Mahmud is on his cellphone and he can’t get through. It’s the first image in Hogir Hirori’s startling “Sabaya,” an intense, deeply embedded documentary following the painstaking and perilous rescue of Yazidi women (a Kurdish religious minority), from enslavement by ISIS, aka Daesh. It will not be the last time a call is dropped, a signal lost or a ringback tone times out — it becomes a recurring motif, a matter-of-fact reminder of all the people who can’t be reached.
The Al-Hol camp, on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border, is the most notorious in the Middle East. Its acres of ramshackle tents house 73,000 refugees displaced in the ongoing battle between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Daesh. Among them are a few thousand Yazidi women and girls kidnapped by Daesh when they took control of the Northern Iraqi province of Sinjar five years prior. The Yazidi menfolk were murdered, and the women taken as sabaya a word that can mean “captive woman” or “female prisoner of war” but is widely understood as “sex slave.”
Not far away, the Yazidi Home Center is a volunteer organization run by two men, Mahmud and Ziyad, with the aim of reuniting these women with their families back in Iraq. It is well-named: As well as being the base of operations, and temporary accommodation for the liberated women before they are brought over the border, it is Mahmud’s home. His wife Siham, mother Zahra and two sons Suleiman and Shadi live there too, and their interactions with the traumatized ex-sabaya give Hirori’s uncompromising and often desperate film its textures of compassion, healing and hope. As a first act of de-programming, Zahra helps the young women out of their hated black robes and face coverings. “Little girls forced to wear these clothes,” she says bitterly. Later, at night, helped by little Shadi, she burns them.
But first Mahmud has to get the sabaya there. Acting on leads and entreaties from the families, with a battered gun tucked in his waistband, he and Ziyad go on missions to locate this girl or that, always having to sort the terrorized from the terrorizers — the traffickers, smugglers and diehard Daesh with whom Al-Hol is rife. That’s why those unsuccessful phone calls are so agonizing. On the other end of the line could be an informant, maybe one of Mahmud’s “infiltrators” — young women who voluntarily install themselves as spies inside the camp. Many of them are former sabaya. It’s hard to comprehend courage that colossal.
Often the missions are unsuccessful, but sometimes, like with Leila, a girl taken five years ago and “married” to a Daesh man, they find who they are looking for. Then the whole process of repair begins, with no guaranteed happy outcome. One woman reports having been sold to 15 different men. Another tells Mahmud “they beat us with a broomstick until it broke.” A woman whose infant son has a Daesh father worries her family will not accept her child. And when Leila first arrives at the center she declares, “I hate the world. Soon you will hear I committed suicide.” So when some weeks later we see her smile, it feels like a miracle.
Hirori’s filmmaking (he is his own cinematographer and editor) is striking, direct and unadorned, yet at times the desert vistas, tinged amber with the sand and smoke in the air, have an epic sweep. Then, with casual intimacy, he’ll include a domestic squabble between Mahmud and Siham that provides a lightly amusing contrast to the heaviness of his work. “Will you bring me a coffee?” he asks. “Get it yourself” she snaps back. And other times Hirori brings a concealed camera into the camp and the partially obstructed images evoke the fearfulness of women forced to look out at the world from behind a veil.
More often his interventions are invisible. “Sabaya” is remarkable not least for how cleanly Hirori excises himself from it, careful to not get in between the viewer and these devastating stories with their 10 different flavors of heroism. The persistence of those far-off families. The bravery of the infiltrators. The reckless faith it takes to stop hating the world after it has done such horror to you.
And there’s Mahmud, an ordinary man with an extraordinary vocation that he somehow does not resent. At one point, Daesh set fire to his fields, and he mourns the loss of his livelihood a moment, then says, “Tomorrow is a new day.” He is a man who can look at a sky lit on fire, and see dawn.