With an eye-catching poster of women wearing the niqab, Sabaya (with the soft Arabic s, meaning “female captives”) which won the Bronze Gouna Star in the Feature Documentary Competition at El Gouna Film Festival this year, is a 91-minute account of how Mahmoud and Ziyad, two volunteers and members of the Yazidi Home Centre, liberated women and girls captured by the Islamic State (IS) and treated as sex slaves at Al-Hawl camp, in northeastern Syria. In his third film Hogir Hirori, a Kurdish-Swedish filmmaker, uses only a handheld camera to follow his characters straight into the real-life action.
“Sabaya is my third feature length documentary film after Victims of IS (2014) and The Deminer (2017). The night IS controlled parts in Syria, I decided to be there, and I filmed my first film then in 2014. Afterwards I heard a lot of stories about the Yazidi girls being kidnapped by IS who raided the area, killed the men and even some children, and kidnapped the girls. This reminded me of incidents in 1988, when the Iraqi government took the Yazidi girls into a van and nobody heard anything about them afterwards. The same thing was repeated in 1991, but with Kurdish Muslim women. As for the Yazidi girls IS claims that their religion is not a true one and accordingly this grants Muslims the right to take them as sabaya.
“When I filmed The Deminer in 2017, I found out more about the kidnapped girls whose families are still searching for them. IS took all these girls to Al-Hawl camp, and I was thinking that I have to be there. When I went to Syria, it was my intention to see the place till I could come back with a crew to do the film. There I met Ziyad, the head of the Yazidi Home Centre, and then I met Mahmoud; and when I heard the details of their efforts and what they do to rescue and retrieve the Yazidi girls, I thought it was such a good idea to film them. When I suggested to Ziyad and Mahmoud that I wanted to make a documentary film about them, they hesitated and asked how much time I would need for filming, they thought I would want to stay with them for just a few days, but I told them of course not, I would need a lot more time. So they said, maybe one or two months and again I replied, no, I definitely need more time than that – one or two years. Their answer was that’s impossible, besides which they didn’t know who I was, maybe I was a spy, and they started asking questions like how I arrived there.
“I actually went to Syria in a legal way, but for someone to film in northern Syria, everywhere you go you must have permission from Al-Hawl camp, there is an office to offer these permits because there are lots of journalists there. However, the difference between me and other European journalists there or anyone who wants to film is that they would need a fixer, I didn’t need a fixer, because I know the Kurdish language and most people there are Kurds, while 30 or 40 per cent are Arabs and I know Arabic as well, and I also know Syria a little bit even though I’m not from Syria. I knew people in Syria, and they offered to help me if I wanted to film, but when they offered me the residency, they were asking since you are going to be filming why are you alone? And where is the crew of the film.
“When I told them that I was related to the Yazidi Home Centre, they trusted me more. At first, Ziyad and Mahmoud didn’t want me to be with them, but gradually we began to trust each other and a kind of friendship developed between us, especially between me and Ziyad, we talked a lot in the first two weeks and they googled me to find our more about me and even asked some institutions from Sweden if they knew me. Then, I lived with them for a long time, for nearly 18 months.” He coped well. “Of course, sometimes it was hard when the circumstances were very sensitive and to have a camera in the car was making things harder at times.” One of the most dangerous scenes is when Mahmoud and Ziyad’s car, with Hirori filming, is chased by IS. “This was the third time we were chased shooting at us. The second time, they didn’t allow me to film because they thought it was risky for them if we were to stopped by a car from the opposite direction and if they saw we had a camera in the car it would be a very dangerous, we even had a seat in the car modified so I could hide my camera.
“The third time, before I started filming we were exiting the camp and the police stopped us announcing, there was a problem, that they had some information that another car had planted a bomb on the road, so we returned to the camp, but Mahmoud insisted on leaving really late at night because he thought it was too risky to stay longer there. When we left we were followed by a car, the one that appears on screen, and I felt these were the last moments in my life and my cell phone had no network whatsoever. If I had a network, I would have called my wife to say goodbye. I grabbed the camera, and Mahmoud asked if I was going to film and I said yes, let me film this one, if we ever get past this point then we have footage, if we don’t then we’re dead.
“It was very emotional to be in Syria and to make the decision to film in Syria especially since I have a life and family in Sweden and each time my trip to Syria approaches, I somehow feel tense and nervous, but soon after I arrive there, all this tension fades away. And every time I plan my trip to Syria, my wife asks me if I really want to go there again. It takes me three days to go from Sweden to Syria, and when I finally arrive there, I fit normally into daily life and I feel I’m one of them once again. And the fear disappears. The producer and my younger brother were very involved in my whereabouts during my trip, I had to inform them and keep them updated all the time for my safety. As in the case documented in the film, when the village goes up in flames, I sent messages to my brother and my producer saying there was a fire in the village and nothing was clear about what was going to happen next, but they knew where I was.”
Towards the end of the film former sabaya are seen bravely volunteering to go back to the Hawl camp in order to rescue more girls. They are seen gathering in a place where bullets were being fired right outside. “The people there are living with these attacks and bullets being fired all the time, of course they are afraid sometimes but their fear is less than other people who are not used to these things.” Though the film shows one rescue operation after another, it never ends up being boring, thanks in part to Mahmoud’s charisma and calm attitude even when he’s busy looking at his phone where he receives most of his work information. “He is a really quiet person, his thoughts and mind are all related to his work. Sometimes I would talk to him and he wouldn’t answer me, because his mind was somewhere else. At other times I asked him a question and he replied, Give me five minutes, and then he was busy again. After a day or two came the answer! What I really like about Mahmoud and Ziyad is that they are really involved in their work to the fullest, their minds and souls are related to that kind of work they do all the time, they live for this purpose.”
For Mahmoud, he always keeps his family members away of his work details, but of course they live under very difficult circumstances, sometimes they don’t have water, or oil for the generator or even money, and he has to provide money for food for the family and the girls he accommodates for some time, till they return to their families. It is complicated business, using the help of Yazidi women and other methods that cannot be revealed for security reasons. Ziyad for one is currently out of Syria and staying in a foreign country, due to a threat that came for the Yazidi Home Centre after IS tried to kill him twice.
“Al-Hawl is a gigantic camp, and the Kurdish authorities are in control of it, but the most difficult thing about the logistics of the camp, is that people can easily change their tents and men can sneak in wearing women’s niqab and that’s what makes the rescue process by Mahmoud and Ziyad so difficult most of the time. Moreover, security wise, it is a disaster, they have some small weapons like knives and sometimes people are killed inside the camp, sometimes bombs are used. They have some rules and basically those who don’t follow the rules are killed or tortured to say the least. Mahmoud saw some parts of the film and he said from the beginning that he is not going to be involved in the outcome of the film and that I should do whatever I wanted as a filmmaker. However, Ziyad saw the whole film and there is another woman from the Yazidi Home Centre who also saw the film, they were all thrilled by it. They’ve been doing their work for years and this is the first time someone makes a film about them to put their work in the limelight. Mahmoud said he doesn’t really care about people knowing what they do but Ziyad has a different opinion, for him it is important that their work is documented that way
“I had 93 hours of footage and 300 hours of sound recordings and, due to the pandemic, the person who was supposed to do the editing process in Sweden couldn’t come to Sweden and so I did the editing myself. It took seven months and it was really hard because I thought a lot about the security of the Yazidi girls who appeared and the members of the Yazidi Home Centre.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly