Sundance 2021 Review: Sabaya

Written by Taylor Baker


SYNOPSIS: Guarded by Kurdish forces, 73,000 Daesh (ISIS) supporters are locked up in the Al-Hol Camp in northeastern Syria. Considered the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, it is situated amidst a volatile political and military reality where Daesh is still omnipresent. Five years ago, Daesh killed thousands of Yazidis in the Sinjar province of Iraq and abducted thousands of Yazidi women and girls to be held and sold as sex slaves – called Sabaya.

In this film, Mahmud, Ziyad and other volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center rescue the Sabaya, who are still being held by Daesh in the camp. Continuously phoning, smoking and sometimes bickering, Mahmud and Ziyad systematically prepare their missions and know exactly who to look for, and where. Often accompanied by female infiltrators – some of them former Sabaya – and armed with nothing but an old mobile phone and a small gun, they travel to the camp in an inconspicuous van. Once there, mostly by night, they must act extremely quickly to avoid potential violence.

In this observational film, directed, shot and edited by acclaimed Swedish/Kurdish director Hogir Hirori, we experience first-hand the strong contrast between the tense situation in the camp and the comfort of daily life at home. Under the loving care of Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and his mother, Zahra, it might take a long time for the young women to heal, but perhaps one day the traumatized girls will also be strong enough to become brave female infiltrators themselves, helping to rescue even more Yazidi Sabaya from the claws of an ideology that tolerates nothing but itself.

REVIEW: In Sabaya Hogir Hirori harrowingly documents the events of one small group of dedicated and compassionate individuals rescuing kidnapped children being held by extremists as sex slaves. Some of these children have been held as Sabaya for 6-7 years thus aging into early womanhood. Each time we venture in the Al-Hol camp there’s a dread inducing sense of danger. All it takes is one person tipping off an ISIS member for everything to go horribly wrong and this group of everyday heroes to be brutally murdered.

There are many moments of trepidation and terror in Sabaya. In the middle of the night a fire is set by ISIS burning the families crops, thus removing the only income our central family earns. What feels unique and accentuates Hirori’s filmmaking is that that fire feels almost less palpitating than a drop in cellphone signal, or when Mahmud receives a call instructing him to wait until an infiltrator can be certain that she’s identified a kidnapped Kurd. These moments juxtaposed to the delicate moments of Siham and Zahra(Mahmud’s Wife and Mother, respectively.) assisting the rescued girls disrobe from the niqab and abaya that they’d been forced to wear in the Al-Hol camp.

In a film about such a serious situation and topic it’s hard to find an appropriate way to discuss Hirori’s cinematography. But I would lament ending this review without mentioning the moving way he captured images. From the claustrophobic night time cinematography in Al-Hol, a car chase with roadside fires after a successful rescue, to Siham and Zahra pushing water from the storm out of their home. There are dozens of small beautifully captured moments. One of my favorites is when a rescued Sabaya who is only seven years old is laying down outside on a steel platform. To the left of the platform there is a large pile of laundry and to the right there’s more laundry, then the laundry stirs, and you notice it’s not laundry it’s the rescued seven year old girl wearing nonrestrictive clothes laying under the sky. It’s a small but beautiful moment, in a film decorated by many such moments.

If you’re unfamiliar with the topic, this documentary serves as a very holistic boots on the ground view of what is happening.


Growing up as a Kurd in Northern Iraq my whole childhood was plagued by war and persecution because of my Kurdish ethnicity. My family lost everything and we constantly had to flee our homes. Life was full of hardships, but at least we had each other. I always wished I had a camera back then, to document the injustice my people were subjected to. Since then I have left the country and settled down in Sweden. But still, 20 years later, war, unrest and oppression prevail in my home country. With Sweden now as my home base, I have had the opportunity to go back to document the fate of the Yazidis, a religious minority of Kurds. Through history, the Yazidis have endured and survived countless genocides as they have tried to uphold their own religion. In August 2014, the Yazidis became victims of a genocide by Daesh (ISIS) in its campaign to force them to convert to Islam. This has led me to make a trilogy of documentaries, to show the real consequences of war, and the raw and unretouched fate of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq – The Girl Who Saved My Life in 2016, The Deminer in 2017 and now Sabaya.

Life in the Sinjar province where most Yazidis live was completely destroyed when Daesh attacked in 2014. Families were shattered, men killed, and women and girls kidnapped and held captive by Daesh as so called Sabaya (sex slaves). Daesh believes it is their right to use them as slaves because of their religion. I felt I had to document these cruelties, so in 2018 I packed my camera again and traveled this time to Syria to try to find out anything I could about the Sabaya. There, I met Mahmud and Ziyad, from the non-profit organization The Yazidi Home Center, who worked day and night to try to save the hidden Sabaya in the dangerous and infamous Al-Hol camp in North East Syria. I decided to follow their work and make a documentary.

Sabaya is a film about those who risk their lives every day to save others. It is a documentary about the intolerable and unacceptable consequences of war, about abuse and suffering, but also about humankind and compassion, second chances in life and new beginnings.

Sabaya is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

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