Mediha: A Yazidi survivor's journey of overcoming a horrific past and healing from Islamic State trauma

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4 min read
31 May, 2024

Without beating around the bush, Hasan Oswald's Mediha stands out as one of the most compelling documentaries of the current festival season. In it, the director follows the titular protagonist, a 15-year-old Yazidi girl from Northern Iraq.

Mediha and her younger brothers, Ghazwan and Adnan, were kidnapped and sold into slavery by the Islamic State. Having recently returned from captivity, Mediha turns the camera on herself to process her trauma.

Together with her brothers, she tries to return to life and search for their missing father, mother, and younger brother. Meanwhile, Mediha fights to bring her former Islamic State captor to justice.

The feature had its international premiere at Copenhagen’s CPH (13-24 March), one of the world’s largest festivals celebrating non-fiction cinema. Over the last few months, it has garnered numerous awards worldwide, including the Grand Jury Award at DOC:NYC (13 November-1 March) and the Activist Award at Amsterdam’s Movies that Matter (22-30 March).

The New Arab (TNA) sat down with the director, who discussed the making of this touching portrait of a budding activist.

When asked about the project’s inception, Oswald told TNA, “Back in 2015, I was working on another project in the region. My translator was Yazidi, but it wasn’t a Yazidi-focused project. Anyway, I ended up learning everything about these people. Then in 2018, I read an article stating that there were still more than 3,000 Yazidi people kept prisoners, and that’s when I decided this was the story I wanted to tell.”

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Scene from Hasan Oswald's Mediha [Courtesy of Hasan Oswald]

Interestingly, Emma Thompson is credited as one of the executive producers. Oswald reveals that he has been friends with the famed British actress for about seven years. Before embarking on the making of Mediha, Oswald worked on Refugees Welcome, a short documentary about the refugee crisis in Lesbos, Greece, which caught Thompson’s attention.

“Then I traveled all over the Middle East to keep documenting what was going on in the refugee camps. Emma is very active within the refugee and human rights spheres. Officially, she came on board in November, but she’s been very supportive of my career, serving as a mentor for the last seven years and, of course, she’s also been very supportive of my film over the last four years,” Oswald commented.

Speaking about building trust with his young protagonists, Oswald explains: “When I started making this film, I thought this would be told through a more classical ‘documentary lens.’ However, when I met Mediha and her brothers for the first time, I realized that this wasn’t my story to tell.

“So my mission focused on providing them with the right platform to share their story, and that of their people. Besides, I’m not from the region. But what documentarians should do is be patient and give themselves time to build relationships. You can’t do that in just three weeks.

“That's why I was there intermittently for four years, and I'm still very much involved in the kids' lives. So I believe this trust was built by spending a significant amount of time with them, gradually fostering that bond through collaborative efforts.

"I entrusted them with the camera, the lenses [...] They placed their trust in me, but I also had to learn to trust them. And for a film director, that's a significant step: relinquishing control,” Oswald elaborated.

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Touching on the project’s main challenges, Oswald first mentions the Covid-19 pandemic, which didn’t allow him to leave Iraq and the region for quite a long time.

The healthcare emergency, however, gave him the chance to spend much time with the kids, strengthening their bond.

“Also, it’s hard to teach children the basics of cinematography, to leave them with all that equipment, hoping to get the footage you need,” he commented. Mediha and her brothers shot most of their footage (“probably around 400 hours”) with an Osmo Pocket camera.

Moreover, Oswald himself edited half of the film and approached it almost as a scripted film. “It was almost like building a three-act structure. That came naturally because we followed Mediha’s arc as a young woman attempting to find her voice,” said Oswald. 

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When asked whether Mediha had already watched the final cut, the director revealed: “She loves it, and she’s seen it many times. She calls it her film, which indeed it is. It’s been an honor to give her the platform and the resources to share her story. Even though she wasn’t involved in the editorial side of things, she watched many of the rough cuts.”

“For me, it was very important to keep in touch with all the participants along the way, so as not to ‘abuse’ their story. The same applied to the rescuers who try to help Mediha bring her captors to justice. We showed them the film before releasing it, and we made some changes based on their feedback, to see whether we’d missed certain nuances of Yazidi culture, and to make sure to keep them safe,” Oswald sums up.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni