A camera aboard a drone flies over a territory. The aerial images show barren landscapes, dotted with shabby houses, animals and a few human figures. We scarcely have time to wonder where we are when a text appears on the screen directly addressing the viewer: we are in Syrian Kurdistan.
“I consider those to be the best years of my life.”
Rojek is the International Feature submission for Canada. Directed by Zayne Akyol, this documentary takes place after the Syrian Democratic Force, along with the Global Coalition, have succeeded in dislodging the Islamic State (ISIS) from their last stronghold in Syria. Since then, several thousand jihadists have been detained in prisons, while their wives and children are held in camps.
The film introduces us to a dozen ISIS soldiers as they answer questions based on their own experiences with the war. They speak like prisoners, sitting in front of a camera, talking about their nostalgia, their disappointments, their remorse, their betrayal, their anger, their fear. They believe that they’re in a fight against all disbelievers of their religion, as they’re convinced that they’re doing what the Prophet did many years ago. This is their story.
The film is direct, focused and uncompromising. It allows the ISIS jihadists to demonstrate their humanity and their emotions. It doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations or points of view. Rojek showcases each interviewer and allows them to express themselves without holding back or making them feel ashamed for thinking differently. This is their life. This is their experiences with the rise and fall of the Islamic State.
In Rojek, the message is clear: the clash of ideology hasn’t gone away. Despite ISIS not being mentioned in the news anymore, and despite the noise of the war not being as loud as it was years before, the belief in the cause will never go away. We may have won a single battle, but we have definitely not yet won the war. As we witness the workers of the area scramble to extinguish a fire on their land, this fire burns in all directions. It engulfs their lives. It’s the passion of the jihadists that forever lives on. It can’t be extinguished. It won’t go away. This world has become aflame.
Zayne Akyol’s film is bold, unflinching, tough to watch, and a reminder that there isn’t a place where they don’t exist. We played, we had fun, until we got here. I’d like to go back and live this life again.