Interview with Kurdish director Selim Yildiz

When one dies, the next goes up into the mountains

In his film “Dialogue“, Selim Yildiz addresses a social taboo which is a reality for many Kurds in Turkey: young men suddenly disappear and joined armed groups in the mountains. Interview by Semiran Kaya

How did the idea for “Dialogue“ come about?

Selim Yildiz: I spent 29 days shadowing Kurdish soldiers for a documentary and it was during this time that I got to know one guerrilla fighter who hadn’t seen his mother for 22 years. He was thirteen years old when he suddenly disappeared "into the mountains". When my brother Enes also disappeared, I promised my mother that I would ensure she was reunited with her son. The opportunity arose eight years later, in 2015. But we had to wait two years during the war in Syria until we were able to go out into the streets.

Were there any clues he was going to disappear?

Yildiz: None at all. I was in Istanbul one night when my mother rang. Enes hadn’t returned home and his phone was switched off. We spent days ringing around everyone we knew and were wracked with uncertainty. One week later we received a note which read, "I am going to another city". He didn’t mention that he was joining an armed group. Two months later we received word of him via a third party, "Don’t worry," they said, "he has gone 'into the mountains'."

How did your parents react?

Yildiz: My mother seemed to go into shock; she cried for fifteen days. She stopped eating. She pulled her hair out. On the sixteenth day, we had to force her to eat. We had no idea where he was. My father tried to console her, but would hide himself away and cry in secret. He withdrew after that, avoiding the house where Enes had disappeared and stopped talking. Before all this he would get angry or laugh. The tragedy is, my brother was not the first to go. More than ten of our close relations left. None of them came back. We’re a family in the midst of a conflict. When one dies, the next one goes up into the mountains.

Is this tradition – this weighty legacy – ever questioned?

Film poster of Selim Yildiz' "Dialogue"
"Dialogue" tells the story of a mother whose family was torn apart by the long-standing conflict in south-eastern Turkey. In 2008 her son Enes suddenly disappeared. He was barely 18 years old. Eight years later the family learns that Enes has now joined a PKK group in Syria to fight against the IS. Selim Yıldız accompanies his mother in her search for Enes, his brother, whom they are able to see again after ten years. The film won the C.F.I Cannes Prize 2019 for the best Middle East documentary

Yildiz: Those who go, vanish in an instant. They don’t say anything. We tried to find out if anyone was preparing to leave as soon as another one died. But that's not possible because the person often leaves in secret, without giving an explanation. And even in my generation – which rejects armed struggle – no one feels able question a decision of this kind. All we have is this profound pain. Ultimately, I do not want any mother or father to have to go through the death of their child; even in war. As soon as someone disappears, the mothers begin painstakingly trawling through news reports. Why?

To find out if their child is among the dead. Then there are serious disputes between the mothers themselves. Those whose children are in the mountains, or who have lost children, generally support a peaceful solution, demonstrate against the war and hope that it ends, while other mothers are fighting to stop their children disappearing in the first place. It’s not the mothers who are sending their children to the PKK. Nor does the PKK come into the villages and simply take the children away, as is often claimed. It is the violence and oppression that the state has established in the East which leads children and young men to leave their families without a word and join the fight.

The film shows your mother knitting a jumper for her son who has disappeared and whom she will soon see again, laughing to herself as she wonders whether it will fit him. There is no kiss in the goodbye scene. Mother and son sit side-by-side in the car. Your mother leans over and all Enes can do is accept the intense physical closeness, unmoving. Did your mother cry afterwards?

Yildiz: She’s stronger than I am. She recovered quickly. The borders were closed, so we had to present ourselves to the Turkish gendarmerie in order to enter. We were expecting that I would be arrested, so another of my brothers planned to pick my mother up at the border. At that point, she said to me [laughs]: if they take you in, I’ll wait in the gendarmerie garden until they let you go.

When it comes to physical closeness, militants like my brother are forced to change. They have few family ties, their thoughts and behaviour are focused entirely on the organisation. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy.

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