Sabaya: He said, she said, she said

VIEWS: Sabaya and consent in documentary
Director: Hogir Hirori

I first encountered Sabaya, Hogir Hirori‘s riveting feature centred on the Yazidi Home Center – a threadbare organisation dedicated to saving the «Sabaya», the Yazidi women and girls held as sex slaves by ISIS – during this year’s Sundance, where Hirori would go on to take the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary. At the time, the doc had me captivated with its array of heroic characters, including male volunteers Mahmud and Ziyad and the many anonymous female «infiltrators» who risk everything on clandestine rescue missions into Al-Hol in Syria, the Middle East’s most dangerous camp.

I even interviewed Hirori, who struck me as equal parts professionally candid and personally empathetic in his emailed answers. The director – who fled his native Kurdistan in 1999 and now resides in Stockholm – wrote eloquently of building trust with those he filmed and prioritising his subjects’ safety above all else. When I inquired as to whether he provided the women with hidden cameras for the harrowing sequences set inside the camp, he surprised me by revealing that it was he who’d shot that footage – tossing on a niqab to go undercover. «I would never risk the lives of the infiltrators by asking them to film scenes themselves or to use hidden cameras,» the director explained.

Sabaya, a film by Hogir Hirori
Sabaya, a film by Hogir Hirori

Without consent

Thus it came as an even bigger surprise when the New York Times broke a story about the doc at the end of September titled «Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film About Them.» The detailed piece accusations by a handful of Yazidi women ranged from not understanding what Hirori planned to do with the footage; to being told that the film wouldn’t be accessible in Iraq and Syria; to one woman’s outright refusal to participate. A Kurdish-Swedish doctor also said that she didn’t want to be in the film.

The fallout, at least in . . .

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Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.
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