There are many times in Hogir Hirori’s “Sabaya,” an anxiety-filled potboiler of a documentary about the fight to rescue enslaved girls from ISIS, where one might wonder how they pulled it off. That feeling is quickly followed by relief that they did.
The daring on display by Hirori, the 40-year-old Swedish filmmaker who left his native Kurdistan in 1999, is matched and (he’d certainly say) exceeded by the bravery of his subjects: the humanitarian rescuers of the Yazidi Home Center in northern Syria. Their mission? To send “infiltrators” into the nearby Al-Hol camp, which is part refugee relocation settlement, part prison. The 73,000-person camp contains both refugees displaced by the incursions of the former Islamic State (known in the film by the Arabic “Daesh”) but includes many members of ISIS itself.
As part of ISIS’s many atrocities during their brief rule over parts of Syria and Iraq in the mid-2010s, the terrorist group kidnapped thousands of Yazidi girls, many teenagers or prepubescent, and forced them to become “brides” for their fighters. By any definition, they were sex slaves, and the Arabic word for these enslaved women is “Sabaya.” ISIS felt this was in line with their beyond-fundamentalist beliefs because the Yazidis, an offshoot of the Kurdish culture in the region, practice a different religion: Yazidism, a monotheistic faith unique to that culture.
Hirori opens his film with the camera being held by a pedestrian behind a strange scrim, that filters out the bright desert light and gives cool shading to everything. Then the realization sets in: the camera is inside a woman’s niqab, the face covering one of the female “infiltrators” the Yazidi Home Center has hired to go into the Al-Hol camp, mingle with ex-ISIS members, and try to find still-enslaved Yazidi girls within. That the audience sees the exact point-of-view of one of these brave women — likely someone who had been held by ISIS herself and thus knows how to sneak into their midst — establishes what a personal film lays ahead.
These extraordinary women putting their lives on the line are, for obvious reasons, largely unidentified. It’s easy to imagine the peril they’d find themselves in if they were discovered, and the fear that they might encounter someone in ISIS they knew while enslaved, and knows they shouldn’t be there, is real. Inside this camp, there’s virtually no policing at all. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed group that runs the sprawling campus of tents and makeshift shelters, are clearly only to prevent anyone from escape. They’re not doing any policing within. Anything can happen there.
Given the need to keep the identities of these women secret, Hirori focuses his camera largely on Mahmud, a chain-smoking middle-aged leader in the Yazidi Home Center whose calm exterior belies the fact that he’s basically the Kurdish Liam Neeson — except he’s actually risking his life to rescue trafficked women. He spends a good part of his day working his phone, tracing leads to where girls may actually be within the camp, but it’s when he goes in to oversee a rescue that the action begins. One stunning sequence at night involves him and a driver exfiltrating a Yazidi girl, when suddenly, before they can return to the Yazidi Home Center, another car speeds up behind them. Suddenly, there’s a popping sound. “They’re shooting at us,” Mahmud says, more calmly than almost anyone watching would be. The are still many ISIS sympathizers in the area, and they don’t want this Yazidi girl to get away.
In how many documentaries do you find yourself with a passenger’s seat view of a real-life car chase? Hirori, who served as his own DP and editor, keeps his camera at eye-level at all times, so the feeling is one of being there in the moment. It’s at the level of someone sitting in that car and watching what’s happening around them. It also adopts the height of someone sitting in far calmer scenes, such as moments with Mahmud’s elderly mother, who helps rehabilitate the rescued girls and get them back to themselves a bit before they begin the journey back to their families. The effect is that Hirori is never keeping you at a distance. There is no drone photograph here, no sweeping aerial shots of bombed-out ruins. And the lack of talking heads, or a voiceover, means the sense of ground-level immersion is complete.
Some recent documentaries, such as Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno,” emphasize the painterly beauty that can be found even in places of great human suffering. Hirori’s less concerned with his compositions than what he catches on the fly, and the effect is both more humanizing and more nerve-wracking — this is a documentary by way of a “Bourne” movie, but so much more an act of daring. Not that there aren’t stunning moments of visual awe: As Mahmud and his infiltrators keep rescuing more girls, suddenly, one night, the field outside the Yazidi Home Center erupts in sheets of flame. It’s a warning from ISIS, and an attempt by the militants to destroy the Yazidis’ attempt at earning money from cash crops. It’s easy to recall the fire in the field of “Days of Heaven.” The difference, of course, is that “Sabaya” is a triumph of risking-your-neck, DIY filmmaking. The dangers his subjects face Hirori largely shares so that he can film them. But to tell this story and share these experiences, that risk was worth it.
“Sabaya” premiered in the World Cinema Documentary section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.