UK TV review: The Return: Life After ISIS
Matthew Turner | On 15, Jun 2021
The Return: Life After ISIS premieres at 9pm on Tuesday 15th June.
Directed by Spanish journalist and filmmaker Alba Sotorra Clua, this deeply compassionate documentary follows a group of young women formerly radicalised by ISIS as they spend over two years together in a Syrian detention camp, while waiting for their home states to decide their fates. It’s an important, urgent film, the sort of documentary that leaves you wondering how you can force the Home Office to watch it as soon as possible.
Through a combination of captions, newsreel and archive footage, Sotorra quickly establishes context, noting the wave of ISIS terror attacks (including the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and the 2015 Paris attacks), the defeat of the last ISIS stronghold in 2019 and the subsequent detention of more than 100,000 captives. Accordingly, Sotorra’s cameras are present on the first day of arrivals at Roj camp, a shantytown-style Syrian detention centre that’s home to 1,500 women and children from 56 different nations, many of whom have been disowned by their countries and now find themselves with nowhere to go.
One of Sotorra’s key subjects is Sevinaz Evdike, a Kurdish women’s rights activist who dedicates herself to helping these young women, despite the fact that ISIS were responsible for a great many atrocities against her own people. Her admirable compassion is echoed repeatedly in the film, as Sevinaz asks the women to write letters to their younger selves, before they came to Syria, and they begin to tell their stories.
The film’s literal poster girl is Britain’s Shamima Begum, who came to Syria with two friends when she was just 15. Now aged 19, she has endured so much tragedy in the past four years that it’s hard to get your head around it all, experiencing not just the deaths of her two friends, but the loss of all three children she subsequently had with her ISIS husband.
Sotorra includes the much-trumpeted news clip whereby an indignant British journalist tries to bully some form of emotional repentance out of Shamima on camera, with the resulting non-committal answers seized upon by the tabloids. However, the film offers some vital background information, as we learn there are still fanatic ISIS devotees in the camp, and women and children have been killed for speaking out against ISIS.
Sotorra’s other subjects include Hoda Muthana – whose pro-ISIS tweets were plastered all over US news networks, with Trump later crowing about revoking her citizenship – and Canadian Kimberly Polman (an older lady who was lonely after her own children left home), as well as several fellow detainees from Holland and Germany. In each of their letters, a similarly tragic story emerges, alongside a chillingly clear picture of social media’s role in recruitment and radicalisation.
Throughout the film, Sotorra’s subjects offer up a number of important statements on the young women, such as “if they can be radicalised, they can be de-radicalised”, something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to their home nations. It’s also genuinely sickening to see the news channels spewing so much hatred and anger towards them, especially when they so obviously present no danger to their homelands.
On top of its convincing case for compassion and understanding, the film is also strikingly shot, with a remarkable level of access to its subjects. There are a number of nice touches – such as discreet captions to explain words that Western audiences might not know – and the film presents a level of solidarity and shared solace between the detainees that is unbearably moving, not least when they’re all talking about the first thing they’d do if they got to go home. Shamima replies: “Eat a nice Subway with meatballs.”
The Return: Life After ISIS is available on Sky Documentaries. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.