Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 29, 2021 12:54 pm 
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Courageous fly-on-the-wall film of rescuing Daesh sex slaves

Let's call it Daesh, though US usage has been ISIS or Islamic State - because Daesh is what it's called in the region and widely elsewhere. This film, hard to watch for multiple reasons but a powerful piece of courageous photojournalist infiltration, relates to I]City of Ghosts[/I] (Matthew Heineman 2017), which focused on RBSS, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (الرقة تذبح بصمت), a small band of men of that city from various walks of life bravely taking action to make known to the world how Daesh smothered their town to make it their "capital." Here the focus is on Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria for victims of Daesh, 60,000-70,000 strong. It is located just south of the town of Al-Hawl (الهول) and in an interview the director has said it is a place of "lawless chaos and danger."

At the height of its power Daesh preyed on the Yazidi people in northern Iraq and kidnapped their women or girls as sex slaves ("Sabaya"), who have been sold and resold by smugglers as young as one year old. The dangerous paradox is that Al-Hol camp is infiltrated by Daesh members and their female supporters who keep Sabaya under their continuing control. Captions early on explain the Yazidis are an ethnic non-Muslim minority that follows their own religion, Yazidism. Thus the Daesh considered them open season as "infidels" targeted for genocide, mass kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of its young girls. In the film we hear a lot of Kurmanji, the Kurdish language chiefly spoken by Yazidis, as well as some Arabic. (The filmmaker is of Kurdish origin, refugee of an earlier conflict over two decades ago.)

The film stays close to a man called Mahmoud and his boss Ziyad, the latter head of the Yazidi Home Center, a rambling makeshift structure within a rough car drive of the refugee camp. It's hard to figure out what's going on because this on-the-fly film explains nothing and stretches of it appear to have been shot surreptitiously. The Hollywood Reporter review by Imkoo Kang provides explanations, which gradually may emerge just from careful scrutiny of the film. Mahmoud and Ziyad have young women allies at the camp who (surreptitiously) look for stolen Yazidi girls who are still being held in the camp. They report to Mahmoud, and he and Ziyad make risky armed runs by car by night to the camp to rescue the girls forcibly, and these runs are filmed. We get some glimpses of the rescued ones later, but don't see much of the young women running the inside search operations. Those who actually live in the camp could not be shown at all, to protect their safety.

Mahmoud and Zihad and their by us unseen helpers are doing courageous and good work. But it's slow and dreary to watch, though briefly intense and scary - only the scariness and intensity don't show much without the buildup and glamor a fiction film would attach to the rescue actions. The settings too are dreary, a sandy golden blur oscillating between the primitive-looking Yazidi Home Center, with a fat lady cooking at a small stove and men eating on the floor on scattered rugs in large empty spaces; and the bustling, chaotic Al-Hol camp. There are also glimpses of a visit to a prison with masses of Daesh prisoners all huddled together and one miserable, crippled prisoner who is persuaded to speak of his two stolen Yazidi "wives." ("They call it 'marriage,' but it's really rape," one woman says.)

A little girl is rescued, Mitra, who is only seven, apparently kidnapped by Daesh at age one. Obviously the identification system, though laborious, really works. We finally see a new little group of women prepared as daytime camp "infiltrators." They put on full black covering up to the eyes and, with minimal prepping by Mahmoud, are taken to Al-Hol camp. We have seen how traumatized most of the rescued girls are; another issue is how difficult reintegration into their families may be. One is forced to leave her open-faced little baby at the Home Center because his father was a Daesh rapist and murderer and her family won't or can't accept him.

The Home Center has rescued 206 women and girls, we learn via caption. There has been constant danger, an attack launched by Turkey's Ertegun on the Kurds, and they've frequently been fired on by Daesh fighters and renegades. Not here but in an interview the director, who is also his own cinematographer and editor, admits that footage in Al-Hol camp seemingly shot from the POV of a woman infiltrator, he actually shot himself with a hidden camera disguised as a woman. Risky business indeed.

The Daesh caliphate has fallen and it has lost foreign members and gone underground. But it's still a serious live threat as well as a source of generations-long trauma. This mysterious film is also an eye-opener and thought-provoker. It is necessary viewing for students of Middle Eastern politics and fans of risk-taking documentary filmmaking.

The director, Hogir Hirori,is a 41-year-old Kurd who fled to Sweden at 19 and now lives in Stockholm. This is his second feature. The first, Flickan som räddade mitt liv/The Girl That Saved My Life (2016), was shot mostly in war-torn Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Sabaya, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021 and received the World Cinema documentary directing award. It received ten other festival awards and nominations and was in eight other festivals including Copenhagen (CPH:DOX), Columbia, MI (True-False) and Tel Aviv (Docaviv). MTV Documentary Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, July 30, 2021. Showing at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco Aug. 6.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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