After going to some of the most dangerous places on earth to show the world what goes on there, “Body Team 12” director David Darg and cinematographer Diego Traverso were naturally drawn to the ongoing strife in Syria. For most Western journalists, getting into the country would be impossible, though Darg and Traverso weren’t daunted by this. Instead, they were more concerned with finding a way in that would cut through the many other stories from the region that had come and go all too quickly, becoming a blur in the sheer number of other documentaries that may have felt foreign to American audiences. That was until a picture started circulating on social media.
“My wife showed me a post [and said] “Check this out,’” remembers Traverso, when his wife found a picture of Hanna Bohman, a caucasian Canadian woman who’s good out amongst the all-female YPJ militia in Rojava, a Kurdish region of Syria, on Facebook. “So I talk to David and we were stalking [Hanna online], trying to get a hold of you.”
Upon learning of the filmmakers’ request to speak with her through her commander, Bohman recalls now, “[I said] “Talk to my manager.”
That’s about as close to Hollywood-speak as you’re likely to get from Bohman, though the resulting short “Fear Us Women” leaves no doubt that she makes for a captivating movie star. And an unexpected one. Although at one point Bohman taken some modeling photos, she had long been searching for a sense of purpose, particularly after she nearly lost her life in a motorcycle accident. After she herself had been doing some online browsing, Bohman had come across the YPJ, the female offshoot of the People’s Defense Unit (the YPG is the male contingent), and wondered after seeing ISIS propaganda videos which would feature foreigners fighting for the cause why more weren’t doing the same for freedom fighters. Bohman thought nothing of signing up for a tour of duty with the YPJ on Facebook and jumping on a plane as soon as she was able, ultimately stationed in Syria for six months, joining women from the region standing their ground in keeping an eye out for suicide bombers and eventually making her way to the frontlines.
Her experience is vividly reflected in “Fear Us Women,” which brings audiences into the same unchartered territory that Bohman found herself in, and during a recent trip to Los Angeles, she and Traverso spoke about how the film came about, the awkward position of being singled out for the ease of conveying a narrative, and how the experience has continued to stay with both of them.
Hanna, had you been shooting footage before you were approached by the filmmakers?
Hanna Bohman: Yeah. I went into Syria twice and once into Iraq and the very first time I went there, I went there with the idea to humanize the Kurdish struggle because I knew [to] a Western audience, those are all other people. So I thought I’ll document my time within the YPJ because I really admired them. These are incredible ladies. They inspired me to drop my life and go to a place I’ve never been — that all the press tells us is a horrible, dangerous place — and I brought this little camera with me. Originally, it was just to take photos, but then it turns out the camera actually shot decent video, so I did three months of some pretty solid filming. I was keeping a video diary and that’s a lot of the footage that they used.
Were you immediately open when Diego and David come to you with the idea of a film?
Hanna Bohman: No, I think I told them to go screw themselves at first. [laughs]
Diego Traverso: Yeah, I asked you the same last night…and you said, like “Oh, this is going to be another interview.”
Hanna Bohman: Yeah, I had done quite a bit. The UK Daily Mail did a story on me in 2015 and I think I was still in Syria when it came out, so I didn’t have a lot of internet access back then, so I remember at one point coming on and all of a sudden, I look up my Facebook and I’m like, “What the hell happened here?” There were thousands of messages. But I’ve been used to doing media in Europe and I did a TV show in Beirut because they’re much more aware [of] what the YPJ is. But in North America, nobody seems to have heard about it, so by the time [David and Diego] approached me, I was like, “Sure, no problem. Talk to Zalala and we’ll arrange a time and we’ll see if I can be around.” It’s not as easy as just meeting for coffee. There’s logistics involved, making sure you’re someplace safe and all that. At first, I thought there was just going to be a two-minute clip of a larger thing and I was just going to be one person interviewed among a bunch of different people.
Diego Traverso: We thought the same.
Hanna Bohman: That’s what you guys told me, right? And then when they sent me the rough edit, it’s like, “Dude, this is not what you told me.” [laughs] It turned out pretty cool though.
Diego Traverso: We’d been filming since the ISIS outbreak in 2014. Me and David were there helping with humanitarian work, the refugees and all of that, and we started following all these different groups taking arms, specifically with the YPJ. We’re filmmakers as a passion, but we are humanitarians too, so we’re helping people at the same time as we’re keeping our eyes open and as a Westerner and a Latino too, I was a little bit aware of this movement after the Arab Spring and it’s been in my heart to do something about it. [So] when we found the [YPJ] over there, it like blew my mind. [I had] the same reaction that most of the people are having after watching the film, [like], “Wow, it’s an army [entirely] ruled by women, commanded by women?” It’s like dude, the world needs to know this. I didn’t even know and I’m in the media, [but] we were struggling for months, if not even for years because we [didn’t] intentionally want to make Hanna’s film, her story. We wanted to tell the story of the region [with] ISIS, the outbreak, targeting Christianity and Muslims, so finding those stories about the [YPJ] was like we have to tell this story.
RYOT is known for going into impossible places, but was Syria particularly difficult?
Diego Traverso: It is always a challenge. I was in Syria doing humanitarian relief, but I hold two different passports — I keep one for Western and another one for Middle East/Muslim countries because it’s like they don’t match sometimes, so then you have to play along and wait for permits. I apply for a Humanitarian photographer permit and then they allow me to visit, and I visited Hassakeh in the north of Syria, on the border with Iraq and some of the training camps that the YPJ, YPG and the Syrian Military Council has.
Hanna, you mentioned before, this isn’t like grabbing a coffee with the filmmakers to do an interview. If you’re in the thick of things, is it interesting to reflect on the experience while you’re having it?
Hanna Bohman: Most of the time when the documentary people come, they don’t send them right to the front line because it’s too dangerous, so I’ll get pulled back from the frontline and then do an interview there. To me, it’s worth putting myself out there [because] I believe in the revolution, I believe in the girls. I’m inspired by that [and I see] there needs to be a bridge between them and the West. Everybody’s asking me to do it, so sure I’m going to put myself at risk and be a target for death threats and things like that – and that’s happened – but I realized it’s bigger than me. And people say, “Oh, you’re getting famous from this,” and I’m like, well, sure, if your idea of getting famous is the entire country of Turkey labels you a terrorist and Australia will probably arrest me and there’s always a chance I could get arrested in my own country – if that’s your idea of being famous, you can have it. So there’s a bit of that thing always in the back of my mind, like some day this could really come back and bite me in the ass. But in the bigger picture, this is totally worth it.
And it still is a struggle because I’ve become somewhat the face of the YPJ, especially in the Western world, and I’ve sacrificed nothing compared to what all these girls have. I didn’t lose a limb. I didn’t lose my family. I didn’t have a life-changing injury and no one really close to me has died. And I can always come back to the West too where it’s safe whereas they have to stay there and I think this is incredibly unfair. So this is why I’m doing this, [to] tell the world the heroes they are. One girl, her unit was surrounded, so she strapped herself with explosives and ran into the ISIS lines and blew herself up so her unit could escape. Things like that happen out there all the time and it’s so unfair that I’m the one that gets the attention. They’re the ones who should be getting the attention. So I’m hoping to raise that awareness and get their stories out there.
Diego, how much did you ultimately shoot with Hanna?
Diego Traverso: I don’t know how many hours. All my other documentaries were an average of 90 hours of footage, then cutting it down to 30 minutes, which is crazy. The very first cut of this [was] three hours, and then we knew we had to cut it down until we got to 27 minutes. We cut out a lot of good stuff. Personally, I would like to portray a little bit more of the culture of the Middle East. I love the culture, the food, the smells, the colors – it’s so much more than war. But at the same time it’s like whoa, we only have 27 minutes and only Hanna’s story can make it, right, through this and there’s amazing stories too from other girls in the unit, like YPJ girls that are sacrificing so much.
Hanna, was there anything that hit the cutting room floor or outside of the scope of this film that was important to convey?
Hanna Bohman: Of all the media I’ve done, I always emphasize Turkey’s involvement with ISIS. They work together. Erdogan is an Islamist and he’s slowly turning Turkey into an Islamic State. A lot of mainstream media will cut that section out when I talk about it because you can’t speak badly about a NATO ally. That seems to be the mentality and maybe lawyers are advising them to cut that out. Some people will cut me off when I bring it up, and they include it a little in [“Fear Us Women”], but there [have] been other interviews I’ve done where it’s completely cut out or they’ll sit there and leave it in, but say it’s “contentious” or “alleged,” and if you go over there [to Syria], the sun comes up and Turkey supports ISIS. Unfortunately, a lot of the Turks are good guys, but Erdogan’s nationalist party [is] dragging the country down, so that part I like to bring up, but a lot of times that gets taken out.
What was it like the first time you saw this?
Hanna Bohman: Like I said, I wasn’t expecting this to be about me, [but] I was blown away by it. It was beautiful to watch. They did such a good job with the editing and I think I saw the trailer first, and even from the trailer…
Diego Traverso: I think I got 20 messages from you, “Can I share it? Can I share it?”
Hanna Bohman: I was like, “Yeah, this is pretty cool” and I could tell right away, this is going to be something special because I’ve been in other ones, and there’s a different style to [this] and it looked really good.
Are you returning to the YPJ or are you here in North America to stay?
Hanna Bohman: The war against ISIS is pretty much done in Syria, and YPJ’s first purpose is not to fight ISIS, it’s to fight for women’s rights in the Middle East, so YPJ was there before and they will still be there and continue on into the future fighting for women’s rights. And they will take the fight to you — they’ll kick down your door and shoot you in the leg and shit like that. But I actually left because there’s a couple of families that asked for my help to get out of there, so I went back to Canada to help them flee the region. That’s my main focus now because the future fights other than the fight for women’s rights will be with the Assad regime, who’s backed up by Russia, and against Turkey, who’s backed up by NATO, so for me to go back to Syria now and rejoin the YPJ, Turkey’s already labeled me a terrorist and run news articles about me saying I’m a terrorist, but I’ve not fought them directly, not knowingly — if I did, then there would be some legal grounds to label me a terrorist in the U.S. and Canada, so I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to fight the regime if they’re backed up by Russia and be on the receiving end of a 500-lb. bomb off a Russia jet.
But I really adopted the ideas of the YPJ as my own. They were already naturally aligned with them to begin with, but they’re much more important to me now. So that’s why I’m still carrying that on in my life. I’m going to try and represent as much as I can to the best I can. Like the other day someone asked me if I wanted to do a photo shoot and I was like, “Well, what kind?” He’s like “This sexy military photo shoot” and I’m like, “No. Not at all.” Because that is so against my idea and the YPJ idea. If photos like that came out of me now, the YPJ would not be happy with me. I would not be happy with me [because] the objectification and sexualization of women is everything we’re fighting against. So right now, my goals are to raise public awareness of the YPJ, especially in the West because in order for the Kurdish revolution to succeed in northern Syria, they will need international support, whether they like it or not — because they don’t like charity — but also to help these families get out there. That’s why I’m here now, really.