Located in Northern Iraq, the Yazidi Home Center houses the Yazidi—a Kurdish minority religion with monotheistic roots in the pre-Zoroastrian Iranic faith. In 2014, Daesh (ISIS) killed and abducted thousands of Yazidi women and girls, imprisoning them and selling them as sex slaves, or Sabaya.

Now, Mahmud, Ziyad, and volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center cross the Iraq/Syrian border and infiltrate the Al-Hol Camp in northeastern Syria—home to 73,000 Daesh supporters guarded by Kurdish forces. Armed with little more than a cell phone and a handgun, Mahmud and Ziyad locate Sabayas and smuggle them back across the border. Some of the women remain at the Yazidi Home Center, too traumatized to do much else. Some return to Al-Hol with Mahmud and Ziyad to infiltrate and rescue even more.

Directed by Hogir Hirori, Sabaya is a first-person account of life under these conditions. The camera is almost exclusively observational and captures daily chores at the Home Center, the dangerous dirt road between the Home Center and Al-Hol, even slipping beneath the niqab to infiltrate Al-Hol with the women. Occasionally, Hirori talks to the women rescued, but their experiences are too painful for full interviews. Instead, we get snatches: The number of men these women are sold to, the abuse they endured, the helplessness felt. Most of the women are in their teens. One is seven.

Sabaya is strong stuff, the kind of movie that almost feels helpless but isn’t. The cruelty present is enough to make you give up, but the conviction of the women rescued to return to Al-Hol and free more gives you hope that someday, in some way, life will move on.

Sabaya is currently playing CU-Boulder’s International Film Series virtual theater.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sabaya (2021)
Written and directed by Hogir Hirori
Produced by Hogir Hirori, Antonio Russo Merenda
Dogwoof, Not rated, Running time 90 minutes, Opened July 30, 2021.