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SXSW Review: ‘The Return’ Empathetically Explores the Complexities of Life After Isis

The headlines that open Alba Sotorra’s The Return will be familiar to many who have followed the news surrounding the emergence of ISIS in Syria during the past decade. Horrifying reports of beheadings, bombings and other brutal acts have caused the radical Islamist group to be one of the most feared in the world. Beyond the headlines, however, there are the underrepresented stories of the women who have been misled into joining this theocratic unrecognized state. With her enlightening new documentary, Sotorra shines a light on their perspective.

The Return focuses on a group of women in northern Syria, where a detention camp houses women and children who have survived the fall of ISIS. In an attempt to rehabilitate these women, workshops are implemented to deprogram them from their radical beliefs. As indicated during a roll call for one such workshop, many of them are Western women from across the world. Having endured the cruelty of the ISIS regime, they are now desperate to return home and denounce ISIS. But their home countries are resistant to repatriating them, publicly declaring that women with direct ties to ISIS are unwelcome.

Indeed, despite the film’s title, these women face major obstacles as personae non grata in their native countries. And Sotorra reinforces the reasoning behind these attitudes through disturbing news footage of ISIS-led brutality, propaganda videos and testimonials from the women themselves. In one candid scene, even young children are seen extolling the virtues of jihad and the promise of paradise.

The reign of terror inflicted by ISIS is widely known. But in letting the women speak for themselves, Sotorra reveals them as a group of unacknowledged victims. While she doesn’t let them off the hook for their complicity in ISIS’s crimes, Sotorra allows them to explain the process of radicalization that is often misunderstood. Lured by the promise of a sense of purpose, their naivety and vulnerability will be relatable to many viewers.

While the knowledge of horrors of ISIS will unlikely convert many viewers to full sympathy for these women, Sotorra successfully engenders empathy for their plight. As they attempt to repatriate and recover their past lives, their desire to provide a better future for their new children conveys their innate motherly instincts. In this regard, their true humanity is evident. Unfortunately, their decisions may have irreversible consequences for themselves. But hope lives on in the legacy of their children. Through its discerning exploration of these dual sentiments, The Return is thus a suitably challenging documentary about a uniquely complicated subject.

SCORE: ★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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