Women enslaved by ISIS say they did not consent to film about them

In a critically-acclaimed documentary on ISIS’s rescue of sexually enslaved women and girls, scenes filled with tension take place in a Syrian detention camp and later in a safe house where victims face harsh treatment. distressing choices.

The film “Sabaya”, from Sweden, won this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival award for best director of a foreign documentary and opened the Human Rights Film Festival last week in Berlin. The critics gave it rave reviews; its actual scenes of car chases and rescue attempts are as dramatic as any fictional thriller.

But the film upset some of the people it was meant to celebrate: women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who have been sexually enslaved by the Islamic State terrorist group for years and who are the main subjects. They and their advocates say he has violated the rights of women, who had previously been denied virtually any control over their lives, to decide whether or not they want to use images.

Three of the Yazidi women in the documentary told the New York Times they did not understand what the film’s director, Hogir Hirori, was planning to do with the footage or that they had been told the film would not be accessible in Iraq. or in Syria. A fourth said she knew he was making a movie, but told him she didn’t want to be there. A Kurdish-Swedish doctor who assisted Yazidi women also made it clear that she did not want to appear in the documentary.

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

Their objections have raised questions about what constitutes informed consent for traumatized survivors and the different standards applied to documentary subjects in Western countries.

Mr Hirori, a Swedish citizen and former Iraqi Kurdish refugee, spent nearly two years directing the film in 2019 and 2020 and made several trips to Syria and Iraq. He said he obtained verbal, written or filmed consent from all of the identifiable women in the documentary.

Mr Hirori, an experienced filmmaker, told The Times he initially recorded the women’s verbal consent in the days following their rescue in 2019 and while staying in the same safe house in Syria as some of the between them. He said his intention was to have them sign written authorizations on an upcoming trip to the region, but this was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so he “physically dispatched” the forms.

The women said they received consent forms, but electronically in English, a language they do not understand. The forms came almost two years after he filmed them and after the film was shown.

The shapes seen by The Times named Mr. Hirori and producer Antonio Russo Merenda and were dated after the film debuted at Sundance in January. They sought consent retroactively.

In cases where women did not give their written consent, Mr Hirori said, he used images of them with their faces blurred. However, the slightly fuzzy features of some women are still recognizable in the film.

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

The film is set in the aftermath of ISIS’s takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq and its campaign of genocide against the Yazidis in 2014. Fighters killed around 3,000 Yazidis and captured around 6 000 more, including many girls and women who have been sexually enslaved.

The documentary describes the efforts to save Yazidi women by two leaders and guards of the Yazidi community in the chaotic and dangerous Al Hol detention camp in northeastern Syria.

After the fall of ISIS in 2019, some 60,000 women and children from the territories that were under the control of the terrorist group crowded into the teeming camp. They included hundreds of Yazidi women who were forced to continue living with the families of the fighters who had enslaved them, even though most of these fighters had been killed in action by that time.

“These are people who were kidnapped at a very young age and who were held as slaves and sexually abused for five years,” said Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador who helped bring together more than one dozen Yazidi women with their young children who had been taken from them. The Yazidi community in Iraq does not allow women to bring back children fathered by ISIS fighters.

“I do not see how, in these circumstances, they gave informed consent,” added Mr Galbraith, saying that even if they had done so, they probably did not understand all the repercussions.

A scene from the film shows Dr. Nemam Ghafouri, a Swedish doctor who has helped Yazidi women for years. She died in March after contracting Covid-19 while reuniting Yazidi mothers with their young children fathered by ISIS fighters.

One of her sisters, Dr Nazdar Ghafouri, said there were text messages with Mr Hirori still on his sister’s phone reminding him, after finding out the documentary was screened with her face , that she hadn’t wanted to be in this. The filmmaker replied that there had been no close-ups of her, according to texts her sister showed to The Times.

The film tackles the very sensitive subject of the separation of Yazidi women from their children fathered by ISIS fighters.

Some women have voluntarily abandoned the children. But some are still hiding in Al Hol camp and other places because they know they will be forced to abandon their young children if they want to return to their families and communities in Iraq.

Some scenes in the film show a distraught young woman forced by Yazidi leaders to leave her one-year-old son in Syria so that she can return to Iraq.

“I saw it filming, but I didn’t know what it was for,” the woman said. She said she was never asked to sign a consent waiver by the filmmakers afterwards.

All Yazidi women interviewed requested anonymity. Some still fear ISIS, while others fear repercussions within their own conservative community.

The women rescued in the film are still in camps for displaced Iraqis, in shelters or in other countries. Nazdar Ghafouri, the Swedish doctor’s sister, said she believed the film could put some of them in danger and prevent them from continuing with their lives.

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

One of the women said she was pressured by Yazidi officials to sign the consent form even though she did not understand what it was saying. Consent gives filmmakers extended rights in perpetuity to the stories, images, voices and even names of women.

Human Rights Watch considered “Sabaya” for its own film festival, but decided not to do so due to concerns about the topics.

“The film raises a number of red flags for us about concerns that it could victimize victims,” ​​said Letta Tayler, associate director of the group’s crisis and conflict division. “How can women who are held in a safe house with no easy exit give their consent? “

She said she was particularly concerned with the close-ups of a 7-year-old girl being rescued in the film. Mr Hirori said he obtained the consent of the girl’s guardian, whom he did not name. But his legal guardian told The Times he was never contacted for consent.

The processing of consent for “Sabaya” contrasts sharply with common practice in Europe or the United States, where films generally provide evidence that the releases were obtained to ensure protection against privacy claims.

The Swedish Film Institute, the main funder of the documentary, said it was up to the film’s producer to obtain consent and believed the filmmakers had done so.

“Just because they’re far away doesn’t mean we can eat popcorn and watch a movie on a horrible scene somewhere,” said Nazdar Ghafouri, the Swedish doctor’s sister. “This is not fiction. This is what happened to these girls.

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