We were prepared for harrowing tales of life under Isis, but never expected positive stories to emerge from the horror, says director Edward Watts.
This article was first published in Broadcast magazine, 9th July 2015.
One cold March morning in Iraq, my small team and I looked out across fields of lavender towards the trenches of the Islamic State, the most feared terrorist group in the world, with a sense of hope.
When, weeks earlier, Channel 4 commissioning editor Siobhan Sinnerton offered me the chance to direct a film about the lives of women living under the rule of the Islamic State – the film that became Escape From Isis – we both knew the project would entail insane hours of relentless work amid tales of unimaginable human suffering. And so it proved.
But neither of us could have guessed that here, on the frontline with Isis, we would find a positive twist to the story.
Through hard work and a series of lucky breaks, I got the opportunity to follow an underground network of activists who, unseen by the world, were trying to free women held by Isis militants and used as sex slaves. That morning, we were waiting for a family of 24 to be guided across the frontline to freedom after eight months in the hands of Isis.
The brutality that people endure inside the Islamic State is difficult to comprehend. One woman’s story will always stay with me. At only 21, Aeida was abducted with her two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. The militants beheaded people in front of the children and kept the family in a house where women were used as sex slaves.
During her interview, Aeida had just described witnessing a nine-year-old girl being taken away to be raped when she suffered an extreme traumatic flashback and collapsed, struggling to breathe, her face contorted by the horror she had witnessed.
I was torn between the film-maker in me, who knew I needed to record, and the human being, who did not want to add in any way to her suffering by pointing a camera at it. Even after making 20 documentaries, I still find it a difficult balance to strike.
You do see Aeida collapse in the film, but in the edit, I could not watch the material without shedding tears.
For most of the shoot, there were only four of us: me, our main character Khaleel, driver Hazim and fixer Hassan Ashwor, running around northern Iraq in Hazim’s dad’s old saloon. Having a small team allowed me to sneak into places that were off-limits to bigger units – and build the relationships on which our access depended.
The most essential member of the team was Hassan. He had worked as a translator for the US Marines – good preparation for work in television – and was a true TV soldier. His incredible stamina, translating almost continuously for up to 24 hours, helped me to build trust with the secretive rescue network, who had never before allowed cameras to film them.
The humour of our little team carried us through hell; I remember teasing driver Hazim about his quest for a girlfriend as we drove past blown-up buildings and the craters left by roadside bombs.
That cold morning, two hours passed on the frontline with no sign of the family. I decided to snatch a shot of an Isis observation post on the frontline ahead. We wrestled the tripod to the front of the trench and I fitted a long lens. I had just put my eye to the viewfinder when Hassan nudged me: “They’re coming.”
I swung the camera up to the hills and saw the family of 24, a tiny group of black-clad figures, scrambling towards us and freedom.
Everyone – the soldiers, my team, relatives of the escapees – leapt over the frontline and ran helter-skelter into no man’s land to meet them, heedless of the danger. I filmed the soldiers carrying several of the women the final few hundred yards to safety.
The family had walked for two days to escape. They were too exhausted to take another step and were loaded into trucks and driven away. I flicked off the camera and wiped away the sweat. Hassan grinned at me. “No one has seen anything like that before,” he said.
I’m proud that, thanks to all of our hard work, they now can.