While much is written about the young Westerners who join ISIS as jihadis, less is reported about the recruitment of combatants by the opposing camp. In recent years, the ranks of the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have swelled unexpectedly with the arrival of some 100 volunteers from North America, Europe and Australia, all of them legal recruits. Who are these volunteers who risk their lives to combat ISIS: selfless heroes, or just adrenaline junkies? Or are they on a quest for recognition or identity? An intimate portrait of four Western volunteers, Julien Fréchette’s My War sets out to uncover their motives, which are often quite complex. Filming them in action and as close as possible to the front, steadfastly refusing to judge or champion, Fréchette brings their troubling stories to life. A compelling inquiry into what causes individuals of differing ages and backgrounds to forsake their comfortable existence for combat in a far-off war.
The phenomenon of young Westerners who join ISIS as jihadis has been a regular news item ever since the militant group first appeared in the mid-2010s. As the media ponder their reasons for enlisting, far less is said about the Westerners who join the other side.
Recent years have seen some 100 volunteers from North America, Europe and Australia unexpectedly swelling the ranks of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Unpaid and with few prospects for glory, they risk their lives to battle ISIS. Who are these volunteer recruits: selfless heroes, or individuals on an identity quest? A disturbing, intimate portrait shot as close as possible to the front, Julien Fréchette’s My War traces their journeys as it sets out to uncover their motives, which are generally complex.
Volunteer jihadis run the risk of heavy prison terms for terrorism. Westerners who join the Kurds, however, can lawfully cross international borders with military equipment in their bags. No laws currently stop anyone from joining the “good camp” and engaging in combat in Iraq and Syria, a less-common phenomenon that’s also less frowned upon in the West. To attract followers, the Kurds use the same approach as ISIS: social media. Indeed, part of the conflict in the Middle East is played out online, where Kurdish organizations like the Lions of Rojava openly wage their ideological campaign, sign up new recruits and oversee their travel. Crowdfunding is often used to raise money for the endeavour.
A close-up portrait of four Western volunteers, My War sets out to uncover a little-known reality. Steadfastly refusing to judge or champion, Fréchette asks what causes these recruits of differing ages and backgrounds to give up their comfortable existence for a chance to take up arms in someone else’s war.
Wali, a 35-year-old Québécois man, claims to have no lingering trauma from his two tours in Afghanistan. Cheerfully reckless, enthralled by action and combat, he’s also a self-taught documentary filmmaker who’s passionate about the possibilities offered by multimedia formats. He’s tasked himself with both fighting ISIS and filming life on the front. With his GoPro camera permanently stuck to his helmet or rifle, he sees his participation in the Iraqi-Syrian conflict as a type of tourist excursion where he “occasionally shoots people.” If it weren’t so difficult to finance, he would spend his whole life volunteering to fight.
Hanna from Vancouver, age 46, says she was bored and looking for meaning when she first heard about the Kurdish struggle against ISIS. Describing the moment as a “calling,” she headed to Syria to join the YPJ, a Kurdish military unit composed entirely of women. Initially ambivalent at the idea of killing, she found herself becoming motivated by vengeance after losing numerous comrades to enemy fire. Her strong personality and extraordinary path have earned Hanna a great deal of media attention, which perhaps has something to do with her involvement in the Kurdish cause.
Alaska-born Rebaz, 27, deployed to Iraq at a very young age and was profoundly shaken by the experience. Haunted by demons he won’t discuss, he paradoxically considers his engagement with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga as a lifeline of sorts, a last-ditch chance to become a better person.
For Thierry, a 52-year-old French national with Special Forces training, war is a way of life. He feels more at ease in the chaos of the Kurdish front than in the comfort of his own living room. Like his Western brothers and sisters in arms, he has a distant and somewhat paternalistic rapport with the Peshmerga, who in turn view him and the other foreign combatants with a mixture of appreciation and incredulity.
In this original take on war, Fréchette captures the stories and reflections of these four singular combatants as he chronicles their day-to-day lives in Iraq, Syria and at home. Against the backdrop of an increasingly messy conflict, My War probes the troubled reasons behind the need to bear arms in someone else’s war.
Research, Script and Direction
With the participation of
Assistant – Kurdistan
Technical Coordinator – Shooting Equipment
Technical Support – Editing
Jean Paul Vialard
Serge Nakauchi Pelletier