2021-09-26 13:09:18 Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film About Them

Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film About Them

Tension-filled scenes play out in a Syrian detention camp and later in a safe house where victims are faced with agonizing choices in a critically acclaimed documentary on the rescue of women and girls sexually enslaved by ISIS.

“Sabaya,” a Swedish documentary, won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival award for best director of a foreign documentary this year and opened the Human Rights Film Festival in Berlin last week. It received rave reviews from critics, and its real-life scenes of car chases and rescue attempts are as dramatic as any fictional thriller.

However, the film has enraged some of the very people it was meant to honor: women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who were sexually enslaved for years by the Islamic State terrorist group and who are the main subjects. They and their supporters argue that it violated the rights of women, who have already been denied virtually all control over their lives, to choose whether or not to have their images used.

Three of the documentary’s Yazidi women told The New York Times that they didn’t know what the film’s director, Hogir Hirori, planned to do with the footage or that they were told it wouldn’t be available in Iraq or Syria. A fourth stated that she was aware he was making a film but informed him that she did not wish to be a part of it. A Kurdish-Swedish doctor who assisted Yazidi women also stated that she did not want to be included in the documentary.

“I told them I didn’t want to be filmed,” one of the Yazidi women explained. “It isn’t good for me.” It’s perilous.”

Their concerns have raised questions about what constitutes informed consent by traumatized survivors, as well as the disparities in standards applied to documentary subjects in Western countries.

Mr. Hirori, a Swedish citizen and former Iraqi Kurdish refugee, spent nearly two years making the film in 2019 and 2020, traveling to Syria and Iraq on several occasions. He claimed to have obtained verbal, written, or video consent from all of the women featured in the documentary.

Mr. Hirori, an experienced filmmaker, told The Times that he first recorded verbal consent from the women in the days following their rescue in 2019 and while he was staying in the same safe house in Syria as some of them. He stated that he intended to have them sign written releases during a subsequent trip to the region, but that due to the coronavirus pandemic, he “physically mailed” the forms.

The women claimed to have received consent forms, but only in English, which they do not understand. The forms arrived nearly two years after he filmed them and after the film was shown.

The forms obtained by The Times named Mr. Hirori and the producer, Antonio Russo Merenda, and were dated after the film’s January premiere at Sundance. They sought permission retroactively.

Mr. Hirori stated that in cases where women did not provide written consent, he used footage of them with their faces blurred. Some of the women’s features are slightly blurred in the film, but they are still recognizable.

“Some people changed their minds,” he said of the consent issue, speaking through an interpreter in Swedish.

The film takes place in the aftermath of ISIS’s 2014 takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq, as well as its genocide against the Yazidis. The fighters killed approximately 3,000 Yazidis and captured approximately 6,000 more, including many girls and women who were sexually enslaved.

The documentary depicts two Yazidi community leaders and guards’ efforts to rescue Yazidi women at the chaotic and dangerous Al Hol detention camp in northeastern Syria.

Following ISIS’s defeat in 2019, approximately 60,000 women and children from ISIS-controlled territories were crammed into the teeming camp. They included hundreds of Yazidi women who were forced to live with the families of the fighters who had enslaved them, despite the fact that the vast majority of those fighters had been killed in battle by that point.

“These are people who were kidnapped at a very young age, held as slaves, and sexually abused for five years,” said Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador who assisted in reuniting more than a dozen Yazidi women with their young children who had been taken away from them. The Yazidi community in Iraq forbids women from returning children fathered by ISIS fighters.

“I don’t see how they could have given informed consent in those circumstances,” Mr. Galbraith added, adding that even if they had, they most likely did not understand the full ramifications.

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri, a Swedish doctor who has been assisting Yazidi women for many years, appears in one scene of the film. She died in March after contracting Covid-19 while reuniting Yazidi mothers with their ISIS-fathered children.

Dr. Nazdar Ghafouri, one of her sisters, said there were text exchanges with Mr. Hirori that were still on her sister’s phone after she found out the documentary had been screened with her face showing, reminding him that she did not want to be in it. According to the texts shown to The Times by her sister, the filmmaker responded that there were no close-ups of her.

The film addresses the sensitive issue of Yazidi women being separated from their children fathered by ISIS fighters.

Some mothers willingly relinquished custody of their children. Some, however, remain in hiding in Al Hol camp and elsewhere because they know they will be forced to give up their young children if they want to return to their families and communities in Iraq.

In some scenes, a distraught young woman is forced by Yazidi leaders to abandon her 1-year-old son in Syria so that she can return to Iraq.

“I saw him filming but had no idea what he was doing,” the woman explained. She claimed that the filmmakers never asked her to sign a consent release after that.

All of the Yazidi women interviewed asked to remain anonymous. Some still fear ISIS, while others are concerned about the fallout within their own conservative community.

The women rescued in the film are still in refugee camps, safe houses, or other countries. Nazdar Ghafouri, the Swedish doctor’s sister, said she was concerned that the film would put some of them in danger and prevent them from moving on with their lives.

Mr. Hirori told another Yazidi woman who appeared in the documentary that he was filming for his own personal use. Another said she told Mr. Hirori right away that she didn’t want to be a part of it because community leaders portrayed as heroes had lied to some of the women and taken their children away from them.

One of the women claimed that Yazidi officials forced her to sign the consent form despite the fact that she did not understand what it said. The consent grants the filmmakers perpetual rights to the stories, images, voices, and even the women’s names.

Human Rights Watch considered screening “Sabaya” at its own film festival but declined due to concerns about the subjects.

“The film raises a number of red flags for us in terms of concerns that it may be victimizing victims,” Letta Tayler, an associate director in the group’s crisis and conflict division, said. “How can women who are imprisoned in a safe house with no way out provide consent?”

She expressed particular concern about the film’s close-ups of a 7-year-old girl being rescued. Mr. Hirori stated that he obtained permission from the girl’s guardian, whom he did not name. Her legal guardian, however, told The Times that he was never contacted for consent.

The handling of consent for “Sabaya” contrasts sharply with common practices in Europe and the United States, where films generally provide proof that releases have been obtained in order to secure insurance against privacy claims.

The Swedish Film Institute, the documentary’s primary funder, stated that obtaining consent was the responsibility of the film’s producer, which it believed the filmmakers had done.

“Just because they are far away doesn’t mean we can eat popcorn and watch a movie about a horrific scene somewhere,” said Nazdar Ghafouri, the Swedish doctor’s sister. “This is not a work of fiction. This is what happened to these young ladies.”

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Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film About Them