“Sabaya” producer Antonio Russo Merenda has responded to a bombshell article published on Monday in The New York Times claiming that many Yazidi women portrayed in the Sundance prize-winning documentary never agreed to be in the film.
Merenda issued a statement on Thursday evening saying that he and director Hogir Hirori “received written, verbal or filmed consent from everyone who appears” in “Sabaya,” as well as from the legal guardian of the young girl who is featured in the film.
Merenda also provided statements from one of the main female protagonista of “Sabaya,” as well as from a Syrian Kurdish filmmaker who worked with Hirori. He also presented a letter from the Swedish Film Institute, which financed the documentary.
“Sabaya” follows a fearless rescue group risking their lives to save women who were abducted by ISIS and turned into sex slaves. It played at this year’s Sundance and won the world cinema section’s directing award. The film is sold by London-headquartered doc specialists Dogwoof.
The New York Times article claims the women portrayed in the film received the consent forms electronically and in English — a language they did not understand — almost two years after he filmed them and after the movie had screened. The director told the Times that he “initially recorded verbal consent from the women” and planned on having them sign the written releases during his next trip but was delayed due to the pandemic.
In a statement, a New York Times spokesperson said, “We stand by our story, which is based on interviews with five women and the guardian of a minor who were in the film, as well as members of the human rights community. Our sources are quoted accurately and at length, as was Mr. Hirori, who was given the opportunity to respond to comments from women in the film and discuss the process for obtaining consent from those in the film.”
Merenda said in his statement that “Sabaya” is “a Swedish production following Swedish law,” which says that “written, verbal and filmed consent are equally valid.” He also said the releases “were provided in both Arabic (the official language in both Syria and Iraq) and English.”
The producer said “the response from the women whom we feature in the film has been filled with gratitude and appreciation for exposing the atrocities from which they have suffered.” He also pointed out that Hogir is himself a “refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan married to a Kurdish refugee from Syria” and said he “still maintains regular contact with all the main female characters in the film.”
The statement from the main female protagonist of the film, which was translated from Kurdish and remains anonymous for safety reasons, says the director “explained to [them] all who he was and that he was making a documentary and told [them] what it was going to be about.”
“I happily signed the consent forms by my own free will. No one forced me to consent to anything,” the statement reads. It also says she “didn’t witness any of the other girls objecting to being filmed during the whole film process,” and received two copies of the consent form, one in English and one in Arabic.
Guevara Namer, a Kurdish female filmmaker who is now based in Germany and worked alongside Hirori during part of the shoot, said one of the women had “asked early to not be in the film” and had agreed to be in the film at the condition that her face was covered. “So she stays with niqab. And this is how it shows up in the film.”
Namer said the woman is now currently in Iraq where she has “started going on TV and telling her stories and made interviews.”
“I would never accept to be part of a story or making a story where women are getting oppressed again,” said Namer.
The Swedish Film Institute said the producer and director of “Sabaya” “handled both the filming and the follow-up in a correct and professional way,” and that “the participants have given their consent, written or verbal, which has the same status according to Swedish law.”
“They have been responsive to the objections from a couple of participants with small parts in the film and immediately made the necessary adjustments,” said the Institute, which added that the documentary was made to “create needed awareness of the situation for the Yazidi women.”
Here are the full statements from Antonio Russo Merenda, as well as the female protagonist of the film, alongside Guevara Namer and The Swedish Film Institute:
To Whom It May Concern:
Director Hogir Hirori and I have received written, verbal or filmed consent from everyone who appears in our film Sabaya (as well as from the legal guardian of the young girl who is featured). Sabaya is a Swedish production following Swedish law and per Swedish law: written, verbal and filmed consent are equally valid. Consent forms were provided in both Arabic (the official language in both Syria and Iraq) and English.
Sabaya is the story of the Yazidi Home Center, where two men and the remarkable women infiltrators who work with them risk their lives to save women and girls who would otherwise live a life of bondage and daily horror. It is a film that gives voice to the silenced and is helping to give these women a new chance at life.
The response from the women whom we feature in the film has been filled with gratitude and appreciation for exposing the atrocities from which they have suffered. Hogir (who I should add is a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan married to a Kurdish refugee from Syria) still maintains regular contact with all the main female characters in the film.
Please find below statements from the main female protagonist of Sabaya as well as from a Syrian Kurdish filmmaker who worked with Hogir Hirori. Attached is a statement from the Swedish Film Institute.
Antonio Russo Merenda
*Some names below have had to be redacted due to safety concerns.
Statement from the main female protagonist of the film (translated from Kurdish):
My name is ___.
For as long as I have known Hogir I have thought of him as my older brother. I met him for the first time in Syria, where he told me what he was doing and working on and showed me pictures of his own family. We were several girls that had been rescued from ISIS. Hogir introduced himself to all of them as well. He explained to us all who he was and that he was making a documentary and told us what it was going to be about. I gave him my consent there and then, and I didn’t witness any of the other girls objecting to being filmed during the whole film process. He even let us try filming with his camera. Then Hogir accompanied us to the Syrian-Iraqi border where he gave us his phone number and told us to contact him if we had any questions or concerns. We all told him that we consent to everything and that we didn’t have any concerns.
Many of us girls follow Hogir’s status updates about the film on Facebook. They comment his posts with: “Well done, brother!”.
I have happily signed the consent forms by my own free will. No one forced me to consent to anything. I feel that the making of this film is important for all of us that have been rescued and for the girls that are still kidnapped, so that the rest of the world can see what has happened to us Yazidis. It is a film about the reality of what we have been through.
Ever since the beginning, there has been an organization that has interfered. The woman who is the leader of the organization and her team have tried to contact us girls that are in the film telling us not to sign any consents, not to participate in the film, not to let Hogir film us, and to try to convince us not to participate in this project. But I did not listen to any of them because I have made my own decision and I believe in Hogir and what he is doing. But what I don’t understand is why these people from this organization are so keen on stopping us from participating in this film; they are still calling me to try to manipulate me to change my mind. But I do not have to listen to them or anyone else. I have a mind of my own. And, none of these people have the right to tell me to not participate in this film, or not sign the consent form — they are not my boss. How is this any of their business? What interest does this organization have to stop us? Why are they saying, “Don’t participate in this film”?
I read the information in the consent forms and signed them. We received one copy in English and one in Arabic. There were others present with me when I signed them. I am OK with everything in the film, and it is OK with me to show it in any part of the world. It is so important that this film has been made about our Yazidi girls and the reality we have been through so that everyone can see what has happened to us, so we can create awareness of what is going on. This is not fiction, no acting or lies. All of this has actually happened to us – it is about our real lives. And I am so happy with it.
Statement from Guevara Namer:
I’m Guevara Namer. I’m a Syrian Kurdish filmmaker. I’m based in Berlin. Since 2011, I have been involved in many projects in Syria. It’s the main topic I work on. I joined Hogir proudly on one of the trips on his shootings when when he was making Sabaya. I went with him to the family house and to the al-Hol Camp. Mainly two stories that I was there for two women, ___ and ___ [names redacted]. I remember ___ she asked early to not be in the film or if she will be in the film that she wants her face to be covered. So she stays with niqab. And this is how it shows up in the film. This is how she ended up in the film. And she was worried about her life in Iraq. And actually what we found out later was that when she went to Iraq herself and she found out that there was no risk she started going on TV and telling her stories and made interviews. So she was worried when she was in Syria and we did not show her face. And she… this changed for her later.
The other story was ___, who is shown more in the beginning of the film. And ___ was also like… she agreed to be on the film. And was also making so many interviews while she was still inside Syria. So that means for us that she was liberated. And these are at least two stories that this film dealt with very honestly, very ethically and me, myself, I would never accept to be part of a story or making a story where women are getting oppressed again. So I’m ready to share my experience. I’m ready to defend this. I am here to support the crew, Hogir and Antonio.
Statement from The Swedish Film Institute:
To whom it may concern
The Swedish Film Institute pays attention to documentary filmmakers’ working methods, that they are carried out in both a legal and ethically correct and professional way. Regarding the film Sabaya, the producer and director have a long experience working with documentaries and their ethical compass has never been questioned before. On the contrary: they have built up a high level of trust over the years.
From our point of view they have handled both the filming and the follow-up for Sabaya in a correct and professional way and that the participants have given their consent, written or verbal, which has the same status according to Swedish law. They have been responsive to the objections from a couple of participants with small parts in the film and immediately made the necessary adjustments.
It is our understanding that the filmmakers worked as professionals as always, treating the participants with all needed respect in this complex situation. Lastly, we would like to underscore the importance of the subject of the film and its role to create needed awareness of the situation for the Yazidi women.