The horrific story of ISIS’s bid to wipe out Iraq’s Yazidi minority is fairly well known in the United States. At least in broad terms, Americans who pay attention to such things understand that the terrorist group’s fanatical gunmen rolled in on a defenseless people, butchered men and boys by the thousands and hauled away young women into sexual slavery in a genocidal plan.
While those facts have registered, fully grasping a crime of such magnitude can remain elusive. The problem is embodied in a sentiment apparently expressed by the mass-murdering Josef Stalin in the 1940s: The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.
In One Yazidi Family vs ISIS, documentary filmmaker Gwynne Roberts fixes his lens firmly on the tragedy side of the formulation. Partly through an accident of timing, the British journalist was able to intimately capture on film the travails of a single Yazidi family that experienced murder, displacement, poverty, slavery, rescue and eventually refuge and a measure of redemption in Germany. We get to see this family, the Chattos, up close as they talk to the camera and the camera follows them on a desperate hunt for a missing family member. We come to know them from the hollow-eyed aftermath of their flight to the young children’s resilience in German schools. It is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching and ultimately unforgettable journey.
“This film shows the cost of conflict,” Sarhang Hamasaeed, the director of Middle East programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said after a screening of the documentary last week at USIP. “In a single molecule we see a world of pain for thousands of families and each of their members.”
The source of that pain has by no means been extinguished, Hamasaeed said in a panel discussion following the film, which was presented with the German Embassy and the Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in Washington. Some 300,000 Yazidis remain displaced and security conditions in and around their villages remain unstable at best. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative to the U.S., said the KRG believes that 15,000 to 20,000 ISIS fighters are still operating between Syria and Iraq. For Yazidis to return to their ancestral lands will require more than security, the German ambassador to the U.S., Emily Haber, said in introductory remarks. While the camps housing displaced Yazidis need immediate assistance with clean water, sanitation and medical care, in the longer run return will require help rebuilding schools, gardens, hospitals and infrastructure, she said.
Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Fareed Yaseen, said his country and the international community must also expand efforts to support the care and recovery of Yazidis who survived the traumas inflicted by ISIS, including reunification with children “brainwashed” by the extremist group. The issue of justice for the crimes catalogued in the documentary remains complex and “is being debated at the highest level,” he said.
Making the Film
As a narrative matter, Roberts presents the Chattos’ story in essentially chronological order. While that can seem unduly straightforward at times, in fact it belies the complications of shooting the film, as Roberts explained. One Yazidi Family vs ISIS is a distinctly journalistic production; Roberts had to work with what he had. He couldn’t be present for many key incidents and filled the gaps with static, sensitive interviews that capture the family’s pain and disorientation while avoiding any sense of exploitation. At other times, we jounce down rough border roads with him, the action captured by handheld cameras and real-time narration.
Roberts’s involvement with the Chattos begins seven months before ISIS unleashed its August 2014 assault on the Yazidis, a religious minority in northern Iraq that the jihadists consider heretics and devil worshippers.
Roberts, who has spent years in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since 1974, was traveling the area to collect Kurdish testimonies of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing and massacres for a video archive called the Kurdish Memory Project. As Roberts pointed out, the Saddam Hussein regime’s Al-Anfal campaign destroyed 4,580 Kurdish villages from 1986 to 1988 using gas, heavy weapons and occupation. The Project aims to preserve information about these localities’ culture and life as well the crimes against humanity committed by the regime. Unlike the Yazidis, he said, the Kurdish catastrophe received little world attention at the time because the regime was able to “hermetically seal” the region.
Roberts went to seek interviews for the Project in Tel Uzeir, a so-called collective town largely populated by Yazidis uprooted from their traditional villages by the Anfal. The town was already infamous as a site of Yazidi tragedy: In 2007 terrorists exploded truck bombs in Tel Uzeir and another town, killing about 800 people in what may be the largest global terrorist incident since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. By early 2014, extremist forces were deploying in the area and the filmed trip to Tel Uzeir is laden with tension.
Developing a Friendship
In the town, Roberts interviews Khalil Chatto, a businessman and community leader, having a conversation that sets up the rest of the film. Roberts strikes up a casual friendship with the family. Given the benefit of hindsight, a sense of dread hangs over Khalil’s vigorous and confident performance; we know hell is about to break loose on this family.
Some months after it does, Roberts begins a trek through grim Yazidi refugee encampments looking for the Chattos. Eventually he finds them in a freezing, abandoned construction site outside Erbil—or at least some of them. Khalil’s wife, Khafshe Hassan Chatto, and her young son, Basem, and daughters Basma and Wahida recount, in portrait-like closeups that excavate their trauma, what happened when ISIS arrived at the farm where they hid.
Khalil and Khafshe’s 15- and 16-year-old daughters ran when the fighters started pushing the young women at the farm into a car; they were shot dead in front of the family. Then, the Yazidi men were told to convert to Islam. When they balked, the terrorists shot them in the room where they were held. The younger children and older women were then taken from a separate room, put on the ground and covered with gasoline to be set on fire. One of the commanders got a phone call, Basem recalled, and they simply left. The family then fled on foot to Sinjar Mountain and made contact with the eldest son, Khairi, who at the time of the attack had been in Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. He arranged their rescue from the mountain, running a gauntlet of ISIS artillery to get there.
The three daughters who were taken to Mosul eventually escaped. They made their way to Erbil and found the family. With little apparent prompting from Roberts, the women recount the degradation and terror of being enslaved by ISIS—beatings, forced conversion, sales to a series of ISIS militants.
“At first, we filmed them in very tight close-ups so they couldn’t be recognized,” Roberts said. “Each step of the way we sought their permission and agreement to show their faces. This is what they wanted; to tell their story and to make sure the world heard them.” (While the film isn’t available for streaming or online, several of the interviews are posted at the Memory Project site.)
Roberts catches up with the family next at a refugee camp where Khairi is working with smugglers to free the last sister, Khawla, from ISIS. The filmmaker captures clandestine meetings with the smugglers where they demand enormous sums of cash for their dangerous task. Ultimately, the gang delivers Khawla along a narrow road a few meters from the Syrian border. Roberts records the reunion and Khawla’s breakdown when she learns her father is dead.
There can be no happy ending to a story like this, but at least One Family vs ISIS ends on a note of resilience. The Chattos, except for Khairi, are granted asylum in Germany. Khairi, who has resourcefully rescued the entire family, is not deterred. He joins the surge of migrants from Syria, crossing the Mediterranean to Greece in an open boat that almost sinks. Eventually, he reaches his family.
In the Chattos’ final interview, the young women talk about their goals and opportunities in Germany, and the children tell us they enjoy school and playing with their friends. Their wounds are still visible, but as One Family vs ISIS ends, it is clear that this family has at least survived. We can take some satisfaction that the so-called “Caliphate” that sought their destruction has not.