Hot Docs 2021: “The Return: Life After ISIS”

Shamima Begum

Rating: 5 out of 5.

As a film critic, it’s my duty to avoid subjectivity at all cost. Like everybody else, I must remain calm, a bit indifferent towards sensitive subject matters and be as respectful as possible. Because I am not here to promote my ideas, my vision nor express an opinion that might be insulting or hurtful. When you watch a documentary like “The Return: Life After ISIS”, want it or not, it will trigger disturbing feelings. You will feel uncomfortable, unsettling yet undetermined which side to take. I don’t know which side I am taking, but the most logical one is what the brilliant Alba Sotorra Clua offers. I must admit, it has that power to get deep in your mind and force you to face the reality of tough decisions in an environment we wish to never find ourselves in.

As someone who has seen many documentaries about the ISIS propaganda, and what it does to an injured and conflicting young mind, Sottora Clua’s film captures the sense of the horror of what may occur if one takes freedom for granted, unknowingly switches a privileged life for torture, and loss freedom for a fake dream they did not know was never meant to come true. Shamima Begum (UK) and Hoda Muthana (US) made their names known when they left a superbly advanced country as teenagers to join ISIS. Felt forgotten, abandoned, alone and misunderstood by their loved ones, the two, among others, enter the group that is, as it was rightly mentioned in the film, a cult. Through difficulties, the women survive but are now stuck in a detention camp, as their country expresses no desire to have them back.

Absolutely dramatic, Sotorra’s film takes a bold approach on a very sensitive subject matter to paint these women that are being considered as traitors as victims of circumstance. In a sense, they are, if you know more or less about psychology. People who have a weak sense of identity are the best targets for cults such as ISIS. As we learn about what happens to our heroines, Shamima, Hoda, Nawal Hammoudi (Netherlands), Kimberly (Canada), filmmaker, without fear, opens up the debate for the repatriation of citizens who joined ISIS. And why they can be, perhaps, trusted, if one looked at their stories from a humane perspective.

That said, the film can be controversial too for some who may easily accuse the filmmaker of showing sympathy towards those that are named persona non grata by their country they fled. In a way, it’s understandable. How can one undo the damage done? How can you prove that you are no longer a little naïve girl that believed in nonsense who won’t go back home and promote the ISIS ideology nor recruit more people against the Western world? All these questions are debatable. The filmmaker knows that well. She raises them because it’s important. Because we must know the other side of the story.

Having that said, as you know, as time goes by, we grow, become mature, wiser and understand our mistakes of the past. Is it the case with Shamima, Hoda, Nawal, Kimberly and others? Have they realized what they were wrong? I don’t know. You won’t either. But judging them because of the choice they made is the worst thing we can do to prevent peaceful and constructive dialogue that can shed lights on the events more than we realize. However, if there’s something we all are certain about is that to be in their shoes is the most surreal and heartbreaking experience for anyone who begins to listen to their harrowing stories. Trust me, it’s not easy to listen but crucial for us to expand our knowledge in an area that is as grey as they come.

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