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(Credit: Dogwoof)

'Sabaya' Review: Documenting an extraordinary human effort

'Sabaya' - Hogir Hirori
4.1

Leading niche, compelling documentary filmmaking, Dogwoof is becoming a name as ubiquitous with innovative contemporary tales as the independent cinema behemoth’s A24. The British distribution company has been known for backing some of the industry’s finest projects, including Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, Netflix’s Last Breath, and the understated 2011 classic Dreams of a Life.

Such a glowing track record has continued into 2021, with Sabaya being their latest film to challenge perceptions and shine a light on the darkest corners of human life. 

On the surface, Sabaya may seem like a flashy documentary attempting to capture the beating heart and gripping tension of a hasty rescue mission, but in reality, it accesses a realism far more akin to Werner Herzog’s poetic observation style. The harrowing film follows an organisation called the Yazidi Home Center, a group of volunteers who venture into the dangerous al-Hawl camp in Syria, a place with strong ties to the Isis militant group. 

Their goal is to rescue Yazidi women who have been kidnapped and dealt with unimaginable trauma as they are sold as sex workers termed as ‘Sabayas’ by their captors. The film itself follows Mahmud, a member of the organisation who leads such dangerous missions into the camps, often leaving at night to avoid suspicion and safely retrieve the abused young girls. 

Capturing their story with a stark lack of flashy camerawork or editing, Hogir Hirori’s film draws attention to the bleak reality of life on the Syria, Iraq border. The subtle power of the film’s protagonist, Mahmud, is quite extraordinary, however, dedicated to helping as many people captured within the al-Hawl camp as possible, regardless of the constant threat to his own life.

Presented not as a shining hero, but as a mere individual doing his utmost, Mahmud rarely discusses anything that is unrelated to the mission at hand,. For him and the rest of the volunteers at Yazidi Home Center there are few other morsels of hope to latch onto but their own efforts.  

Sabaya (2021) Still

Providing a glimmer of light through a blinding blanket of darkness, the work of Mahmud is laudable, though so too is the incredible bravery of the former sabayas who choose to return to the camp as infiltrators for the group, helping to eventually extract more kidnapped girls.

The resilience of these infiltrators, and of Mahmud, is truly astonishing, though the pride of their achievements is never shown, nor may even exist at all. They are simply too absorbed by their task that they have made it their duty. 

Scenes of their daring missions inside the camp lead on to capture the mundane life living in the Yazidi Home Center itself where women shelter and recuperate whilst young children play in the courtyard. The next morning, Mahmud and his team are once again planning for the next extraction, creating an ebb and flow of normality with the organisation treating the job as an everyday responsibility. 

Having saved 206 young girls and women from the camp, and with 2000 still remaining missing, Hogir Hirori’s fascinating documentary provides an unrivalled insight into the extraordinary human effort of Yazidi Home Center to reunite families and seek justice, no matter the personal cost. 

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