Into the black: Channel 4’s Escape From ISIS
For a group as written about, reported on and generally mediated as Islamic State is, you almost think there can’t be that much left to say.
Naturally though, there is. Channel 4’s recent Escape From ISIS Dispatches programme showed ... well, it showed things we already knew about ISIS but it brought some of the sordid horror of their criminality into quite a sharp focus, 48 minutes of it delivered in the by now traditional contemporary documentary-as-pacey-drama style (the Guardian called it “a gut-punching snapshot of a complicated world that left you reeling”).
Escape From ISIS (directed by Edward Watts) featured the work of an Iraqi lawyer called Khaleel al-Dakhi and a small but committed group of people working against the odds to try to rescue Iraqi (chiefly Yazidi) women and girls from ISIS captivity. It involved setting up escapes of small groups from locations in Syria, including Raqqa, memorably described by one Syrian woman as “the capital of terror in the world”.
Some of the covertly-shot footage of one of al-Dakhi’s team passing ISIS checkpoints in Syria is extremely gripping (at one point an ISIS guard accuses him of having a fake ID but eventually accepts it’s just old: he recommends the ID should be “laminated”). But as these sorts of documentaries tend to, it perhaps tries a little too hard to generate narrative drama (including with dubbed-on “ominous music”) into what is essentially the tense-but-hard-to-film business of making lots of phone calls with contacts across the Iraq/Syria border. Some of the calls are actually with the captured Yazidi women themselves, speaking on smuggled-in phones.
The scenes where rescued women speak about what happened to them are moving and in many ways the heart of the film. We see one woman and her child reunited with her family after eight months, while another - 18-year-old Amal - talks about her gang-rape by ISIS fighters like this: “They were not raping me in a gentle way, but fast, with force, without care”.
Khaleel al-Dakhi says from his work he estimates that in 80% of cases women and girls (from nine upwards) held by ISIS are raped. Utterly depressing, fitting with what Amnesty and others have reported, and showing that the self-glorifying Islamic State “warriors” are essentially a bunch of thuggish rapists with guns.
Escape From ISIS’s narrative (mostly voiced by Samantha Morton) including two rather startling facts: last year’s ISIS abduction of several thousand Yazidi women and girls in Sinjar last August was the largest single kidnap of women this century. And ISIS’s sprawling Iraqi-Syrian territory is now so large that four million women are under the group’s control. (A new survey from the PewResearch Center showing that populations in the Middle East and Europe now see ISIS as the world’s greatest global threat is surely a gross exaggeration of their power, but then again if you’re at the sharp end it’s probably not that far off). What strikes me most of all in this is that the heroic efforts of Khaleel al-Dakhi are minuscule in relation to the size of the problem. Without serious governmental and intergovernmental efforts, these freelancing rescue teams can only scratch the surface.
I must admit I’m not much of a TV viewer (shocking, I know, but I threw mine out of the hotel window a long time ago) though watching Escape From ISIS did remind me of the power of all things televisual. The lined, worried face of Khaleel al-Dakhi, the stark beauty of the purple-flowered landscape through which his team drive - flatlands beneath mountains and then spooky mountain roads littered with burnt-out cars. It all begins to hit you. The scenes of black-cloaked women in Raqqa have an oppressive quality all of their own, and when one small girl is asked “How was ISIS?” her reply - “ISIS was all black” - seems spot on.
*Amnesty International UK will announce its annual media awards on 26 November. Entries can be made here, and the closing date for entries is 1 August.
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