Sabaya is a documentary produced by Hogir Hirori and Antonio Russo Merenda, and it is about the fight that two brave men, along with their colleagues and family, face when rescuing Yazidi women from ISIS in Syria.
The close-up and extremely personal moments in the film make the story all the more heartbreaking, especially with the understanding that this is all very real and happening in real-time.
To first understand the premise of the documentary, you need to understand the meaning of the word “sabaya”. “Sabaya” is the name that those of ISIS, or Daesh, give to the Yazidi women and girls that they kidnap from the Iraqi province of Sinjar. The Yazidis are a religious minority that Daesh has continuously tried to wipe out, by both killing the men of their population and forcibly converting the women and children to Islam, who then are made into sex slaves and married to Daesh men. Most of these women are still being kept in the Al-Hol Camp, which is comprised of Daesh, their supporters, and indoctrinated women. Kurdish forces also guard the camp, which is said to be the most dangerous place in the Middle East.
The documentary itself, with the camera being held by Hogir Hirori, follows two incredibly brave men named Mahmud and Ziyad – who are volunteers of the Yazidi Home Center – as they locate and rescue Yazidi women. They are helped by Mahmud’s family, his wife Siham, his mother Zahra, and even his son, as well as a group of female volunteers. Some of the female volunteers are former sabaya that infiltrate the camp and pose as actual sabaya, who then help Mahmud and the others free the Yazidi.
We follow these men and women as they place pictures of young women who have been captured – both past and present – onto a board to physically show the changes in their appearance, as well as every name they are known by, in order to gather all of the information they need for the rescue operations. They operate at night, everyone with a gun ready to be used and a sense of urgency that allows them to move efficiently and quietly. The group doesn’t waste time – they move in, quickly interrogate those who are hiding the Yazidi women, get the girls, and get out. Sometimes they are even followed and shot at as they make their getaway.
These women are then taken to Mahmud’s house, where Siham and Zahra make them feel as welcome and safe as they possibly can. Siham gives the girls food while Zahra gives them bright, colorful new clothes and burns their black niqabs. Even Mahmud’s son joins Zahra, poking the fire with a stick and saying: “I hope God eliminates these clothes!” The young women are given time to recuperate until they are taken back to their families, often walking out into the fields to have space to release their emotions; many of them having the chance to break down in peace in order to truly realize that, ever since Daesh captured them, they are finally safe.
Hogir Hirori doesn’t shy away from the grim and oft times upsetting nature of the ordeal that these women go through; and really, it’s a good thing that he doesn’t. This is a true story that is still happening right now, and though the subject is a difficult one, it is something that people should be aware of as it “only takes one person to make a difference”. People like Mahmud and his family, Ziyad, and the female infiltrators, are trying to do something amazing at a great risk to their own lives, all so that some Yazidi women don’t face the same fate of the rest.
This film is an insightful look into people who give their all to help others and is done in a truly visceral and upfront way. You aren’t able to simply pass it by and continue on as you were – you have to acknowledge that there are things you will face that will make you uncomfortable and that you are better off knowing them, and to then try and do something to help. All-in-all, it’s an incredibly moving story that is both sad and uplifting, and both Hirori and Merenda are talented storytellers.
About the Producers
Hogir Hirori was born in Northern Iraq in 1980 and has been dealing with war and persecution because of his Kurdish ethnicity throughout his life. He fled to Sweden in 1999 and works as an editor, a director, and a freelance photographer. While in Sweden he’s been able to document the fate of the Yazidis, who have lived through various attempted genocides and war. When Daesh instigated a genocide on the Yazidis in 2014, it influenced Hirori to make a documentary trilogy to show how war and death takes a toll on the Yazidi people. Hirori’s other two documentaries in this series are The Girl Who Saved My Life (2016) and The Deminer (2017), with the latter winning the Special Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Antonio Russo Merenda moved to Sweden in 1993 from Italy, where he created and ran Hysteria Film for 15 years. In 2012, he started Ginestra Film and was the Documentary Film Commissioner at the Swedish Film Institute from 2015-2017. He also worked on The Deminer with Hogir Hirori. Some of his other documentaries, such as Searching For Sugar Man (2013) have won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature. His documentaries tend to focus on the many different realities that people around the world face and overcome.
Sabaya is now out in select theatres.