As I began watching Hawar, our Banished Children, which world premiered at this year's Visions du Réel, I heard my inner cynic mumble "oh oh, here we go again." But nothing about Pascale Bourgaux's stunningly shot documentary is stereotypical, unleashing instead a narrative that is worthy of a fiction thriller, keeping the viewer glued to the screen for its full 75 minutes.
I will explain what I mean by stereotypical, and that is the kind of film that festivals just love programming these days, where women in the MENA region are victimized, usually by big bad Arab men, misery rules and a woe-is-me narrative is typically told by white men directors with an agenda. An agenda which makes it difficult to provide an enjoyable watch for a woman who has always found the strength to fight one more fight. Because let's face it, women are warriors, we just require different motivations to start our battles and we don't begin wars just to stroke our own egos. We fight to regain what has been taken from us.
In Hawar, our Banished Children, the film's protagonist known as "Ana" is on a journey to regain, and reconnect with her child. Her real name and her face are never disclosed to the audience -- but also the film's crew from what I read in the press kit -- and the documentary begins with a statement about the car journey she embarks upon across Kurdistan and the importance of its secrecy. Ana begins telling a harrowing story about being kidnapped by Daesh -- ISIS -- in 2014, being brought from Mosul, Iraq to Syria and being bartered during a lottery of sorts, ending up with a man who raped her repeatedly. Ana then gave birth to a baby daughter at 19, the child being the product of repeated rape by this Muslim Kurdish jihadist.
The desperate story of Ana, already traumatized by her ordeal, doesn't end there. Once freed from her captors in the Islamic State, she returned to her own Yazidi community, with her adorable daughter Marya in tow, only to find that the male elders would not allow her child, the offspring of someone they viewed as one of the Muslim victimizers of their people, to join her. Along the way, on her return, she was taken in front of a judge, signed over her rights to the little girl and was told she could see her soon -- but that was yet another abuse of power. A power which is constantly taken away from the women and given to the men and yet, somehow garnering every bit of strength within them, the women claim back, time and time again.
In her press kit interview Bourgaux explains why the Yazidis are so adamant about abandoning these children, born of fathers who are both Muslim and jihadists: "The question is all the more sensitive among the Yazidis," she writes, "since blood purity is central: mixed marriages are prohibited; all Yazidis are born of Yazidi fathers and mothers." Add in that those Muslim, jihadist fathers are also the men who are responsible for the Yazidis' suffering, "because," she continues, "we must never forget that the Yazidis have suffered enormously during this war. Entire families have been separated, tortured. Over 10,000 people have been killed or abducted and raped. This is a martyred people who endured 74 waves of massacres."
As Ana told her story, I couldn't foresee where this film, a kind of spellbinding road movie of redemption to the soundtrack of Ana's harrowing accounts and the occasional catchy regional music, would take me. And yet I wanted to know more, to hear move, because Bourgaux tells the story almost like a thriller, in a way that keeps the audience guessing where exactly this is all going to end up and wanting to discover its ending. In order to maintain that magic for the viewer, I won't disclose the full narrative, but hint at some of the events, like a family reunion that gave me shivers and an emotional "where are they now" recap at the end of the film, simply written in bold white letters on a black screen. One so telling of a region that has been diminished, demoralized and disintegrated by the events of the last twenty years.
Every time I felt the film could take me down a path of commonplace, NGO-like pity, trying thus to manipulate me into its viewpoint, Bourgaux changed direction and surprised me once again, with a twist in the story -- and there are a few! -- a different perspective or even a detour stop due to a flock of sheep crossing the road. It is in these short moments that the courage of Ana is seen and her maternal instinct, as well as her Yazidi culture and background become most apparent.
Bourgaux doesn't miss the opportunity to point a finger, like she does when a former U.S. diplomat, who now helps the mothers reconnect with their children, talks about the perils of what he calls the "all male Yazidi religious establishment," which has created more trauma for the women and their "bastard' offsprings. Her film has quickly become a personal favorite of this festival season, one jam packed with stories of women, by women about regaining our power and moving forward.
Switzerland/Belgium 2023, 74 mins
Director: Pascale Bourgaux
Writers: Pascale Bourgaux and Mohammad Shaikhow
Production: Iota Production (Isabelle Truc / Belgium), Louise Productions Lausanne (Elisa Garbar / Switzerland)
Cinematography: Mohammad Shaikhow
Editor: Sophie Vercruyse
Sound : Pierre Dozin, Marianne Roussy, Valentin Dupanloup, Benjamin Benoît & Denis Séchaud
Music : Nicolas Rabaeus
International Sales : Cat & Docs