Movie Review: Sabaya

Human trafficking is prevalent in all parts of the world with an estimated 5 million people subjected to sexual exploitation. Sabaya focuses on the Al-Hol camp in Syria where a support centre has made it their mission to rescue as many of these abducted sex slaves from ISIS as possible. A real-life version of Taken, this fearless documentary takes viewers on several missions to rescue girls from one of the Middle East’s most dangerous camps where they’re held captive. Often captured from the ethno-religious Yazidi people, these women are taken as child brides, sold on to other men like a possession.

Sabaya comes from Hogir Hirori, who’s quickly making a name for himself as a brave and bold documentarian. Director of The Deminer, a story about a Kurdish Major who disarmed thousands of landmines using a knife and set of wire clippers as part of the Iraq Army, Hirori knows a suspenseful documentary story when he sees it. Testament to its power and relevance, Sabaya could have been three separate documentaries. Opting to focus on the support centre’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts, the documentary could have easily been taken from the perspective of the camp’s infiltrators or from within the overcrowded prison system where 15,000 men reside.

Adopting the rescue mission angle, this docuthriller captures fly-on-the-wall footage of their after dark expeditions. Receiving a photograph of the victim and a pinpoint tent within one of the Al-Hol camp’s many regions, the courageous team load up a vehicle with armed personnel and essentially abduct victims back. Reconnecting them with their families, this organisation gets their intel from a network of women (many former sabaya) who infiltrate the camp, putting their lives on the line to interrogate contacts and retrieve the girls. Joining these pulsating rescues vicariously as if you were one of the crew, it’s an immersive experience involving car chases, sabotage and prisoner interrogation.


“We must bring our girls home whatever the cost.”

Sabaya is a thrilling documentary but it’s also a heartfelt one. Having spent years as sabaya, often under the servitude of many different men, you can only imagine what these girls have had to endure, making their rehabilitation and reintegration heartbreaking and powerful. Cramped in tents with many other girls in the same dire predicament, surviving day-to-day in a black burqa under the watchful eye of a deceitful house “mother” – this form of modern slavery is pure hell. Hopefully films like Sabaya will help transcend the human rights challenges presented by so much cross border trafficking to create enough awareness to action similar rescue or protective initiatives.

Exploring Syria’s cultural and gender divides, this beautifully photographed and suspenseful documentary has touches of Sicario. While a little repetitive in terms of the operations, Hirori realises the power in the victim’s stories, relaying these from the girls themselves. Some as young as 7 years old, it’s a harrowing documentary, made more emotionally resonant by the intimate interviews. Tense situations abound as the team find themselves at the mercy of the camp’s security police with outbreaks of fighting or in hot pursuit from vehicles unperturbed by gunfire. While Sabaya effectively captures the dangers of the mission without flinching, offering a unique inside perspective of Syria, it could have explained why the agency wasn’t committed to rescuing more woman and children.

Contrasting the simple, rustic rural life with that of the tent camp’s crowding and squalor, there are some humble and stark contrasts. Generating great suspense through its handheld camera camp and tent invasions, these thrilling moments are counterbalanced by the raw emotion of the survivors as they try to come to terms with everything. Sabaya is a challenging documentary that establishes Hogir Hirori as one of the most exciting documentary filmmakers working today. It’s bravery is inspirational, it’s behind-the-scenes look at Syria is fascinating and the timely subject matter is critically important in this age of widespread social reform.

The bottom line: Courageous