Zaynê Akyol’s Gulîstan, Land of Roses is a slow-moving and emotive portrait of the women at the heart of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Based mostly in Iraq and Turkey, the PKK is a militarised Marxist movement that fights to protect Kurdistan from Islamic State as well as Iraqi and Turkish persecution. Since the 1970s, it has fought for self-determination and remains classified as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the European Union, Australia and several other countries. There are roughly 40 million Kurds, making them one of the largest groups of people in the world without a country.
Despite the role of militant women insurgents at the very centre of this conflict, rarely does their participation feature in the wider discourse around Islamic State. In fact, the struggle of the Kurdish people and the PKK has largely been ignored by the international community and left-wing representatives at large. In Gulîstan, Zaynê Akyol, a Canadian filmmaker of Kurdish origin, captures the daily routine and rituals of an all-women brigade of fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. The film depicts the lives of these women in intimate, sensitive detail. It is somber, without denying the fierce, and at times playful spirit of these women. The film testifies to their bravery, their desire to defend themselves, their people and to live their lives as fully realised and complex political subjects.
In an interview with Women and Hollywood, Akyol describes how the film began by retracing the journey of her friend, Gulîstan, a young Kurdish woman who had also immigrated to Canada from the same village. One day, Gulîstan enlisted with the PKK and completely disappeared from Akyol’s life. Gulîstan fought with her comrades in the PKK until her death in 2000. Akyol’s search for her friend began in the summer of 2014, the same time that Islamic State initiated an attack on the region. “The subject of my film now had to be these PKK women guerillas,” she recounts, “and I think that a part of Gulîstan is inevitably there.”
For a documentary ostensibly about women in war, much of the footage feels quite tranquil. The backdrop of picturesque Kurdish mountaintops and desert features little bombing and bloodshed. Instead, a sense of intimacy is cultivated through the use of close-up shots of faces and hands, where we witness small details of a simple, nomadic life: eating, preparing meals, dancing, and discussions on military strategy and weaponry. There is lot of sitting around, waiting for events take place, and a lot of training. Gulîstan demonstrates that war takes place not on some heightened or radically separate, extraordinary plane, but rather is part of the everyday for those who live inside it.
The women themselves narrate through dispersed, candid dialogues about their lives, their decision to enlist in the PKK and their sense of mortality. Akyol’s presence as director and interviewer is felt through a playful sense of camaraderie between her and the women, as they often beckon her teasingly to “come film this.” Accompanying music is restricted, giving one the sense that silence plays an equally important role in reminding the viewer of what may be left out, or what is unsaid. Overall, the film resists an investigative drive or impulse, but retains a sense of purposefulness in its structure and pacing.
Women in the PKK defy the pervasive ‘women and children’ narrative which has come to justify Western intervention in wars, both in Iraq and Syria. So often women are often positioned as causalities, victims or passive objects, and rarely are they given the opportunity to own their agency in armed conflict, to frame their own experiences of war and to discuss their reasons for participating in political violence. The dominant narrative around military conflict relentlessly excludes women in a way that preserves, rather than challenges, existing gender norms. Gulîstan’s bold attempt to present these issues, to write back in the stories of these women, is always subtle, rather than overt.
Dedicated to realistic filmmaking, Gulîstan, Land of Roses is a warm, but quiet reflection on the journey and struggles of an entire people. It is also an examination of war’s gendered nature and the ways in which women actively challenge gender norms, by way of a tender and honest portrait of the realities of their lives.