Negin Ahmadi’s debut feature Dreams’ Gate is certainly a short but intense viewing experience.
The observational documentary, which world-premiered in the Generation 14plus strand of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (16-26 February), zooms in on the tragic existences of the soldiers fighting for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-female militia involved in the Syrian civil war.
Specifically, the militia is the armed force of Rojava and sides with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Since early 2011, these units have been fighting against various groups in Northern Syria, including the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, best known as ISIS.
Before embarking on the making of this feature, the young Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker obtained a degree in Economics from the University of Imam Khomeini in Qazvin, and she is currently studying at the Iranian Youth Cinema Society, a non-profit Iranian film education organisation.
Despite her little experience in the non-fiction realm, here Ahmadi delivers a rather solid documentary. The feature’s two best qualities are the filmmaker’s intimate – but always respectful – approach to her subjects and her sharp storytelling, which – without mincing words – goes straight to the point.
This very concrete narrative approach is immediately visible through the picture’s opening titles. “This film is the story of women who fought not only against ISIS but also against the patriarchal mentality of their society,” states Ahmadi, thus setting out her goals and “area of research.”
Luckily enough, she will not disappoint our expectations. Her radical decision to live with these women for eight months will allow her to carefully observe their troubled existences, which alternate interminable waits, brutal combats, rare moments of apparent peace and the constant implementation of denial as a defence mechanism to survive or, at least, to remain sane.
Despite its overwhelming rawness, the picture doesn’t even lack a few ‘glimpses’ of tenderness as we see, for example, these women combing each other’s hair and morally supporting each other.
That being said, the documentary rapidly develops into a wider reflection on the meaning of life for these women soldiers. We realise that joining the YPJ units is the only way for these women to escape their society’s restraints and the suffocating boundaries imposed by their patriarchs.
In addition to the main focus on the soldiers’ lives, the picture gives Ahmadi herself the opportunity to begin her own inner journey. In detail, her path is rendered through several video diary-like moments, during which the helmer speaks up in front of the camera or through her voice-over.
We get a sense of her great emotional burden when the director says, for example, that everything feels as if her camera is filled with despair and sadness, thus reflecting her own state of mind.
Moreover, one of the themes that inevitably takes centre stage is that of the ‘romanticisation’ of war. In this sense, Dreams’ Gate tries to dissect it on two levels.
On the one hand, it offers a very intimate perspective on these fighters, which defies the grand narratives of war told by propaganda channels, independent media and any other third-party accounts.
On the other hand, these women’s constant denial of reality and the constraints they escape from forces them – at least to some extent – to ‘celebrate’ the beauty and pride of war. It is a process we cannot judge, as probably – and hopefully – no one of the people who are reading this article will ever be in their shoes. What seems quite clear after listening to these women and peeking at their lives on screen, however, is that such ‘romanticisation’ gives them some kind of adrenaline, making them fearless, stronger and highly motivated to pursue their cause.
All in all, Ahmadi’s feature is a compelling work. It boasts an effective intersection of personal perspectives weaved into powerful images that are able to open up wider reflections on a number of societal and political issues.
One of the last scenes seems to bring to a close Ahmadi’s inner journey. Finally back in Teheran, we see the director working on everyday chores such as washing dishes or hanging clothes on her rooftop.
Eight months went by and, strangely enough, she misses the war too. At some point, she wonders “which of those girls who had broken free from life was fighting with the gun she was holding in that very moment.” The question has obviously no answer, but before the closing credits, viewers will discover the destiny of four of these brave women: Avrin, Daluvin, Zhilan and Zhivar.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni