Visions du Réel 2023 review: Hawar, Our Banished Children (Pascale Bourgaux)

“Despite its imperfections, this important documentary is both attuned to the struggles of a particularly vulnerable population and has the potential to initiate positive changes for them.”

Director Pascale Bourgaux has worked as a news reporter and international correspondent, covering war-torn regions like Afghanistan and Iraq, before turning to cinema and building an extensive oeuvre as a filmmaker. Her new documentary feature Hawar, Our Banished Children (Hawar, nos enfants bannis) is characterized by this journalistic approach and aims to shed light on a humanitarian crisis which has remained virtually invisible in western media for almost an entire decade. This topical and moving Visions du Réel premiere follows a young Yazidi woman from Northern Iraq, who, after being captured by ISIS and giving birth to a daughter while in captivity, returns to her village, only to face further rejection and discrimination by her own family. These harrowing experiences are sadly representative of countless similar atrocities suffered by thousands of young women in the region. Despite its limited scope (largely organized around an individual testimony) and merely serviceable craftsmanship, its illuminating look at the plight of many Yazidi women, who are separated from their legally unacknowledged children, makes Hawar a devastating and essential film.

Early in this Swiss-Belgian co-production, on-screen text is used to provide some useful political context and explain that many faces will remain obscured throughout the film in order to protect the subjects. When the central figure named Ana (obviously a pseudonym) is introduced, the camera remains behind her and refuses to show her face clearly. As admirable and justified as this decision is, it also restricts the range of visual materials at Bourgaux’s disposal, resulting in a somewhat repetitive visual experience. A considerable chunk of Hawar is set in a car, with Ana recounting her story while we can only see the back of her head or the empty roads that separate her from her daughter. This may not lead to a particularly dynamic or memorable use of cinematic tools, but it hardly matters since Ana’s story is extremely powerful on its own. She articulates shocking details of her time in Syria, shortly after her village in Iraq falls to jihadists and many young women are kidnapped, explaining how she was “given” to an ISIS member in a modern-day slave market and experienced rape as a daily occurrence. Like many women in this situation, she gives birth to a child and is released by the terrorists several years later, but upon her return, her family refuses to take care of her daughter because the father is a terrorist.

The children are obviously innocent and should not be blamed for the crimes of their fathers, but Bourgaux also manages to look at the situation from the perspective of the Iraqi families without judging them. Instead of identifying the culprits of this tragedy (the families that fail to fully support their daughters and grandchildren upon their release or more importantly the jihadists who cause unfathomable suffering and destruction), Hawar prioritizes the human cost of these dreadful events and focuses on the abandoned children. While most of the kids live in Syrian orphanages, Ana’s case is relatively unusual because the paternal grandparents of her daughter Marya take her with them. The latter half of the film chronicles Ana’s trip back to Syria to visit Marya in her former in-laws’ house. Facing an extremely difficult and thorny situation, the young woman is reunited with her daughter for a short period, but is also forced to confront an elderly couple whose son is the cause of all this suffering.

Are the grandparents innocent in the same way the children clearly are? Do they have any responsibility for the cruel actions of their son, and is their acceptance of Marya a belated form of repentance? What kind of a future awaits Marya (and all the other children who come into this world under the most unfortunate circumstances)? At barely over seventy minutes, Hawar is perhaps too short and underdeveloped to fully explore such complicated questions. Nevertheless, just the fact that Bourgaux is able to raise awareness about this ongoing tragedy, giving Yazidi women (and their children) a voice following years of silence and erasure, is a commendable achievement in itself.

In addition to Ana’s testimony, two additional perspectives expand the framework in Hawar. In one particularly heart-wrenching segment, the Syrian headmistress of an orphanage explains the difficulties that children have to navigate in the midst of a destructive war. Another brief but notable part of the film focuses on former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who is actively involved in efforts to support Yazidi women. These two participants nicely capture the two impulses that Bourgaux brings together in Hawar: compassionate storytelling and macro-level social commentary. Despite its imperfections, this important documentary is both attuned to the struggles of a particularly vulnerable population and has the potential to initiate positive changes for them.