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The last major stronghold of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — fell in March 2019, when the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces liberated the town of Baghouz, on the border between Syria and Iraq. At the peak of its power, ISIS controlled a swath of land the size of Britain between those two Middle Eastern countries, with some 8 million people under the rule of its so-called caliphate. Among the militant group’s highest-profile victims were the Yazidi, a religious minority in northern Iraq that was targeted by ISIS for genocide and the mass kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of its young girls.
Violence needs only an instant to transpire; recovery and restoration can take a lifetime or more. That’s the heart-wrenching reality that Iraqi-born, Sweden-based director Hogir Hirori (The Deminer, The Girl Who Saved My Life) captures in Sabaya, which competed in this year’s World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance. Named after the ISIS term for sex slaves, the film follows — with startling hyper-immersiveness — Mahmud, a Syrian man who works for an organization that reunites the sabayas with their families. Mahmud’s phone rings all day long, with Yazidi relatives begging for help in finding girls taken five years ago. Most of the rescued victims in Sabaya are in their late teens, though one girl, now seven, was abducted from her family as a one-year-old.
Sabaya documents a situation so perilous, high-stakes and remarkable that Hirori could’ve made a feature about nearly anyone in his film. Mahmud works alongside young women he calls “infiltrators,” who enter the nearby Al-Hol refugee camp, where many ISIS fighters and supporters are housed, to scout for Yazidi girls who continue to be held captive by older women. (In one of the documentary’s big disappointments, we hear precious little from these astonishingly brave volunteers.) Mahmud appears to live at his workplace, the Yazidi Home Center, with his wife, mother and young son, who help the survivors regain their first sense of normalcy. Then, of course, there are the sabayas themselves, many of whom face an uncertain future, with family members killed by ISIS and some the mothers of young children born of rape.
Surprisingly little of their stories are in Sabaya, which also doesn’t dole out much information about Mahmud or his boss, Ziyad, the Home Center head. There’s no denying that more context would’ve helped orient viewers who haven’t kept abreast of ISIS developments, but it’s also indisputable that the doc’s strength lies in offering a front-row seat to Mahmud’s mission. Hirori, who shot everything himself, often gives us the perspective of someone witnessing what’s happening around them. Often that means looking around the Home Center compound while a baby cries or a dog barks. But it also means fixating on the headlights of a car tailing Mahmud and a just-released sabaya, as the light is first accompanied by honks, then bullets.
Later, when the Home Center itself is attacked by gunfire, the workers and volunteers within react with a shocking calm. They’ve clearly been shot at before.
There’s not much in the way of traditional narrative or even climactic moments in the film; the victims trickle into the Home Center until there’s enough to take a group across the border to Iraq, and the nighttime rescue attempts either fail or unfold with little fanfare. The most dynamism we get comes from the teenage victims slowly opening up, as they grapple with their sudden freedom and unknown futures. Still, with the risks to both the filmmaker and his subjects on full display, it’s an impressively exciting and strikingly novel approach in chronicling a humanitarian crisis that has yet to receive its due.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Lolav Media, Ginestra Film
Director: Hogir Hirori
Producers: Antonio Russo Merenda, Hogir Hirori
Director of photography: Hogir Hirori
Editors: Hogir Hirori
Composer: Mohammed Zaki
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