlier about having had a long interest in the Syrian political situation, would you say that the reality of being on the ground in Rojava matched pre-conceptions you may have had before travelling there?
RD: I tried to not build p a pre-conception of how it was going to be based on my prior understanding of the region. I really know very little of what goes on there. The only things I know are through conversations with the Syrian diaspora, or through reading and watching films. As I mentioned before my interest in the Syrian political situation spanned beyond the Rojava revolution. Being in North and East Syria and being so welcomed by the warm Syrian culture, was humbling to say the least. I guess more than anything I tried to be silent in my observation and and absorb the experience in an empathetic way. I did a lot of journaling to process the information I was surrounded by.
What did you both learn from your experiences with Biehl and Rojava that you’ve brought back to your homes?
DM: There was a sense of relief that while things in the UK are difficult for many people, we’re not surrounded by threats to our security. I don’t class myself in a particular political ideology but since going to Rojava and learning about the revolution my politics have become far more sympathetic to their ideas. Janet was great to be with and was a real inspiration. She has great commitment and a strong work ethic and I’m grateful to have been able to spend a month with her on this trip.
RD: I have learned to be more patient and that if I have a problem in my own life, to chill out and remember that there are places in the world where people are making huge scarifies for freedom. There are of course many people that struggle within the UK, but our experience is not shaped by war. Within many social movements in the UK, there is a great sense of community and solidarity. Going to places like Rojava solidifies the importance of these networks and how we should implement them in our daily lives. The experience I had in North and East Syria makes it so obvious what we already know. The world needs to end career driven men, who are governing us into catastrophe.
Did your experience of making other documentaries shape Road to Rojava?
DM: I’d say my interest in revolutionary movements has influenced all my previous projects and that I learned a lot from making two previous films. My first film Reykjavik Rising was about the Pots and Pans revolution in Iceland, and the second Listen To My Song was about the personal journey of someone in the Colombian FARC. In many ways, this film is a combination of the two as it’s about the personal journey of someone exploring a revolutionary movement. My paid work is in mental health and I’m lucky to be able to choose film projects that are complete passion projects. The downside is that they don’t raise any money, let alone pay for themselves and they take years to complete. However, I am very grateful to be able to do what I do. Working on independent films by yourself is a huge undertaking and co-directing this one with Ross has been a great experience and taught me a lot, sometimes we would have different perspectives but meeting in the middle has been very good for the project.
RD: Before Rojava I had spent years making short docs and video journalism in Athens about the economic crisis and the suffering IMF and EU unleashed on Greece. This video work also explored how public space changed in the crisis and how Athens and its migrant populations were militarised and controlled by right wing forces. I spent a lot of time with the anarchist movement and documented how it set up solidarity structures both in the city and on the shores of the islands where refugees where arriving. Through these political groups I had come to learn about the Kurdish freedom movement. When the Arab spring started and the chaos that followed, many Kurds came to Athens. Many died at sea too as a result of Fortress Europe’s cruel policies. It was easy to meet people and talk about Rojava at that time. Some Europeans also stopped by in Athens and went on to fight in North and East Syria. I have also been filming in Ukraine over the years too. One documentary I made was a love story about an anarchist who fell for a neo nazi who was in a process of changing his core beliefs. The couple in ‘Ukrainian Love Story’ where also affected by war and the film ended up touching on PTSD. Of course in Rojava too many people we spent time with where also dealing with their own traumas. Parts of anarchist movement in Ukraine also looked on with interest at what was happening in North and East Syria. I have always used the film making process to try and humanise and understand politics. It’s a neverending journey for me.
What threads of connection can you draw between the different political situations your documentaries have depicted?
DM: My previous films share themes around struggle and revolutionary politics but of course, the political situations in Iceland, Colombia and Syria are very different.
RD: The threads that connect this film to others I have made in the past would be kindness, solidarity, bravery, creativity, humour and sacrifice.
The crowdfunder to raise funds for finishing the film is closing soon. What are the next steps for the documentary?
DM: We aim to lock off the edit by the end of November and following that, will get the sound design, sound composition, and grading work done on the project. Ideally, we would like to get the film broadcast so want to enter into discussions with distributors and sales agents. We will also apply for 2023 spring and autumn film festivals and once the film is premiered we will have community screenings followed by Q&As.
The black and white images accompanying this interview were taken by Ross Domoney. They are hand printed 35 mm silver gelatin prints from Syria. The film makers are offering them for sale (in UK only) as one of the perks for supporting the crowdfunder.
Colour images taken by those working on Road to Rojava.
Danny Mitchell can be found on Twitter
Ross Domoney can be found at his website.