Review by Sean Boelman
Hogir Hirori’s documentary Sabaya is one of those documentaries that deals with such an important issue that its power is inherent, even if its approach is flawed. Perhaps a tad opportunist in its approach to this issue, this is nonetheless required viewing due to the urgency of this discussion.
The film follows a group of men and women who put their lives at risk by traveling into dangerous refugee camps in the Middle East and freeing women being held by ISIS as sex slaves. A lot of stories are told about the military forces involved in the war on terror, but few are seen about everyday people like this doing extraordinary things to fight back, and that makes this movie distinctive.
Sex trafficking is obviously a horrifying issue, and Hirori dials into that feeling to create a documentary that is altogether harrowing. The level of anxiety that viewers will have watching this film is through the roof, as the audience is worrying both for the subjects of the movie and the people they are rescuing.
However, there is something to be said about taking a thriller approach to this story. Obviously, the stakes are as high as possible here, and the subjects are racing against the clock to save these women’s lives, but presenting it in a way that feels like popcorn entertainment to viewers is at least a little ethically questionable.
That said, the film still does a great job of putting most of its effort where it needs to be. This is a story of heroism and selflessness, of people who risk everything to help those who are unable to help themselves. As a result, even though the movie is undeniably dark, there is a hopeful tinge to it that allows it to stand out from a lot of other anti-terrorism documentaries.
Of course, it is also worth noting that there are a lot of limitations that come with this type of film in order to preserve the safety of these people who are already in extreme danger, and Hirori does his best to get around these. The movie easily gets the viewer to root for these heroes despite the fact that they can’t be developed with many identifying details.
Much of the footage in the film is done in a run-and-gun format, which makes sense given the extremely frantic nature of the story. This also helps build suspense in a way that is extremely effective, heightening the tension even more than it already was. It can get to be a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s often for the best.
Sabaya will leave the canny viewer asking some questions about what they have just been presented with, but it achieves all of its goals. It’s an all-around affecting documentary, and that’s what will let it connect with audiences.
Sabaya is now in theaters.