How a film takes place; How a woman Heals
It was late 2015. After several years of raptly watching their lives unfold across the world affairs sections of newspapers, I began to research Kurdish women. I was fascinated by their culture, history, plight, and by their unique brand of inclusive, galvanizing feminism. Faced with a conflict that raged across multiple fronts, Kurdish women from Iran to Syria were coming together to accomplish feats of heroism. Through my research, I met women who set up protection units, established homes to hide escaped child brides, and reported from front lines, where only the boldest of Western male journalists would dare to go. I met a woman who organized battalions heading into war with ISIS and Assad, and a woman who trained snipers. Then I met Seivan.
With dark eyes and a warm smile, Seivan Salim is fiercely brilliant, and fiercely compassionate. Yes, her compassion is fierce; it's heartfelt and motivating. It's visible in the images she captures and can leap through the screen on a Skype call. Seivan has covered conflict in her home region of Iraqi Kurdistan for most of her career. Her Canon camera acts as an extension of her. She captures intimate moments at a candlelight Christmas mass, a celebrity greeting refugees, and the visceral bewilderment deeply set on the faces of those recently liberated from hell on Earth. "My sisters" — after two years of working with Seivan I have only ever heard her refer to Yezidi women as this. It's never "my subject," "the women," or "refugees." They are her sisters and the focus of her work for over two years now. Since Seivan is is a native, her photos have the familiarity of a neighbor attempting to document the inferno consuming the places and people of her daily life.
A portrait of a bride is displayed across my computer screen. My initial reaction to the image is uneasiness. I'm haunted and fascinated by this woman. She breaks my heart as she claims something powerful that I cannot yet name. The image captures a woman in her early 20s, the sole survivor of her family. She was held for months on end, raped every day of her imprisonment, and impregnated. Her child's whereabouts are unknown. One day she escaped, fled to a refugee camp, survived. Seivan's email includes 17 more images and a few paragraphs, one of which contains the phrase, "...thousands more like them." The gravity of the words pull me back in my chair and my heart sinks into my stomach. I review the remaining 17 portraits. Each image is powerful in its composition and elegance. Although the women must share one traditional Kurdish wedding dress, Seivan has taken the time to style the dress and arrange the veil for each woman individually. As I realize this, the brilliance of Seivan's accomplishment sinks in. I start to see more and more of the individual women. Their bodies and faces are mostly covered, protected from those who may harm or silence them. Yet, a few details are visible through the veils: enough to make out wrinkles on the hand of an older woman; blonde waves and a chic, thin bracelet peek out on another; even a soft, peaceful smile can be seen on several of the women. She reminds us that each person is unique, independent of the others. Just as each woman is styled differently, each woman has suffered her own horror, and has her own battle to fight toward healing. The women are not a nameless mass, nor did they suffer en masse. They suffered alone — each one alone, until their numbers reached into the thousands. They are living testimonies to the depravity ISIS employs to dehumanize those they consider enemies. No war crime is off limits. Still, despite having been dragged to hell, these women are standing tall, strong and smiling. I needed to know how they were still able to smile. In that moment, Survivor In White was conceived.
Two years spent pondering that question will transform into a documentary film crew that will capture Seivan providing an answer. My crew, five wonderful women who have paused their lives for strangers a world away, will be entrenched with gritty behind-the-scenes toil that will eventually comprise a well-crafted film. Most days I feel like we are working on an odd assembly line: pulling levers and pushing buttons that keep pre-production moving toward production. When I am defending the film concept, or how women will navigate filming in a conflict zone, it no longer feels like a story. It definitely doesn't feel like art. The beauty is lost to the repetition of administrative work, and those who doubt an all-female crew will deliver the goods. During this process, a fellow woman director gives me a great piece of advice: "Documentary filmmaking is a bloodsport." If anyone is worth fighting for, it is the Yezidi women and their story. In moments of feeling worn down, dismissed, and misguided, I go back to my storytelling.
I want to share with the world the story of a woman with a camera, a true rose in the desert. She sees her sisters broken, hurting, lost, and ignored, the victims of crime so grave it's called "weaponized rape." In refugee camps devoid of human comforts, Seivan constructs a portrait studio and invites these victims to don a white dress. There, they let go of shame and feel pride, replace guilt with innocence, and exchange a dark past for a hopeful future. Seivan wants the women to see themselves as who they are: strong, beautiful, alive, powerful, and unique survivors. She knows her sisters will travel a long road, healing the mental and physical scars from what has historically been a hidden war crime. Seivan cannot offer them a safe home, counseling, legal aid, or asylum, but she can offer them a lasting image that boldly contradicts that which ISIS is attempting to achieve.
As my crew and I move closer to production on location in Iraqi Kurdistan, I have to remind myself of all we have achieved, great and small. I think the most significant and difficult aspect of filmmaking is being a worthy storyteller. I spend a considerable amount of time imagining how I will craft the story, the shots the director of photography will capture, and the questions I will ask in interviews. For me personally, the greatest achievement is being trusted to represent Seivan, her art, and her sisters. Failure would be to leave them without the assurance that they have an ally for life. On the other hand, I know that success would be to inspire audiences to answer a call to action: to not be complicit in suffering. I want Survivor In White to expose the suffering of Yezidi women, but also to highlight what one woman can accomplish for her sisters.
Kristen is an emerging filmmaker with a background in freelance journalism. She has covered Russian corruption, press freedom, conflict, and women’s rights. With an educational background in conflict resolution and a passion for examining the personal tragedies women face in conflict, Kristen wanted her directorial debut to center on the topic that matters to her most: how women heal from the atrocities they face during war.
Survivor In White is a documentary film that examines Kurdish photojournalist Seivan Salim's portrait series covering women who have survived torture and systemic rape by ISIS. Aptly titled Survivor In White due to the white wedding dress in which Seivan photographs the survivors, the film will explore how Seivan sets up these photo shoots within bleak refugee camps and handles her subjects with love, understanding, and sisterhood. It will delve into how wearing a wedding dress helps the women see themselves as someone other than a victim, and as worthy of a future. In addition to this, the film also will look at the struggle these women face to find adequate help for the serious mental and physical trauma they face after prolonged sexual assault. In telling this story, Survivor In White also will shine light on the lack of advocacy, action, and justice by the international community to help Yezidis and all victims of war globally. Follow here.
Words: Kristen Blalock