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 the U.S., was swift. The International Documentary Association (full disclosure – I’m a contributing editor at its magazine) immediately cancelled its upcoming screening in Los Angeles. And news soon broke that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival had actually declined to program the film, citing similar concerns over its subjects’ consent. The consensus, it seemed, was that the documentary community was pretty much uniformly appalled.

And yet, if one were to read the full article – as opposed to, say, just freak out over its clickbait headline – a few red flags notably stand out, beginning with the assertion that «the film has upset some of the very people it was intended to celebrate: women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who were sexually enslaved by the Islamic State terrorist group for years and who are the main subjects.»

The fallout, at least in the U.S., was swift.

Indeed, several women who appear in the film are, in fact, now upset. Who exactly those women are, however, remains an undisclosed mystery. What’s for certain is that calling these particular characters the «main subjects» is a bit of a stretch – especially since the «main female protagonist» herself later came out with a statement, claiming in part that «I met [Hirori] for the first time in Syria, where he told me what he was doing and working on… We were several girls that had been rescued from ISIS.» She then went on to write, «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… We all told him that we consent to everything and that we didn’t have any concerns.»

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

Slippery slopes

In fact, according to the piece, «Mr Hirori, an experienced filmmaker, told The Times that he had initially recorded verbal consent from the women in the days after they were rescued in 2019 and while he was staying at the same safe house in Syria as some of them. He said he intended to have them sign written releases on a subsequent trip to the region. Still, it was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he «physically mailed» the «forms.» Supposedly, those forms arrived electronically in English and only after the film had been screened. To which the film’s producer Antonio Russo Merenda responded, «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.» Not for nothing, the Swedish Film Institute, which provided funding, is likewise standing by the project.

And also not for nothing, is the article’s glossed over reference to Hirori as an «experienced filmmaker.» Hirori is not just an «experienced filmmaker,» but someone who has dedicated an entire career to documenting traumatised characters in dangerous war zones. Indeed, Sabaya is actually the final film in a trilogy that began with 2016’s The Girl Who Saved My Life and continued through 2017’s award-winning The Deminer. In other words, Hirori has a long track record – and one that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t include any complaints from his subjects. (For more on that check out Hirori’s own eloquent follow-up to the western media/New York Times narrative.)

These are tricky and complex questions that require nuanced thought, not a knee-jerk reaction.

Finally, there are the troubling quotes from both Peter Galbraith, described as «a former U.S. ambassador who helped reunite more than a dozen Yazidi women with their young children who had been taken away from them,» and Human Rights Watch’s Letta Tayler, «an associate director of the group’s crisis and conflict division» who rhetorically asks, «How can women who are being held in a safe house with no easy way out provide consent?» According to Galbraith, «These are people who were kidnapped at a very young age and who were held as slaves and sexually abused for five years… I don’t see how, in those circumstances, they have given informed consent.» (The piece even goes on to ominously note that «The consent gives the filmmakers wide-ranging rights in perpetuity over the stories, images, voices and even the names of the women.» This, to me, sounds less like an exploitative agreement than it does a standard release form.) Which paternalistically renders all the abused women in the doc (all docs?) victims rather than survivors; reduces them to naive children instead of grown women capable of agency, of giving voice to their own experience.

Which is a slippery slope to be on, especially in the nonfiction realm. Who gets to decide such things? Should several unhappy characters be allowed to sabotage an entire project – and thus silence everyone else in a film? These are tricky and complex questions that require nuanced thought, not a knee-jerk reaction. They are issues to be wrestled in the open – and preferably not through anonymous quotes behind the paywall of the New York Times.

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

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