New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Sundance 2021 Review: Sabaya

By Andrea Thompson

“Sabaya” is a film that will gut you…when you’re able to take a breath that is. Hogir Hirori’s harrowing documentary follows the tireless volunteers who work at Yazidi Home Center in Syria who are struggling to recover the girls and women who were stolen from them five years ago by the terrorist group Daesh. The Yazidis are an ethinic and religious minority, and so were especially vulnerable to attack, and are now still attempting to recover the girls and women who have been since forced to convert to Islam and were sold as sex slaves, whom the Daesh refer to as sabaya.

Sweden-based director Hogir Hirori mostly hangs back and allows his subjects to speak for themselves, giving only the barest information as context, a sometimes puzzling decision given the global ramifications of the situation. But it’s also understandable given the very real danger Hirori places himself in, as he immerses himself with the people he follows. Each time they travel to the Al-Hol refugee camp where most of the girls are being held, it’s life and death, especially during the various nighttime rescue attempts. Sometimes they find the missing, other times they’re already gone, sold again, or killed. Sometimes they’re shot at as they leave.

Any number of the people Hirori chose to follow would fascinate, but he mostly focuses on Yazidi Home Center volunteer Mahmud, a man constantly on the go in his tireless search and rescue attempts. With little fanfare, Mahmud and the others hunt for this tent or that tent based on whatever information they’re able to glean, and a horrifying, enraging pattern soon emerges. When they are able to find someone, they’re hidden away and guarded by an older woman who denies everything, one of whom claims to work as a teacher. The girls themselves are traumatized, lost, and unsure if their families will even allow them to return. At least those old enough to remember. Most are teenagers, some now have children fathered by their rapists, one is twelve, and the youngest was taken as a baby and is now seven years old.

But some of those who were abducted have become fighters themselves, or what Mahmud refers to as infiltrators, voluntarily returning to the camp where they were once enslaved in order to investigate and report back on those still trapped. In the virtual Q&A following the film, Hirori mentioned that this was all his wife’s idea, who is also a journalist and reporter, and it’s easy to imagine what might have been if she hadn’t chosen to remain in Sweden and had interacted with these women and those newly rescued. And Hirori’s decision not to add context becomes more baffling as the situation develops, such as when one of the girls is forced to comply with her family and send away her child. The Q&A is where this decision is more fleshed out, since according to Iraqi law, mothers are not allowed to keep children from their fathers and must grant custody to the state of Iraq, which is further complicated by families who see such offspring as the children of murderers and fear that their fathers will come searching for them. 

What we do see, however, are people, not statistics, victims, or objects of pity. And their work is ongoing and neverending. According to the film, the volunteers have rescued a total of 206 women and girls. It seems like a triumph until we’re informed that 2,000 are still missing.

Grade: A-

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