Meet the Kurdish filmmaker who lost both her legs in an ISIS attack

My films are my acts of resistance, says Lisa Calan

Standing tall: Lisa Calan at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram | Rinkuraj Mattancheriyil Standing tall: Lisa Calan at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram | Rinkuraj Mattancheriyil

When Lisa Calan—clad in a traditional white Kurdish gown and stylish turban—walked onto the inaugural stage of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram to receive the first ever ‘Spirit of Cinema’ award, there was a standing ovation. Not many among the audience had seen her films, but everyone could feel the fiery spirit that stood onstage clutching a walking stick in one hand and red roses in the other. As she stood there, all smiles, waiting for the applause to get over, nobody could guess that she was limbless waist down. She stood tall on her prosthetic legs.

“I have travelled a long way to be here. My story is also long.... All I wanted was to make good films. But I lost both my legs in 2015 in an ISIS bomb attack. It took me years to stand up again. But now I am full of energy,” she said after receiving the award from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “As someone representing a society that is fighting for its survival, my films are my acts of resistance.” She dedicated the award to the victims of the 2015 massacre in the Turkish town of Suruç.

Calan, 34, exudes the confidence, grit and spark that ISIS bombs could not destroy. Even while recalling those dark days in her life, she is all positivity. “My legs were shattered. But I was not ready to give up,” she said.

The bomb explosion happened in 2015, at a massive rally of HDP, the Kurdish party—two days before local elections in Turkey. It was a continuation of the ongoing ISIS attacks on HDP offices and on Kurdish sympathisers, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We Kurds have been at the receiving end for quite some time. We are not even allowed to learn our own language,” said Calan, who stopped her studies to protest the government’s move to replace Kurdish with Turkish in all educational institutions.

Her friends launched a global crowdfunding initiative to pay for her nine surgeries in Turkey and Germany. Still, she was unable to stand up. It was an Iraqi doctor, Munjed al-Mudaris, who inserted titanium implants in Calan’s legs in Australia. Calan now stands tall on those prosthetic legs.

As soon as she was able to stand, Calan returned to the world of cinema. The Languages of the Mountains, her first film after the terror attack, has been screened at various film festivals around the world. Set against the backdrop of a school, the film depicts the lives and struggles of the Kurds, and the atrocities perpetrated against them by the Turkish government. She is also an actor, script-writer, editor and art director. “I am in love with the medium of cinema. I enjoy every aspect of it,” she said.

She also acted in the short film Hidden, co-directed the film The Colour of Nusaybin and was the editor of the short film The Voice of the Street. But Calan would tell you that her journey has never been easy in the deeply patriarchal society of Turkey. “I am a Kurdish woman in Turkey. Now I am also a disabled person. So, it has never been easy and it will never be,” she said.

When asked about how patriarchy tried to stop her from following her passion, she said, “As in many patriarchal societies, I was advised to take up a ‘woman-friendly job’, like teaching or medicine. Nobody supported me when I decided to be a filmmaker.” Calan is overwhelmed by the reception she has received in another corner of the world. “I am touched by the love and affection that I received. I am amazed at the large number of people who came to watch the films. People here love cinema so much….,” she said.

“The terrorist attack happened when she was leading a vibrant cinematic life. Had it been any other woman in her place, she would have been still bedridden. But Lisa came back with a bang and has become an inspiration to all,” said Haritha Savitri, Calan’s novelist friend who was instrumental in bringing her to the IFFK.

Calan looks at the accident in her own sanguine way. “It has changed the way I look at the people around me. It has made me a better human being and a better filmmaker,” she said.