Edward Watts on Filming ISIS

Erika Brady recently spoke with Edward Watts, documentary filmmaker, on his experience making the award-winning documentary Escape From ISIS for Channel 4. Aired in July 2015, Escape from ISIS has won numerous awards including the Amnesty International Award for Best Human Rights Documentary 2015 and has been nominated for a BAFTA award for the Best Current Affairs Film 2016. The documentary exposes what life is like for women living under the brutal regime of ISIS, largely by following an underground network who are trying to rescue them. Brady spoke to Edward about making documentaries, the context of the documentary, and what’s next for him.

Erika Brady: Hi Edward. Thank you for speaking with me today. First things first, what made you interested in making documentaries?

Edward Watts: Well, I’ve always been really into film. My dad raised me watching hundreds of different films! I guess I got my film school education from him from an early age and so I was looking for ways to make films. [Also] I had studied history and my Mum was a journalist so her influence directed my attention outwards to what was happening in the world. Documentaries were the natural meeting point of those two interests.

Of all of the documentaries you have made which, in your own opinion, is the most interesting?

Definitely Escape from ISIS, which is the one that got me the most attention and recognition. But also it made the most difference, I hope, in terms of actually getting into the minds of the policy makers. The media got very good coverage and I partnered up with an excellent Iraqi charity which launched an appeal to provide mental health care to some of the women who’d suffered so terribly under ISIS. So every which way you looked at it, I thought it was the best film I had ever done, as well as in terms of the shooting and the story-telling. At last, all my lessons, all the things I’d learned, came together better than they ever had before!

Your documentaries delve into and expose very deep, serious and complicated subjects. Do you think that Escape from ISIS was the most challenging?

No. I think every film has its own challenges. That was a very taxing one. There was all the effort, but the blood that was spilled along the way was worth it because it was a good film and it achieved the impact that we talked about. Whereas, what’s actually tougher sometimes is when you make a film and you do your best and make it as good as you can. But circumstances are against you and for whatever reason, the film is not as good as you hoped it would be or it doesn’t have the impact that you hoped it would have. That is much tougher. You feel that all that effort was not fulfilled, not worth it, so in that sense, some of my other documentaries were a lot tougher.

How did you hear about the group that’s helping the women and children escape?

Essentially, Channel 4 wanted to make a documentary about women under ISIS and so they wanted me to go out and gather testimony from the Yazidi women. When everyone was doing the initial research and looking at the situation of Yazidi women, one of my colleagues bumped into a small NGO that said they were not only working with women but they were  also involved in trying to rescue them. And that was really all we knew, there was just this claim. No one else was reporting it and it wasn’t backed up by anyone. And so when I was initially sent out there, it was with the brief to gather testimony of what has happened to the women and see whether there is any truth in what these guys are claiming. It was kind of a bizarre thing because it turned out the NGO itself wasn’t doing any of those rescues but they were in contact with people who were. So, its almost fortuitous that I just met the guys, like Khalil al-Dakhi, who were really involved. So when I went back home after that initial Iraq trip I said to Channel 4, “Look, its much bigger than anyone thought. We should go back and we should make this the subject of the film.” So that’s how it happened.

Did it take a long time between the research stage and the time when you embedded with the group? Did it take a long time to prepare that?

No. I mean I met Khalil purely by chance the first day I arrived in Iraq and we shared a car together, just driving from the border to where we were staying. And he told me this extraordinary story. I didn’t know who he was when I first met him, because we were just sharing a car and it was just a service, so I said “What do you do?” And he sort of said “Well, I rescue women from ISIS”! It was nuts! So I was obviously meeting the women and gathering their testimonies. But as much as possible, from minute one, I was hanging out with Khalil and meeting his colleagues and trying to film what I could. It took a while to win their trust and to get them to feel that they could let me film what they were up to and that it would be okay. But from minute one, I was on it.

How difficult was it to work with the group knowing that, as is mentioned in the documentary, they hadn’t had their operations filmed before?

It was tricky. I mean, they are a secretive bunch of guys, obviously, and they were working in quite dark, shadowy corners. And so they would disappear off radar for three days or shut things down. But also what they were trying to do was so difficult that you would think something was going to happen and it would be cancelled or delayed and then someone would go off and just do it without me! So yeah, it was extremely challenging but it was such an important story that it was just very worth sticking with it.

Was it very frightening to be over there?

Yeah, at some points. I mean, that was the first time I’d been to Iraq and obviously Iraq looms large in the collective psyche. It was actually not nearly as bad as I anticipated being there because, you know, I had a good team – people I felt very safe with because they really knew the territory.

The main operation that we saw in the documentary, when a family of 34 women and children are helped to escape from ISIS’ territory, was gripping to watch. How did you feel when you saw them coming over the hill, having seen the operation’s preparations and waited with the group for these women to come over on this very dangerous journey?

Yeah. It was extraordinary. But, it’s a funny thing when you are in that situation and your brain is so occupied with trying to film it correctly and capture it, that the import, the magnitude of what you’re witnessing, doesn’t hit you until later. It was very difficult filming in those circumstances, right on the front line, right up to the wire. We didn’t know if [the women] were going to make it. We didn’t know if I would have permission to be up there on the front lines to capture that shot and we didn’t know if they were going to stop us filming at some point. The whole thing was tricky. And so it was really only when we were driving home, five hours later, and everyone in the car fell asleep and I suddenly thought “Holy S***! What just happened”!

Have the authorities provided Khalil’s groups with any assistance?

When you say “the authorities”, Iraq is such a kaleidoscope. There’s different authorities, essentially, but the Kurdish Regional Government, I heard that they were actually being very good. ISIS’ people have started selling [the women] directly – like you saw in the film, there was that fighter who was trying to sell the family back to their relatives. That’s happening a lot more I think, and the Kurdish Regional Government is actually paying for it. And when I was there, they were covering the expenses of the rescue operations. Sometimes they were even funding the families to pay for their relatives, but then they stopped doing that. It was quite a messy picture, but now I think it has become a lot more formalised. And so there is a bit more support in that way.

You touched a little bit earlier on about what is being done to help the women after the fact and you mentioned the Iraqi charity that is making an appeal to help fund healthcare, including mental health. One of my recent articles for the St Andrews Economist focused on Nigeria, particularly on what the Nigerian government was and was not doing for its people and women who had escaped captivity with Boko Haram. There are several reports saying that many of the women who have been rescued were stigmatised by their communities when they returned because there was a fear within the community that they had been brain-washed and that they would all become suicide bombers. It gave the impression that self-healing is only part of the challenge they need to face when they return to their homes. Is this the case with the Yazidi community as well, to which many of the women in the documentary belong? Do you have any thoughts on that?

It’s a big problem in Iraq as well. The Yazidi community are massively conservative. Just a few years ago, I think it was in 2007, there had been a horrendous case of a Yazidi girl being stoned to death because she got together with a Muslim guy. So, when I was there and in the early days of the crisis, there was definitely a huge stigma surrounding the women who came back. But I think that what has, in a terrible way, encouraged change is the sheer scale of it. So many women and families were affected, it wasn’t the case that this was one girl who was being isolated and ostracized. The Yazidi religious leaders were fantastic by very early on standing up and saying [the community] had to welcome their women back, and take them and help them. I think its hard to say to what extent that view was adopted. I think those kinds of interventions very early on do a lot to reduce the stigma, but it still exists.

The UN very recently released a report acknowledging that ISIS was carrying out genocide against the Yazidi people. I wondered what your thoughts were on that?

I think its about time. By targeting women, that’s exactly what they are doing. Its not just women, they are targeting the children as well. The Yazidi boys have been forcibly converted to Islam and are being trained in military training camps, from the age of seven I think. And so they are targeting the next generation by targeting mothers and children. They are trying to literally erase the Yazidis, at least the Yazidis under their control, from the earth. Thankfully most of them are beyond their reach. But undoubtedly I think that that level of violence and targeting of women in that way is evidential that they are trying hit the very foundation of the community.

Do you think Escape from ISIS has had an impact on the Yazidi’s plight?

Some important people did see it. I was invited to testify in front of the Committee on Foreign Relations at the House of Representatives of the US Congress. David Cameron mentioned the film in a speech shortly after it went out. So I feel that people did know it was there. To what extent it has made a difference? I wouldn’t like to guess.

Do you have advice for people who might be going into documentary making?

I think there’s so much advice, so maybe I could just give one [piece]. I think there’s so many people who want to get into film making now and want to get into documentaries and journalism and I feel a lot of them want to do it for the wrong reasons. A lot of them want to do it because it’s sexy and cool and important and that’s fair enough – no doubt that played a factor in my decision-making too. But I think it’s important to think about why and what you want. What influence do you want to have in the world? Be passionate about a cause, rather than just passionate about yourself being important. I think that if you do that, not only will your documentaries be a value to humanity in general, but you will also stand a much better chance of getting further in your career.

And finally, what’s next for you?

I took a sabbatical for six months, so I have been out of it for a bit. Now I am doing quite a lot on refugee issues, exploring some of that. I’m trying to think about new forms as well, and maybe doing more charity work. Maybe exploring some sort of fictionalised story-telling material as well. So, we’ll see! Just trying to keep evolving!


The Iraqi charity to which Edward referred is called AMAR International Charitable Foundation. For those who would like to donate or find out more, the Escaping Darkness Appeal can be found here.

Escape from ISIS can be viewed on the Channel 4 website here. Edward Watts’s website can be found here and has links to all of his documentaries.

Featured image by Edward Watts.

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