Rojava Film Commune: Forms of Freedom

Rojava Film Commune: Forms of Freedom


March 17, 2020
Rojava Film Commune
Forms of Freedom

Curated by iLiana Fokianaki in collaboration with the Rojava Film Commune 

On February 21, 2020 at e-flux the Rojava Film Commune, a collective of filmmakers founded in 2015 and based in the Rojava region of northern Syria, inaugurated their first exhibition in an art institution in the US. For the exhibition Forms of Freedom, curator iLiana Fokianaki and the Commune drew from the Commune’s vast archive of collectively and individually produced films to arrive at a selection reflecting the methodologies, thinking process, and radical imaginaries of the collective. 

Initially set to run through April 4, the exhibtion, as many others in New York and around the world, was paused on March 12. Here we share with you some installation views of their show at e-flux and a selection of stills from their films. We hope you will enjoy them as much as we have enjoyed putting this exhibition together and presenting the work of the Rojava Film Commune to audiences in New York—and we hope we will see you again soon at Forms of Freedom and at e-flux.

“Rojava, which means ‘west’ (referring to the western part of Kurdistan), was liberated in the midst of the Syrian War in 2012 by a coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and others from the region. Inspired by the political philosophy of Kurdish revolutionary and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan, Rojava established a model of democratic confederalism, or, as Öcalan calls it, ‘a democracy without the state.’ Following a hard-fought political revolution and vulnerable to both the Assad regime and Islamic State attacks, Rojava is today locally self-governed in a way that emphasizes gender equality, ecology, and communal economy. All decisions on social issues, from infrastructure and energy to education and domestic violence, are discussed through local councils, public meetings and collective decision-making processes. But while the Rojava revolution is known to the world as a political project, this exhibition shows that it is also artistic in nature. 

The Rojava Film Commune emerged in 2015 from the Rojava revolution with an educational aim, and to produce a new Rojavan revolutionary cinema. The dynamic collective of young filmmakers, established filmmakers, and students seeks to contribute to the development of the revolution by narrating both the history of the struggle and the possibilities it has opened for the present and for the future. As Rojava rebuilds itself politically, the Rojava Film Commune contributes to its cultural reconstruction: through the medium of video and film, they translate their newfound democratic freedom into a new artistic form. In their work, we see the cultural and artistic equivalent of what it means to self-define, to open the space— as scholar and theorist Dilar Dirik said—for ‘living without approval’ beyond the patriarchal capitalist state rejected by Rojavans. The Rojava Film Commune exposes the real desire behind producing art: to affirm the ‘living’ of life. 

Rojavans today are not only Kurds, though Rojava was originally a part of Kurdistan and the political philosophy of the Kurdish revolutionary movement has been a driving force for their stateless democracy. This exhibition tries to shed light, through the work of the Commune, on the Kurdish question at large, and includes articles and news coverage reflecting mainstream US media coverage of the Rojava revolution and political events over the last five years that often appear to anticipate the events witnessed in the last months. Mainly, this exhibition would like to offer a glimpse into an emancipatory political experiment that has brought a new paradigm of multi-ethnic, multi-religious stateless governance into being, a morphology that stands in sharp opposition to the rigid and stale structures that have been producing devastating state violence in the region.

The Rojava model is based on various pillars, as written in its Social Contract (the Rojavan constitution), two of which I want to highlight for marking a fundamental break with the ethno-state of the ancien régime. The first specifies direct democracy through self-governance as the basis of a communalist system in which citizens participate actively in decision-making and the management of the πόλις (polis)from the neighborhood-commune to the municipality to the coordinating bodies of its three cantons—Afrin, Kobane, and Cezire. As if in an inverted power pyramid, the majority of power lies in neighborhood assemblies, while the role of cantonal bodies is more administrative. The second—equally revolutionary—rejects the nation-state as such. In Rojava, many different religious and ethnic groups—Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, Turkmens, Chechens, Armenians—live together with a large Kurdish majority. By officially and insistently rejecting the nation state, the Rojava model grants minorities an unprecedented participatory role as equals in defining the πόλις. 

It is important to recognize a common motivation in Kurdish struggles in politics, life, and art alike and many historical revolutionary struggles around the world that have tried to establish autonomous regions. Some of the ideas and structures of Rojavans, echo today to the self-organized anarchist squats of my native Greece that offer support to refugees and migrants, self-organized medical professionals in many countries that try to provide health care to those who cannot afford it, and countless other autonomist practices that exist without official approval, far from the failures of the austerity-ridden, inequality-driven corporate-state. It is this element of the Rojavan revolution, that is channeled through the work of the Commune that is fascinating: a determination to break narratives imposed by the old structures of the westphalian state mandate. It is a new pathway for all those who wish to live beyond the confinement of the state apparatus. The cultural practice of the Commune, could be considered as an embodied performative footprint of what Deleuze and Guattari describe in Nomadology as the war machine, the one that unhinges the over-coded rules of the State, the one which operates outside the confinements of the state apparatus. 

In making this exhibition in Athens in 2018, in Zagreb in 2019, and now in New York in 2020, it has been important to emphasize the Rojava revolution defining a form of social justice that counters the law of the nation-state. Indeed, the populations of the region witness injustices imposed by surrounding nation-states and provide their own political alternative. But internally, Öcalan’s concept of stateless democracy has shaped the way an artistic collective formulates and organizes itself—not only narrating ideas of stateless democracy, but enacting ideals of justice and equality as a self-governing egalitarian commune. Their collective practice embodies the notion of the ‘commons,’ which inform their artworks as political statements, and redefine core notions of authorship and ownership dominant in much of the international art world. The films become agents of disruption, equally exposing injustices and violence, while recognizing the resilience of people that actively practice a different way of organizing society.”

—Excerpt from iLiana Fokianaki’s exhibition introduction ”Forms of Freedom: On the Work of the Rojava Film Commune,” February 2020.


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March 17, 2020

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