Olivia Wilde is no stranger to making big statements. In just the past few years, the Vinyl and House actress has waded into absurdist parenting controversies over breastfeeding and lip kissing, spoken out against the Trump administration and sexism in Hollywood, and starred in 1984, a Broadway play so disturbing it reportedly made Jennifer Lawrence puke.
And then there are the documentaries she’s executive produced, on heavy topics from the Ebola crisis in Liberia to post-earthquake Haiti.
Now Wilde adds this stunner to that list: “Fear Us Women,” a documentary short (viewable in its entirety at the bottom of this story) that explores the woman-led ISIS military resistance in Syria through the eyes of one volunteer soldier, Canadian citizen Hanna Bohman.
The film, directed by David Darg and produced by Ryot (part of the Oath brands, as is Yahoo), packs a hard punch in just 27 minutes, as a mind-bogglingly brave Bohman takes viewers into the violent, traumatizing world of an all-female Kurdish army, YPJ (which stands for, in translation, Women’s Protection Unit), on the front lines of terrorism.
“Hanna is such an incredible protagonist,” Wilde tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I can do my own part as an activist, but I’m not doing anything nearly as dangerous as these women in putting their actual lives on the line. I was really moved by that.”
Bohman, 48, explains in the film that she was inspired to leave her comfortable life — as a model-turned-sales worker in Vancouver — to go into battle, in 2014, for the rights of women and children who are frequently kidnapped, raped, enslaved, and killed by ISIS. “I’ve been called crazy by a lot of people,” she says in the film, made of woven-together footage documented by both herself and Darg over the course of a year. “For me to go back and do nothing, and pretend that there isn’t a war here and people aren’t being murdered? To me, that’s crazy.”
She speaks to the camera with an astonishing calm, her AK slung over her shoulder, about how her marksmanship quickly made her a sniper, and about how she basically lives with the other soldiers in the dirt, shooting, and that it’s no big deal. “It’s just camping with guns,” she says at one point, “and hunting people instead of deer.” She later adds, “We all die one way or another.”
Bohman tells Yahoo Lifestyle she came to that acceptance after a series of health scares in Canada — a head injury, a motorcycle accident, and a heart issue. “It just kind of made me rethink living and dying. We spend our life thinking of death as some faraway, intangible thing when really it could happen at any time.”
In her life, precipitating her going to Syria, she says she felt “lost.” Her job was boring, her accident shook her, and she’d been dating a man who went on a trip to his native Lebanon and “came back with a bride” (though the breakup was a “very small part of the picture,” she emphasizes).
Regarding her lack of fear about going into battle, Bohman insists that “it’s not bravery, it’s just commitment,” and notes that perhaps her relative comfort with such violent situations is a product of her difficult upbringing.
“I grew up with violence. Every male role model in my life up until the age of 18 was an abuser. So that’s probably why it’s not scary so much,” she says. “We also lived on a horse ranch and had guns to chase off animals. But I’m not a fan of guns. I bought my first one when I was in Iraq [her first stop being smuggled into Syria], and then I left it there.”
She’s currently back in Vancouver, trying to help get a former comrade safely to Canada. Memories still haunt her, but she says it gets easier with the passage of time.
When Darg learned about YPJ, he was intrigued, and was soon led to Bohman, who was “perfect” as a subject, he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Not only because of her insights from front-line experience, but also because she’d been documenting a lot of it with her own camera.”
Darg had merged his past as a humanitarian aid worker with his love of storytelling by cofounding Ryot with Bryn Mooser; this is the third film they’ve worked on with Wilde. Regarding this one, he says, “My big takeaway was a positive note, because I’d seen so much misery over there… but here you have young people willing to stand up and fight. So I’m very encouraged to know there are people like Hanna and like the locals, who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way.”
Wilde says she sees Bohman’s story as a crystallization of the many acts of political resistance on the part of women, from the Women’s March to the more recent #MeToo movement in response to sexual abuse in Hollywood.
“It’s like we’ve hit a breaking point, and what I find so fascinating is that Hanna now seems like the perfect… illustration of that,” Wilde says. “She’s a woman who decided she could no longer stand to sit at home in Canada and read about these stories in the news, and that she had to go put her body in danger in order to stand up for what’s right. In a certain sense, that seems to be what’s happening to a lot of women — to step out into dangerous situations, whether it’s ‘I’m going to come forward with my story of being raped,’ or ‘I’m going to come forward and run for office even though I’m terrified,’ or ‘I’m going to come forward and step into roles that are traditionally held for men.’ So I feel like there’s a groundswell.
“Even though the story is specific to a very intense, high-stakes, and unusual situation,” she adds, “as a kind of metaphor of what’s happening to women around the world, it feels really appropriate.”
Watch the full 27-minute film, “Fear Us Women,” below.
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