Review: Heroes on both sides of the camera in documentary ‘Sabaya’

A woman in a black burqa carries a child on a dusty road in the documentary “Sabaya.”
A woman with her child in Syria’s Al-Hol, the most dangerous internment camp in the Middle East, in the documentary “Sabaya,” directed by Hogir Hirori.
(MTV Documentary Films)

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The heroism of the subjects of “Sabaya” is immediately clear from the documentary’s opening scenes. In Hogir Hirori’s harrowing film, a group of Syrians struggles to rescue Sabaya: women and girls who have been kidnapped by ISIS. But the bravery of Hirori himself is equally clear; the filmmaker embedded with the rescuers to obtain heart-stopping footage amidst night raids, car chases and hails of bullets. Hirori’s approach never calls attention to the man behind the camera, instead focusing on the efforts of his subjects. It’s impossible not to recognize the courage both onscreen and off- in “Sabaya.”

Radio announcements proclaim that ISIS, also known as Daesh, has been defeated in Syria. However, the threat of violence continues — for both the Sabaya still held captive and for the volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center who try to liberate them from the notoriously dangerous internment camp Al-Hol. Five years before the film begins, Daesh not only killed thousands of Yazidis in Iraq but also kidnapped and trafficked women and girls over the border into Syria to be converted to Islam and abused as sex slaves.


Now, Mahmud, Ziyad and others at the Yazidi Home Center work to extract the survivors from Al-Hol, their only tools a handgun and a cellphone with poor receptions. They’re aided in their rescues by “infiltrators,” women — some of whom are former Sabaya — who go undercover in Al-Hol. However, the labor isn’t complete once they’ve escaped the camp. Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and his mother, Zahra, help the women and children emerge from the trauma and return to what remains of their families and lives.

Urgency permeates every moment of “Sabaya.” The film’s first moments drop us directly into the action, and it never lets up for 90 minutes. There is sometimes a lack of clarity for the audience on exactly what’s happening, but the momentary confusion mirrors the hectic nature of the volunteers’ efforts. Mahmud constantly works, spending every moment trying to save every person he can — often at the expense of time with his family — knowing that each moment away from the mission might cost someone their freedom or their life.

Hirori is credited as director, cinematographer, editor and producer, and though the Swedish-Kurdish filmmaker is never directly seen onscreen, we feel his presence as he captures the experience of these people, shooting through a camera hidden in fabric or getting footage from their car as they try to outrun pursuers at night. “Sabaya” zeroes in on Mahmud, his family, Ziyad and the infiltrators, as well as the survivors, revealing their bravery for the viewer at every moment — but you have to marvel at Hirori’s work too. With “Sabaya,” we witness documentary filmmaking at its boldest; we find hope in seeing not only the triumphs of the Yazidi Home Center but also what the medium can do.


In Kurdish and Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts July 30, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena