Documentaries can be informative, enlightening, enraging, intriguing, and inspiring—but they are rarely edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. Not so with Sabaya. Detailing the work of a few male and female activists who rescue enslaved Yazidi women from the clutches of ISIS in war-torn Syria, writer/director/editor/cinematographer Hogir Hirori’s film boasts a proximity to its action that’s nail-bitingly extreme. From early imagery shot from the POV of a woman wearing a niqab (i.e. an all-encompassing veil) as she walks through a camp’s dusty marketplace streets, her identity as an interloper concealed only by the black garment covering her from head to toe, it’s an anxiety-inducing portrait of courage and suffering.
In select theaters July 30 (followed by a nationwide expansion and virtual-cinema rollout on Aug. 6), Sabaya concerns the Yazidis, a Kurdish ethnic and religious minority from the northern Iraq province of Sinjar, which was attacked seven years ago by ISIS, here referred to by their Arabic acronym Daesh. During this attack, thousands of women and girls were kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and turned into sex slaves to be passed around amongst the Daesh ranks, who beat and raped them with impunity. Those Yazidi victims are known as “sabaya,” and though Daesh’s fortunes have lately taken a turn for the worse, they’ve yet to relinquish their captives, many of whom have been hidden at al-Hol camp, an overcrowded Syrian outpost comprised of makeshift UNICEF tents and populated by children as well as women whose faces (and identities) are wholly obscured by their mandated niqabs.
Given that al-Hol is guarded by Daesh soldiers, and that abducted Yazidi women are hard to properly ID, any attempted rescue missions are fraught with peril. Nonetheless, the nominal focus of Sabaya, Mahmud, is committed to carrying out such snatch-and-grab operations on a near-nightly basis. To do this, he recruits former sabaya to be infiltrators—i.e. undercover agents who can locate targets from within the al-Hol camp, and then relay their whereabouts to him and his accomplice, Shejk Ziyad, the founder of the non-profit Yazidi Home Center where both men reside with their families. In scene after scene, Mahmud tries with great difficulty to communicate with these infiltrators via cellphone, and the fact that his calls routinely drop out due to bad service proves a fitting metaphor for his struggle to reach those in mortal danger.
Except for a few text cards that contextualize its fly-on-the-wall material, Sabaya is an immersive experience. Amidst panoramas of this desolate desert milieu, Hirori’s camera stays fixed on Mahmud as he and his cohorts drive into the al-Hol camp, guns drawn, under the shadow of night, searching urgently and methodically for imprisoned Yazidi women. In those instances, the film achieves an almost unbearable level of tension, since life and death really do hang in the balance. On these trips, Mahmud repeatedly encounters Daesh women who claim ignorance about the individuals he seeks, and it’s only through no-nonsense cajoling and persistence that Mahmud finds who he’s looking for. Even then, though, things remain at a fever pitch—highlighted by one mission that concludes with Mahmud and Shejk being pursued on a remote road by a truck full of Daesh fighters who honk menacingly at them before opening fire.
The threat of doom looms over virtually every second of Sabaya, which accompanies Mahmud on many journeys into this heart of darkness. A balding man with a narrow face decorated by a pedestrian mustache, Mahmud doesn’t resemble the sort of action-movie badass that puts life and limb on the line on behalf of the innocent and persecuted. The impression of him as an ordinary nobody compelled by morality and circumstance to do something extraordinary is amplified by those quiet daytime moments when, in between spotty phone calls with his infiltrators, he lounges about with his son, cooks in the kitchen, and is gently berated by his wife for not being around for his own clan. Mahmud and Shejk’s nondescript appearances and comportment only underscore their amazing valor.
Alongside the duo as they weave their way through maze-like al-Hol, or pressed up against rear windshields or the front seats of their minivan—a getaway car that’s as ramshackle as the Yazidi Home Center itself, and thus a further testament to their limited-resources bravery—Hirori’s camera provides stunning up-close-and-personal views of its subjects. That also goes for the successfully rescued sabaya, whose gratitude for being liberated is hardly enough to overshadow the unthinkable trauma they’ve endured. Having lost all her relatives to Daesh, one woman, Leila, confesses, “I hate this world. Everything is black… Soon, you will hear I committed suicide.” For her and others, including 7-year-old Mitra, the psychological and emotional torment inflicted by Daesh will never fully disappear, even after their safety has been secured and their niqabs have been burned (as Mahmud’s wife does, in a practical and symbolic act).
In one heartbreaking example of this nightmare’s complexity, a rescued sabaya is forced, before departing to reunite with her family, to abandon her child, because the tyke was the byproduct of rape by her Daesh husband, and thus won’t be accepted by other Yazidi. It’s clear from Sabaya’s wrenching drama that, no matter how many kidnapped victims Mahmud retrieves—in a coda, the film reveals that the Yazidi Home Center has saved 206 women and girls to date—pain and misery will continue to flourish, in one form or another. Yet Mahmud and his infiltrators persevere, determined to do the right thing at tremendous personal risk, which only increases when Mahmud visits a prison to try to obtain intel about sabaya captives from incarcerated Daesh soldiers, and later, Turkey’s military involves itself in this already combustible situation.
Sabaya’s intimacy elicits intense admiration for these freedom fighters, and compassion for the women they extricate from the figurative jaws of hell. What lingers long after Hirori’s harrowing film ends, however, is bone-deep despondency over the ugliness of so much of the world, and the arduousness—and often futility—of striving to make any significant difference in the face of overwhelming evil. Mahmud is a hero, but it’s hard to shake the gnawing fear that the great deeds he’s accomplished (and is hopefully still accomplishing) are merely tiny drops in the bucket.