The Return: Life After ISIS | Review | SXSW Film Festival 2021

 Relentless from the start, Alba Sotorra's documentary The Return: Life After ISIS aims to bring humanity to an inherently politicised argument by giving voices to those shown no mercy. 

Shamima Begum will be the most familiar face for British audiences who have made her the corner point of conversation on how we handle the complex issue of young teens rendered stateless after the fall of ISIS. It's an urgent and contemporary conversation Sotorra wishes to have of where we draw the line and how we negotiate empathy with logic. 

Sotorra begins by somewhat catering to the sceptical, with shots of children exclaiming, "when you're Jihadi, no one can harm you," a parodic take amongst the barren backdrop of the holding camps where they are staying. It provides the question, how indoctrinated are these children, and how likely is it they can unlearn the years of harm instilled in them? 

Their mothers are similarly merciless, adopting an "every-man-for-themself" mentality, as they clamour at food brought into the camp, threatening to punch one another to get their share. These moments come between propaganda videos where distressing images showcase child soldiers and devastation we're familiar with, from Manchester to London Bridge. 

Sotorra understands the emotion of her subject and doesn't try to diminish grief. Instead, she invites us to live alongside the women and learn with them as they grow into a supportive and compassionate community connected by circumstance. They laugh in their despair and hold one another in times of distress. An external group leader battles with personal understanding as she grows to separate the past from what she sees before her. By intervening only intermittently with interviews, Sotorra doesn't place her stamp on the narrative. Although it has its polemic, it utilises it gently and tries to stay somewhat neutral by inviting us to try and understand over rushing judgement. It aims to set the record straight on skewed media narratives that have demonised and de-humanised women connected but not directly related to the devastation. 

It is fair to say that the through-line could not remain focused. With so many women and stories to share, it became more of a general overview of the circumstance that varied in tone from compassionate to condemning. The women's desensitisation somewhat mirrors society's viewpoint of them. Our response to devastation cannot be logical, for there is so much of it. 

As bleak as its backdrop, it is hard to know where this story might end. The women imagine futures "after prison," knowing full-well should they get to return, it would be to the inside of a cell. Their implacable hope is all they have in a world that has all but forgotten them, and Sotorra captures that unique purgatory the best she can. 


The Return: Life After ISIS is playing as part of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival

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