‘Our War’ Brings Westerners to the Kurdish Front Lines
Learn from men who left it all behind to fight the Islamic State
by MATTHEW GAULT
It’s a lo-fi image, grainy and cropped on both sides as if it were shot on a camcorder in the ’90s. The lens goes in and out of focus and the image clears up — it’s a young man in green and brown fatigues cutting hair. He stands in rubble in front of a gray brick wall.
“This is Kobane’s hair salon,” someone says. The camera pans down to show the squinting face of the young man the barber is working over with what look like safety scissors. An AK-47 leans against the gray brick.
“Here we have our trusted barber,” the voice says. “As you can see, he’s doing a terrible job but he’s the only barber available on the front line. We’ll have to make do with it.” The voice laughs.
Cut to a man in fatigues and a flak jacket standing in a dark room holding a landline telephone in his hands. “America!” He yells down the line, a goofy grin on his face. “Is everything fine? Obama! Air strikes! Thanks, thanks.”
This is Our War, a documentary about the YPG, the Kurds and the Westerners who cross the world to join their fight against the Islamic State.
The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group with no country to call their own, and the YPG is the military arm of the Syrian Kurdish de facto state in Rojava, Western Syria.
Our War is a short, sweet and thoughtful documentary made by journalist and War Is Boring contributor Benedetta Argentieri and fellow filmmakers Bruno Chiaravalloti and Claudio Jampaglia. It tells the story of three Westerners who left their lives to journey East and fight the Islamic State.
Argentieri and company crafted the documentary out of interviews with the three young men and personal footage from the front lines in Rojava. The result is a meditative mix of candid war footage and personal testimony. It’s stunning.
Former Marine Joshua Bell is the American of the group. He’s the kind of guy who a lot of people would dismiss because of his accent and scraggly beard, but that would be a mistake. Bell is intelligent and reasoned but also seems lost, as if he’s looking for something he knows he’ll never find. It’s as if he walked out of a John Steinbeck novel.
“If I was gettin’ paid over there, I’d’ve probably never left,” he confides in a friend early in the film. He spent 11 months as a volunteer in the YPG and he did every job they needed him to do. He drove trucks, stood guard and repaired weapons. Whatever work he could do to help the war effort.
Bell has a low opinion of most Westerners who joined the fight. Thousands flocked to the Kurdish front lines to join the various armed groups fighting against the Islamic State but most had no idea what they were doing.
“One lost his weapon twice, one lost one of his boots, one of ’em was doing drugs, one of ’em was being very touchy feely with the YPG after being warned repeatedly,” Bell explains. “I’ve seen a few who’ve written books and given interviews talking about what war heroes they are. They’re total shitbirds … you’re not fucking Rambo.”
Karim Franceschi is an Italian who admires not only the Kurdish struggle, but also the politics of Rojava and the YPG. He’s serious yet romantic. He talks of the Italian anti-fascist partisans, compares the Kurdish struggle to the Spanish Civil War and participates in socialist politics back home in Italy.
While in theater, he says he became addicted to the adrenaline rushes but learned to respect fear. “That’s when you realize fear is a precious thing. Fear helped me to react to danger … I saw many people dying because they gave up fear.”
Rafael Kardari is a Swedish man whose parents are Iraqi Kurds. He seems younger than Bell and Franceschi, sillier and likely to smile. He watched a clip of Islamic State executioners murdering blindfolded children on Facebook and decided he had to do something.
“After I watched this video I immediately decided to fight against ISIS, not just help the refugees,” he explains. Two weeks later, he was at the border. Kadari seems the most level, the most normal — at least to an American’s eyes — of the three young men.
It seems he wants to fight out of a sense of justice, whereas I felt Franceschi pursued a utopian dream. Bell freely admitted he was running way from his life and said most of the Westerners he met in Syria had done the same.
One of the secrets to a great documentary is to focus on the subject and keep the filmmakers out of it. Werner Herzog would probably disagree with me, but only a person with as striking and bizarre a personality as his can get away with it. Better for the rest of us to just report what we see.
Argentieri, Chiaravalloti and Jampaglia have done that here. They aren’t characters in the story and they use their talents to bring three distinct personalities into focus. They use the wayward men of three different Western countries to make the audience understand what’s at stake on the battlefield.
Bell, Kardari and Franceschi help viewers understand what’s going on in an area of the world few people will ever see in an important conflict largely bereft of journalists. Theirs is a story few are telling. That’s what makes Our War so precious.