The Return: Life After ISIS movie poster
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The Return: Life After ISIS
The Return: Life After ISIS movie poster

The Return: Life After ISIS Movie Review

I remember when the caliphate was going strong and reports continued to come out of ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq about the harrowing circumstances and atrocities that were occuring within, and reports of American and other Western people, including teenagers, “escaping” to this newfound, self-declared nation to flee the oppression of the West and begin again.

I remember being baffled by these people. Why would a teenage girl, having been raised in the U.S. or the U.K. or the Netherlands, decide to abandon her family, her friends, and the relative safety of her nation for such an awful place, only ruled by a harsh and warped interpretation of Islam that is outwardly hostile to females?

And when the caliphate failed and ISIS was in large part defeated/dispersed, these fucking idiots, these people who actively made the decision to abandon their nations and join an enemy state, wanted to come back home. I, along with a majority of others, had very little empathy for their position. After all, they were essentially, if not literally, traitors.

Of course, reality isn’t nearly so simple.

The Return: Life After ISIS is an engrossing and eye-opening documentary by Alba Sotorra that discards the black-and-white narrative, obscured by politics, and presents a different viewpoint: that of a few of the Western girls and women who now live in a Syrian refugee camp, stuck in limbo as they have nowhere to go, no country that wants to take them, including their own.

Sotorra dives right into the lives of these women, who present detailed accounts of why they decided to travel to Syria, what their lives were like, and what they hope for in the future. Despite different backgrounds, their stories are all similar--they were social outcasts, or lacked purpose in their lives, and the ISIS propaganda, promising a place where Muslims could bond with other Muslims, provided those missing connections. And they all share similar sentiments about when the reality of their decisions set in, the quick acknowledgement that they had made a horrible mistake and yet were trapped, unable to leave.

After watching The Return: Life After ISIS, it’s impossible to not emphasize with their position. It’s not that the documentary absolves them of their action, but it adds a humanistic layer to their predicament that has largely gone unreported. And the documentary offers no easy answers, only questions to ponder.

This movie was reviewed as part of coverage for the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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