On 4 October, Marwa Arsanios’s Who is Afraid of Ideology? (2019) – a two-part video primarily shot in Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava/Northern Syria – had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. Two days later, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria near the border with Turkey, laying the groundwork for a Turkish invasion that has already begun to dismantle the Kurds’ hard-won autonomy in the region. Trump’s decision jeopardizes not only thousands of lives but an ongoing experiment in ecofeminism and direct democracy that has garnered praise among political commentators.
The ideological and counter-ideological principles underlying this experiment, and their implementation within the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement, are the ostensible subject of Arsanios’s film. But the work is more broadly a meditation on the relationship of human beings to the natural world, and a reckoning with the authoritative posture of conventional documentary filmmaking. Before we see any of the women Arsanios interviewed for her work, we see the artist herself, striding toward the camera with her lips moving. On the out-of-sync audio track, Arsanios recites a line of text from Karen Barad, in which the feminist theorist expands on the insight that ‘we are a part of that nature we seek to understand.’ Within the context of the video, these remarks gesture toward Kurdish guerrillas’ symbiotic relationship with nature while also serving as a reminder that no documentarist can insert themselves into an existing social dynamic without changing it.
In a nod to the collective nature of the Kurdish women’s movement, Arsanios has woven together the words of multiple interviewees while divorcing their voices from on-screen images of their individual bodies. Descriptions of life in the mountains during wartime are interspersed with reflections on the how the ecological principles of the guerrillas cut against liberal conceptions of statehood. As the various accounts unfold, we see shots of the mountains with their craggy outcroppings, cliff-faces and sparsely scattered trees. Only toward the conclusion of Part One are we given a few brief glimpses of the women being interviewed by Arsanios.
Part Two takes us down from the mountains to Jinwar, a village built exclusively for women inhabitants in the wake of heightened military conflict. The format here is less didactic. Though there are winking reminders of the cameraperson’s presence, mostly we see shots of everyday life in a town born literally from the ruddy earth. The natural world remains an important motif (Part Two begins and concludes with descriptions of herbs used for healing). And it is clear that armed struggle has not totally subsided (at one point we see militia men and women gathered to celebrate the birthday of imprisoned Kurdish militant and ideologue, Abdullah Öcalan). What comes to the fore, however, is the sociality enabled by the comfort of having a permanent domicile.
Of course, given recent events, the vision of relative stability presented here may prove to have been only a mirage. Gazing from afar (as Arsanios’s camera repeatedly allows us to do) at this tiny, incipient community built in the midst of a vast plain, one senses its vulnerability. The thunder of dark storm clouds gathering in the distance all too easily conjures the sounds of artillery. And when the rain finally comes, striking the metal awnings of the mudbrick houses with resounding force, there is the agonizing sense that this hopeful oasis in a region long defined by strife could be washed away as quickly as it came.
Main image: Marwa Arsanios, Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part I & Part II, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and mor charpentier, Paris