Interview: Director Alba Sotorra Clua on “The Return: Life After ISIS”, Compassion and Empathy

Some real-life stories are riveting, shocking and hard to believe. You shake your head each time when you watch the news and ask yourself how can a human being fall into obvious scams or become part of dangerous cults. For us, it’s unbelievable. But how much do we know about the life of those individuals that bought into the lie? People that gave up their comfortable life, maybe not to their standards, but at least what did their brain dictate in what state of mind they should be?

“The Return: Life After ISIS” is a documentary that will make you revisit questions such as why young women agreed to be recruited by ISIS to become a wife to one of its soldiers? Who would agree to such a union? From remarkable filmmaker, Alba Sotorra Clua, she takes aim at another complicated subject matter that provides food for thought. Who are we to judge someone’s life? How easy is it for us to provide our own opinion on a matter that is foreign to us? Clua goes deep into the details of her documentary, the reasons she made it and why it provides the most important angle for anyone who wants to learn about the lives of those that are being considered persona non grata in their own country.

MOVIEMOVESME: When you started this project, was there any kind of fear that people may accuse you of trying to victimize these women and ask them to be forgiven?

Alba Sotorra Clua: Yeah, actually not in the beginning because, in the beginning, I didn’t know I will make this film. In the beginning, I had the same prejudice as everybody has, and I had no idea that I will feel empathy for these women. And actually, I didn’t even want to focus on that, I wanted to focus on the Kurdish character because I thought it was amazing and very strong, that somebody who had faced extreme violence from a group was able to be so human, and open a bridge for dialogue, and create a safe space for them. And I found it inspiring and I wanted to focus on that.

But as we spent time in the camp, and as I myself started to listen to stories of these women, I started to look at things from a different perspective, and that’s what I portray in the film. And the fear that you mentioned came during the editing. And I tried because of this to make a balanced film and not only show the most empathic part, but also put all the things to say, “Hey, don’t forget that they belong to a group that did this, or that they themselves did this and this.” And I did it with Shamima when I put the interviews where she says that she didn’t feel anything when she saw beheaded head, or when I talk about the tweets by Hoda, I don’t hide anything that they did. But what I realized, and I hope people realize when they see the film, is that they already paid so dearly for the mistakes they’ve done and that they now are in a place that they regret.

And I think that as a society, we need to make an effort to try to approach the issue from a different perspective, not from the hate. And I think that’s the lesson that Shamima gave us, and her father, when they say we need to deal with this without the sense of revenge or the sense of hate. And with societies that have been much farther away from the Kurdish, from this violence, we are approaching this from hate and fear, basically, fear. People is very scared, but the ones who really face this violence, they have not scared. They are facing it. They are trying to find a way out from the violence. And they realize that the way out cannot come with more violence and hate, that they should come from another way. They should come from dialogue. They should come from trying to find the things that connect us instead of the things that separate us.

MOVIEMOVESME: With Commander Arian and then with this film, what do you think drives women to put themselves into this situation? They actually left their home to become wife to men that are beheading people. What did you think while were drawing the contrast?

Alba Sotorra Clua: I think that what I tried to understand what was behind the minds of the different women I met when they take the decision to come. And of course, behind every woman, there is a different story. Like [Hafida 00:04:32], she was going behind of her husband. She was pregnant. She just went there because he went and he wanted to bring her back. And I believe her when she says that it’s okay. And she was 22. It was the first time she was traveling alone. And she ended there. Shamima was 15. When you are 15, it’s so easy that you can get engaged in something because your friends are going, because it’s a trend. Because we have to also think that in 2014, 2015, when many people traveled there, the pressure through the social media of ISIS propaganda was really, really strong.

And this propaganda was very, very well done. They had a narrative, or they had a way of explaining things for every group. For instance, for people coming from countries that they were poor and they didn’t have, for instance, social care or hospitals or free education, they were telling them that if they will come to the state, their kids will have free education and the families will have free hospitals. And they will go only because of this. That was the trigger. In Europe, because in countries in Europe, there is no freedom on practising your religion… For instance, the hijab is not even allowed in some schools. They were selling freedom of religion, “Your kids here will grow as Muslims. As you wish to be in yourself, you will be able to wear the niqab if you are not allowed in your country,” and some people fall for this.

And then of course there were others that fall for the strength and the power of the state that was growing. I think that was more of the boys, that the propaganda was directed to young men had to do with this almost video game-ish look, that if you come here, you will be able to use these huge weapons. And then when you say about beheadings… And that’s something I had been told this by a different woman, that there was also a lot of pressure on them to say that the media in the West was propaganda for the West. What they were telling them is that all that they were hearing from media, were lies that the Islamic State was not doing really what they were doing, that this was an exaggeration from the West, that the reality was that they were, like in any war, fighters fighting against others. And the ones who were really doing tortures and massacres against Syrians were the army of Bashar Assad, or the international armies… I mean, it’s true that the other armies were also torturing. It’s known. We’ve seen it in films even how the army of Bashar torture people in many ways from all ages and killed people by chemical weapons and that. So the answer was that they are the ones who are the bad ones and we are going to go there to protect the Muslims that are being killed by the others. So I think that when you are young, it’s easy. You can easily get confused or convinced because they had an answer to any question. All difficult questions had very easy answers that anyone will understand. And then for women like Kimberly, one woman from Canada, she has a different nature. She was not young and naive, but she was in a very delicate state.

She was not stable mentally. She had been even in treatment for depression. And then she finds… Actually, she doesn’t find it. They found her. The recruiters were trained to be able to detect vulnerable people. And when they will see that person, they will convince them. There was a lot of energy put into that. And what she says in the film, “Come where you’re actually needed,” because she didn’t feel needed anymore where she was. And she felt that she could do something worth there. Most of them, when they arrived, the moment they arrived, they regret it. Because as soon they arrive, they were locked into [foreign language 00:09:49]. So it’s obvious that they lied to them. They didn’t have the information to make the right decision. And they are very good at isolating you from others, so you cannot share what you are learning or hearing with others. And this left you alone in the hands of the recruiters.

Shamima Begum

MOVIEMOVESME: You were playing not only the role of a director or the writer but almost like a psychologist as well. I just liked that idea of how you showed all the aspects, the nuances and the circumstances that led them to this. How did you come up with this?

Alba Sotorra Clua: Because, actually, it was my process when I worked in the field. I tried so people will go through the process I went through. Because as I said, I also had a lot of prejudices. I have no idea that ISIS had propaganda videos showing schools. I thought they only showed the beheadings. And I thought, “Who will, sane in his mind, go with a group that shows us propaganda where there are beheadings of journalists?” But then we started doing research on all the propaganda, and we met this person, an academic, a crazy academic from a university in the US that had downloaded absolutely every single video that ISIS had released. He had them all, and he helped us to dig into the different kinds of propaganda and that was started in a different population or different segments of the population.

And it was amazing to see how they were showing the hospitals or how they were calling the families to this lifelike, “We will give you a house, we will give you a land, we will give you a job.” And then with many people, that’s all that they need, because if you don’t have this, that can be enough appeal to take you to a place if you are not well informed. And so because I was surprised by these kinds of videos, I wanted to show them too.

MOVIEMOVESME: I remember when I watched Shamima’s video personally, her interview with the BBC, she literally showed no remorse. She was talking about beheading like cleaning potato for soup. What do you hope your documentary can show to the government or the people to show them they were wrong?

Alba Sotorra Clua: You really touch the point. Actually, we’re being contacted by policymakers or technicians from the US State Department of Antiterrorism, or from organizations in the UK that are actively working with policymakers to change the way governments look at this topic, to change the narrative. And because all that had been published before on this topic that was basically from journalism was so different, it’s completely based on the hate, and this is the first film that looks at it from a different perspective, we have been approached by different people and they want to screen it privately to decision-makers.

And regarding what you said of Shamima, when Shamima was interviewed, she had just been out of five years at the State. She had been under the bombs. She had been in two months in an underground shelter, without food, without bathroom, little water. She had lost kids, she was pregnant with the third. And then, with this baby dying in her hands, she was traumatized. And when you live through so much pain, you need to disconnect yourself from yourself. You need to disconnect from your emotions. And when I met her, I really felt that she was so cold. She had just lost her kid, but she didn’t cry, she didn’t single drop. She was just gone, but slowly… And that happened with all the women. When we first met, they were close, they were tense. And when we were trying… I mean, Sevinaz, with her exercises, she was trying to say, “Write a letter to yourself before you went to Syria,” or, “What will you tell to your mom?”

And they were saying, “No, please. Don’t let us. We don’t want to open this door because if we start to think… We only can look forward because we have kids, we cannot not get down. If we started to feel and think about what we’ve done and what we’ve lost, we are going to get so depressed.” But then they realized it was the opposite because they think that the Islamic State was a very, very restrictive place like everybody lived in constant paranoia, so nobody talked. They didn’t even dare to think differently. And if they did, they were afraid that somebody will find out. In the camp, in the context of the workshop, it was the first time that they were sharing their thoughts and their feelings with other women who are also in the State. But they have not done it before because of fear. Because if you say something for another person, and this person doesn’t think like you and denounces you, you are put into jail. Is it your daughter? Son?

Okay. So, this moment where they together were able to share their stories helped them to realize they were not alone, and it really helped them to open up and to connect with their emotions. And then Shamima, it was maybe after 10 months I met her that she cried when we were talking. I was interviewing her and I saw her for the first time crying. And I thought, “Wow,” because at that moment she was really connected with herself. And I think it’s part of the journey and I like that the film achieves to bring in these emotions that journalists… Because also, they didn’t have time enough in the camps and they weren’t there at the right moment, they didn’t bring out.

MOVIEMOVESE: Imagine your own home is the entire country. And you have someone from your home join an organization like ISIS and became radicalized thinking that the home you lived in wouldn’t support you. Now years after they want to come back. Would you personally accept that person?

Alba Sotorra Clua: Of course, because, first of all, this person is not the responsibility of somebody else’s house. It’s from my house, so who else, but me, has the responsibility of that person? If this person did something wrong, how do I dare to leave this responsibility to somebody else houses? They don’t belong to the house of the Kurdish. They are from my house. So, first of all, only because of this, I should bring them back because they are my responsibility.

But then also, I think it’s a question of if… Because in this case, as you say, they left my house because they hated it, and they even attacked it. If I want to prevent this from happening again, how will I do it? I just put my head under the land and I don’t want to know anything from them? Why face this? I say, “Okay, I want to understand what happened.” And how do I can understand what happened? The only way is to bring them back and ask, “Why the hell you left? How these networks work? How you were recruited? Give me names, give me places,” so I will get this information so I can then detect in my house if there is anything else happening and be able to prevent it.

But if, instead of this, I just look towards another place and I say… Then I can have this again and again in my house happening. So I think it’s when people say, “It’s not safe to bring them back,” I think what is not safe is not to bring them back, because how are we going to protect ourselves if we leave them there in a context where… I show you also in the film, I mean, it’s not good that kids grow up there. They need to be back. They need proper education. They need to be part of our countries instead of becoming enemies of our houses.

I don’t see any negative in bringing them back. And I see so many negative things in leaving them there, so that’s why, for me, it’s obvious.

MOVIEMOVESME: If you were asked to write a letter to every single woman, to their past, to prevent this from happening, what would you tell them personally?

Alba Sotorra Clua: To the woman who will think the same?


Alba Sotorra Clua: That’s another thing that is key. I think the best persons, the best agents to achieve change on the next generations and the ones that have legitimacy for this, are the woman who went through this. Because a young woman that starts to feel for these kinds of ideas will listen much more to a person who has been through that and has done the same journey than to a person that is alien to that. Maybe they might listen to me because I met them and I could say what they saw. I could explain to them the stories of the women that I saw, but the ones who are really the right ones to do this are them. And they are ready to do it, that’s another thing that I think that bringing them back is great. Because they are not only aware of how to detect vulnerable girls, but they know how could talk to them better than me.

But in my case, it’s difficult. If I will have met Shamima before she left, it doesn’t matter what I could have said to her. At this point, if it happens again, I could tell her I met women that felt like you, and I know how you feel, and I know that you think you will find an answer, but I will just tell them to wait. I didn’t think I have the right words to protect all the other women from following these same mistakes. And it’s not a few sentences. I let them watch the film and I will ask them to talk to women who have been through the experience before they do that.

MOVIEMOVESME: That’s a good way of saying this. Another thing is, say Kimberly, who you mentioned earlier. She is a grown-up woman, there’s no way for an adult person to be brainwashed. So my question would be-

Alba Sotorra Clua: I think you can be brainwashed at any age.

MOVIEMOVESME: If I would say Shamima was brainwashed because she’s 15 years old and it’s easy for her to get brainwashed. But do you think that the surroundings are also responsible? Even the immediate family members who maybe did not create a loving environment for Kimberly?

Alba Sotorra Clua:I think it’s difficult to blame. It’s like when a friend commits suicide. Of course, you blame yourself, but sometimes somebody can escape from your hands and you saw it and you felt it, but then it’s too late. And I think it’s similar because it’s almost closing suicide, traveling to war and joining a terrorist group. It’s like killing yourself slowly. It’s difficult. I mean, the mental states of every person… And there are so many elements that are involved in this and pointing out the guilty. I think we all should take responsibility. And I do believe that family members, the communities, the government and the schools, we all should, not blame ourselves, but try to think how to prevent these things from happening again.

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you hope your film achieves with the final product? To me, it’s educational and really opens up this discussion that we’re having now and much more. But what was your personal goal with this?

Alba Sotorra Clua: First, to change the narrative and, as you say, to open a conversation that is more diverse than the conversations we’ve had until now about the topic. This is first. But ultimately, to bring them back. So that the film can have an impact that can bring them and many other women back. And even more that it can be used as a tool for young women to not do this mistake again, to prevent other women from doing similar mistakes. I wished it can be used for that tool.

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