Runtime: 93 Minutes
Director/Writer: Daphne Charizani
Stars: Almila Bagriacik, Zübeyde Bulut, Maryam Boubani, Caroline Krebsfänger
By Bianca Garner
“Sisters Apart” (Im Feuer) is a compelling film from Greek director and writer Daphne Charizani and is by far one of the most emotionally touching films that you will come across this year. I had the pleasure of watching it at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, stumbling into a screening as part of a happy accident. Despite being one of the best films I watched at the festival, it seems that not enough people are discussing it and it hasn’t been receiving the attention that it rightfully deserves. The film follows the story of two sisters torn apart by war, and the desperate struggle of one of the sisters’ attempts to reunite their family. It’s not often that we see the stories of women fighting on the frontlines being portrayed on the big-screen, so Charizani’s decision to centre the story around these two sisters whose lives both involve fighting for freedom is something rare and unique.
We first meet Rojda (Almila Bagriacik) at a camp for displaced Kurds where she attempts to get her mother Ferhat (Maryam Boubani ) released into her custody. The opening scene captures the chaos of the camp, with people speaking in several languages and over each other. A fight nearly breaks out when a few men push in front of a group of women and children queuing for food. At first, the camp officials don’t believe Rojda is who she says she is, this is a running theme throughout the film and won’t be the only time she struggles to have others accept her identity. Her German passport finally helps to combat their suspicions, and the mother and daughter return home to Cologne.
“Sisters Apart” (Im Feuer) is a compelling film from Greek director and writer Daphne Charizani and is by far one of the most emotionally touching films that you will come across this year.
However, Ferhat is anything but grateful, she longs for the daughter that she’s left behind, Dilan (Caroline Krebsfänger), who is fighting in a Kurdish battalion of women soldiers against ISIS. Despite being in a much safer position in Germany, Ferhat would much rather be back in her homeland and supports the local Kurdish leader, who sells forms for visa applications, even though the forms are free. There’s tension between mother and daughter, as Ferhat complains about Rojda replying back to her in German and ignores her requests to learn the language.
It’s interesting to see how the relationship between the two generations is examined here, and we can relate to both women. Ferhat is a stubborn woman, but she’s like the way she is because she doesn’t want her daughter to reject her cultural background and history. However, Rojda is fully aware that German society is very different and is only trying to help her mother come to terms with this and adjust to their new lives accordingly. The film’s ending features a very touching scene between mother and daughter which demonstrates just how far their relationship has evolved.
Rojda is a soldier in the Bundeswehr, the German army, and she uses this to her advantage in order to be transferred to a position as an interpreter. This new position is part of a team of soldiers who are training female Kurdish fighters. With the help of Staff Sergeant Alex Breitmeyer (Christoph Letkowski), Rojda manages to connect with the women who astonish the German soldiers, by refusing to have a leader. Rojda strikes up a friendship with Berivan (Zübeyde Bulut) who may be able to help her become reunited with her long-lost sister.
“Charizani’s direction is flawless and we get the sense that this is a very personal story for her..There’s a level of maturity and sophistication to Charizani’s work, and I hope we see more of it.”
Almila Bagriacik presents us with a woman who is struggling to find herself in the world, or rather worlds. Bagriacik’s Rojda may appear strong and confident at first, she has adjusted to life in Germany rather well, even telling her mother off for not speaking in German. However, as the narrative unfolds, it’s clear that underneath that tough exterior, there is a woman who has been fighting her entire life. She’s had to adapt quickly to her surroundings, and we get the impression that she has been deprived of a childhood. Charizani ensures that Rojda and the other women are not seen as victims, she sees them as survivors. Rather than Rojda and the fighters allowing their trauma to cripple them, they use it to fuel them but they still retain their humanity.
Charizani’s direction is flawless and we get the sense that this is a very personal story for her. Her previous film “Madrid” was released back in 2003, and unfortunately I haven’t seen it but from what I’ve read about it, the film shares some similarities in terms of adjusting to different cultures and a protagonist trying to find their own identity. There’s a level of maturity and sophistication to Charizani’s work, and I hope we see more of it. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Falko Lachmund who captures the vast, isolated landscapes of Erbil, Iraq. The use of natural light, especially firepits and oil lanterns gives the film, a haunting, dreamlike look. The score is also noteworthy and is composed by Florian Tessloff.
The film deals with a range of different topics, whether it be the bond between sisters or the bond between mother and daughter, or the everyday sexism that Rojda encounters in her army life or the cultural differences and prejudices that the Kurdish freedom fighters have to struggle with. Alex’s men dismiss the female freedom fighters, and scoff at them when they say they have no leader and don’t intend on electing one to lead their group. When Rojda first arrives at the camp, the men are playing football and it’s very clear that this is a manly environment. There is a romantic aspect to the relationship between Alex and Rojda, but Charizani doesn’t allow this to overshadow the main storyline and it seems that mostly their relationship is built on a mutual respect for one and another.
While the film’s events may take place in a conflict setting, it has a very universal story that I believe most of us wil connect with on some level: the idea of blood being thicker than water. Rojda’s journey is one driven by compassion, empathy and love for her sister, and there’s something incredibly admirable about that. Too often do we see our heroines driven by revenge, especially when it comes to stories focused on war and conflict.
I hope readers will get a chance to see “Sisters Apart” one day, although I feel that it may only get seen by a handful of people on the film festival circuit. It’s a beautiful, poetic and compelling story of sisterhood, empathy and survival. And, it’s a film that I am honoured to have seen.