Hogir Hirori directs a gripping look at an organization fighting to save kidnapped women from a life of sexual slavery.
From the second Sabaya begins to play, director Hogir Hirori’s mission is crystal clear: he doesn’t merely want to document what’s happening to the Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS or the group set on rescuing them. He doesn’t only want to educate you on the conflict. He wants you to feel what it’s doing to these people. And by god, does he ever succeed.
The film closely follows the work of the Yazidi Home Center, a volunteer organization that places infiltrators inside the Al-Hol Camp in southeast Syria. There, they gather information about women who’ve been stolen by ISIS and sold into sex slavery (these women are known as sabaya). Once the infiltrators relay what they know back to the Center, armed volunteers roll out in an attempt to free these missing women and bring them home.
When Hirori shows you the camp for the first time, he places you firmly in the center of the drama. Using a POV shot, the camera walks you through this dangerous territory, the black veil of a niqab covering the lens, filtering everything through a haze. He transforms the audience into one of the infiltrators and you can feel the tension rising in your throat with every step. The scene is so effective, so stomach-churning, you’d be forgiven for double-checking whether this is indeed a documentary, not an international thriller.
It’s this scene that perfectly encapsulates what makes Sabaya so riveting. At every moment, it knows exactly how to ratchet the tension and pull you in.
As we follow the group’s work, most of the focus is on a volunteer named Mahmud and his family, who are striking in their ordinariness. Take, for instance, when we meet Mahmud: he looks just like anyone’s dad. Middle-aged, plaid shirt tucked into his jeans, a simple mustache, balding head. But instead of heading off to work in a field or in an office, he’s tucking a gun into his waist and getting ready to ride back into Al-Hol for the umpteenth time in search of yet another missing girl.
[Hirori] doesn’t only want to educate you on the conflict. He wants you to feel what it’s doing to these people.
It’s in watching him juggle his home life and the mission of the Center, in seeing the overwhelming weariness in his eyes, that you feel the gravity of the situation. He’s also the focus of many of the film’s quieter moments, which give the audience not only room to breathe, but to allow the heaviness of the situation to settle.
In once scene, after yet another daring journey into the camp, we see Mahmud trying to be a present and capable father and husband. He’s interrupted, however, by a call from a family begging him to please, please find out if their child is alive before hearing his frustrated and worried wife bemoan, “Our neighbor Ahmed is home all the time. And Elias is always home, too!” She needs him. The Center needs him. His son needs him. These moments are what drive it home just how necessary and draining and dangerous this work is.
But Hirori makes sure to let the women speak for themselves as well, and it’s hardly all happily-ever-after once they’re rescued. He gives them the space they need to express just how incredibly hopeless they feel, despite their rescue. There are no easy answers to this conflict, the damage done is long-lasting and the scars emotional as much as physical. Hirori knows this and he wants you to know it, too.
His goal is neither to leave the audience feeling defeated nor patting themselves on the back for the Center’s good work. It’s simply to force you not just to care, but to care deeply. To remember these specific people even if you can’t remember the global players. He wants Mahmud and Ziyad and Leila to stick with you. And they do. Hirori makes them unforgettable.
Sabaya is now playing in limited theatrical release.