Sabaya: A nail-biting, remarkable documentary
James R | On 20, Aug 2021
Director: Hogir Hirori
Cast: Mahmud, Ziyad
Where to watch online in the UK: Apple TV+ / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / Dogwoof On Demand
Gripping. Jaw-dropping. Astonishing. All of these are words that could be used to describe Sabaya, a remarkable documentary about the covert operations to rescue abducted Yazidi women within Syria.
Kidnapped by Isis and sold as sex slaves, these women are referred to as “sabaya” by their captors, and many are still being held in the Al-Hol Camp, where Isis supporters are locked up. Navigating the fraught political and military landscape, not to mention the very perilous surroundings of the camp and the threat posed by the women’s abductors, the group attempting to liberate them is called the Yazidi Home Center.
Swedish/Kurdish director Hogir Hirori (The Deminer) follows their efforts with blockbuster-worthy tension, packing in car chases and shootouts as well as interrogation scenes. We watch the group’s van advance into the camp and, in particularly nailbiting moments, former sabaya go undercover to infiltrate and find their targets.
It’s a striking contrast to the quietly filmed sequences at the home of Mahmud, a volunteer at the Yazidi Home Center who co-ordinates the missions alongside Ziyad and others. They, along with Mahmud’s wife, Siham, provide a gentle and care-filled environment for the rescued women to recover from their trauma; the day-to-day life caught on camera carries a reassuring mundanity.
Throughout, though, is a drumbeat of resilience – the constant monitoring of each mission, the studiously assembled wall of photographs of possible sabaya they hope to retrieve, and the tense text messages pinging updates from loved ones and collaborators. And where a dramatised account of this extraordinary work might be tempted to heighten the suspense, what makes Hirori’s documentary so powerful is that it’s so rivetingly understated, both due to the secret filming techniques necessitated and Hirori’s sensitive, respectful approach to the women’s experienced depicted on screen. Even Mahmud isn’t presented as a hero; he’s merely one of many people reacting to a harrowing reality. A sombre statistic at the end keeps the focus on what’s most important: there are still more than 2,000 girls and women missing.