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Documentary 'Sabaya' Is A Real-Life Thriller

MTV Documentary Films

The documentary 'Sabaya' takes place in the midst of the civil war in Syria, where the virulent force of ISIS ruined the lives of millions of people. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, it's a harrowing picture of courage and struggle.

The Yazidi live in Kurdish parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Like the Kurds, they’re despised in those countries, and when ISIS took over some of those areas, they went after the Yazidi. They murdered families and they stole many girls and young women and made them sex slaves for the highly moral men of ISIS, who are called Daesh by the Yazidi.

To the Daesh, because the Yazidi are not Muslim, they can be abused with moral and theological impunity.

The title of the film, Sabaya, means “sex slave” in Kurdish. Kurdish director Hogir Hirori made his brave film by following several men from the Yazidi Home Center in northeast Syria, who work to rescue as many young women as they can. The walls of the Yazidi Home Center are lined with photos of stolen young woman and girls. The Daesh will take girls as young as 7. At the time of the filming, many victims had been away from their homes for five years, and some of the younger girls had even lost their language, and spoke only Arabic, learned from the Daesh.

The Yazidi do not kill their women because they’ve been raped by Daesh. They love their children; they want them back, and they see no disgrace on the part of these women. They accept the half-Daesh children born to the rescued women. One of the rescuers tells a weeping girl that she is safe; they are taking her to her family. She says simply, “Thank you.”

It’s a ghastly situation. The Daesh are as cruel and hypocritical as human beings get. Plus, there’s the Syrian civil war raging, meaning there are well-armed fighters roaming the area from Syria, America, Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. It’s a dangerous terrain.

What the girls have on their side are a few men with a couple of beat-up vans and pickup trucks, a few weapons, and the courage to thread their way through this maze of hostile people.

Their search focuses on the Al-Hol refugee camp where girls are hidden by ISIS women, and there are also Daesh fighters in hiding.

Sabaya gives a remarkable sense of where all this takes place. Outside, the world looks like hell. The land is flat and relentlessly brown and dotted with wrecked buildings. There seem to be fires everywhere, with no one to put them out. Much of the movie takes place at night, where things are murky and uncertain. It’s like the film itself. You know basically what’s going on — that Yazidi men are trying to find and rescue young women, but it can be hard to know just who is doing what and with whom. That’s not a flaw; it reflects the reality of this dreadful world.

Indoors, a Yazidi woman sews a quilt for a wedding. She sits on a bare concrete floor. Both women and men cook on hot plates; there are no stoves. And in a technological paradox, there are cell phones everywhere, which are crucial for the men and women to get information and act on it right away.

Sabaya is a real-life thriller. You don’t know what’s ahead when the lights of a car appear at night, or who’s in that car that trails the men after they’ve found some Yazidi women.

I don’t understand many things in the film. When the Yazidi men question a Daesh woman and Yazidi women are yelling that she’s lying, it’s hard to tell just what’s going on and why the Daesh woman suddenly changes and points to where girls are hidden. The subtitles are little help.

But what comes through perfectly is that some of the more than 2,000 stolen Yazidi women are being rescued and brought home, that the men and women are unbelievably brave, that this part of the world is unspeakably terrifying, and the Yazidi get little help.

Disclaimer: On July 18, 2022, The New York Times ran a story that Hogir Hirori, the Swedish director of Sabaya played somewhat fast and loose with actuality. The dramatic rescue scene of a Yazidi woman from Isis depicted a different person than what the film represents, there are problems with what happened when, and Mr. Hirori may have lied to interviewers. Many film critics — including me — were fooled.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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