The Return: Life After Isis

Photograph: Sky
Rating 8.3
Streamers Now, Sky
Seasons 1
Episodes 1 x 90 mins

This will no doubt be one of the more talked about documentaries this year, coming from director Alba Sotorra Clua, who spent two years filming the women who have fled lives as so-called Isis brides, to Syria’s Roj detention camp.

And none will be quite so talked about as Shamima Begum, who features in this film – she ran away from her home in east London aged 15 to join the so-called Islamic State, four years later claiming she regretted her decision and asking to come back to Britain, sparking a huge public debate over whether or not she should be allowed. As it stands, Begum is still at the Roj detention camp, and here, along with many other women who have similar stories, she discusses why she left her home country, and how she became radicalised.

She talks of an unhappy childhood and being vulnerable to misinformation online, and we can see that Begum has grown somewhat more repentant than the interviews she gave from the camp in 2019. She says that back then, she felt at threat from her fellow detainees who were still in the grip of their radical beliefs. Begum also discusses her time as a “jihadi bride”, during which she had three children, all of whom died. The other women filmed have similarly complex stories involving feeling lost and searching for a purpose, including American Hoda Muthana, the daughter of a diplomat who felt isolated by her parents’ wish for her to have an arranged marriage, and Canadian Kimberly Polman who joined the so-called Islamic State in middle-age, after meeting a man online.

For another astonishing documentary, watch Once Upon a Time in Iraq

It’s impossible to watch this and not form an opinion – or seven – on whether you think these women should be forgiven and allowed home. The lack of remorse or acknowledgement for the violent atrocities committed by the group these women willingly joined is astonishing. But more astonishing is the patience of the Kurdish people who are doing their best to look after them. It’s a fascinating film that leaves a lot of big questions unanswered.

Anita Singh of The Telegraph says it “managed to be sympathetic and damning at the same time… The saddest story here was not the women’s tales of woe but that starving children had been reduced to eating grass during the final days of Isil.” The Times’s James Jackson reckons “This film may just harden opinions at both ends of the debate. Yet it contributed to our understanding. For some it may prompt a bout of self-reflection on where one’s compass lies on a painfully tangled matter.” And The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan agrees, saying “beyond the questions it poses about governmental responsibilities towards its people and the ethics of leaving 64,000 women and children as a burden on the Kurds in Syria, this is a film that makes you interrogate yourself more than any other I can remember.”

First shown June 2021. You can watch a clip of the film by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.

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