Ross Domoney and Danny Mitchell’s latest documentary Road to Rojava addresses the revolutionary ideas behind Kurdish liberation at a disturbing crossroads in the Syrian Civil War. Following the withdrawal of the US, Turkish forces have laid siege to the autonomous Rojava region – but despite the added importance of the film, funding for independent documentaries is at an all-time low, meaning its Directors have had to turn to crowdfunding to get their vital work out there. Domoney and Mitchell spoke to Indy Film Library about Kurdish democracy, and creating an alternative to profit-driven journalism.
The story of Murray Bookchin’s legacy in Kurdistan is an incredible one. Could you explain it for our readers?
Murray Bookchin was an American social theorist, author and political philosopher who died in 2006, having never seen his ideas put into practice. Murray’s books remarkably crossed the world and reached the prison cell of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish rebel leader of the PKK.
Six years later war erupts in Syria and the rebel leader tells his Kurdish followers to create their own autonomous region, partially inspired by Bookchin’s literature.
The Kurdish people have long been oppressed and stateless throughout much of history. As the civil war unfolded in Syria, the conflict gave the Kurds a rare opportunity to create their own autonomous region; they called it Rojava.
This new egalitarian and feminist society used some of Murray’s work to influence its democratic system and create a new way of living.
ISIS ruthlessly tried to stop this society in a series of bloody insurgencies.
Kurdish and Arab communities united and defended the lands of Rojava in newly formed militias, many of them led by women.
Janet Biehl’s journey sounds like an emotional rollercoaster – was it difficult to maintain objectivity while documenting it?
We had a really good time travelling with Janet and made many great connections in Rojava, everyone was so welcoming. Many people knew of Murray Bookchin and were delighted to meet Janet once they knew whom she was which opened many doors for us. With regards to objectivity, we did not set out to make a journalistic piece sticking to loyal principles of objectivity. We were, of course guests in Rojava and only knew what we had read about the revolution. We also stayed open minded to the fact that throughout the Syrian civil war there have been other revolutions, not only in Kurdish territories.
Hundreds of filmmakers have covered the struggle against Daesh in the region in different ways – but your film takes place following its defeat. What did you learn from your journey into a region coming to terms with life after ‘ISIS’?
We saw a society celebrating the end of war and understood further how resilient the Kurds and other ethic groups in that region are having suffered in so many ways. We were struck by how they were able to live such normal lives surrounded by looming threats from both Turkey and the Syrian regime. We are very sad now to know that this has now changed with Turkey’s invasion. We learnt that people celebrate life, mourn death and prepare themselves for the next battles. Every town, village and city we visited was digging a complex network of tunnels for the next battle they may face. Amongst the current brutal, and unjust conflict with Turkey. The tunnels are proving to be very useful.
This week, the US Government announced it would withdraw forces from Kurdish-held territories of North-Eastern Syria, a move which many expect will see Turkish forces move into the area. What does that mean for the people behind the “women’s revolution” at the heart of your film?
It is so depressing watching the Turkish regime storm its way into Rojava whilst ruthlessly targeting civilians as they go. Many of the places we visited such as Qamishlo and Derik are currently being bombed by the Turkish military. Many of our friends and the people we filmed have had to flee their homes with their families. I have never witnessed something like this happening to people we know and it’s truly awful, as you feel so powerless. At the moment, it is difficult to say what the future of the radical democratic experiment in Rojava will be but it looks very bad. If the Kurds make a deal with Assad then maybe they can retain some level of autonomy. However, the regime as we all know is anything but a democratic institution. While this would be better than Turkey occupying that area, it’s unlikely they would have the same level of independence as they have had during the past seven years.
At their best, politically charged documentaries like this serve as a rallying cry to audiences, showing them there is still hope, but work needs to be done to make the most of it. Thousands of miles away, what can viewers do to help?
The Kurdish community in the UK is very active and will be organising lots of demos against the on-going Turkish invasion. Many NGOs have left but the Kurdish Red Crescent is still there doing important work on the ground. People can donate to them using this link.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during this production, and how did you overcome them?
Making independent documentaries with little or no funding is always a challenge. However, things did go well with the production of this film and we were able to capture pretty much everything we intended to. We had long days filming, but had each other to bounce ideas back and forward between. Working as co-directors allowed us to build and discuss scenes based on our shared and individual experiences in documentary making. After every shoot, we would discuss which directions the magic of the film making process could be taking us, and we would make decisions based on what would suit progression of the narrative.
You’re both decorated and respected filmmakers. Looking at Ross Domoney’s previous work, for example, it has been published by a host of established outlets, including the Guardian, ITV, Al Jazeera, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal, while winning plaudits from a number of major bodies, including the Royal Television Society. Yet in order to tell this incredibly important story, you’re both having to crowd fund to get the project finished. Why do ordinary people have to step in to back the investigative journalism that the world’s largest media companies should surely be generating?
Unfortunately funding for independent documentaries is at an all-time low. This is especially true for stories that are not seen to be attractive to ‘mainstream’ audiences. The media has always thrown money behind stories that it feels it can make money from. When we were in Rojava, one of our fixers said to us how happy he was that we were in Rojava focussing on the revolution itself. He said most journalists miss this aspect of life there and just go to and from the ISIS camps and do stories on ISIS families and prisoners. While these stories are also important, some people there felt this wasn’t helpful for the society in Rojava or the ISIS families and prisoners themselves as it fuels Islamophobia in the West. However when this is what commissioning editors request then that is what journalists will deliver, it’s a vicious circle. Lucky for us crowdfunding provides us with a way of getting these kinds of films made.
What can people do to help?
Spread the word about what is happening in Rojava. Spread the word about our film and crowdfunder, which you can donate to here. Attend a demonstration if they can against the Turkish invasion and donate to the Kurdish Red Crescent too if possible. Thanks!