Life after the Islamic State: A filmmaker's journey capturing the women caught between the eternal limbo of loss, redemption and the longing to go back home

Shamima Begum's infamous path to radicalisation will be documented in full [Getty Images]
6 min read
17 June, 2021

In the days following the fourth anniversary of the liberation of Raqqa, Alba Sotorra’s new documentary The Return: Life After ISIS is more timely and urgent than ever. The feature’s subject is as delicate as controversial.

In detail, it follows the aftermath of a small group of Western women who committed themselves to the Islamic State group [ISIS or IS], only to regret joining an extremist organisation that preyed on their devotion and left them in a seemingly eternal limbo between their detention in Camp Roj, Syria and a long legal battle to regain their former citizenships and return to their countries of origin, along with their children.

The documentary poses the right questions without giving complete answers, but instilling much-needed doubts: Are these women ready for 'redemption'?

Gradually, viewers get to know these women’s tragic vicissitudes. Shamima Begum, who lost her British passport last February, was a teenager when, one day, she took a plane to Istanbul with two friends and went to Syria, where she married an IS fighter and witnessed the death of her three children. Hoda Muthana, raised in Alabama and daughter of a Yemeni diplomat, left the US and joined IS in 2014 using funds that her parents had provided for her education. After the loss of two of her husbands and a divorce from the third, she hit the headlines when Donald Trump tweeted her name and his administration’s decision to forbid her repatriation. She is now genuinely worried about her son’s future.

It’s difficult to remain indifferent to their stories, and those of the other women portrayed – Kimberly, Nawal, Hafida and Ouidad – and most likely the viewer might develop contrasting feelings such as anger, disbelief or compassion. What is certain is that Sotorra’s depiction is non-judgemental, rigorous and somehow very humane.

These women’s stories are mostly told through controlled interviews, whilst the turbulent events leading to the caliphate’s collapse are narrated through an extensive amount of newsreel footage and archival clips.

A small ray of hope seems to be provided by a strong Kurd woman Sevinaz Evdike, a tireless activist who runs special workshops to assist them in coping with their past, in the attempt of fully realising what has happened and how to look forward.

In fact, the documentary poses the right questions without giving complete answers, but instilling much-needed doubts: Are these women ready for “redemption”? Are they forced to remain in this stateless and futureless limbo forever? Do their children deserve to live this way? What will be the effects of the Western governments’ (in)action? And, if things remain as they are, how easy will be for IS or other extremists to (re)radicalise these people?

The activist’s work and the close bonds they develop among each other help the group to make their stay more tolerable. However, their living conditions are precarious and put their children’s health at serious risk; for example, we later find out that Shamima’s third child died of pneumonia in the camp.

What is certain is that Sotorra’s depiction is non-judgemental, rigorous and somehow very humane

Speaking with the director, ten days after her recent win at DocsBarcelona (18-28 May 2021) – where the film garnered the prestigious Audience Award – Sotorra explained how she started working on the project, “From 2015 until 2019, I was making a film about a female Kurdish commander who was fighting against IS [Commander Arian, a Story of Women, War and Freedom, released in 2018]. I had witnessed the war against IS from the Kurdish frontline. I was wearing a military uniform and integrated within a commando and followed different military operations. That experience triggered many questions.”

Alba Sotorra, director of "The Return: Life after ISIS"
Alba Sotorra, director of "The Return: Life after ISIS" speaks with The New Arab

Among these, Sotorra wondered how a woman, raised in the West, could get seduced by IS. “I saw the atrocities they [the extremists] committed. They killed some people I knew – friends and colleagues. I saw these huge graveyards hosting the bodies of many young boys and girls. When I started researching for my project, at first I had the chance to enter an Iraqi camp and, later in March 2019, thanks to my relationships with the female fighters, I was granted access to Camp Roj,” she explained.

Despite her great courage, the director did not hide that her biggest challenge was purely emotional: “During the first two months of shooting, in our crew, there were two women from Barcelona, but the others were young Kurdish women. Entering this camp was difficult. I had strong emotions against IS, but my Kurdish friends lost their home, their family... Their country was upside down because of this extremist group. We had an inner conflict to face.

"Initially, we wanted to focus [our film] on Sevinaz. It was difficult to connect with women once affiliated with IS. We all had strong feelings and prejudices.” Owing to the huge media pressure, the documentarian said that, in the earlier production stages, the women were scared of the crew because they didn’t know their intentions: “We felt they were not honest, that they were hiding something… So at some point, we began wondering whether the film should be made. We had internal discussions and there was a moment we thought we shouldn’t have continued.”

For the first two months, the filmmaker chose not to interview them and focused on documenting the intimate atmosphere created during the workshops. Only after a year, between March and April 2020, Sotorra realised that she gained their trust and filmed the interviews included in the final cut.

Commenting on how the whole process changed her, she concluded: “I thought I was open-minded enough as a filmmaker, as someone who works with people and should listen without judging. But I found out I’ve still to work a lot with my prejudices and with myself, so I must be ready to approach this type of controversial topics with an open heart, eyes and ears. I understood that things need time to mature. The more complex the subject, the more time you need. There’s this narrative in the West telling that it’s not safe to repatriate men and women who have been with IS," she told The New Arab.

"After this experience, I realised that what is not safe is not let them stay there. I wanted to show how important is for these children to be back to school and integrate them back into the societies their mothers are from. When they grow up if they’re still there, what will they become?”

Powerful pieces of non-fiction filmmaking such as Sotorra’s picture are commendably putting a spotlight on this post-Raqqa emergency that requires the utmost care

At the camp, she also realised that the group that was still believing in IS’ ideology was the smallest. Thanks to the efforts made by the activists, Sotorra highlighted that many of these were able to take the right path and worked hard to convince others to join them.

According to the Human Rights Watch around 43,000 foreign men and women linked to IS are currently detained by regional authorities in Northeast of Syria, including 27,500 children. It’s a time bomb that needs to be defused with the right specialists and a huge dose of human understanding.

Powerful pieces of non-fiction filmmaking such as Sotorra’s picture, Hogir Hirori’s Sabaya and Gorki Glaser-Müller’s Children of the Enemy – along with great journalism and humanitarian efforts, of course – are commendably putting a spotlight on this post-Raqqa emergency that requires the utmost care.

The Return: Life After ISIS is available to view on Sky Documentaries.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni