Haunting film on Yazidi refugee family’s trauma screened at Toronto fest
Three boys trek up a snow-covered hilltop, part of a range that forms a natural boundary between Iraq, Turkey and Syria. One of them gazes into the horizon and cries in anguish: “Kani Shingal?” That in Kurdish is Shingal, Where Are You?
That’s the title of the disturbing documentary by Greek director Angelos Rallis that screened at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto this week.
The town of Shingal was the cultural and religious centre for Yazidis, the minuscule minority that was subjected to an ethnic cleansing by marauding Islamic State terrorists. IS captured the city in 2014, thousands of Yazidi men were killed, an equal number of women raped and forced into sexual slavery.
This haunting film tracks a refugee family in a makeshift camp in Turkey, trying to make sense of the devastation even as the head of the Havind family tries to rescue his daughter Viyan from IS through bribes paid to a chain of intermediaries.
“The quest for their daughter Viyan, for me, it’s a metaphor for the quest for the Yazidi identity with their religious capital destroyed and half a million population displaced. It’s very important to redefine what’s left for the Yazidi people,” Rallis said during an interview.
The pacing of the film is almost languid, with dramatic tension offered by episodes where Viyan describes her trauma, and those of other women who have been kidnapped, over the phone to her father. She remains a captive as she speaks. The genocidal violence visited upon the Yazidis is off-camera but it bleeds into the lives of the survivors.
“I wanted to do a very personal and anthropological documentary, where I just film the main characters. I wanted to catch the human geography of the refugee camp,” Rallis said. The camera is the observer, taking in the psychological beating the Havind family has taken.
The main narrative arc, the attempt to bring Viyan back, came about by “accident” as the filmmakers developed a bond with the family which “was very welcoming from the very beginning”.
Shot between 2015 and 2016, the final filming also occurred at the newly liberated Shingal. As members of the family visit their hometown, they discover nothing remains but rubble. “There’s nothing left. Even if they are allowed to return, they cannot rebuild the area because they have lost everything,” Rallis said.
So, that question shouted out at the outset has a depressing answer: The Yazidis may have lost their roots forever.