Saturday, January 30, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Sabaya

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Directed by Hogir Hirori
World Cinema Documentary Competition

It is unfathomable to many living in free, relatively stable societies that criminal behavior can occur out in the open, endorsed by enough people in power merely by their refusal to intervene and insist on its cessation. While human trafficking does exist in the United States and does not receive the attention it should, women being sold into sexual slavery with top-level governmental approval is the subject of dystopian fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In some modern countries, it’s an unfortunate reality that is allowed to persist which only certain brave and determined resisters have decided they won’t tolerate.

Mahmud is a volunteer with the Yazidi Home Center in Syria. He works with a dedicated group to rescue the many Yazidi women known as Sabaya who were abducted by Daesh, another name for ISIS, five years earlier from Iraq, and are now being held within the Al-Hol refugee camp. Mahmud and his colleagues receive information about the identities and locations of the women but typically arrive too late to find anything, with those he pursues having apparently been tipped off to his arrival and able to switch locations before they are found.

Documentaries that portray the current situation in Middle Eastern countries embroiled in conflict have a tendency to be extremely disturbing due to the realities of daily life that they portray, but this film, like “The White Helmets” and “Last Men in Aleppo,” is particularly affirming for the courage and persistence it showcases from those committed to doing good in the face of unimaginable evil. Mahmud is not immune to frustration, and he also sees the way in which prisoners in the camp are treated, which indicates something far from humanity even if it is a considerable improvement on the horrific manner in which they view those they believe to be lesser, like the Sabaya.

From its opening moments, this film meets Mahmud and those he works with on the ground, introducing its content with onscreen titles but otherwise allowing what they do and the situations in which they find themselves to illustrate what is happening. There is a veritable intensity that comes from being there with Mahmud as he sees headlights behind him and worries that they might be following them, cocking his gun so that he’ll be ready in case things turn sour. This is an alarming and very unsettling film that shines an important light on tremendous injustice and those working tirelessly to combat it.


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