Art Projects Stories from Kurdistan

Female fighters of Kurdistan become creative calling for Montrealer

This article originally appeared in CBC Canada.

Zaynê Akyol lived near the Iraq-Iran border to capture portraits of female Kurdish fighters, producing a series of arresting images that were quietly unveiled last week in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood.

Twenty photos are part of the Rojekê, One Day exhibition, but the venue, co-working space Espace Mile End, only has room to display seven.

The show’s vernissage was on a record-cold day, so the slimmed-down exhibition was greeted by a similarly slimmed-down crowd.

But Akyol didn’t mind.

She’s a filmmaker and makes it clear she doesn’t identify as a photographer. She was simply excited to be offered the space and attend her first vernissage.

In order to take the photos, Akyol lived with female members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK has its headquarters.

The PKK is an outlawed rebel group fighting for an independent Kurdish state in eastern Turkey.  Akyol also spent time in Kurdish strongholds in Makhmour and Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Whatever she lacks in technical knowledge of photography, she makes up for with her natural connection to her subjects.

Akyol fled Turkey as a child, where she says her family suffered persecution for being Kurdish.

The owner of Espace Mile End, Élise Lafontaine, said she thought it was important to support Akyol and give her a place to show her work as a photographer.

“She seemed to draw a portrait of women whose organization we’re ignoring,” Lafontaine said. “All communities or organizations can support culture in their own way.”

Exploring the subject on screen

Many people who saw Akyol posting her photos on social media thought the images were stills from her documentary, Gulîstan, Land of Roses.

The film was released in 2016 and explores the lives and politics of female PKK fighters. The group is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish (and Canadian) government.

Her work with the PKK has made it difficult for her to consider returning to the country where she was born.

“There is a huge war against the PKK,” said Akyol, who still holds Turkish citizenship. “So just having a movie about them, [considering] the censorship in Turkey, I wouldn’t go to Turkey.

Gulîstan was shown around the world, receiving 80 award nominations, including from the Montreal International Documentary Festival and Gala Québec Cinéma.

To Canadians, the images in the film and the photography exhibition may look the same, but they were taken of different subjects, and in different areas.

A sniper in the mountains finishing her shift; a checkpoint; a woman combing her hair — all are among the simple, seemingly mundane moments captured in both projects.

Many of these women have opted to fight, leaving their families forever, as opposed to marriage. “Married women are dedicated to slavery, they are never happy,” says one woman in Gulîstan.

Half the women survived

After living with the fighters for her documentary, Akyol had to learn to let go and move on.

A year after filming, she tried to follow up with some of the women she felt closest with.

“I lived with them, I was so attached to them,” she said.

But after finding out one of the main characters in her film was dead, she decided she didn’t want to know who among the others had survived. She heard only half did.

Akyol’s work telling the stories of women Kurdish fighters will take her to northern Syria in 2019.

The upcoming documentary will follow a Kurdish commander who is considered a radical feminist, fighting not only to take back northern Syria from ISIS, but to foster feminist ideals and direct democracy in the area.

“People are not used to it, it’s another extreme way of thinking,” Akyol said. “It will be very interesting for me to film that.”

The commander has already agreed to take part in the documentary and Akyol has secured funding for the project. She expects to film over two or three months, but for safety reasons, can’t say exactly when.

This article was originally published in CBC Canada.

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