Movie Review Gulistan: Land of Roses


Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.
Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.


In the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses, Montreal filmmaker Zaynê Akyol puts puts names and faces on a struggle taking place far away from us – the fight against Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS or Daesh. Specifically, she introduces us to some of the Kurdish women who are taking part in that fight.

We see them, among the trees of their mountain training camp, doing calesthenics, cleaning their weapons, attending open air political-education classes, sharing meals together in the grass. They look very serious, yet also elegant in their drapey shalwar. Some express their camaraderie in hair-braiding sessions.

They discuss the different attributes of U.S., Russian, and Iraqi bombs. They tell us about their weapons – where they’re from and the names they have given them. It doesn’t seem strange that such an important item be given a name.

We learn that equality for women is one of the tenets espoused in the writings and communiqués of their leader, Apo. Certainly, while they might miss their parents and siblings, none of these women are dreaming of wedded bliss or motherhood. In fact, one says that she has never met a happy housewife. “Every married woman leads a life of slavery.” “From what I’ve seen, married women are never happy.”

Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.
Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.

The foul-mouthed, sadistic drill sergeant is a staple of U.S. soldiers-in-training films, but the female drill sergeant in this film, who trains men, too, is a different kind of soldier. She doesn’t call anyone a maggot or make then do extra pushups. She does tell those who are impatient to start fighting right away that it would be unwise, and wasteful, to go into battle before one is fully prepared.

While the training area looks relatively bucolic, it is still a dangerous place. When that terrain was held by Saddam Hussein’s men they filled it with land mines, and many still remain. Furthermore, we learn that “if Iran attacks, this is their first target.” Same thing with Turkey. And then there’s Daesh, too. “We can be attacked from all sides.” On the other hand, even though we don’t see them, we’re told that every mountain and valley is guarded by “comrades” with heavy weapons.

Later, we also see the women on patrol and observation duty in a desert area near the town of Makhmur, 95 km southeast of Mosul. While plumes of smoke rise from the town, they watch the comings and goings of Daesh, through binoculars. Is Daesh watching them, too? Probably. Despite the relative quiet, there is a sense of constant danger. Akyol and her cameraperson are told they really ought to leave, but the film continues.

The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.
The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.

A soldier named Sozdar Cudi gets much of the screen time Gulistan: Land of Roses, she is very thoughtful, philosophical even. If not for this war, what kind of life might she be leading? Would she be a politician, working for women’s rights? Maybe a poet?

The footage was shot in August 2014, but it remains 100% relevant because ISIS has not gone away.

After watching Gulistan: Land of Roses, I wanted to know more about these women and their fight.

My first question was: Are they still alive? I fear that some are not, but the PR people for the film could not say.

I wanted to know more about the Kurds, Kurdish woman, the Peshmerga, the towns of Makhmur and Sinjar. It seems that even as long ago as the early 1990s, 30 per-cent of the 17,000 armed Kurdish militants were women. Not surprisingly, Makhmur and Sinjar, like many others, have changed hands several times since 2014. You can read about the Kurdish women fighting ISIS in these articles from VICE, Reuters and the Independent.

And what of their often-quoted leader, Apo? He is Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurd from Turkey, and the co-founder of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, known as the Kurdistan Workers Party in English). He has been in prison since 1999. Many countries and organizations classify the PKK as a terrorist group, though the UN does not. Wikipedia has an entry on Öcalan. He has said “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.” Some of his writings about women in society can be read at the International Initiative website.

On a less serious note, I also bought some nettle tea. In the film, we see the women rinsing their hair with water containing nettle leaves. The Internet says that people of many cultures believe that it it is good for promoting hair growth, whether you drink it or apply it. Who knows? It can’t hurt, right?

Gulistan: Land of Roses was enjoyed by audiences at the HotDocs Festival in Toronto 2016, and at festivals in the U.S, France, Argentina and Switzerland. It won the Best Feature Film Award (International Competition) at the Milan Film Festival, the 2016 Doc Alliance Selection Award, which was presented at 2016 Locarno Film Festival, the Meilleur Espoir Québec / Canada Award 2016 at Montreal’s documentary film festival, RIDM.

Gulistan: Land of Roses (with English subtitles) is playing at Cinema du Parc until Feb 9.
Under the title Gulîstan, terre de roses it is playing at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, with French subtitles, until Feb. 16, 2017. The dialogue in the film is in Kurmanji and Turkish.

The film is a co-production of Mitosfilm, Peripheria Productions, and Canada’s National Film Board (NFB/ONF). If you can’t see it in a cinema, perhaps it will show up on TV or on the NFB web site some day. But I suggest you try to see it before then!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s