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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Hogir Hirori • Director of Sabaya

“There were some dangerous situations, and I was stunned when I realised that they are part of the everyday life of the people there”


- We talked to the Swedish director, whose documentary was shown at Sundance, in the World Cinema Documentary Competition

Hogir Hirori • Director of Sabaya

For his documentary Sabaya [+see also:
film review
interview: Hogir Hirori
film profile
, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Swedish director Hogir Hirori visited a Syrian camp where Daesh soldiers are kept captive. A great many Yazidi women who have been kidnapped and are being kept as sex slaves by these same ISIS fighters are yet to be freed. The film follows volunteers who risk their lives to bring the so-called sabayas back to their families. The director tells us more about the production of the film and the situation of his protagonists.

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Cineuropa: How did you organise the shoot?
Hogir Hirori:
I knew of the existence of the Yazidi centre and went to Syria to do some research. There, I met Mahmud, who volunteers to find and rescue Yazidi women in one of the big camps where Daesh soldiers are kept captive. To be able to shoot, I had to get special permits. As a rule, a journalist gets a permit to enter the camp, but he or she is only allowed in for two hours, and they are told what they have the right to film. I needed a permit for a much longer time, actually for several days. Moreover, it was necessary for me to get permission to film inside as well as outside the camp. I had to use my contacts both in Syria and in Sweden to achieve it.

How long was the shoot? And how much material did you have at the end of it?
In total, it took one-and-a-half years, and I went to Syria six times. At the end, we had 90-92 hours of footage to work with.

Was it difficult to get funding for the film?
First, I went to Syria on my own. I wanted to check whether the project would be possible. Afterwards, we began seeking funding, and during this process, I had the chance to work with producer Antonio Russo Merenda. We had to be careful not to talk about the project too much in order to protect all of the people involved. So there were no proper pitching sessions or presentations. We were lucky that the Swedish Film Institute and Swedish Film Commission saw the importance of it and supported us.

How did you manage to approach the men at the Yazidi centre?
I visited the centre and told them after only three days about the documentary project, and that’s when we did the first short interview. At the beginning, they didn't trust me; they were suspicious. But after spending day and night together, the trust started building up. It was very important to reach this level, since we had to rely on each other in the face of the dangerous situation we were in.

Did you feel as though you were in danger?
I knew about the situation I was going into. But still, I was scared at times. There were some dangerous situations, and I was stunned when I realised that they are part of the everyday life of the people there.

Did you work with hidden cameras?
For some scenes in the camp, we used hidden cameras, yes. But when it came to interacting with the protagonists, the camera was always visible. I didn't want to take them by surprise. I always talked to them before shooting and so asked for their permission.

Was it difficult to convince the girls to open up for the camera?
I never forced any interview on them. I was on standby and had an initial conservation with them before asking them if I could film their story.

Did you end up with any more sensitive images that you chose not to include in the film?
There were pictures I didn't include because of privacy – and especially security – reasons. It was important that some locations should not be shown, so that Daesh soldiers wouldn't be able to identify them and use the footage to plan their attacks.

What happens once the girls have been rescued? How are they viewed and treated by their family?
The Yazidi religion says that it's okay when the girls return, and that they should be treated well. Men who are willing to marry the girls are seen as doing something good. And many girls are indeed married. Some of them take part in the programmes offered by specialised organisations – some of them go abroad, for example, to Germany or Canada.

What happens to the children of these women?
For the children, it's very hard. They have a Muslim father and a Yazidi, non-Muslim mother. By law, non-Muslim mothers are not allowed to keep a Muslim child. And also, the Yazidi community doesn't accept children who have such fathers. So at the moment, the children are entrusted to an orphanage as they wait for the representatives of both sides to sort the problem out.

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