“They have no religion, they are beasts,” concludes Viyan, a young woman kidnapped by ISIS. She’s speaking about her captors during a phone call with her family, who are among the thousands of Yezidis displaced from their Iraqi town of Shingal in the aftermath of an ISIS attack. For centuries, the Yezidis resided in Shingal and were united by a religion that was transmitted only by birth. Neighboring communities viewed the Yezidis as heretics since their “God” takes the form of the same fallen angel branded as the “Devil” in Christianity and Islam. According to Greek filmmaker Angelos Rallis, “In the Yezidi religion, the angel regrets the mistakes he made and is glorified upon his return. For the Yezidis’ Muslim neighbors in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, this has been impossible for them to comprehend.” Yet Rallis’ extraordinary documentary, “Shingal, Where Are You?” is guaranteed to open countless minds by placing a human face on a widely unknown culture threatened with extinction. With immersive photography and a keen eye for detail, Rallis observes the plight of Viyan’s family as they attempt to negotiate the return of their daughter.
When I saw the movie at Hot Docs in Toronto this past April, I hailed it as “one of the year’s most devastating and essential films,” while arguing that it “should be considered required viewing for every American citizen.” The film is scheduled to screen at next month’s Woodstock Film Festival and Awareness Film Festival as well as the Bahamas International Film Festival in December. Rallis recently spoke with me via Skype about emulating the essence of theatre in cinema, earning the trust of his subjects and discovering the history of the Yezidis.
How did your background in theatre and photojournalism form your approach to filmmaking?
I started my career as a theatre director before moving into photography, and indeed both the theatre and photography background has shaped my approach to documentaries. Both of my films are very theatrical and photographic in a sense. It’s my strategy to bring out the theatricality of a scene by having it unfold in a single shot with a single fixed wide angle lens, as if you were watching a play. In order to achieve that, I shoot the picture myself without a crew. While shooting continuously, the camera melts away and disappears, allowing the characters to get used to my unobtrusive presence and be themselves. It is important that the filmic time represents real time as much as possible, and I think this was achieved very well in “Shingal, Where Are You?” I don’t want the audience to just watch my film, I want them to experience it, to live it as if they were there with me.
“Shingal” has a theatrical dramaturgy and is structured in three acts. The first act portrays the characters’ dilemmas and problems, while the second act focuses on the characters’ efforts to get out of their situation, leading to the theatrical catharsis of the final act. In the last scenes, the characters leave the “stage” as if they were in a theater. This was not planned in advance, but the filming technique of long shots gave me the freedom to edit in this way.
Was your first film, “A Place for Everyone,” an extension of your photography series on the Rwanda reconciliation process?
“A Place for Everyone” was shot in parallel to my photographic series on the reconciliation process fifteen years after the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda. Filming the encounter between the woman and the man who killed her mother was one of the most agonizing scenes I have ever experienced. In fact, “Shingal” is the second film of a trilogy that I started with “A Place for Everyone.” “Shingal” continues this thematic approach by capturing the traumatic events that followed an attempted genocide. The difference is that the genocide you see occurring in “Shingal” is still happening. The film delves further into the trauma that people are facing and their efforts to get over it in a very communal way.
The family’s quest for Viyan metaphorically represents the quest for Yezidi identity, which has once again been challenged. Yezidi women are a symbol of Yezidi identity, in how they embody the concepts of birth and rebirth. With Shingal’s religious capital destroyed, Yezidis will have to answer the question of what will happen to their identity as they are spread out into different countries. How are they going to be able to maintain that cohesive community?
How did you and your co-director, Hans Ulrich Gössl, earn the trust of your subjects in order to capture such intimate moments, such as Viyan’s phone call to her family?
Earning the trust and confidentiality of your subjects is a very important two-way process. They need to trust us and we need to trust them as well. In the case of this film, the trust was achieved through us living with the family. We stayed in the family’s refugee camp every day for about two months, and slept on the floor next to them. On a more personal level, I grew up very close to my grandmother Katina, who herself was a refugee in Europe some decades ago. Even though I didn’t understand Yezidi language and we couldn’t communicate properly, we were emotionally connected.
From the very beginning, I was clear about what my purpose was for being there. The Yezidis were very open at that time because the attacks were very fresh in their mind and they wanted to tell their story. Yezidis feel that authorities in Iraq and official politics haven’t allowed them to express their own identity through the passage of time. Yezidi culture and history is only orally transmitted, and there is not much written about it. I thought it was very important to communicate that aspect of their culture.
I knew from research that many ISIS fighters wanted to sell the kidnapped Yezidi girls back to their families, and I knew that a lot of families had established some sort of communication with ISIS. We were only at the camp a couple days before Havind’s son told us that his missing sister was on the phone. We rushed into a room where we had never been before, and started shooting the phone call. We could hear a girl crying in despair, but we didn’t know what was being said. Afterwards, we realized that she had been captured by ISIS, and that’s when we knew that we needed to follow this family’s story.
What struck me about the editing was how it built tension by allowing scenes to play out organically.
The editing starts really in the shooting. If a director doesn’t know how his film will be edited when he’s shooting, then it’s probably going to be ruined because he’ll always be trying to find solutions to continuity errors. From the time I began shooting “Shingal,” I knew how it needed to be edited. I knew that there were three stories—each with a main character—that could be juxtaposed together. I knew that scenes would occur in long, extended takes, but in terms of the content and the pacing, the film never feels slow because there’s so much happening in the frame, as if it was a theatrical play. The camera remains stable, while the characters enrich each moment.
It was difficult to communicate this editing technique when we approached funders who wanted to see close-ups and quick cuts, but we stuck with our vision for the film. It was very important to let the characters express themselves and to maintain continuity organically. I feel lucky to have found a Greek editor, Chronis Theocharis, who has had a great deal of documentary experience yet was willing to take a more cinematic approach to our film. Documentary filmmakers often aren’t open to different approaches or styles. Most people opt for the risk-free approach that will secure some TV sales and festival play. My previous film had more cuts than I would’ve preferred, and I had multiple people operating cameras. This time, I wanted to have a very pure and clean approach not just to shooting but editing, without the contrived effects or cinematic tricks designed to force out emotion.
I could’ve sworn I heard a mournful choir in the scene where the father and son walk through the remains of Shingal.
You’re very observant. It’s actually the sound of the wind rustling through the metallic ruins of the town. The audio was actually taken from another shot that wasn’t used in the final cut. Our sound engineer suggested that we include that audio because it had a mournful, repetitious quality. I’m not opposed to music, but in “Shingal”, it just felt wrong to use a score. The only music you hear in the film is performed live by the father, Havind. He was a very famous musician in Shingal before ISIS attacked. After his daughter was kidnapped, he couldn’t play anymore. It was torture for him because playing music when you have a kidnapped daughter is considered an offense in the Yezidi community. The only time Havind wanted to perform was after he got the news that his daughter had been bought by the intermediaries and was likely safe. There was already so much drama in the film that I felt any attempt to use music wouldn’t be right. We never even considered it.
What revelations did you have about ISIS while making this film? Viyan’s story about women threatening their male captors by turning knives on themselves accentuates how ISIS members’ violent nature springs from a deep-seated insecurity and fear of women.
There were so many testimonies by Yezidi women about their captivity. Every two or three days, a girl would come back into the camp after being bought or escaping from ISIS. In a lot of cases, their stories were horrific accounts of inebriated criminals abusing them. The experience was very traumatic for them, but at the same time, Yezidi women are very proud of their background and their religion. Conversion is considered a stigma, even when it occurs at gunpoint. They would most likely never say in public that they converted in order to save their lives as well as those of their children. I believe that most of the women were very resistant to the ISIS fighters while in captivity. They would prefer to die instead of marrying an ISIS member and turning their back on their beliefs. There were several cases where Yezidi women were serving as slaves for the family of someone in the administration of the Islamic State. In that scenario, captivity was better for them. The man’s wife and children would often feel sorry for these girls, and in some cases, they’d let the girl go without the husband knowing. It demonstrates the insanity of the whole ISIS situation, which is unrelated to religion. It’s just pure madness.
To what extent do you believe America’s ignorance regarding Yezidi culture is enabling ISIS to destroy it? As the elderly member of the community, Abu Jalal, observes, “Obama doesn’t know that we exist.”
Yezidi people were not well-known, not just by Americans but by pretty much the entire western and eastern world. I didn’t know about them prior to my research, and it has to do with the geopolitics of the region. On the one side, it’s the Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with the Arabic governments and Iraq on the other side. Placed in the middle are half a million Yezidis. Before leaving Iraq, the U.S. founded the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to maintain a status quo in the area, but what they didn’t know—along with the rest of the world—is that Yezidis have been attacked by Kurds and by the Arabic world for centuries. By giving so much supplies and weapons to all the other parties, it left Yezidis on their own to protect themselves.
When ISIS attacked Shingal, the Kurds of Iraq were in charge of protecting the area, and everybody knew that it was going to be massacre, since Yezidis are not Muslims. Now the Yezidis are more in conflict with the Kurds of Iraq than with the Arabic people because they felt abandoned during the attack. That’s why Abu Jalal says, “Obama doesn’t know that we exist. The Kurds get all the weapons to fight. We are good fighters and we would fight for our land if we had the supplies.”
As a documentarian, you must establish a connection not only with the characters but also with history. Abu Jalal knew a great deal about Yezidi history and all of the attacks that have occurred in the past. His sharing of this information continued the oral tradition of his culture that has been passed on through the generations. He was quite sick and could sense that his life was coming to an end. During the shooting, he was often referring to death, and I’ll never forget the night that I filmed him for a long period of time. He was seated next to someone near a fire, and they were talking. Eventually, he looked to the other person and said, “My life became a film.” That was the last time I saw him before I visited his grave. It was very emotional for me to go there, because I had promised to him that when Shingal was freed, I would film him going back home. He said that would never happen, and he was right.
How did you come to form AR Productions with your wife, Maria del Mar Rodriguez?
AR Productions originated three years ago. While editing my previous film, I realized that the only way to make an unconventional documentary was by producing it ourselves. Our main focus is producing creative documentaries that explore current affairs and important stories through a very anthropological and character-based lens. Maria’s contribution in “Shingal” has been massive in terms of story editing and shaping its aesthetics. She worked as an art director and executive producer on the picture and we worked together very closely on the editing.
Tell me about your documentary in progress, “Invisible People,” which centers on undocumented refugees trapped in Greece—another story about displaced people living on the fringes. Would you consider this the third part of your trilogy?
“Invisible People” is a film I started two years ago. I was filming here in Greece in a flat where ten refugees lived without papers or legal presence. They were trying to get smuggled out of the country by any means, and I decided to follow the characters to where they’re living now in Sweden and Germany. I have visited them there and am filming them regularly with the hope of making this a long-term documentary, perhaps over a span of five years. The film will chronicle how this integration process will really work, as these countries try to make sense of all their fear and paranoia. You see people in Europe and the U.S. getting xenophobic as all these refugees are coming over, and there’s a fear of invasion by people who could pose a threat to these societies. How are these millions of refugees going to integrate in the long term?
With all the attacks in Europe and in the states, I think locals have become very negative about any refugees coming over, and it is making integration an increasingly difficult task. I actually went back to Syria with one of the refugees to film his reunion with family members after three years. The footage that I’ve shot thus far is very emotional and compelling, but I don’t know if it’s going to be the third film of the trilogy, since I’m not sure when it will be finished. I am currently working on a story about another very prominent issue, climate change.
For more information on “Shingal, Where Are You?”, visit the official site of Angelos Rallis.