Indoctrination is a powerful and dangerous thing. Getting someone to believe in a cause can make them an advocate for it, continuing to spread one way of thinking to others who might be susceptible. It’s difficult to convince someone else that they are wrong, and severity and consequences are often the only effective ways of truly deprogramming a person who has come to believe something so strongly that they are not willing to give it up. This can have grave repercussions when opinion leads to action and that action is inexcusable and unforgivable. The Return: Life after ISIS looks at an extreme case: women who have enlisted to fight as terrorist militants and are now seeking a return to normal life.
The events of September 11th, 2001 and other attacks all around the world have forced those who are presumably safe at home and far from any conflict to realize that there are people who want to target them for who they are and not any specific crime they personally have committed. For most, it would be impossible to imagine hearing about a group like ISIS and being drawn to learn more and even to travel internationally to join the effort. Yet it’s hardly that simple, and this documentary carefully and compellingly breaks down the process by which these women were recruited and the relatable thought processes they had that drove them to fight to destroy much of what they previously knew.
This film definitely takes a position of sympathy towards the women it portrays, offering them a chance to make their plea to an audience that may be willing to listen. Their motivations for joining are largely based in compassion, convinced by the propaganda put out by the organization that could enable them to forge a connection with other Muslims and help starving Syrians. Learning that marriage at nine is deemed acceptable and that they cannot wear sneakers with a pink strip or momentarily show their eyes or gloveless hands because they are considered too attractive begin to show cracks in their belief system, as does the existence of a modern-day sex market that doesn’t align at all with the professed values that so enticed them.
Though they express a desire to return to the countries they left behind, there are also very problematic things they have done that can’t easily be reasoned or explained. Shamima Begum, who came from the United Kingdom at age fifteen, describes not being fazed by the sight of beheaded captives. New Jersey-born Hoda Muthana had a Twitter account where she actively called for attacks against Americans. Arguing that they never did anything and never killed anyone doesn’t excuse their behavior and their perfectly independent decisions to travel abroad to fight against Western ideals.
There is an intimacy in the way that this documentary is filmed that does allow the opportunity to see and understand these women as much as their situation permits. When President Trump tweets that he would not allow Muthana back into the United States, she shares how being stripped of her nationality in a very public forum by her home country’s leader feels, especially as she has a young son with her whose future is very much uncertain. Judgment over the remorse she and the other women currently living in a detention camp in Syria actually have isn’t made by the filmmakers, but this film does offer the best and most transparent effort to attain their mindsets. Those who could never comprehend what would motivate someone to volunteer to go around the world to fight against everything they know are granted a window to some vague understanding of that thinking through this very thought-provoking and emotional film.
The Return: Life After Isis made its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021 on Wednesday, March 17th.