'Sabaya' Spotlights a Daring Continuous Rescue Mission in the Middle East

From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, we review a documentary about an organization that frees Yazidi women from ISIS enslavement.

Sabaya documentary
Sundance Institute

I almost want to call Hogir Hirori‘s Sabaya a thrilling documentary. After all, there is a car chase sequence in the film that had me on the edge of my seat. But that’s not really an appropriate way to describe real-life dangers. In documentary, you don’t always have the luxury of assuming a perilous moment will wind up okay for the characters on screen. Yet we can also hope for the best, even more so than with fiction, given that there are ethical expectations. Typically, documentary filmmakers aren’t going to let a sequence play out as so gripping if it leads to something seriously tragic.

The chase comes about rather early in Sabaya. The sequence follows two men from the Yazidi Home Center liberating a young Yazidi woman from Daesh (ISIS) captors at the Al-Hol refugee camp in Northern Syria and then the trio subsequently being followed closely and shot at during the road back home. Nothing in the film afterward is so intense, but thank goodness for that. There are other more emotional scenes involving the rescue of other women and one very young girl from their titular status — a term meaning they’re force-wed sex slaves — and it’s kind of shocking how easy the missions seem to unfold.

Sabaya begins with the organization, which basically just consists of the two main volunteers, Mahmud and Ziyad, plus Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and his mother, Zahra, who help with the care of the women, as they send a new infiltrator into the camp. Yazidi Home Center recruits Yazidi women — some of them former Sabaya themselves — who go undercover in Islamic dress, including the niqab (sometimes concealing a camera), in order to gather intel about which women are enslaved and where they can be found. Sometimes they’re also looking for specific women who’ve been reported to be taken by Daesh. Then Mahmud and Ziyad enter Al-Hol with the information and search tents believed to be hiding these Sabaya.

There’s not a ton of set-up and context given in Sabaya outside of what’s specific to the premise of the film, and that’s fine since viewers shouldn’t have to sit through what would be a whole lot of title cards explaining Al-Hol, the genocide against Yazidis, and everything else currently going on in Iraq and Syria that forms the background of these characters’ situations. There’s time to research afterward, or beforehand if preferred. Ignorance of some or all of the details not presented in the film won’t keep you from grasping the fundamental crisis at hand and feeling anxious and scared while virtually embedded in the action.

Sabaya is actually a part of a trilogy of films by Hogir Hirori that also includes the 2016 feature The Girl Who Saved My Life and 2017’s The Deminer. Presumably, together they offer a continuously fuller look at Kurdish and Yazidi experiences in Iraq and Syria, though unfortunately, they’re not apparently widely available. If you’re even casually and remotely concerned about the sorts of stories documented in recent films like The Cave, Last Men in Aleppo, City of Ghosts, and Midnight Traveler (to name just a few of those we’ve previously covered), Sabaya is another essential glimpse at heroism in the face of genuine, under-represented evils and adversities occurring in the world.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.