When we say Freedom, we can think of a lot of things, but we mostly think about ourselves, humankind. Although it is selfish to say that Freedom belongs only to humankind, as we can define freedom as energy flow as diversity in the universe. But I will try to concentrate on our today’s situation as humans, the notion of freedom, today’s global system problems in relation to us, the Kurds, and what it has to do with Art.
The first word that comes to mind when talking about, or watching today’s global system, is failure. Failure to solve urgent issues, such as refugees, poverty, ecological disasters and climate change. Failure to meet the needs for establishing peace and stability.
This neoliberal capitalist global system fails us simply because the structural problems it has. And these failures are brought to our region, The Middle East, in the shape of wars, fighting for natural resources and oppressor nation states.
We, the Kurds, one of the largest nations without a state of its own, are ruled by four nation states, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of our people have been killed, our language has been banned, our culture has been attacked… We could only sing in secret.
In 2012 we rose up against the Syrian regime, as we have done time and time again in our history. We succeeded through a bloodless revolution, and declared the Northern part of Syria an autonomous region. This region is known as “Rojava”, which means “West”, and refers to the Western part of Kurdistan, our homeland. Rojava also had a rather political meaning, as it refers to the system that we have since established there.
A grassroots democratic, ecologist, women libertarian self-administration, or to make it harder for those who live here, within a modern state, a “stateless democracy”. In practice, this means that we govern ourselves through communes and municipalities, where each meeting is co-chaired by a woman and a man. It means that our people do not look to be represented by politicians: they represent themselves. It also means that every people, belief, community can freely co-exist with each other confident that cultural differences and rights will be respected. Rojava thus is in an opposition to the state form, which stands for a monocultural identity, with centralized power, embodying nationalism, patriarchy and capitalism.
The very idea of such a new system was attacked, and in order to defend it, to defend our land, our lives and people, thousands of brave men and women lost their lives resisting. Many of you heard of this resistance in the news, as it was the first time that global mainstream media paid attention to our struggle. Stupidly enough, those media spread such a narrative by which being a Kurd somehow enables you to resist and fight back, which beside being stupid is also wrong. Yes, we Kurds, alongside other peoples, Arabs, Assyrians, resisted while state armies fled from ISIS attacks. But that is not something we carry in the blood! Rather, it is something which lies in ideas and beliefs.
And here, I think, it’s where we need art. First, to understand the role of art, and culture in general, in creating and shaping the resistance. Secondly to change this narrative.
Discovered not a far ago, in Northern Kurdistan, which is inside Turkey’s borders, a 10000 years old temple. The motifs on the big rectangle columns are of wild animals, as well as the bones found there. The place dates back to before agriculture. Which is enough to change the whole narrative according to which the economic reasons made humankind settle. No, it was religion, if we were to say it if in today’s words. The mental structures are the basics of us becoming a society, of us becoming us. It’s culture, it’s art, which emerged almost together with belief – or, organized belief systems such as religion. Art was always accompanied by rituals, or somehow considered a ritual itself. The first plays were simply simulations of myths and religious tales: drama originated from the ritual of worship where the death and resurrection of the god were simulated. Also, the same goes for poetry, singing and dancing. Even in ancient Greece we can understand tragedies as part of religious rituals, advocating a moral life to follow.
In that sense, art have always been an attempt to better understanding of life, thus, to promote or achieve a better life. Every experience makes meaning. Making the experience a subject for art, leads to improving the experience itself. Seeing life itself, being analyzed and explored, through art, was what made people attracted to art, I believe. For centuries people would listen to songs, watch theatre plays, only to have a better understanding of life.
Aesthetic instinct gives us the power to enjoy things without going down to the need to own them. Also, I would argue that art forms our personality and identity, maybe more than anything else. For example, we get the first big ideas, or big questions in our lives through art. We hear about love from a song, or see it in a film before falling in love. We know concepts as loyalty, sacrifice, hope, resistance, freedom through art or literature, before we actually experience them.
And indeed, all the great artists from Aristoteles to Shakespeare, were analyzing life. They were telling us about us, they were advising us as well as entertaining us. But nowadays I see that less and less artists are tempted to do this. As is they retreat in the field of life in front of sociology and psychology. There is uncertainty in the material for art, in the art subject. It tends to shrink from reality to self.
Increasingly, the form and content of Art is harmed in favor of the artist’s temper. Artists start to perform art that requires the audience to understand the means which the artist use in order to then understand the content of his/her art. Of course, I know that the artist starts from a desire for self-expression, but this must be accompanied by a clear will and high purpose, otherwise it would give way in favor of some kind of exhibitionism. It is really sad seeing contemporary art losing its subversive function. Especially cinema. In an art that requires the use of social communication, a social retreat can only be seen as absurd. The audience is not an irrational emotional mess. Rather, is the owner of culture itself.
Culture is the sum of the entities of structures and meanings of a society during its historical development – progress – emerging. Culture then is not only content – meaning. It is not only a song, but the people who sing it, and also the situation (a funeral – a wedding – a harvest) in which this song was sang. We cannot talk about the existence of such a song without the situation that generated it, and the people that gathered – organized – to inspire it.
So, it is not only the content of the films, but also the organizing of the commune that is considered as part of culture. Without this organizational structure we cannot talk about the content. Then someone else will tell our stories. We will have movies such as Girls of the Sun or Sisters in Arms, which is even worst! They show the Kurdish people fighting, but they are not interested in showing the reason for that. Without showing what they defend, they show Kurdish revolutionaries men and women but don’t say the name of their organization. So, we, in the Rojava Film Commune, try to change this liberal shallow narrative, as well as the narrative promoted by mass media outlets that mention our name, CNN, FOX and others, and show us the Kurds like poor educated people, with nice faces, fighting against the ugly terrorists of ISIS. Thus, we, of course, are not looking for the colonial reality-escape films, or the bourgeoisie subjective ones. We seek to establish a new form and new aesthetic of films that are based on a larger social consciousness.
Furthermore, because of the policies of the ruling regimes in the region and of systematic attempts to carry on a cultural genocide against the Kurds, there is an absence of Kurdish Cinema. And as a consequence, there is also an absence of what can be called a Kurdish audience. This is also a reason why many Kurdish artists and filmmakers, loot to the outside – to international audiences. As for the film festivals, this something we are working on to correct. That is, building a Kurdish audience, and rebuilding the film culture is a shared art.
It is difficult to do this, as we, the Kurds, are going through the ongoing attempt of genocide, to break and deform these entities that form our culture, such as language for instance, and collective memory. But it is not only a danger looming upon us, I believe. The current global system and its main propaganda mechanism, Hollywood, are threatening the existence of the local cultures and peoples, both physically and culturally. A lot of the system-controlled films and series are somehow to break the hope for change in this world. Through their dystopia narratives, they create a bright image of the present, as if any change will actually be to the worst reality imaginable.
In addition, all the images of bombing and war in the news, zombie films, video games, create a sense of alienation in people watching a screen. Otherwise how could it even be possible for catastrophes to happen in this 21st century. How could you watch the images of the Yazidi people being beheaded, women and children being sold in public, walking with bare feet in the desert? How could you watch the images of those who fought ISIS on behalf of you being attacked and killed by the Turkish state?
And then there is the discussion in the media of the official state-approved Turkish narrative, which is having security concerns for its border. The whole discussion is wrong. Even if we, the Kurds in Rojava were attacking the Turkish state from the border - which is a complete lie – Turkey’s invasion of Rojava and northeast Syria is wrong, illegal. It is a genocide; it is a terrorist attack. And I know what I am saying when I am saying that. Turkey does mainly what ISIS did, spread terror. Why would they use phosphate bombs in a small town like Serekaniye when they have already air superiority, when they have all kind of bombs, when they can kill us all. Yet, they also burn our people to death. They did the same in the town of Cizre in North Kurdistan, in Turkey, in early 2016, when they burnt around 200 people in basements.
The existence of the state itself is wrong and is oppressing us. Because it is the establishment of the means and apparatus of violence. The state exercises violence in order to keep the things the way they are. Every act carried out by us, is therefore, defensive.
I am saying this because it does not only apply to the Middle East. It is true here as well. I think we should admit it. This system is not functioning; not the EU, not the UN!
What we succeed in was being able to say NO, no to the outcome of the world system; ISIS. We have proven that we can do something, change something, not being a part of bloodshed. We have proved that we are able to create a coexistence opportunity.
This what I think Freedom is. To be able to change! Not simply be free to choose, choose red or yellow, Barcelona or Real Madrid, Brexit or EU, Trump or Clinton, but to be able to say No, and change the whole system. And it is either for all or none. It is not a matter of personal choice, of being free to choose what I want. But being ready to “compromise” and give up something you have, in order to liberate all.
We should start to question thing around us: laws, the state, capitalism economy are not sacred, are not divine, are not definitive.
I saw walking people here waiting on a red traffic light in the middle of night when, maybe, there was not a single car moving in the city.
Diyar Hesso is a filmmaker, teacher, producer, organizer, revolutionary film theorist and co-founder of the Rojava Film Commune, in the autonomous Rojava region, West-Kurdistan (North-Syria). He is producer of The End Will be Spectacular (Ersin Çelik dir., 2019) and director of photography of Stories of Destroyed Cities (Sêro Hindê, 2016).