Response to criticism about SABAYA in Kvartal. 

My response to allegations made by the Swedish online newspaper “Kvartal” about SABAYA in a series of 2 articles  

The headline in the first article published by Kvartal about my film Sabaya claims that the protagonists, Mahmud Resho and Ziyad Avdal ”stole children and tried to sell them to ISIS”. This is a false statement that gives the reader the impression that these men actually committed this heinous act, and that they had the intention of selling the children to ISIS for their own profit. The article also claims that I supposedly knew that this was happening when I was making the film. However, the truth is that Kvartal has completely skewed a “statement” made by Mahmud in a totally different context and with a completely different meaning, and made it look like actual facts. Other media outlets have since shared Kvartal’s article or headlines from it, which has led to these claims being spread as the truth on the internet.  

Kvartal cites as it’s source an interview with Canadian CBC in which Mahmud Resho, in a comment to his work rescuing Yazidi women from ISIS, says that “The Yazidi Homecenter sometimes used the children as bargaining tokens in exchange for ISIS letting the Yazidi women go”. Kvartal contacted the interpreter used in the interview to ask him to look at his transcript to find out what Mahmud is really saying. Kvartal then writes that the interpreter confirms that 'Mahmud says that the Yazidi Homecenter sometimes used to offer the children to ISIS in exchange for the captive Yazidis, but that this was used as a tactic, a strategy, to con ISIS into releasing the women, but that the intention was never to go through with it for real”.  

It is clear in this clarification from the interpreter that Mahmud is describing a strategy used to be able to free more Yazidi women from ISIS, but that the intention was never to sell children to ISIS per se. It is very unfortunate that Kvartal has made this accusation appear as a seemingly undisputable fact in the article’s headline, disguising the fact that it has been completely taken out of context and that it was said with a different meaning.  Even more unfortunate is the fact that Mahmud is recently deceased and cannot defend himself or give an explanation regarding these false accusations.  

Ever since 2014 when ISIS attacked the Yazidis in Iraq, I have been documenting the fate of the Yazidis. The situation with the children born to Yazidi mothers as a result of being raped by ISIS men in captivity is extremely tragic and also very complex. I have tried to show this in my documentary, for example in a scene when one of the rescued women has to give up her baby. It is unfortunately not possible for the rescued Yazidi women to keep their children that have Muslim fathers if they want to return to their Yazidi families. This is because, according to Iraqi law, a Yazidi woman is not allowed to have a child by a Muslim man (unless she converts to Islam whereby she will no longer be welcomed into the Yazidi society). Another problem is that the Yazidi religious leaders have given amnesty to the rescued Yazidi women to return to the Yazidi society, but not to their children born in captivity, as they are still seen as “children of the enemy”. 

It has never been a secret that the children are placed in an orphanage waiting for a solution if the women decide to return to the Yazidi society, nor is it something that I have tried to conceal by any means (as Kvartal claims I have). The situation is also clearly explained to the women when they face the decision to return to their families, and they are well aware of the circumstances. It was not possible for me to fit all these explanations about the fate of the children or the circumstances surrounding the situation into this documentary, as my story line was about the rescue of the women and not the fate of the children, which would need a whole documentary on its own to explain.  

The Yazidi Homecenter, Mahmud Resho and Ziyad Avdal are not in control of the legal, political, religious or cultural obstacles. They do not have any authority, either on behalf of the Kurdish Autonomous Government in Northeast Syria (that is responsible for the process), the women’s families, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan or Iraq to circumvent the law. There are currently many international organizations working to solve this problem, for example by finding a third country which the women can be relocated to together with their children, and many of them have been accepted as refugees by other countries. However, this is still a relatively new initiative and not very well documented. To learn more, please contact the Swedish representative for the Kurdish Autonomous Government in Northeast Syria, Shiyar Ali.  

I have always been open with and willing to describe and discuss the complex and difficult situation for the children born to Yazidi women in ISIS captivity in connection to my film, and I have always wished that someone else would pick up where I left off to delve deeper into the subject. 

The article in the Swedish online newspaper Kvartal also mentions a private phone conversation (which was secretly recorded without my knowledge) between me and one of the women in my film, in which the author claims I was informed by the woman I was talking to that Mahmud treated the girls badly. The woman is one of the infiltrators visible in my film towards the end when the infiltrators enter the Al-Hol camp, and I had called her to discuss her sending me her written consent to appear in the film, in addition to the verbal consent she had already given me. I wanted to make sure all the consents were in order.   

During the phone conversation the woman changed her mind and let me know that she no longer wished to participate in the film, which I absolutely respected, and told her that she has every right to change her mind and said that I will take any appropriate measures to ensure that she can not be identified in the film (her face is now blurred since this conversation took place after the film premiered). But during our conversation I could also hear another woman’s voice in the background giving her orders of what to say to me. This made me suspicious, and I asked several times is she was recording the conversation, which she denied.  

Kvartal claims that the woman told me during the conversation that “Mahmud had treated the women badly, worse than ISIS”. And that I supposedly answered” I was not aware of this, but if I had known I would have done things differently”. From my perspective, the things she was saying felt odd and controlled by someone else and the claims she made seemed strange to me. But, I of course gave her the benefit of the doubt and took what she was telling me seriously and decided to look into the matter. Therefore, I contacted the other women appearing in my film, as well as the infiltrator’s group leader, to ask them if they had experienced anything similar. All of them told me that they had never experienced or witnessed anything similar to what the woman was claiming in that phone conversation.  

The members of the Yazidi Homecenter are chocked and very surprised about the claims and allegations published by the Swedish online newspaper. They also say that Kvartal has not reached out to them or the accused individuals to provide them with the opportunity to comment or respond to the claims, or explain the circumstances. Thus, Kvartal has no real understanding of the complex and difficult situation the women and children and those who try to help them face in Northeast Syria, or the factors governing the situation. 

Regarding Kvartal’s second article with the headline ”Faked scenes in award winning Swedish documentary”.  

This article claims that I have faked the rescue scene where Leila, one of the main female protagonists of my film, is retrieved from the Al-Hol-camp by Mahmud and Ziyad and taken by car to Mahmud’s house. The author argues that the evidence lies in my use of a news report in the story line which he claims does not fit the time of the actual filming. 

Let me start by giving some background here. I have been documenting the fate of the Yazidis since 2014. This minority group of people have been greatly affected and targeted by ISIS because they have their own religion and are therefore seen as devil worshipers, religiously unfaithful to Islam and should not have any rights in society. This inhumane view of the Yazidi people have allowed ISIS to motivate killing thousands of Yazidi men and take their women and young girls as their property which can be owned, sold, raped and used to spawn IS children. The first documentary I made about the fate of the Yazidis in 2017 called “The girl who saved my life” tells the story of a young Yazidi girl exiled from her home. It reached both Swedish and international audiences and planted a seed of awareness about the Yazidis’ dire situation. 

During my time spent in Syria while filming Sabaya, I took part in several rescue missions of women from the Al-Hol camp. Leila was one of the women I was documenting. She shared openly and willingly with me about what she had been through and wanted to tell her story to the world, so I decided to make her one of the protagonists of my film. She also felt safe and secure interacting with me since I had previously been in contact with one of her cousins in Iraqi Kurdistan before I met her, so she trusted me from the start. When I met Leila she had been in captivity for five long years and gone through horrible suffering during that time, but was now finally free. 

It is correct though, that I did not partake in Leila’s actual rescue, and that I met her for the first time a few days after she was rescued, which I disclosed to Kvartal when they asked me. It is also correct that I have portrayed Leila’s rescue in my film using a rescue scene of another woman which I participated in. The woman in the scene (in the car) did not want to be filmed after the rescue so I could not continue telling her story in the film. But she was ok with me using her rescue scene and the footage of her in the car. 

In an interview I did with BBC I spoke of Leila’s rescue as if I had in fact taken part in her specific rescue. I regret not mentioning at that time that I was not present at Leila’s actual rescue from the Al-Hol camp and that the scene in the film depicted the rescue of one of the other women.   

Kvartal claims that I am lying in my documentary, but the fact remains that all the events portrayed in Sabaya, and all the parts of the story I tell in my documentary happened exactly as they are shown and all the footage has been recorded live with my camera as they happened. Leila has been held captive by ISIS. She has been rescued by Mahmud and the Yazidi Homecenter from the Al-Hol camp. The main rescue scene in Sabaya is a real rescue of a Yazidi woman being taken from the Al-Hol camp. It is by no means staged or faked. I am in the car with my camera and the ensuing car chase and us being shot at is completely real. Everything I share in the documentary of Leila’s story is also 100% true. 

It is also important to remember that the tenets of documentary filmmaking are not the same as those of journalism or reporting. Documentary filmmaking is not a neutral, objective narrative method. In Sweden especially, the genre has reached an expressive and artistic level through a long tradition of the craft and Sweden’s many internationally successful documentary filmmakers. Thanks to support from public service institutions such as The Swedish Film Institute and Swedish Television it has become an established form of narration that encourages a personal view and creative artistic expression allowing independent filmmakers to express their own unique view of events. This is different from genres such as journalism and reporting which, rightfully so, have strict requirements of neutrality and objectivity. 

When I start recording real events for a documentary, I am not able to plan and choose exactly what will happen or what I will be able to record. During the long course of filming, I meet a lot of people and gather an extensive amount of raw material (in this case more than 90 hours of film) and interviews that I then have to sit with in the cutting room, sort through and structure in some kind of order that conveys some form of context and portrays what I have recorded and experienced as closely as possible. In Sabaya, I wanted to tell the story of the rescue of the young Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS and their suffering of many years in captivity and what this has done to them. I also wanted to show the incredible work of the Yazidi Homecenter by portraying Mahmud, his mother Zahra (who became a very important safe harbor for the women), Siham (Mahmud’s wife), Ziyad and also the incredibly brave female infiltrators who volunteer to save their friends who are still held captive. I wanted to show this in the context of a setting when ISIS had just been defeated and threats of their retaliation still linger both inside and outside of the Al-Hol camp. 

Regarding the news reports used in some of the scenes, usually in the form of a radio news report, I chose to use these tools as a way to orient the viewer in time and place in the story. In one of the scenes in the beginning of the film I have used a news report listened to in a car when two men from the Yazidi Homecenter drive to the Al-Hol camp. The newscaster says that ISIS has finally been defeated in Syria. My aim here was to orient the viewer in time for the events that unfold. Not to trick the audience into thinking that filming started on the actual day that ISIS was defeated.  

I am not opposed to having the reality of my documentary assessed and scrutinized. But, it is very unfortunate, and it feels rather threatening, that Kvartal has made it a mission to thoroughly inspect and asses every detail of my personal life and whereabouts, such as travel dates and personal messages that I have sent, and used secret recordings of my phone conversations. My intention as a documentary filmmaker has always only been to tell a story and about events unfolding in my old homeland, to help people subjected to the cruel consequences of war by raising much needed international awareness about the subject in a world that is otherwise so often preoccupied with other things.  

Hogir Hirori 
Director of Sabaya 

30 May 2022