Getting to know Anna, the woman who went to fight Isis

Review: Anna Campbell, a far-left radical Englishwoman, was 25 when she went to Syria

‘It seems so real here,’ goes a typical entry in Anna’s diary

Combing through diary entries, photos and family videos – glimpses of one young woman's life that have since become clues into her personality after her death last year in Syria – Anna: The Woman Who Went to Fight Isis (BBC 2, Wednesday, 9.30pm) alights on one film in particular.

It's an innocent scene from Anna Campbell's childhood in which the young girl talks her mother through a war scene between her toy figurines and her Barbie dolls. Do the women fight too, her mother asks? "Unfortunately, the women and children do fight," replies the child solemnly.

That nudges at the question behind Marina Parker’s documentary: what made a 25-year-old activist, from a comfortable English home, travel to Syria to fight Isis? The question belongs to Anna’s father Dirk, struggling to make sense of her decisions.

“I want to know that my daughter did not die for nothing,” says Dirk, a model of emotionally subdued British stoicism. But Anna’s sisters Rose and Helen edge towards more complicated feelings of guilt and rage: that they might have stopped her, that her decisions were thoughtless. How noble is it to die for a cause?


If her family have trouble squaring Anna’s idealism – inspired by an activist mother, recently deceased, and far-left radicalisation at university – with extreme action, Anna seemed to have her own struggle.

Would she be ready to kill an Isis member, she is asked on camera in a training camp in Rojava? “Hmmm,” she responds. “That’s an interesting question.”

For the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish fighting force, though, it’s an imperative. “It seems so real here,” goes a typical entry in Anna’s diary, as though roused from a dream.

The unspoken tragedy in the film is that idealism is necessarily naive. One friend, Jamie, who also fought in Rojava, recalls phoning home to say, “Sorry mum, this is going to upset you, but I’m In Syria.” (His mother offered to come get him.)

Similarly, the documentary becomes a meditation on the relationship between parents and children, between letting go and striking out, respecting and trusting.

Dirk’s aloofness, he recognises, is the consequence of his own implacable, admonishing mother. Anna’s privacy, or taciturnity, was a response to his example that “powerful feelings were unacceptable”.

The documentary is compelling for similar reasons: it maintains its distance, neither heroising or patronising, and such a restraint only amplifies a family’s unimaginably powerful feelings.

Dirk journeys to Rojava, still an anarchist-feminist Kurdish stronghold in a warzone, where his daughter is now buried. “The best I could do was to thump her tub,” he says, adopting her cause, as emotion breaks through. “It’s the only thing I can do for her now.”