In a critically acclaimed documentary on the rescue of women and girls sexually enslaved by ISIS, tension-filled scenes play out in a Syrian detention camp and later in a safe house where victims are faced with agonizing choices.
The film, “Sabaya,” from Sweden, won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival award for best director of a foreign documentary this year and opened the Human Rights Film Festival last week in Berlin. Critics gave it glowing reviews; its real-life scenes of car chases and rescue attempts are as dramatic as any fictional thriller.
But the film has upset some of the very people it was intended to celebrate: women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who were sexually enslaved by the Islamic State terrorist group for years and who are the main subjects. They and their advocates say it violated the rights of women, who had already been denied virtually all control over their lives, to decide whether they want images used.
Three of the Yazidi women in the documentary told The New York Times that they did not understand what the film’s director, Hogir Hirori, planned to do with the footage or were told that the film would not be accessible in Iraq or Syria. A fourth said she knew he was making a film, but told him she did not want to be in it. A Kurdish-Swedish doctor who helped Yazidi women also made clear that she did not want to appear in the documentary.
“I told them I do not want to be filmed,” said one of the Yazidi women. “It’s not good for me. It’s dangerous.”
Their objections have raised issues about what constitutes informed consent by traumatized survivors and about the different standards applied to documentary subjects in Western countries.
Mr. Hirori, a Swedish citizen and former Iraqi Kurdish refugee, spent almost two years making the film in 2019 and 2020 and took several trips to Syria and Iraq. He said he had gotten verbal, written or filmed consent from all of the women identifiable in the documentary.
Mr. Hirori, an experienced filmmaker, told The Times that he had initially recorded verbal consent from the women in the days after they were rescued in 2019 and while he was staying at the same safe house in Syria as some of them. He said his intention was to have them sign written releases on a subsequent trip to the region, but it was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he “physically mailed” the forms.
The women said they received consent forms, but electronically in English, a language they do not understand. The forms came almost two years after he filmed them and after the film had been screened.
The forms seen by The Times named Mr. Hirori and the producer, Antonio Russo Merenda, and were dated after the film debuted at Sundance in January. They asked for consent retroactively.
In cases where women did not give written consent, Mr. Hirori said, he used footage of them with their faces blurred. However, the lightly blurred features of some of the women are still recognizable in the film.
“Some people changed their minds,” he said about the consent issue, speaking in Swedish through an interpreter.
The film unfolds in the aftermath of the ISIS takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq and its campaign of genocide against the Yazidis in 2014. The fighters killed an estimated 3,000 Yazidis and captured about 6,000 more, including many girls and women who were sexually enslaved.
The documentary depicts efforts to rescue Yazidi women by two Yazidi community leaders and guards at the chaotic and dangerous Al Hol detention camp in northeastern Syria.
After the fall of ISIS in 2019, some 60,000 women and children from territories that had been under the terrorist group’s control were crammed into the teeming camp. They included hundreds of Yazidi women who were forced to continue living with the families of the fighters who had enslaved them, even though most of those fighters had been killed in battle by that time.
“These are people who were kidnapped at a very young age and who were held as slaves and sexually abused for five years,” said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador who helped reunite more than a dozen Yazidi women with their young children who had been taken away from them. The Yazidi community in Iraq does not allow women to bring back children fathered by ISIS fighters.
“I don’t see how, in those circumstances, they have given informed consent,” Mr. Galbraith added, saying even if they had, they most likely did not understand the full repercussions of it.
One scene in the film shows Dr. Nemam Ghafouri, a Swedish doctor who helped Yazidi women for years. She died in March after contracting Covid-19 while reuniting Yazidi mothers with their young children fathered by ISIS fighters.
One of her sisters, Dr. Nazdar Ghafouri, said there were text exchanges with Mr. Hirori still on her sister’s phone reminding him, after she found out that the documentary had been screened with her face showing, that she had not wanted to be in it. The filmmaker replied that there were no close-ups of her, according to the texts that her sister showed to The Times.
The film touches on the highly charged topic of separation of Yazidi women from their children fathered by ISIS fighters.
Some women willingly gave up the children. But some are still hiding in Al Hol camp and other places because they know they will be forced to give up their young children if they want to return to their families and community in Iraq.
Some scenes in the film show a distraught young woman forced by Yazidi leaders to leave her 1-year-old son behind in Syria so she could return to Iraq.
“I saw him filming, but did not know what it was for,” said the woman. She said she was not asked to sign a consent release by the filmmakers at any time after that.
All of the Yazidi women interviewed requested anonymity. Some still fear ISIS, while others are afraid of the repercussions within their own conservative community.
The women rescued in the film are still in camps for displaced Iraqis, in safe houses, or in other countries. Nazdar Ghafouri, the sister of the Swedish doctor, said she believed the film could put some of them at risk and prevent them from moving on with their lives.
Another Yazidi woman who appeared in the documentary said Mr. Hirori told her he was filming for his own personal use. And another said she told Mr. Hirori from the start that she did not want to be in it because community leaders depicted as heroes had lied to some of the women and taken their children away from them.
One of the women said she was pressured by Yazidi officials to sign the consent form even though she did not understand what it said. The consent gives the filmmakers wide-ranging rights in perpetuity over the stories, images, voices and even the names of the women.
Human Rights Watch considered “Sabaya” for its own film festival but decided against it over concerns about the subjects.
“The film raises a number of red flags for us relating to concerns that it could be victimizing victims,” said Letta Tayler, an associate director of the group’s crisis and conflict division. “How can women who are being held in a safe house with no easy way out provide consent?”
She said she was particularly concerned about close-ups of a 7-year-old girl shown being rescued in the film. Mr. Hirori said he obtained consent from the girl’s guardian, whom he would not name. But her legal guardian told The Times he was never contacted for consent.
The handling of consent for “Sabaya” is in stark contrast to common practices in Europe or the United States, where films generally provide proof that releases have been obtained to secure insurance protecting against privacy claims.
The Swedish Film Institute, the documentary’s main funder, said that it was up to the film’s producer to obtain consent and that it believed the filmmakers had done that.
“Just because they are far away, it doesn’t make it right that we can eat popcorn and watch a movie about a horrific scene somewhere,” said Nazdar Ghafouri, the sister of the Swedish doctor. “This is not fiction. This is what happened to these girls.”