Italian journalist and director: Rojava changed me

Italian journalist and director Benedetta Argentieri said, “Rojava really changed me. Especially in working together, connecting, and relating to people. Even in self-criticism.”

The Rojava Revolution led by women continues to affect and guide the lives of individuals and societies who live far away as well. One of these affected individuals is Italian journalist and director Benedetta Argentieri. Currently living in New York, Argentieri’s search for new meaning led her to Rojava in 2013. She made the film “Chapulcu - Voices From Gez, Our War” and the documentary “I am the Revolution” in the years since. Argentieri spoke to the newspaper Yeni Ozgur Politika about how her trip to the Middle East affected him and about the documentary I am the Revolution which premiered yesterday (November 15) in New York.

Who is Benedetta? What took her to Kurdistan?

I’ve worked in war zones since 2013, in Syria, Iraq and Rojava. I visited these countries several times to find out different stories. My first significant visit was in 2013. I first went to the mountains, and then to Rojava. This had an important effect on me personally. Of course I was affected in the professional sense as well, because I wanted to truly find new meaning and new lived experiences in these places.

Were the visits for journalism or for directing?

The first was for journalism. I ended up writing several articles. Others were for the “Our War” film, which was about 3 foreigners who joined the YPJ. All three of them were different, one of them was Italian, the second Swedish and the third American. With this film, I wanted to make the public understand why these foreigners decided to join the YPJ and what they wanted to do. And, what effect the experience had on them.

Let’s talk about the new I am the Revolution documentary. Where did the idea comes from?

I wanted to deal more with the women’s issue. Especially after seeing the mainstream media’s attempts to generalize the women’s situation and their struggle. Mainstream media wanted to prioritize images of women in the back ground, with children, covered in dust, dirt and smoke.

When they did report on female guerrillas or YPJ fighters, they always locked down on how sexy they were. They said, “Look at these sexy women”, this was geared at robbing the women’s struggle of its merit.

That is why I decided to show the true face of women’s struggle through my work. I wanted to show that the Rojava Revolution is spreading throughout the Middle East. I wanted to show that this is not just aimed inwards, but a revolution that affects women in other countries in the Middle East as well. I wanted to show women in Iraq and Afghanistan together with women in Rojava, so we can see the differences. This way we can also see the conflicts. In short, I wanted to show that these are not just a few women who carry rifles to fight ISIS. The fight against ISIS is just a small part of it. The actual part is that it is a multifaceted women’s revolution.

Was your research focused on Iraq and other areas before Rojava as well? Or has it changed?

Yes and no. The truth of it is that I did have an interest in Rojava and I did do research. Before I became a journalist in Italy, I finished university. I was interested in social unrest and issues. Then I made a film abut the Gezi Protests in 2014 (“Chapulcu: Voices from Gezi) and that was when I met a lot of Kurds. Later I did a masters’ in the US on journalism and politics. There I met a lot of Yazidis. After that my interest grew, and I wanted to understand what was happening in Shengal, so I visited often. My interest in the Middle East really started with the Kurds and spread.

What did you want to say with the documentary?

I had several goals. In essence, I want to change the discourse about women. At the same time, all three women, Rojda Felat, Yanar Mihemed and Selay Gafar, are not just individual heroes, they are representatives of a movement. They can’t continue their fight without a women’s society behind them.

Another thing is the women’s empowerment concept. How can you empower women in the political arena? One answer to this is the education path. Education is very important. One connects with others and gets stronger.

All three of these women want a result. Not necessarily a solution, but they want to fight alongside men. This is an important point. Feminism, especially in the eastern societies, is seen as discriminatory but that’s not what it means. Feminism is about uncovering a common solution starting with women. But then you have to work with men eventually to explain and describe the new politics so you can end certain things.

Do you consider this a revolution? What is a revolution in your opinion?

Yes, and I sometimes talk about this with Kurdish women. The concept of revolution has been exploited so much that it is now void of meaning. The film is titled I am the Revolution, for a simple reason: The women in the first march in Baghdad chanted “I am the woman, I am the revolution”. They said we can each be a revolution. The Revolution is not something far away, or too high to reach. What is the message? If you support one woman, you do a revolutionary thing. For example, tell them about human rights or help them in something they need. This is a revolutionary act. We are also fighting to put meaning back into the concept revolution this way.

You saw three different lands for this project. You witnessed the daily lives of women and their struggle. Can you talk a little bit about what you saw?

I first went to Rojava in 2014. Then in 2016, and most recently in 2017. I saw the transformation, and frankly what convinced me the most and clarified my view on things was how a society reached a political theory. I was truly shocked to see the conditions women lived in in Afghanistan. Comparing the three countries, the women in Afghanistan had it the hardest. For example, only 14% of women in Afghanistan are literate, but I also saw a great community gathered around Selay Gaffar. And those women really want to fight. Why do they want to fight? Because they saw the women of Kobanê. The women of Kobanê opened their eyes. They have since decided that they can in fact be a part of the transformation.

Of course there are immense issues in Iraq too, there are “honor” killings of women, laws geared to oppress women, etc. But with awareness raising, I believe they can change the situation. They can help women and empower them politically. This requires a long term effort. And of course Rojava is different, because if you can control a place, it’s easier for you to support women. Whereas what controls women in Iraq and Afghanistan is the state mentality. But there is another thing, that women in all three countries can help each other and get new ideas from one another.

As a Western woman, what preconceptions did you have going in to the Middle East? Has your viewpoint changed?

I don’t think I had prejudices. I’m not that kind of a person. I get informed, and I never accept just one truth.

Truth is variant. But of course I believe that there are a lot of preconceptions regarding Middle Eastern women. For instance, there are prejudices like all women in the Middle East are victims, and they need men to defend their rights and support them.

It is my perspective, I never changed jobs, I changed places a lot. My work has reflected on my perspective. I learned a lot from the women’s movement in Rojava. Especially in how to work together, how to connect, how to relate to one another. Even in self-criticism. What I like the most about the Kurdish Freedom Movement is lacking in women in Western societies. What is that? People must be good to one another, they must protect each other. They don’t see people as enemies. The system makes enemies out of people. There is an old Latin saying, “Mors tua, vita mia.” “Your death is my life.” Because the system demands us to be extremely individualistic.

Another thing I want to say about Rojava is that it has really changed me. Especially in my relationship with women, my loyalties. Now I want to develop such relationships in my narrow and small community. Criticising each other is good, self-criticism is good, but people must be good to each other, they must be sisters, and protect each other at all times. This has been very good for me.

Going back to your documentary, what kind of hardships did you experience? What did you feel during filming?

This documentary made for women about women was filmed by women. For the first time, I worked with an all-women crew. I believe this is because of the effect it had on me. It was difficult in many aspects, especially in finding sufficiently professional women in terms of politics.

Another issue was sending people into war zones and having them do what we wanted them to. Go to Rojava, take all the risks, which we did. There were many difficulties, but it was a great effort.

We prepared two versions of the film. One is for the cinema, at 72 minutes. The other is for television. We owe a lot to the financiers of the film. So we prepared a television version. We are hoping to sell it.

The documentary will be edited with subtitles in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Italian, English, French, Persian, Pashtu and Dari. There were a lot of difficulties, but I am glad that in the end it will be watched, and ideas will be expressed about our work about whether it was good or bad.