Hogir Hirori and Antonio Russo Merenda on Capturing the Lives in Limbo in “Sabaya”

After filming wrapped on “Sabaya,” Antonio Russo Merenda and Hogir Hirori went to a cafe in Stockholm to talk. The two had worked closely over the past year-and-a-half, but never together in the same place as Hirori had been traveling back-and-forth to Syria for the past year-and-an-half, slipping in and out of the Al-Hol Camp where female and child refugees displaced by the civil war were being guarded by Kurdish forces. The director had plans to bring along his wife, a reporter, as well as a small crew as he had on his previous films in the war-torn region, but the conditions quickly made it obvious he had to go it alone this time, relying on his producer Russo Merenda to provide what support he could from abroad. Remarkably, everything had gone smoothly enough as Hirori compiled over 90 hours of footage, more than enough for a compelling film, but the gravity of what he had taken on was only beginning to dawn on him.

“When things are too dangerous, in the end, you get used to it,” recalls Russo Merenda. “Once he came back after the last shooting, over a cup of coffee, sitting outside in a very quiet, safe cafe, [Hogir] told me, suddenly he realized how dangerous this shooting had been and once he was back in a very safe environment, it hit him like a boomerang.”

That impact has been channeled directly into “Sabaya,” which tracks the noble efforts of the nonprofit Yazidi Home Center to identify and rescue the thousands of Yazidi women who find themselves trapped in the camp, forced to convert to Islam by Daesh, also known as ISIS, and branded as sex slaves. Accompanying two of its volunteers Mahmud and Ziyad into Al-Hol, Hirori takes the extraordinary step of putting on a niqab as the women do to blend in and attain ground-level footage from inside the highly-protected camp, yielding an unparalleled look at the incredibly fraught path for refugees even after they’re thought to have left the war behind them. Not only does Hirori sit in on the daring escapes orchestrated by Mahmud and Ziyad, who cleverly leverage their male privilege to access the camp, but in embedding at the Yazidi Home Center as plans are being made to recover even more women and the women who have been rescued await what will happen next, the filmmaker brings to the fore how destabilizing the ongoing strife in Syria has been well beyond its immediate implications in allowing the women to tell their stories in relative safety and observing the volunteers’ families sit in limbo as they make their late-night drives.

Although the situation “Sabaya” illustrates is certainly dire, Hirori allows the room to take hope in resilience, both in the Yazidi Home Center’s ongoing mission and in the women emerging from captivity, unaware perhaps of what strength they drew on to survive such an ordeal but still standing nonetheless and with the film now out in theaters following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Hirori, with the assistance of a translator, and Russo Merenda shared how they were able to pull off such an extraordinary production with the help of the Swedish Film Institute, compassionate inquiry and having a jack-of-all-trades at the center.

Hogir, you’ve made other films in Syria under extreme conditions, but when this presented new challenges, what made you think it was possible?

Hogir Hirori: The whole thing started in 2014 when ISIS attacked the Sinjar Province and the Yazidis living there and I decided to go down the day after to document things. This actually led to a trilogy of documentaries — the first was “The Girl Who Saved My Life” and “The Deminer” and now it has resulted in “Sabaya.” My wish and my goal with these documentaries is to show the real consequences of war on society and on people and their lives. Since I have worked as a cinematographer, a director, a producer and an editor and I know the culture and the area very well, I felt that maybe I could document this in a way that maybe Western reporters can’t really do. I have the experience of being a refugee all my life, and of course, Sweden has given me the possibilities to educate myself in media and also finance a lot of my films, so that’s given me the possibility to do these projects.

From what I understand, you couldn’t actually pitch the project anywhere because of how sensitive this production had to be. Antonio, what does a film like this entail?

Antonio Russo Merenda: It was very frustrating. We had incredible, powerful material and an extremely urgent film and at the same time as you mentioned, we needed to guarantee the safety of the main characters in the film, so it was a Catch-22. We were very lucky though because in Sweden, the Swedish Film Institute is actually has state-subsidy for documentary film and we had a good meeting with them, we really were very honest and we were like, “This is the situation.” And we showed of course some material because we knew we could trust them and they were not going to spread the material anywhere else. They understood the situation immediately very quickly, they said, “Just go ahead. We will back the project, so you don’t need to go around and present this project anywhere else. Once you are able to make sure all your characters are safe, of course, it can go ahead, but until then don’t worry. We will make sure you can complete the film.”

It’s actually the first time ever in my entire career as a producer that in one meeting, you would actually get carte blanche and they will support you all the way to the end, so it was fantastic. Of course, it was a very frustrating process because it was also a project that was extremely challenging and extremely difficult to complete. There were moments as a producer where I thought all the emergency plans that we had wouldn’t actually work and the risk that Hogir was taking were so high, I thought maybe we should stop. He’s risking his life too many times – several times a day, you know, not once a week – so I had so many sleepless nights and was extremely worried, but I’m happy we never took that decision to stop the shooting. This was such an urgent story to tell and I’m happy that we could complete it.

Hogir, I understand you gained the trust of the women in the camps from relating your own family’s experience over generations. Did that give you insight as well into how best to tell this story?

Hogir Hirori: Usually, that is my style when I interview people. When I know that I will be hanging out with these people for a longer time than sitting down for a cup of coffee, I’m like an open book. I tell them everything about my own life, and I really try to never bring out my camera and start shooting and asking questions because I always make sure to spend some time to get to know these people, to listen to them and to establish a relationship. Once they feel they can trust me and that we have a relationship as a base, they start opening up to me much more. That means in the long run, they forget about the camera and I make sure just to be a part of their lives. Of course, I’m fully transparent with everyone about what I’m doing there and my purpose and I live with them at the Yazidi Home Center with Mahmoud, for example, and sometimes I turn on my camera and sometimes I don’t, but I never say now we’re going to have a filming session. I just try and document reality as it is happening and get as much reality-based footage as I can.

When Hogir was completely alone filming in Syria, what was it like to figure out how to offer support from abroad?

Antonio Russo Merenda: At the beginning of the project, we had actually planned to have a proper team — a [cinematographer], a sound recordist and a location manager, but after the first research trip that Hogir made, it actually became clear that it was not going to be possible. Basically, he was going to be the team. [laughs] It’s very fortunate because he’s a brilliant cinematographer and he also has experience as a sound recordist, so he could do so many things by himself. There was only one short shoot where he actually had an assistant for about a week, but otherwise, he was by himself and we had no other choice, but we had different emergency plans and [an] exit for the material to get across the border.

Because Hogir is from the Iraqi-Kurdistan and there he feels very safe. He has all this network, so what we always prepared was a way out from Northeast Syria into the Iraqi Kurdistan, across the border, and we were always prepared to have Hogir back in Iraqi Kurdistan if something would’ve happened, but actually, he did manage to bring the material by himself and we never were forced to use anybody else. But he was extremely brave and I have such deep respect for the people behind the camera — in this case Hogir, because he did everything by himself — and in front of the camera who show such great courage in the face of all this injustice.

Hogir Hirori: What also influenced the decision not to bring more people as a part of a team down to do the filming was that it would be a risk for the Yazidi Home Center to have lots of people following them and everything they did. That would arouse suspicion and draw attention.

One of the things in this film I was fascinated by was the use of gender – I understand you were able to film inside the camps because you could be undetected with the clothing women are made to wear and Mahmoud is able to go in in part because of his male privilege. Was it something you thought about during filming?

Hogir Hirori: My goal was always to document reality as it was happening in front of my eyes. It never depended on if it was a woman or if it was a man. It was always about what was actually happening. And I made the decision to put on the women’s niqab and go into the women’s camp to film behind the clothes because the first time I tried to film in the Al-Hol Camp, I remember I brought out my tripod and put my camera on it and started to film. I had two members of the security police with me and right at that moment, somebody was stabbed about 10 meters in front of me with a long knife, so I understood this was too dangerous to be seen with a camera and draw that much attention. And I decided to disguise myself in those clothes. But with time I learned exactly how the camp functions and how people move in it and the way people are, so I could vary what kind of cameras I was using, if I would be filming openly or with hidden cameras and if I needed protection with me in the form of security police or if I could just go in there by myself.

It’s just remarkable. I know you haven’t been able to travel with it as much as you’d like given the pandemic, but what has it been like to see the engagement with it around the world?

Antonio Russo Merenda: Of course it would’ve been wonderful to travel with the film, and unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that in person, but the film has been traveling a lot — to over 25 international film festivals and what we really tried to do with “Sabaya” was bring a localized struggle to the attention of a global audience. Of course, the overwhelming positive response that the film is receiving internationally makes us very happy because this very disturbing subject hasn’t received much attention outside the Middle East, and [the attention] means we’re on the right path.

Hogir Hirori: The most important thing for me with the film is to create awareness in the world and to spread these stories to the rest of the world. I’m sad that I can’t travel with the film, but I’m getting to spend much more time with my family, which I wasn’t able to do while I was filming, so in a way, that’s positive and I know the film is doing well out there without us. There is still today over 2000 women and girls that are missing and haven’t been rescued and my hope is that somebody will do something about it and help them be rescued.

“Sabaya” opens on July 30th in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse and Laemmle Royal and New York at Film Forum.