Director Zaynê Akyol in Conversation
Director Zaynê Akyol joined us for a screening of her film Gulistan, Land of Roses on May 18th, 2017 the following is a transcript of our moderated conversation and Q&A with the audience at Amherst Cinema.
George W. Myers: Please join me in welcoming director Zaynê Akyol.
Zaynê Akyol: Thank you.
George W. Myers: One of the things we talked about earlier today, and I think is something that was really reaffirmed watching the film, is when I read about Gulistan, Land of Roses, my impression was that, since ISIS is a marauding force — it’s very aggressive and they’re taking over regions and they’re killing people — that any resistance to that would have to be almost passive or defensive, in a way. Like you had to simply prepare yourself to fight these people. So when I read about this film, I said “Oh, this sounds really intense and powerful,” and I wasn’t prepared for the strength, and the sort of overt feminism, and the political philosophy driving the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That’s mostly my ignorance, not understanding the PKK and the political situation there, but was that something you were prepared for going in? These women who were profound, and really assertive in what they were doing, and that it wasn’t just from a defensive posture?
Zaynê Akyol: Actually, not at all. I grew up in Montreal, but my background, I’m Kurdish, born in Turkey. I knew about the PKK because all the Kurdish population know about the PKK, and because they are defending the Kurdish territory. But it was also, for me, very new because I didn’t know at all what was important, exactly, in this movement. Because it’s also a guerrilla movement. I learned a lot by going there. Before the filming, we read. [There were three of us] going there; I had a camera man and a sound man. But going there was very… we learned a lot, and needed to keep reading about what was going on there, and what they are fighting for. Because it’s very complex. Maybe I can explain a little bit more if…
George W. Myers: Please.
Zaynê Akyol: So the PKK was founded in ’79 by Abdullah Öcalan. They took on, in ’84, the Turkish government. It was, at the beginning, a communist movement. Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in ‘99*, and in 2005, while he was in jail, he had a correspondence with an American named Murray Bookchin. He was very inspired by this American. So he started to promote this new way of thinking about society, which is called democratic confederalism . It’s based on feminism, ecology, environmentalism, equal rights, direct democracy.
That’s a lot for the Middle East, especially in Kurdistan, where it’s very patriarchal. Religion is super powerful. Even while [the PKK] are fighting for their territory, they are also trying to educate people a lot. They do a lot of courses about how it’s supposed to be as a society, and what democracy is, exactly. They try to decentralize power; instead of having a central government and federal government, they try to have assembly in districts, then in the town, then in the province, and then the whole country; they make decisions in a small, small group, and then go bigger. It’s a way to give the power to people. In the beginning, they were fighting for communism, and the power was coming from the government; the government gives money to people and tells them, “Okay, you have the right to spend that amount of money per month, and you can have this and that.” [With democratic confederalism], it’s like the opposite. People decide what they want to do. Also, they accept a lot of religions, and a lot of ethnicities — it’s pluralism of ethnicity, of religion, and everyone has a representative of their own group. It’s kind of an ideal system.
George W. Myers: So it’s a much more active position that they’re coming from, which I thought was really powerful.
The other thing that I thought was really effective, in this film: I thought I was going to go in and get a history lesson. A standard thing you see is maps: you’ll have histories, and you’ll have the old photographs. And there was none of that. It was really set up in a way that, after the film I said, “I need to go do some more homework.” Can you talk about your decision in putting the film together to say, “I’m not going to give anybody any context here. I’m not gonna contextualize this film for anybody.”
Zaynê Akyol: Yeah, maybe I can start with why I did this movie, because it kind of also explains why I made this choice. So as I said, I was born I Turkey. I’m from a small village in Turkey. At age four and half, I immigrated to Montreal, the French part of Canada. At that time, it was forbidden to speak Kurdish or to live the Kurdish culture in Turkey. You could go to jail, you still could now. So we emigrated. They built a Kurdish community center in Montreal, so they had this new freedom to express themselves, to speak their own language suddenly, and to be free.
I was going often to this Kurdish community center, and I met Gulistan. Gulistan was a young lady. She was 18 years old and I was around four and a half. She babysat me sometimes. We were living in the same building. She was on the third floor with her family, I was on the first floor with my family. She used to babysit me, and she was really a role model for me. And suddenly, she just disappeared from my life, and I learned that she joined the PKK in Kurdistan.
It was a really big loss for me at that time, and it always stayed in my mind. I really wanted to understand why she made this decision, because she didn’t do it from Kurdistan, but from Montreal. After my studies in cinema, and during my master in cinema, I decided to do a movie about her, about why she decided to do this. Also, to talk with people that would explain her and all her journey through that decision.
So I started the script in 2010, and in 2011, I decided to make my first visit to Kurdistan. They’re north of Iraq. And there I met a lot of people who knew Gulistan. And Gulistan means, land of roses. I also met Sozar in 2014, when we received the grant to do the movie, we went to Kurdistan, and then suddenly the war started. When I had this idea in 2010, there was no war with ISIS. In July 2014, they took Mosul. They attacked Mosul. And in August 2014, they took Sinjar. So the war just started, and everyone was getting out of the country, and we’re going into the country. I tried again to see people who knew Gulistan, to do the movie that I have in my mind, but it was really impossible.
Some women were dead, other were far in the war zone. Some, they quit the PKK. So it was really impossible for me to do the movie. But I could finally find a source — I waited I think two or three weeks in the town of Douk, in the north, before going to the mountain and joining up at the camp where they were training.
And so, I just decided to do a movie with them, because even if it’s not about Gulistan, it’s about a lot of women who were present-day Gulistans, a lot of Gulistans, if I can say that. The idea was not to explain, I think it was more about trying to understand myself through this story. Because it’s my identity, and it’s the war that has always been in Kurdistan…
As you said, to learn more about what is going on, you did some research, so that’s great. I think the goal was that.
George W. Myers: The first question from the audience is, how does the PKK stand apart from the general Kurdish culture?
Zaynê Akyol: The Kurdish are 80% Muslim, and 20% other religions, so they are very conservative, patriarchal; mostly the women are there to do kids and are not real powerful figure. And the PKK is the opposite of that. They think that for a revolution if the half of the society is not free, how could a whole society imagine their own liberation or emancipation. So it’s widely focused also on the people who don’t have rights. They start with the women, and also with the minorities, so it’s really a new movement in the Kurdish community.
Actually now, in Rojava, which is the Kurdish part in Syria, it’s working. And they took three communities in the north of Syria, which was originally Kurdish, and they inserted this new system. So it’s very different but it’s kind of working now.
George W. Myers: The next question from the audience is, what is the power structure behind the PKK and where they’re marching, where is it coming from, and what power looks like for that group.
Zaynê Akyol: The PKK is like the big name of the whole party, of the guerrilla movement, but the women have their own branch because they want to be independent and make their own decisions. [The PKK] is a very different system, and it’s not a regular army, because they don’t have counties. So it’s not an official army, it’s unofficial and it’s considered as terrorist by United States, Canada, European Union, Australia, and so on… but at the same time, Americans help the Kurdish. You may know that Trump just decided that he would give a lot of arms to the Kurdish in Syria. But the Kurdish in Syria is another branch of the PKK. It’s YPJ and it’s the same. And the United States is working with the YPJ to take back Raka right now.
Audience Member: Can you explain the circumstances of what we were seeing?
Zaynê Akyol: What I understand is that it’s not like in a Hollywood movie, where the bombs are exploding everywhere; it’s mostly a lot of waiting. 99% of the war is waiting. So we were there 2 months and we waited most of the time. And they were watching ISIS, and ISIS was watching us.
Actually, we see some of the small battle in the middle of the film, where they are really on the front line and someone was injured. The battle of the small town. I was 2 kilometers from the front line. So it deconstructed all our thinking about what a war is supposed to be. And I decided also to not have a shaky camera or to make it very impressive. I tried to make it very calm and to personalize these people who are in front of the camera. Because we hear a lot about war, but we don’t know who these people are who are fighting in this war.
Also, there are a lot of people, many groups who are involved in this war. My focus was the Kurdish, and the woman fighters there.
Audience Member: In terms of the gender roles that you portrayed, it is a very feminist movie, and yet I was wondering, were you not also portraying your frustration of the women in waiting? That they often spoke out — one woman was very articulate, saying the strategy should be this — to get it to be seen as much as being listened to? The women were commanders, but yet they were not yet intervening. Did you feel this conflict in the women that you worked with, and do they think that their utopian feminism will be realized?
Zaynê Akyol: Not at all. Because as I said, the women’s movement has their own leader, if I can say, their own commander, and the men have their own. And they are the two to lead the group. So it’s not only the men’s group who leads, the group who is on the ground and makes war or battle. They are together.
In the movie, what we saw actually is, first, assembly. It’s a reading of a letter that you receive from Ocalan who is in jail. The second is a woman who tried to understand the concern of the fighters. And the third one is one of the leaders. I didn’t show the leader in Markadah, which was the second city that we shot. The first was the city that we saw where they are on the front line. But it’s not a man who decides for the woman. They always have to agree together to do something.
George W. Myers: The next question was, that really powerful scene where Sozar invites you to come to battle, and talked about protecting you, [the audience member] is wondering if you did go, and what the decision-making process was like during that time.
Zaynê Akyol: As a filmmaker you are always scared to not have enough material. I was filming and wondering if I could do a movie with what I had. And I was pushing also to go closer. But I was always alone when I was on the front line. I never took my crew with me because I had a responsibility and I didn’t want to take [the risk] for them.
In the small battle we saw, I’m alone with my camera, but I knew Sozar would go and fight at that time. I wanted to follow her and to make sure that I would have something. Also, the PKK is very protective, so to have this agreement that I can go in the war zone, they have to talk to their leader and the other leader, and other commander, so it’s a long process. And at the end they decided that I could not go because it was too dangerous. So it was more that.
George W. Myers: That scene, can we talk about the story of the scene where you’re on that mountain? And you’re talking about the land mines, and you ask, “can you show me the trail?”
Zaynê Akyol: We were going into the city, and we just stopped at this triangular point, and [Sozar] wanted to show me where north Kurdistan is, south Kurdistan, west and east. We knew that Saddam Hussein was putting down a lot of mines, and the PKK fighters were taking out a lot of mines, but the specifics were not verified very well. So she went onto the top; another guerrilla fighter showed her where to go exactly on the rock, and so she went. And I just made sure that [I went] where she put her feet. And so I went, and then my cameraman went, and then the sound man went. We were on a big rock and [when] we were standing there, she did her speech. The north and south.And then again, the PKK fighter just showed a path to follow, this rock, then this rock and I was looking very carefully.
So it was a whole process. But I don’t want to make an emphasis on “this is super dangerous and this is what it is,” it was more like, “that’s the situation and we dealt with it.”
George W. Myers: The question from the audience is, “Who do the Kurds regard as their biggest enemy? Or, who are the people that they need to push back the most to establish a homeland?”
Zaynê Akyol: Yeah, it’s complicated. It’s Turkey of course, because the movement started in 79 and we just hear about ISIS, it’s less than 7 years, maybe? It starts in Syria, the beginning. Of course it’s Turkey, because they are scared to lose their land. Most of the Kurdish, they are in Turkey: 20 million Kurdish are in Turkey. And the Kurdish population is separated in four countries — Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. So in Turkey, they are afraid that they would lose all this land; in Iraq, they have a lot of petrol, and they have lot of resources.
So, of course it’s Turkey. And now, all the Kurdish thinkers, all the Kurdish journalists, the left side, all the opposition are in jail in Turkey. So, it’s a “dictature” over there, and for the PKK, it’s the opposite of what they are thinking.
George W. Myers: The next question is, “The film is mostly spoken in Turkish, with some Kurdish. Can you explain how language shifts in the film?”
Zaynê Akyol: As I said, most of the people are from Turkey, and in Turkey it was forbidden to speak Kurdish. Most of the people just went to school speaking in Turkish, so they are more comfortable speaking in Turkish. But also we have a lot of Kurdish. I can say half of the movie is in Turkish, half of it is Kurdish. I cannot tell them, “Please, let’s speak in Kurdish,” or “Let’s speak in Turkish.” It’s a language; it doesn’t matter, I think, so I just go with the flow.
Audience Member: Has anyone in the film seen it? Or do you have any update on people who were there and what’s going on?
Zaynê Akyol: Sozar, she’s very involved in education. She is trying to build a university in Markadah for the people there, because Markadah is a city of people who were living in Turkey and their city were bombed by the Turkish government. It’s very ironic to say, but they went to Iraq to be protected by the PKK. They speak Kurmanji, which is one dialect of Kurdish, and they don’t have the citizenship of an Iraqi citizen so they cannot go to school.
It’s very difficult also because of the language; they are not accepted. So Sozar, she’s very involved in education, she’s trying to make a university over there. And because I finished the shooting in September 2014, and one year since, she’s trying to do that. Unfortunately Rojane, who is the blonde with the green eyes talking about her mother, she died in 2015 while she was fighting against ISIS. And half of the women are dead now.
Audience Member: One comment and two questions. My comment is that the only thing we know about the Kurds is we keep hearing — we don’t get any real reports, all we hear is that the Kurds are the only effective fighters against ISIS. Nobody else seems to be able to beat ISIS, but the Kurds are constantly beating ISIS. And the other thing we hear is that the Turks are bombing the Kurds, which of course is helping ISIS. Even though the Turks claim they’re against ISIS.
My questions are, you mentioned what was happening with the women — half of them are dead — but it’s been three years since the movie; what in general has happened? Where are the Kurds? Are they fighting in Syria and other places? Are they mainly just fighting in Syria? What’s happening with them versus ISIS? What is the current situation? And what is the current situation with the Turks, and the bombing of the Kurds?
George W. Myers: Yeah, that’s a complicated question. The question is where do things stand now, with the PKK strategically in their relationship to Turkey, and the Kurds in general?
You should follow up on the film. I spent a lot of time reading about it. The film is powerful in so many ways, but I feel it compels you to do some work. I think that that’s one of the very deep strengths of this film. You learn to love these people, see through their eyes, and walk with them. But the decision ultimately to learn what is going on there is up to you. And it’s changing literally minute to minute.
Zaynê Akyol: Yeah, especially in the USA, because you are so involved in this war. If I can summarize, Turkey is in coalition against ISIS. But mostly all their bombing is on the Kurdish position in Syria. And the United States is helping the Kurdish, so that creates a lot of conflict between Turkey and the United States. But because of ISIS, in a sense, the Kurdish could have their ancestral region in Syria. So they have created three counties and they have inserted this new system.
But the system they want to create, it’s anti-capitalist. So it doesn’t work along with the ideology of Turkey or the United States. But the good thing is, the Kurdish are not religious at all, especially the PKK or the YPG. They don’t believe in — they don’t exclude at all. They accept people with their own religion but they don’t push people, in a sense. They have to love each other and make the decision together.
That makes the Kurdish a good ally for the United States, because they made this bad decision in Iraq, where they supported the Iraqi army. They gave a lot of guns, and then those guns were used by ISIS to attack the Kurdish or other people, other villagers, who were against ISIS. So it’s a very complicated situation, but I think it’s getting better for the Kurdish region. I have a lot of hope for that region because th
ey have the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, and because, in a sense, of this war, they have their own men in a very progressive system in Syria. Maybe my concern would be in Turkey- what is going on is absolutely incredible.
And this morning, I read the news about the Erdogan was visiting Washington and the White House, and the bodyguard of Erdogan just beat up a Kurdish protester, a pacifist Kurdish protester. It was very pacific, and they beat people. Even a policeman was injured. So even in America, they have this power… it’s supposed to be a free speech country.
Audience Member: I have a quick question about the film distribution. It appears to be Canadian. I’m guessing it would never be shown in Turkey under the current administration?
Zaynê Akyol: I don’t think so, because [in] the Kurdish region, the army cut off the Internet, cut off the electricity, a lot of things happened. They want to do a film festival in the eastern part of Turkey, but nothing could happen right now.
Audience Member: And politically, would it ever be accepted?
Zaynê: I’m not sure. A festival was supposed to happen last March, but it didn’t happen. So I’m not sure if in a few months it would be okay or not. But for sure, I cannot go to Turkey anymore.
Audience Member: What about the fighters in the film? Would they be at risk at all? Would the government sort of screen for that?
George W. Myers: The question was about the fighters in the film, are they at risk from being in the film?
Zaynê Akyol: The fighters, they have been involved in PKK their whole life. It’s not like, they go there for two years or three years and then go back home. They dedicate their whole life for this movement. What you have to understand, every Kurdish family, they have at least one person that they know who has been jailed, tortured, or killed by the government. So they grew up in this environment and they don’t see any future for them. So they said, “Okay, if I have a family, that circle will just continue and go on.” They want to change the system, so they just give their life for this movement, for democracy, and try to change things. It’s for their whole life that they are involved.
Audience Member: When she said, “I’m not saying goodbye,” and you said, “the Kurds are generally not religious,” I was wondering if that was of a Kurdish spiritual tradition or is that just her?
Zaynê Akyol: Just her. She’s really spiritual and a very articulate person, and those were her last words for me.
George W. Myers: With that we’ll close. Zaynê, thank you for the film and for being with us today.