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Film review: Sabaya

20 August 2021

Stephen Brown views a new documentary about victims of IS

A still from the documentary Sabaya

A still from the documentary Sabaya

INTOLERANCE and persecution of religious minorities is nothing new — certainly not for the Yazidi people. The documentary Sabaya (Cert. 15) looks at how this has recently taken a different turn in northern Syria. Worldwide, the faith of this predominantly Kurdish ethnic group, fewer than a million, is monotheistic. It draws on aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, besides having Zoroastrian roots.

It is their belief in a guardian archangel resembling a peacock which oppressors have seized upon over the centuries as an excuse to label them infidels and devil-worshippers. This distorted view of their faith has perpetuated the marginalisation and maltreatment of Yazidis. Yet what they believe about how to live has much in common with the seeking after God’s righteousness expounded in Abrahamic traditions.

From 2014, Islamic State (IS), following al-Qaeda’s atrocities, executed a campaign of genocide to force themto be Muslims. The Swedish-Kurdish director Hogir Hirori’s new film continues his quest to reveal what has been occurring throughout the Middle East.

His own Iraqi childhood was plagued by battles and persecution. He has subsequently made a trilogy of documentaries showing the real consequences of war: The Girl Who Saved My Life, The Deminer, and now Sabaya. This particular movie focuses on the many Yazidi women and girls captured by IS as sabaya (sex slaves). End credits estimate that there are still more than 2000 abducted females unaccounted for.

The film follows the activities of Mahmud and Ziyad, striving to rescue their kinsfolk. Resources are slender, consisting of a gun, van, and mobile phone. They travel with companions to the highly dangerous Al-Hol camp in Syria, where the sabaya are held. With the help of female infiltrators, seeking out prisoners isn’t that easy. The Yazidi captives have been beaten, raped, forced into marriage, and silenced. Mahmud and Ziyad meticulously plan their raids, often at night. They consistently risk potential violence.

The rescued girls and women (some near-suicidal) question their self-worth. One asks how could a benevolent God let this happen. Thanks to the love and care of Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and family, there is evidence of God’s mercy and healing. Siham’s son burns the sabayas’ garments, praying: “I hope God will eliminate these clothes!” And, tacitly, the dreadful memories.

Some of these brutalised females have become strong enough to revisit the camp, assisting the release of other sabaya from, as the director puts it, “the claws of an ideology that tolerates nothing but itself”. This documentary manages at times to have the feeling of a thriller. Covert camerawork allows us to learn the true conditions of those still trapped in abusive relationships and harsh conditions.

The upside is witnessing the courageous and compassionate efforts of fellow Yazidis to love their neighbours as themselves. Sabaya is a descriptive rather than analytical film. Perhaps Hirori will make one that tries to help us to understand why religious persecution ever occurs in the first place. Meanwhile, there’s The Sabaya Take Action Campaign online to support the plight of trafficked Yazidis.


In cinemas and on demand.

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