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REVIEW: Sabaya (Sundance 2021)

Soldiers are not the only ones scarred by war. A nation in conflict, especially when experiencing the unique trauma and destruction of civil war, is like a broken mirror. Tiny, jagged pieces of glass that can’t quite be put back to the way they were. Sabaya is a courageous, visceral story about a country trying to heal itself after several years of relentless violence and chaos. It hopes to rescue a community of women, revitalize a persecuted minority culture, and reclaim Syria from IS. No mean feat, but the sensitivity it displays to its subjects, its cautious optimism, and an energetic pacing make Sabaya an enthralling watch.

A group of volunteers at the Yazidi Home Center in northern Syria methodically tape together a collage of photographs, each containing the image of a missing woman. These are the Sabaya, girls kidnapped from their homes during the war to be used as sex slaves and wives for IS fighters. With IS largely defeated, these humanitarian workers frantically try to track down the girls in the midst of chaos, following leads that see them cross paths with IS remnants. There are dead ends, of course, situations where they’ve been given bad intel, or the women who have been moved by the time they get there to rescue them, or their guards are particularly unsusceptible to intimidation. (Surprisingly, many of these figures are women, complicit in the degradation of their female captives.)

But occasionally, they find one of these girls, and bring them back to their complex, where they are given time to physically and emotionally recover from their traumatic ordeals while arrangements are made for them to be reunited with family. These girls are Yazidi, a Kurdish ethnic minority in Syria who were, as non-Muslims, disproportionately targeted by Islamic extremists. Many were forced to convert and wear the niqab; the youngest of the rescued girls featured in Sabaya no longer remembered her first language, and spoke only Arabic.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

While the efforts of this group are first and foremost dedicated to the rescue of these women, it is also a reclamation of a culture that has stood on the precipice of genocide. With each person saved, they are a step closer to salvaging the remains of a community that had been decimated by the war. What happens to each of the girls at this point is fraught with uncertainty. Some have borne children, who they may be separated from as they reunite their families. Others have no families to return to, having lost parents and siblings during the war, and must face the future alone.

Sabaya is incredibly intense, as it touches on the unspeakable trauma that these women have endured. There’s a moment where we see walls full of photos of missing girls, and it’s as though all the oxygen is sucked out of the room. For every one they are able to rescue, there are dozens more in captivity with little hope of escape. Regardless of the odds, the team Sabaya follows works tirelessly, chasing down dead ends and conducting nighttime raids on camps. Because of this, there are moments of Sabaya framed almost like an action movie — it imbues the documentary with an unexpectedly forceful energy as its subjects put themselves in danger over and over again.

If there’s one place that Sabaya falters, it’s in its decision not to focus more extensively on the role that women play in this rescue effort. There are a few references to the former Sabaya women who, after being rescued, are willing to go undercover to help identify other missing women and pass along crucial information to aid rescue efforts. Sabaya mentions this almost casually, as though it doesn’t fully grasp how astonishingly brave their actions are. The strength of character required to go back into the lion’s den, facing your trauma head on and risking be recaptured, is beyond words. And as good as the rest of Sabaya is, it would have been amazing to focus more on these incredible women.

Sabaya highlights the disheartening reality of the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War, where misogyny and ethnic strife combine to create a horrifically dangerous environment for Yazidi women. Despite this, it still presents a hopeful tone. The work this humanitarian group does is exhausting and requires great courage, as reflected in Sabaya’s chilling depictions of their scattered interactions with the remnants of the IS army. But every woman rescued represents a step towards healing, both at an individual basis, and for a beleaguered people.

Rating: ★★★★

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