The Unraveling of an Award-Winning Documentary


BAGHDAD — In a pivotal scene of the 2021 documentary “Sabaya,” two men rescue a young woman named Leila from a Syrian detention camp for the families of ISIS fighters, bundling her into a car and driving her to safety as shots are fired behind them.

In interviews with BBC Radio and others, the film’s Iraqi-Swedish director, Hogir Hirori, recounted the tension of the rescue and the terror of the ride as they raced from Al Hol detention camp with the young woman, one of thousands of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who had been sexually enslaved by ISIS.

The dramatic scene helped the Swedish-government-funded film garner glowing reviews and awards, including best director for a foreign documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year. But following an investigation by a Swedish magazine, Kvartal, Hirori has admitted that he was not there when Leila was freed, that he substituted another woman instead and that he lied to a BBC interviewer.

The admissions follow findings by The New York Times last year that many of the traumatized women either did not initially consent to be in the film or refused but were included anyway. The director’s admissions have also renewed accusations that the documentary played down the coerced separation of mothers from their young children, born during enslavement by ISIS — and turned the very men responsible for that separation into heroes for rescuing them.

While Yazidi women sexually enslaved by ISIS were welcomed back by their communities after ISIS was defeated, the children were not. Some women did not want the children, but for most, the forced separations have had serious repercussions, including suicide attempts.

In a statement issued after the Kvartal investigation, Hirori acknowledged that he had depicted Leila’s escape “using a rescue scene of another woman which I participated in.” He said the woman who was presented as Leila, the main character, did not want to be filmed after the rescue and so he did not mention her in the documentary.

Speaking in Swedish through an interpreter, he told BBC Radio last year, “It was important for me to film it as it was happening because that was the reality.” In the interview, one of several in which he expressed the same sentiment, he also spoke of the Yazidi women: “They aren’t just numbers, they are people just like you and me.”

The BBC has removed the lengthy interview from its website after press queries. A BBC spokesperson said it was being reviewed. Hirori said in his statement that he regretted not telling the BBC the truth about the rescue scene.

A timeline by Kvartal also showed that in three scenes that included news reports about the battle against ISIS and a Turkish invasion, audio was inserted from events that had occurred several months earlier or weeks later. In at least one of the scenes, the film’s hero reacts to news from the car radio that he could not have been hearing.

Hirori and the film’s producer, Antonio Russo Merenda, a former Swedish Film Institute commissioner who has said he was heavily involved in the film’s editing, did not respond to requests for comment by The Times.

In his statement following the Kvartal investigation, Hirori said that the film was not intended to be journalism and that Swedish documentary tradition allowed filmmakers “to express their own unique view of events.”

Kristina Eriksson, a communications officer at the Swedish Film Institute, said, “We follow the debate about the role of documentaries and welcome the discussion, but nothing has emerged so far that gives us reason to act in relation to the film.” She declined to clarify whether the institute had procedures governing the veracity of documentary films it funded.

The issue of forced separations is the single most contentious one among Yazidis. While the Yazidi Home Center featured in “Sabaya” was responsible for finding and caring for hundreds of Iraqi Yazidis freed from ISIS captivity, the organization, acting on instructions from Yazidi elders in Iraq, also arranged for the children to be taken from their mothers. Most were sent to an orphanage in northeastern Syria that the women were not allowed to visit once they returned to Iraq.

Almost all the women were told that to go home after being rescued from Al Hol camp, they would have to give up their children. The women were also told, falsely, as was one of the woman in “Sabaya,” that the separation would be temporary.

Hirori has said he did not have space in the film to address the issue. “My focus was in trying to document how these women and girls were saved and not to go into the whole giving up the children,” he said in an interview with The Times last year.

Sherizaan Minwalla, a human rights lawyer based in Erbil, Iraq, who has worked extensively with Yazidi genocide survivors, said, “The film portrayed a false narrative of women with children being rescued when in fact they were hiding with their children to avoid being forcibly separated before returning to their families in Iraq.” Some of the women were so afraid they would be separated from their children that they chose to stay in the Syrian detention camp rather than be rescued.

A limited number of freed Yazidi women have been reunited with their children. Because those mothers and their children face threats from the Yazidi community in Iraq, almost all have been relocated to other countries.

“The director doesn’t need to show situations that are wholly invented falsehoods in the film to have it be a false portrayal,” said Jennifer Crystal Chien, director of Re-Present Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for storytelling from underrepresented communities. Omitting key information means the viewer can “draw the wrong conclusions,” she said.

The documentary was rejected by the Human Rights Watch Film Festival last year because of concerns over consent by traumatized ISIS survivors, but it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

Months after the release of “Sabaya,” the filmmakers obtained written consents but in languages most of the women do not understand. The agreements entitled the filmmakers to use their names, stories and all footage for any project, in perpetuity.

“There are certain types of things that seem in some way exciting or dramatic or have a kind of heroic outcome,” Chien said. “These kind of things are very appealing to people who are making decisions about funding and programing even though they may not know anything about the actual situation in the region or whether the footage that’s being gotten could possibly be gotten with informed consent at all.”

Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq.

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