Interview with Alba Sotorra

Kristina Zorita
Kristina Zorita

Commander Arian, a documentary following the Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit's fight against ISIS in Syria

Alba Sotorra´s first feature-length documentary, Game Over (2015) premiered at Karlovy Vary 2015, and won the prestigious Gaudì Award for best documentary in Catalonia. In her second feature, Commander Arian (2018), the Catalan filmmaker follows the Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit, the YPJ, fighting against ISIS in Syria. Commander Arian premiered at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival in May. After being scheduled in several festivals, the film has been released in Spanish commercial cinemas. It has been nominated for the Gaudì Awards.

EWA Network blogger Kristina Zorita spoke  with Alba Sotorra.

Why did you want to document the fight of  the YPJ, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit?

As a feminist woman and filmmaker, I believe their battle is a necessary one. These women  are fighting for their lives against the Islamic State. But it’s also an emancipatory fight. Their aim is to change the patriarchal structures. In the last four or five years, there have been huge changes mainly for women. Traditionally, Kurdish women would never take important decisions; they were taken by fathers, brothers and husbands. Nowadays, all-female assemblies have been created, where women are not afraid of speaking and being part of the decision-making process. Marriages with minors and arranged marriages are now forbidden. The YPJ are mainly acting to empower women, but the aim is the emancipation of the whole society.

Is there any risk of a setback?

There is an opposition from the old structures. But the perception of women in Kurdish society has changed thanks to these female fighters. Women have evolved from being just home caretakers to heroines, freedom fighters. Moreover, there is a male army with the same feminist ideals. The current political system in Kurdistan aims for gender parity. Every political position is doubled: there is a female president and a male president, a female mayor and a male mayor, and so on.

Why have you chosen  to focus the documentary  on Arian?  

They are all incredible women, all of them could have a film. But Arian and I liked each other since the beginning. It’s a matter of chemistry, which is so important in documentaries. One’s decision to open up in front of you means more than the good story of that character.  She was comfortable with me and I was comfortable with her. Apart from that, her nature encompasses the nature of all those women. The way she lectures her soldiers has its importance. She told them to think about what it means to them to be a woman and to be there, since the life of a soldier is very demanding.

When Arian was gunned down, the documentary took another direction, is this right ?

My first idea was to follow a woman in a mission, in the mission of liberating Kobane. I was already editing the film  when Arian got wounded. I spent time thinking about whether I should or shouldn’t add this to the film. But in the end, I decided to include her recovery, because I didn’t want to show  a sweetened version of the war. To include this part allows the viewers to understand the consequences of war for these women, how much they are sacrificing. It’s a body and soul implication. Moreover, it shows their vulnerability. These  women seem to be invincible, but they are full of tenderness, vulnerability and pain.

You were the cameraperson and sound-recorder. How was the shooting?

It was very intense because of that need to stay focused on  the whole technical system. But it was the right way to get the intimacy I wanted to create  with these soldiers. Some of the more private scenes would have been impossible to shoot with a crew. The  soldiers adopted me as one of them, I wore their uniform, did some night guards, … all of this made the camera invisible. Besides that, for me it was impossible to know how long every journey in Syria would be . So hiring a crew was quite unfeasible.

How did you communicate with them? Do you speak Kurdish? 

At the beginning, I did not speak a word. But little by little I started to understand it. That tends to limits you. You cannot direct, you have to observe and when something happens, you have to film it. If you  miss the chance to film it, you have to wait until the situation repeats itself. But there is an upside to this : you learn how to read the facial expressions, the information given with no words; you have to sharpen a perception so interesting in filming, staying alert at those nuances, gazes, discussions… You end up learning how to read people.