SXSW 2021 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Spanish filmmaker Alba Sotorra’s documentary The Return: Life After ISIS is a “you are there” account of misplaced Western women seeking redemption after being brainwashed by ISIS. With a keen eye for detail, a sharp sense of structure, and the largest of hearts, Sotorra’s film is all the more poignant for how unsentimental and nonchalant it is. She simply observes an abhorrent reality, letting us witness both the depths of human depravity and the resilience of the human spirit.
The Return: Life After ISIS begins with desolate footage of a windswept camp. Its temporary residents are female ex-ISIS members from all over the world. Activists for women’s rights speak to them about said rights, but these women have none. No country wants them (but they’ll take their children) — days, then weeks, then months, then years pass. The press keeps debasing them. Their homes are still off-limits.
Among them is Shamima, a 19-year-old recruit from England, who saw “beheaded heads in the bins” and wasn’t fazed by it at all. Sotorra delves into the young woman’s tumultuous background: raised by a cold mother, a loner, Shamima, like any vulnerable child, became susceptible to influence. And then there’s Hoda from the United States: daughter of a politician, painfully shy in school, she was ultimately sold on propaganda videos and started urging folks to kill Americans via Twitter before being denaturalized by Trump himself.
“…footage of a windswept camp. Its temporary residents are female ex-ISIS members…”
The filmmaker switches between the long months spent at the camp, the brutal history of ISIS, and the film’s heart: the girls’ accounts of their horrific pasts. There are slight detours, like a glimpse at the female activists who look after the exiled women as much as they can. At certain points, The Return: Life After ISIS begins to feel heavy, claustrophobic, Sotorra lingering and allowing her subjects to talk and listen and play trust-building games and read letters in that horrid bland tent – it’s effective but also threatens to bog down an otherwise-riveting narrative. Perhaps a little trimming would have helped.
But so much ground is covered, it hardly matters. The perils of Twitter are dissected – a cesspool for brainwashing and propaganda – as are those of social media in general, the medium that facilitates the conversion of naïve recruits to revile and exile them later. The Return: Life After ISIS explores the allure of acceptance, how seeds are planted at a young age. “After you die,” a child says to another, “if you are a Jihadi, you will go straight to paradise.”
Sotorra keeps the shock value high with scenes like the jaw-dropping ISIS recruitment video, promising a (frankly grim) paradise to unsuspecting recruits, or the shots of blood-covered children or women being forced into slavery. “Any scholar will tell you,” Hoda comments, “this is not Islam.” Timely, immersive, and deeply poignant, The Return: Life After ISIS will leave you devastated. Sometimes, one’s eyes have to be forced open to witness reality.
The Return: Life After ISIS screened at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
"…will leave you devastated."