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► Sabaya is in UK cinemas from 20 August.
The Kurdish-Swedish documentarian Hogir Hirori’s latest film opens in yellowish light, as if shot through a scrim. We later learn that this is because some scenes are filmed from beneath a niqab; the camera couldn’t get much closer. Later, a similar yellow suffuses the north Syrian landscape, this time caused by fires lit by supporters of Isis (known also as Daesh). Whether shot through a niqab or through smoke, the film remains in the thick of things as it follows volunteers who rescue women and girls captured by Daesh and forced into sex slavery.
The enslaved women are known as sabaya. Some 2000 of these women have been smuggled into and traded within Al-Hol, a refugee and internment camp run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The film’s protagonist, Mahmud, and other courageous volunteers drive to this unlit city of tents most nights, armed with only a handgun and accompanied by Hirori, camera in hand.
The sabaya are Yazidi, members of a Kurdish minority whose religion, with its pre-Zoroastrian roots, Daesh abhors. Mahmud volunteers at the Yazidi Home Centre, identifying and rescuing sabaya, offering temporary refuge and reunions with families. Several former sabaya work there as ‘infiltrators’, re-entering Al-Hol undercover at immense risk. In one of the film’s tensest sequences they dress in niqabs to prepare to enter the camp, this scene recalling one in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which women replace their veils with western dress, and infiltrate French quarters of the city. Outside, we hear Daesh’s gunshots.
Such sequences build the tension, but Hirori refuses to sensationalise. In scenes filmed at the Centre, women choose how much to reveal of themselves and their traumas. Time sometimes seems slow. Mahmud searches for a phone signal, waits for information via WhatsApp, pastes photos of sabaya on a board. His wife, mother and son are calm, warm presences who go about their days, scrambling eggs, tending fires (burning the black clothes rescued sabaya no longer have to wear), and sitting beside women as they sob or sleep. Although the region is dogged by patriarchal structures (it is men who have kidnapped the women, men who organise their rescue, and men to whom they are returned), Hirori is careful to underplay neither Mahmud and his male colleagues’ tireless compassion nor the complicity of Daesh women who we witness concealing sabaya from rescuers.
Sabaya ends with no resolution: another night, another mission. On-screen text tells us 206 sabaya have been saved. There are still many, many more.