'Sabaya' - Sundance Review

Sabaya is a powerful, moving and at times extremely tense film that demands attention.
'Sabaya' - Sundance Review

An often tense and genuinely moving fly-on-the-wall film about a small group of determined and compassionate people  risk their lives as they try and save the lives of Yazidi women and girls held by Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS as they are better known) as sex slaves – or Sabaya – in the packed and dangerous Al-Hol Camp in northwestern Syria.

In August 2014, Daesh attacked the ancestral homeland of the Yazidis, one of the oldest ethnic and religious minorities inIraq, taking thousands of women and girls, who were passed on as sex slaves among the jihadists. Five years later, filmmaker Hogir Hirori follows a group of volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center as they try to save the women and children still held by Daesh in the camp.

Often accompanied by female infiltrators (some of them former Sabaya) Mahmud, Siyad and other volunteers from the Center head into the camps at night, lightly armed and try and extract the Yazidi victims as quickly to avoid possible violence. The infiltrators try and identify the women so the volunteers ca head to specific tents, but even then the victims are still terrified, traumatised and ashamed, fearing rejection from their families and communities.

The initial focus of the film is around Mahmud, initially seen glued to his mobile phone. The first clue to he is involved in something more dangerous is when he tucks a handgun into the back of his trousers when he heads out to the camp to bring a new infiltrator. At his home his young son demands to be taken to the store, and when he asks his wife Shiham for a cup of coffee she blithely replies: “Get it yourself.”

But when he and the group return to his house with Leila, a young woman seen rescued from the camp, his wife and mother Zahara largely take over in tending to and caring for this traumatised young woman. It is a slow process, though as other young women are gathered at their house smiles occasionally start to emerge, though always tempered by moments of melancholy and concern.

Later focus is on Ziyad as he shuttles the women, some to be reunited with family and others to return to the camps as infiltrators, donning the Niqab to avoid detection. In a closing scene as young women wait in a bare office to meet with other infiltrators fierce gunfire erupts close to where they are sitting. Their modest bravery is palpable, but the film astutely holds back and never tries to intrude in their precarious and dangerous decision to try and help other Yazidi victims. Sabaya is a powerful, moving and at times extremely tense film that demands attention.

Sweden, 2021, 91mins

Dir/scr Hogir Hirori

Production Lolav Media, Ginestra Film, Swedish Film Institute, SVT

International sales Dogwoof

Producers Antonio Russo Merenda, Hogir Hirori

Cinematography Hogir Hirori

Editor Hogir Hirori

Music Mohammed Zaki

(first published in Business Doc Europe)


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