Rojek is a powerful, disquieting film in which director Zaynê Akyol comes face to face with detained ISIS fighters - both men and women - who share a common dream: establishing a caliphate. Ahead of the film's release, we caught up with Akyol to discuss her motivations, her creative process and how she dealt with the film's sensitive content.

What drew you to make Rojek and what do you hope to achieve with the film?

I immigrated to Canada from Turkey at the age of four with my family, where I met Gulîstan, who babysat for me sometimes. I loved and admired her; she was like an older sister to me. The attention she gave me comforted me and helped anchor me in this new and unfamiliar country. I spent time with Gulîstan for two years, before she suddenly disappeared from my life to join the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – the Kurdish guerrilla). As a child, I felt betrayed, since she never said goodbye. Shortly thereafter, in 2000, she died in battle. I was 13 at the time and grieved this loss as an abandonment. It wasn’t until I directed my first documentary film Gulîstan, Land of Roses (2016), that I could finally understand Gulîstan’s motivations. While filming this documentary, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched their first strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan. I thus witnessed the genesis of the endless conflict between the Kurds and ISIS.

For several months, I filmed the efforts of a group of courageous women who fought against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. These women fighters were committed to protecting their lands and establishing an independent, feminist, and democratic society accepting of religious pluralism. Their values were in total opposition to those of the jihadists they were fighting. Over time, they became my friends. Unfortunately, after I returned from filming, I found out they had been dying in battles one after the other until only one survivor remained. In a very short period of time, I had to deal with the loss of so many friends, a cruel reminder of Gulîstan’s tragic disappearance.

This documentary is my personal attempt to understand, to seek the answers I hoped would be forthcoming. I decided to meet with the people who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of my friends. Cinema has become part of my grieving process, a way to reach a kind of catharsis. Hoping for restorative justice, I decided to face the jihadists.

It is important to dialogue with those who have a different point of view, as this opens the way to finding solutions. Otherwise, the cycle of violence will persist, as it has for years. That’s been said, while the territorial fight may be over, the ideological battles remain. A new kind of war has taken shape in recent years, and the tools to fight it have yet to be developed. In order to do so, it is essential to examine and understand the construction of fundamentalist thought.

The film has incredible access – how did you go about initially building these relationships and getting permission to conduct and film these interviews?

Filmmaking opens doors that I could never have got otherwise. Going and meeting with the members of ISIS is not something one does without good reason. Cinema allowed me to not only capture historic events, but also to be a privileged witness of the world and present it back in a personal manner. Directing this type of film demands a lot of patience and a tremendous amount of work, but the process is highly rewarding. It made me grow as a human being, taught me a lot, and confronted me with my own beliefs.

When filming Rojek, I spent five months in Syrian Kurdistan, visited three prisons, met over a hundred people and interviewed 50 of them who agreed to be in the film, including 30 jihadists and 20 wives of jihadists. These people were all arrested in the collapse of the Islamic State. Citizens from everywhere joined that extremist organization and therefore it is not only a regional problem anymore, but an international one. I wanted to meet as many people as possible. To do this, I had to negotiate with the government and prison officials, be persuasive, explain my intention clearly, present my previous work, and above all, showing up every day to demonstrate my commitment.

The preferential access I have obtained — a clearance shared only by Secret Services — along with the opportunity to attend some of their trials, gives nuance to the film. Coming out of a debut film about Middle Eastern female fighters in a time of war, I dove into this portrait of Syrian Kurdistan in the aftermath of its most devastating events, which pits progressive points of view (the Syrian Democratic Forces’) against extremist ones (the ISIS prisoners’).

Rojek is a very ambitious project that required years of preparation and that had many challenges along the way and not only access, but also: permissions to film in different locations, security, translations, unofficial borders passing, war zones – just to name a few. All this was achieved with only two other people, which is a very small team for such a complex film.

This must have been a very confronting film for you to make, personally. How did you manage the process, and particularly deal with the interviews?

As you can imagine, jihadists perceived me as brainwashed, mirroring my own perception of them. From that standing point, the prospect of a meaningful conversation seemed daunting – how could two individuals with such divergent views engage in dialogue? To navigate this, I chose to concentrate solely on my questions, avoiding attempts to debunk the perceived irrationality of their visions. I had to ask questions that followed their own process of thoughts and their own logic, otherwise genuine conversation becomes nearly impossible.

Listening to these ultra-fundamentalist beliefs was an extremely demanding experience, first, because it is a way of seeing the world that is completely at odds with my own values. And also, because most of the women in my previous film died fighting ISIS. Rojek was an incredibly difficult film to make, but absolutely necessary to find closure and bring my mourning to an end. Art possesses a healing power that helps navigate the complex journey of grief, offering a space for expression and, in my case, of creation.

The intense interview scenes are cut with sweeping, cinematic shots of the surrounding area and people, to very striking effect. Could you talk a bit about your decision to structure the film in this way?

The film’s narrative structure revolves around filmed interviews where these men and women retrace chronologically the beginning, the glory days, and the fall of ISIS, as they lived it from the inside. Throughout, we spend some time on their personal stories of enrollment, their childhood, their family, their religious beliefs, their lives before and with ISIS, their role within the organization, etc.

I paid meticulous attention to the answers in these interviews to visualize their narratives. My goal was to film situations similar to those described by prisoners, but as of today. For instance, if they discussed the oil industry in ISIS territories, I dedicated the following weeks to finding those refineries or similar ones in the region and filming them. Discussions about borders led me to film them, along with checkpoints. If the conversation involved the Syrian Democratic Forces arresting them, I documented the activities of the responsible army, and so forth. The goal was to portray how today Syria is dealing in similar situations. Furthermore, it was crucial for me to ensure that these prisoners’ interviews did not interfere with the outside world, hence the frank cuts. I also made the choice to alternate from a micro to a macro perspective. I believe that observing life on such a different scale provides us with the space to discover deeper truths.

As you can imagine, creating artistic, well-composed scenes is a time-consuming process. Despite the lack of time due to security reasons, my team and I still managed to be fast and efficient. We would always work in close collaboration to make sure that the framing reflects my specific intention, depending on the context. We were ready for any situation, whether it be handheld, steady, drone, easy set-up camera, or a more extensive one.

Each scene in Rojek represents weeks of work because each location requires a separate permit from the authorities. And having an idea and materializing it are two different things, and often not even possible in these dangerous regions, but with consistency, patience, and negotiation, I could manage it.

There must have been hours of footage from the interviews. In the edit, how did you decide which key moments and messages you wanted to include? 

The question is interesting because explaining a creative process is difficult. I began by going through all the footage alone, doing a very large selection of my material, which took six months. Afterward, with my editor, we organized interviews by subject and additional footage by theme (courtroom, fires, daily life, army, drone shoots, archives, etc.). We started in a cartesian way; we systematically experimented with some natural pairings. Even if these combinations sometimes worked, that didn’t mean they worked in the whole editing. Sometimes, just a small detail could drastically alter the perception of the film. An infinite number of combinations were possible, but ultimately we chose based on how we perceived the scenes blending together and our feelings about it. The post-production, from start to end, took us almost two years and half.

Rojek is now showing at Bertha DocHouse. Book tickets here