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October 14, 2021 

Concerning the Sabaya controversy

- statement by the director, Hogir Hirori. 

 

Dear all, 

I have chosen to spend the last seven years of my life making three films about the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq for two main reasons. First, because since the creation of the ISIS caliphate I have felt a deep personal urge to expose the ongoing tragedy of a region that is my home, where my family lives, where I spent the first 20 years of my life. Living in Sweden, where I came as a refugee in 1999, I witnessed how the writing of current history of what happens in the Middle East is often conducted by western media, western observers, and for western audiences. It is professionally written and accurate, but often missing a deeper understanding and different perspective that those like me who belong to the region carry in ourselves. So I decided to claim, although humbly, my right to take part in writing history, for both a western and non-western audience. 

Secondly, I chose to do this with documentaries -- feature-length films, rather than other media or forms of expressions. Precisely because documentaries are compatible with my passion for extended human relationships, prolonged personal investment, genuine care of sensitive topics and their protagonists. In essence, I don’t think you can work with documentary films about human beings in distress as protagonists if you are not prepared to interact with them for a long time, live with them, get involved with their lives for extended periods of time.  Researching, getting access, achieving trust, shooting, editing and standing by your film for the rest of your life.  

Mainstream media, daily journalism, although of huge significance for us news savvy audiences, relies too often on short-lived human encounters.  

I chose to work with documentaries precisely because they are built on extended time. Extended relationships, immersion, deep engagement with people’s trust.  Also, rigorous ethical principles, especially in Sweden where the strong documentary tradition and its funders has a long history of high expectations and scrutiny on their makers. 

In my three films about the conflict in Syria and Iraq (The Girl Who Saved my Life, The Deminer, Sabaya) I have personally invested a lot in my relationships with all their characters. It is my method of working and the foundation of my professional credibility.  

The free will of my characters when taking part in my films is imperative, not negotiable, undiscussable for me. I would never expose someone in my films who doesn’t want to be exposed. I have no interest in it and frankly I don’t see how that would be possible based on a long-time relationship described above.

After the article on Sabaya appeared in the New York Times I was at first haunted. Its claims that I had in any way victimized the victims of ISIS madness was in itself nightmarish.  

I decided therefore to recently travel back to Iraq to meet again with those participants in my film with whom, because of the pandemic, proper real-life encounters had been limited. Had they had second thoughts since the making of the film? Had they misunderstood something? Did their new lives make them think differently about appearing in the film?  

All of them had given us clear consent during the months I spent shooting -- verbal and written consents. The few who had changed their mind after the completion of the film  

had been anonymized accordingly. 

Ever since the ending of the shooting in 2020 I had had regular contact with most of the participants and not one of them indicated in any way that they regretted participating in the film or wanted to revoke their consent. Who among them could have changed their mind? I couldn’t cope with the idea that I had done something wrong. 

After a week spent seeking them out, meeting with them, re-watching Sabaya with them together with their families and dear ones, the result of the survivors' decisions is now collected in the statements attached below. There is no question about any of the participants at this point, after more that 26 months from the beginning of my recordings for the film. Their consent in participating in Sabaya is unequivocally stated, ultimately clarifying, and exempting me and my team from any ill faith.

The dispute concerning The Times' accusations may be subject to further discussion. The issue of Informed Consent is perhaps the main topics raised in the aftermath of the article, especially in reference to the immensely important June 2020 Murad Code, an inspiring collection of principles for practices of ‘Investigating and Documenting conflict-related sexual violence.' It was finalized and published when Sabaya was already completed yet there is undoubtedly a lot to learn in the Code for myself, for researchers, for reporters within mainstream media and for all of us who work with conflicts involving sexual violence.  

On behalf of me and my producer Antonio Russo Merenda, I can say that we will learn as much as we can from this experience. We will continue sharing Sabaya with audiences worldwide with great pride and, above all, do our best to constantly improve our practices as filmmakers. Documentary filmmakers have always been on the side of human rights and every initiative that stimulates a discussion that helps us keep navigating in the right direction is welcome.

Sincerely,
Hogir Hirori

Statements from seven Participants in SABAYA

*Original audio exists for all of the below (as well as documentation with real names used).
1

The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real name redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from the main female protagonist of the film (translated from Kurdish):

My name is ____.

For as long as I have known Hogir I have thought of him as my older brother. I met him for the first time in Syria, where he told me what he was doing and working on and showed me pictures of his own family. We were several girls that had been rescued from ISIS. Hogir introduced himself to all of them as well. He explained to us all who he was and that he was making a documentary and told us what it was going to be about. I gave him my consent there and then, and I didn’t witness any of the other girls objecting to being filmed during the whole film process. He even let us try filming with his camera. Then Hogir accompanied us to the Syrian-Iraqi border where he gave us his phone number and told us to contact him if we had any questions or concerns. We all told him that we consent to everything and that we didn’t have any concerns.

Many of us girls follow Hogir’s status updates about the film on Facebook. They comment his posts with: “Well done, brother!”.

I have happily signed the consent forms by my own free will. No one forced me to consent to anything. I feel that the making of this film is important for all of us that have been rescued and for the girls that are still kidnapped, so that the rest of the world can see what has happened to us Yazidis. It is a film about the reality of what we have been through.

Ever since the beginning, there has been an organization that has interfered. The woman who is the leader of the organization and her team have tried to contact us girls that are in the film telling us not to sign any consents, not to participate in the film, not to let Hogir film us, and to try to convince us not to participate in this project. But I did not listen to any of them because I have made my own decision and I believe in Hogir and what he is doing. But what I don’t understand is why these people from this organization are so keen on stopping us from participating in this film; they are still calling me to try to manipulate me to change my mind. But I do not have to listen to them or anyone else. I have a mind of my own. And, none of these people have the right to tell me to not participate in this film, or not sign the consent form — they are not my boss. How is this any of their business? What interest does this organization have to stop us? Why are they saying, “Don’t participate in this film”?

I read the information in the consent forms and signed them. We received one copy in English and one in Arabic. There were others present with me when I signed them. I am OK with everything in the film, and it is OK with me to show it in any part of the world. It is so important that this film has been made about our Yazidi girls and the reality we have been through so that everyone can see what has happened to us, so we can create awareness of what is going on. This is not fiction, no acting or lies. All of this has actually happened to us – it is about our real lives. And I am so happy with it.

2

The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real names redacted due to security concerns.

Statements from the legal guardian of the 7-year-old girl featured in Sabaya (translated from Kurdish):

A) I am the uncle of ____, one of the girls that the Yazidi Home Center rescued. My name is ____.

This film that has been made. we give our complete consent to it. Our little girl is as much the daughter of the Yazid Homecenter as ours. They have saved her and risked their own lives for her. We have given our permission to take pictures of her and to film her.

B) My name is ____. I am ____’s uncle.

Someone called me a few weeks ago from something called “Office of the Rescued Yazidi Abductees.” Then they said that another person was going to call me. When this other person called, it turned out to be a journalist. The person mentioned something about a film. I said, I don’t remember much about any film, and I have not seen the film. It was over three years ago. The journalist was speaking to me through an interpreter. They asked me if I had signed a consent form, and I said; “No, I have not.” I told them; “You are dragging me into a problem, please don’t involve me in this.” They said they would send me a copy of the film. On the phone they were talking about a film called Sabaya, but they did not explain to me that it was the same film that was made about the Yazidi Home Center, and I did not understand that it was the same film either. If they would have only explained clearly that Sabaya was the film about the Yazidi Home Center, I would have told them that I have consented to ____ being a part of that film, that we are OK with her taking part in Sabaya.

The conversation lasted for about 40 minutes. In the end they said that they have recorded the conversation and what I have said. I said “So you are using me for something?” I told them it was not OK for them to record me without asking. I told them “You may not use my voice, please delete it now.” They said: “We promise not to use your voice.”

When I met Hogir and was able to see the film, I thought there was no problem with anything in it. Everything looked fine.

I saw the film and signed the consent form. I am OK with everything.

3
The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real names redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from a female participant in Sabaya (translated from Kurdish):

My name is ____.

A journalist asked me if the Yazidi Home Center has ever forced me to do anything. I said “No! They saved me. I stayed with them and they took care of me until I came home to Sinjar, to my family.” She asked me the same thing several times, and I asked her what she meant by that question, no one there has forced me to do anything I don’t want to. All of the people there were like my brothers or my father.

She called me twice. They also asked me if I was filmed against my will. I said: “No! No one has filmed me against my will!” She asked me if the Yazidi Home Center made me leave my child. I said that it was my decision to leave my child, and that I couldn’t bring it with me. It is the child of a Daesh father that has killed our brothers and fathers. Still today no one even knows where they are buried. I said that I just want to see my family again, I don’t want the child. She asked me: “So you mean that Hogir never forced you to be in the film?” I said; “No! Absolutely not! He never forced any one of us. I was OK with being filmed. I never had any problem with it.” And I also told them; “Even afterwards, I never had a problem with it. We liked him so much.”

They asked me if I signed a consent form. I said; “Honestly, I don’t remember, but if I did sign it back then, I did so of my own free will, because no one forced me to go along with anything or do something I didn’t want to.”

Hogir showed me the completed film and everything was as it should be. I am OK with it. He has never forced me to do anything I don’t want to. I tell you, during the time I was in Syria, every time they (Hogir and the others) left on a mission, I became sad and said “I want you all to stay here with us.”

Anyone that says anything else than what I have said now is a liar. Because Hogir never made anyone do anything they were not OK with. I was there, and I never saw him force anyone to do what they did not want to. And if anyone has ever said that I have said otherwise, let it be known that it is not true. I am so confused that they (the journalists) are saying something else now. I have moved on with my life, but I would never say anything else than the truth about what happened before.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________


My name is ____. ____ is my son’s wife. They [the journalists] talked to me too. First, I said that I don’t want her to be in a film. But then I saw the film and now I have changed my mind, it is not a problem that she is in the film. Because when they first asked me, I was afraid that maybe there would be something illegal or bad in the film. But then when I saw it, it was not like that at all, everything was OK. We saw that there were others in the film, and I can’t say that anything looked bad or wrong. It was us, the family, that told ____ that it is best that she does not bring the child with her. 

4
The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real names redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from a female participant in Sabaya (translated from Kurdish):

My name is ____.

Two journalists called me and had a conversation with me. one of them spoke Kurdish and the other only English. They said “Hogir filmed you, did you give him your consent? Did he force you to do that?” I answered and said “Honestly, Hogir was very kind to me, he asked if it's okay to film me. I said it's OK, but I want the shawl around my face, at that time I did not want to show my face. And he filmed me just like that. They asked me if I signed a contract. I answered and said yes I did. That I'm in the movie is no danger at all to my life. I've been on TV and talked about what I've been through, and it's never been a problem. The reason I then (that time Hogir filmed me) did not want to show my face was ISIS had scared us that our families will kill us if we go back to them.

5
The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real name redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from a female participant in Sabaya (translated from Kurdish):

My name is ____.

I met Hogir in Syria in 2019 when the Yazidi Home Center saved me from the Al Hol camp. It was Mahmud and Ziyad who saved me from there. While we were at the safe house, there were also 4-5 other girls who had also been rescued. Hogir told us all about his film. We all got to know everything about his film. And I later got to see the movie. I think it's a great movie and I hope it can help spread the word and hope that others who remain in captivity will be saved. I myself have a sister held captive by ISIS. She is older than me. I hope that the film will be spread everywhere so we get help to save my sister and the others who are left. Hogir was like a friend to all of us and I know and have seen what he has done for us Yazidis since 2014, when ISIS then attacked us, until today. He has several times risked his life to document and spread our stories to the rest of the world.

6
The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real names redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from a female participant in Sabaya (translated from Kurdish):

My name is ____.

The Yazidi Home Center saved me in July 2019. That was when I met Hogir. He made a film and I gave to him my consent to be filmed. He told me what the film was about and why he was doing it. Then he started filming us and I had no problem with that. The Yazidi Home Center has done so much for us. They saved me and my sister from ISIS. I approve that Hogir has me in the film. It has never been a risk for me, neither then nor now. No journalists have contacted me about Hogir's film, no Europeans, Americans or others. And I am a participant of the film of my own free will.

7
The following is a transcript of a voice message with the real names of the women mentioned by Ms. Namer redacted due to security concerns.

Statement from Guevara Namer, a female filmmaker of Kurdish origin now based in Germany who worked closely with director Hogir Hirori during a part of the shooting of Sabaya:

I’m Guevara Namer. I’m a Syrian Kurdish filmmaker. I’m based in Berlin. Since 2011, I have been involved in many projects in Syria. It's the main topic I work on. I joined Hogir proudly on one of the trips on his shootings when when he was making Sabaya. I went with him to the family house and to the al-Hol Camp. Mainly two stories that I was there for two women, ____ and ____, I remember ____ she asked early to not be in the film or if she will be in the film that she wants her face to be covered. So she stays with niqab. And this is how it shows up in the film. This is how she ended up in the film. And she was worried about her life in Iraq. And actually what we found out later was that when she went to Iraq herself and she found out that there was no risk she started going on TV and telling her stories and made interviews. So she was worried when she was in Syria and we did not show her face. And she... this changed for her later.

The other story was ____ who is shown more in the beginning of the film. And ____ was also like... she agreed to be on the film. And was also making so many interviews while she was still inside Syria. So that means for us that she was liberated. And these are at least two stories that this film dealt with very honestly, very ethically and me, myself, I would never accept to be part of a story or making a story where women are getting oppressed again. So I’m ready to share my experience. I’m ready to defend this. I am here to support the crew, Hogir and Antonio.

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