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#HotDocs21 Review: The Return: Life After ISIS

April 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

The “ISIS brides” as they are called, the Western woman who travelled overseas from Europe and North America to join the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, have been the point of heated political debate for several years now, with no countries wanting to take these women back. In The Return: Life After ISIS, director Alba Sotorra Clua takes us into Roj, the outdoor prison camp in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria where these women are being held.

The most notable of the documentary’s subjects are the United Kingdom’s Shemima Begum, who was fifteen when she ran away to join ISIS with her two friends, and the New Jersey-born Hoda Muthana, who snuck away to join the caliphate and started calling for terrorist attacks on Twitter. The film also focuses on Kimberly Gwen Polman, a middle-aged woman with dual Canadian-American citizenship who fell in love with a jihadist that she met online and left to join the caliphate in hopes of helping out as a nurse, only to grow disillusioned with what she saw.

They were all radicalized online by slick ISIS propaganda that made them hate the West, but have now come to regret their choices and want to return home. Many of the women in the camp are mothers caring for young children, having been passed around between militant husbands. The film’s most interesting subject is Sevinaz Evdike, a Kurdish woman who works in the camp yet admits to feeling conflicted about caring for former members of ISIS, a group that is responsible for killing Kurdish people. She is the strongest focal point in the film, and could have been the main subject.

The filmmaker gains unprecedented access to the camp, and the women speak candidly to the camera about the brutalities that they’ve seen and experienced within ISIS and how they are ready to leave it behind. It’s hard to argue against the fact that some of these women were brainwashed into joining, but the bigger question is what consequences they should face for choices they made, with many countries revoking their citizenship. The result is an interesting and often unsettling observational portrait of the women in this camp, that mostly allows us to come to our own conclusions about how they should be treated by their birth countries.

The Return: Life After ISIS is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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