In the black of night in northeastern Syria, two men drive their rickety jeep deep into Al Hol, a refugee camp for families of fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The men rifle through tents and argue with hostile residents before finding their target: a Yazidi teenage girl kidnapped years ago and held as a “sabaya” or sex slave. As the rescuers make their way out of the camp with her, they dodge speeding cars and bullets.
All of this happens in the first 20-or-so minutes of Hogir Hirori’s “Sabaya.” Mahmud and Ziyad, volunteers at the Yazidi Home Center in Syria, will make several more such trips over the course of the film, and hundreds more after the cameras stop rolling. Their task is enormous, and it demands a stoicism that Hirori’s intrepid, immersive filmmaking mirrors.
Shooting with a hand-held camera, Hirori (who also edited the film) stitches together glimpses of the men’s daily lives at the Center — smoke breaks, meals with family, endless phone calls with relatives of the captured girls — into a portrait of unsentimental routine. This is in part a protective tactic: To dwell on the tragedy of the 7-year-old rescued after six years in captivity, or the girl whose family refuses to accept her son because his father is an ISIS fighter, is to open up to debilitating horror.
Which makes the courage of the former sabayas who embed themselves in the camp as informers all the more remarkable. As I watched them enter the camp in niqabs, Hirori following closely with his camera, my heart fluttered with both fear and hope. In a film about the light that breaks through the darkest of darknesses, these women shine the brightest.
Not rated. In Kurdish and Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.