STOCKHOLM – The documentary “Sabaya” by Swedish-Kurdish director Hogir Hirori racked up a raft of prestigious awards last year; the topic was surely compelling: Yazidi women and girls held as sex slaves by the Islamic State and then sold – before their rescue by Yazidi activists in Syria. Now those activists have been accused by a Swedish website of deceiving the victims and taking their children from them.
One reason the film won so many awards, including best documentary at the Swedish International Film Festival and a World Cinema Award at Sundance, is that Hirori did the filming all by himself. You get the feeling you're with him at al-Hawl, the camp in northeastern Syria where the victims received refuge.
At al-Hawl, the filmmakers followed activists from the group Yazidi Home Center in Syria, in particular a man named Mahmud Resho. The women and girls lived there since the Islamic State's defeat in 2019.
The camp – which Hirori has said is plagued by stabbings and shootings – hosts tens of thousands of refugees, most of them women and children, and also thousands of Islamic State supporters. After rescuing the women and girls, the activists took them to Resho’s family home, which the film depicts as a kind of shelter.
One rescue shows Resho and his partners freeing a Yazidi girl named Leila from a tent in the camp; they were armed with a handgun, a cellphone and intelligence from Yazidi women who infiltrated the camp at great risk. Later, a drive from the camp to Resho’s home morphs into a car chase in which ISIS fighters fire at the Yazidis.
Kvartal, the respected Swedish website making the allegations, claims that Hirori faked key scenes, concealed information about the main characters' dark sides and lied to the media that reported extensively on the film.
According to Kvartal, some of the women and girls who bore children as a result of serial rapes by ISIS fighters didn't want to leave the camp because they knew that their children might be taken from them and handed to an orphanage. The conservative Yazidi community wouldn't accept a half-Muslim child.
Resho and his people took the women and girls out of the camp; they promised that any child taken away temporarily would be returned.
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But Kvartal says the children weren't returned, and mothers who refused to give them up were held at Resho’s home under a kind of house arrest. The site also reports that Resho proposed to the Islamic State to buy the children so he could sell them on, but this was only a ruse to gain information from ISIS.
“They tricked us, they took us to their homes, and then they took our children from us,” one of the women told Kvartal. Another says about the film: “People will think Mahmud brings Yazidi girls back, and that’s true, but Mahmud treated them worse than ISIS did.”
Kvartal also alleges that Hirori fabricated key scenes and falsely presented key aspects; for example, it reports that Leila was actually rescued from al-Hawl before Hirori came to Syria.
The site says that Leila's rescue and the dramatic chase were either staged with an actress or involved another girl; the girl’s face is covered by a burqa so she can't be identified – and Hirori admits that this indeed was another girl's rescue. Kvartal also alleges that armed Kurdish guards were the ones who removed the girls from the tents and handed them over to Resho and a man named Ziyad, who waited in safety at the camp's offices.
“It’s a real shame if the taxpayers who pay for productions of this type are being misled by the filmmakers,” says Ludde Hellberg, who wrote the Kvartal article.
“In Sweden, millions of krona from public funds are invested in documentaries of this type every year. It turns out there is no oversight mechanism to ensure the authenticity of such films,” he says, adding that his report was based on a wide variety of sources.
“We quote one of the women taken out of al-Hawl by the hero of the film,” Hellberg says, adding that his sources included the former U.S. ambassador to the region, Peter Galbraith, who helped reunite mothers with their children. The sources also included a veteran international journalist in the region, and an interpreter who worked with Canada's CBC television and The Guardian.
“We were very careful, as always, when it came to the credibility of our sources,” Hellberg says. “Every fact that appears in our report is supported by a number of independent sources. Months of work went into the investigation, and fact-checking was done by two experienced editors.”
The website Kvartal claims that Hirori faked key scenes, concealed information about the main characters’ dark sides and lied to the media.
Hirori says Kvartal's article is misleading and takes things out of context. “Ever since 2014 when ISIS attacked the Yazidis in Iraq, I've been documenting the fate of the Yazidis. The situation with the children born to Yazidi mothers as a result of rapes by ISIS men is extremely tragic and also very complex,” he says.
“I've tried to show this in my documentary; for example, in a scene when one of the rescued women has to give up her baby. Unfortunately, it's impossible for the rescued Yazidi women to keep their children that have Muslim fathers if they want to return to their Yazidi families.
“This is because, according to Iraqi law, a Yazidi woman isn't allowed to have a child by a Muslim man, unless she converts to Islam, whereby she will no longer be welcomed into Yazidi society. Another problem is that the Yazidi religious leaders have given amnesty to the rescued Yazidi women to return to Yazidi society, but not to their children born in captivity, who are still seen as ‘children of the enemy.’
“It has never been a secret that the children are placed in an orphanage waiting for a solution if the women decide to return to Yazidi society, nor is it something I've tried to conceal by any means, as Kvartal claims I have.
“The situation is also clearly explained to the women when they face the decision to return to their families, and they're well aware of the circumstances. It wasn't possible for me to fit all these explanations ... into the documentary, as my story was about the rescue of the women, not the fate of the children, which would need a whole documentary on its own.”
Regarding the allegations about staged scenes, Hirori says Leila was one of the girls who agreed to talk about her nightmare in captivity – as a way to get the girls' story out to the world.
“All the events portrayed in ‘Sabaya’ and all the parts of the story I tell in my documentary happened exactly as they’re shown," Hirori says.
Hirori admits he first met Leila several days after her liberation, and the scene depicting her rescue was shot when Resho and Ziyad freed another girl (who wasn't willing to be interviewed or show her face). Hirori admits he erred by presenting this scene as Leila’s rescue.
But he adds: “All the events portrayed in 'Sabaya' and all the parts of the story I tell in my documentary happened exactly as they're shown, and all the footage was recorded live with my camera as it happened. Leila was held captive by ISIS. She was rescued by Mahmud and the Yazidi Home Center from the al-Hawl camp.
“The main rescue scene in 'Sabaya' is a real rescue of a Yazidi woman being taken from the al-Hawl camp. It's by no means staged or faked. I'm in the car with my camera, and the ensuing car chase and us being shot at is completely real. Everything I share in the documentary of Leila’s story is also 100 percent true.”
Hirori’s statements are backed up by an interview on another topic that I conducted with Leila before the Kvartal article came out. There, Leila's recount of her rescue supports Hirori’s assertion that the rescue he filmed was similar to hers.
“Uncle Mahmud took me from there,” Leila said. “When I think about this trip, it feels unreal; my thoughts were all over the place. I was very frightened and didn’t speak with anyone. And then the shooting started. I can still hardly believe that I got out of there.”
Hirori also stresses that documentaries aren't the same as newspaper or magazine articles. "Documentary filmmaking isn't a neutral, objective narrative method. In Sweden especially, the genre has reached an expressive and artistic level through a long tradition of the craft," he says.
"Thanks to support from public service institutions such as the Swedish Film Institute and Swedish television, [the genre] has become an established form of narration that encourages a personal view and creative artistic expression, allowing independent filmmakers to express their own unique view of events. This is different from genres such as journalism and reporting that, rightly so, have strict requirements of neutrality and objectivity.”