Interview with Antonia Kilian, director of "The Other Side of The River"

The documentary "The Other Side Of The River", which has been released in cinemas in Germany this week, shows the complexity of the women's revolution in Rojava and also its contradictions. ANF spoke to director Antonia Kilian.

The documentary "The Other Side Of The River" follows the path of young Syrian Hala, who left her family, who was sympathetic to ISIS, in 2016 shortly after the liberation of Manbij by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to join the security forces Asayîş on the other side of the Euphrates. The documentary was released in German cinemas on Thursday 27 January.

When filmmaker Antonia Kilian came to the Asayîş training center in Serekaniye in 2016, she wanted to document the process of women's liberation in the shadow of the war against ISIS. One of the young women who had started their training there was willing to be accompanied by the camera and to share her story with the filmmaker from Kassel. The film accompanies 19-year-old Hala on her way through military and political training at the training center in the city now occupied by Turkey and its Islamist militias. The audience learns that Hala fled to the other side of the river with her sister to escape being forced into marriage to an Islamic State follower. She has joined the Women's Liberation Units with the declared goal of returning to Manbij and freeing her younger sisters from the hands of their oppressive father. After completing the training, she is actually transferred to her old city and Kilian follows her to the war-torn city. The men and women of the Asayîş are confronted with a population with many ISIS sympathizers and a precarious security situation. For Hala, the confrontation with her family is also very hard, since her father threatens her with death because she has violated the alleged family “honour”by fleeing. When she learns that her twelve-year-old sister is about to be forced into marriage, the conflict finally escalates.

With the individual fate of the main character, the film not only shows the liberation that women in particular experienced when they defeated the Islamic State, but also the arduous struggle to spread democratic ideals in a society shaped by dictatorship and patriarchy. In addition, the audience learns about the difficult personal considerations and decisions of the people rejecting and fighting this patriarchal mentality.

"On the Other Side of the River" is thus an impressive snapshot from the time of the revolutionary liberation in Rojava and, although in the view of just an individual fate, condenses the problems, possibilities and hopes associated with the revolution. The film music by the band "Shkoon" takes up quotations from the characters in their songs and gives them a musical voice. During a festival tour last year, the film was awarded the "Hessian Film Prize" and the Documentary Film Prize from the DOK.fest Munich, among others.

ANF met film author Antonia Kilian in Hamburg and talked about the film and the conditions under which it was made.

"The Other Side of the River" is being screened in Germany. Have you been able to gather feedback from the audience yet?

We are currently releasing the film in Germany. Last year we participated in 35 festivals all over the world. The feedback is very diverse, depending on how much people have already dealt with the Kurdish freedom movement. Many said, "Oh wow, we didn't even know that something like this existed". Many cannot even imagine that there is such a thing as feminist women in Syria. These are people who have never heard of it. And then there are those who have met and known the revolution and showed solidarity. Then there are other questions to be asked. And, of course, I always find the feedback and discussions with people from Syria, Turkey and Iraq really exciting, i.e. people whose reality this film is portraying. It's extremely important to me to hear what people think about the film and how they feel about it.

Has the film's release been delayed by coronavirus?

No, it's not that unusual that you do a festival tour first and then when you've found a distributor, they'll tell you what the right time is to release the film in cinemas. It's always difficult, but perhaps particularly difficult at the moment. But the two showings in Berlin were sold out, the cinema was well filled here in Hamburg and I'm already getting a lot of feedback from people from all cities across Germany who want to see the film. I believe that despite the pandemic or precisely because of the length of the pandemic, people want to go to the cinema, experience the film on the screen and then discuss it.

You were in Rojava for a year in 2016. When was the movie finished?

We had our world premiere last year in May 2021 at the documentary film festival DOK.fest in Munich and unfortunately that was online because it fell in the middle of the second lockdown. It was a pity after five years of work to then have to present the film online. So it's all the nicer now, of course, to do this cinema tour throughout Germany, to really sit in the cinema with real people.

Then it took from 2017 to 2021 to finish the movie?

I was in Rojava from 2016 to 2017 and then I went back for two months to finish the story. After that, there was a year and a half of raising funds for the production. There was an incredible amount of material that had to be translated, prepared for editing and then it took us another year and a half to edit it. So with my editor Arash Asadi, whom I also met in Rojava, who was a journalist and filmmaker himself, we then edited the film in Germany. It's a long process, of course, but overall it was a very difficult conditions under which we worked and lived.

It's impressive how much insight the film gives into the life and family of the main character, Hala in particular, but also of other people. Do you still have contact with the protagonists?

Yes, I am still in contact with Hala. With her commander too. I have her phone number and sometimes we text each other. And, of course, with the film team. So we are very, very close friends and are in daily contact.

You met the friends you worked with on the film during the filming process, right?

Exactly, I went to Rojava alone and the first person I got to know was Sevinaz Evdike. She is a filmmaker herself and one of the co-directors of the Rojava film commune in Serêkaniyê. I lived with her for a year and she helped me a lot to make the film. Whenever I came home from shooting to see Sevinaz, we viewed the material together, she translated a bit, we discussed and I learned a great deal from her. We now have a deep friendship.

Then, as I said, I met Arash Asadi, an Iranian journalist and filmmaker who had also come to Rojava. We started editing the first scenes together on site in the film commune. Arash is also the co-writer of the film. When I returned after a year, I met the Syrian-Kurdish filmmaker and photographer Guevara Namer in Berlin, who then joined the project as a producer and co-author. I was then also on the second trip with them. That's the team and I think it's a very competent and strong team. It was a lot of fun working with them.

You were already active in the solidarity movement before you started making films. You've been in touch with the ideas of women's liberation as well. How did this affect you?

There was a lot going on, yes. Of course, I learned a lot. I went there because I was fascinated by the ideology and by the women I had already met in Germany or the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and with whom I felt connected and from whom I could get support to my own emancipation process. What was important for me was also to better understand the specific situation in Syria, what the country had experienced so far, also in relation to Turkey and Northern Iraq. This was only made possible through discussions with my team and other friends. They helped me to understand the connections on site much better and more deeply. So we managed that the film didn't stay on the surface, but also shows contradictions, shows complex situations, gets close to families, gets close to Hala and also makes a difficult and torn situation vivid. It was important to me that all of these questions that I have find their space in this film. I wanted it not to be just a dull narration, but really show complexity and contradictions. I believe this is the case in all revolutionary processes, that there are simply a lot of contradictions that have to be faced and dealt with. It is important for a democratic process to point out such contradictions, to discuss them and to be open to such discussions.

The Other Side of the River screenings:

01/30/22, 12:00 p.m. – Traumstern, Lich

01/30/22, 12:00 p.m. – Traumstern, Lich

01/30/22, 5 p.m. – Filmkunsttheater, Marburg

01/30/22, 6 p.m. – Sputnik Kino, Berlin (with author Arash Asadi)

01/30/22, 8 p.m. – Filmklubb, Offenbach

01/31/22, 8:15 p.m. – Casa Blanca, Bad Soden

February 1st, 2022, 8 p.m. – Filmstudio Glückauf, Essen

2/2/22 – Odeon, Cologne

2/3/22 – Bali, Kassel

2/4/22 – FSK, Berlin

February 12 – Filmforum Höchst, Frankfurt