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“Sabaya” filmmakers comment on consent controversy

The producer of the acclaimed documentary Sabaya has issued a statement concerning a recent New York Times article, which claimed that some of the participants in the film did not ...
October 1, 2021

The producer of the acclaimed documentary Sabaya has issued a statement concerning a recent New York Times article, which claimed that some of the participants in the film did not provide consent to appear.

In the statement, producer Antonio Russo Merenda maintained that he and Sabaya director Hogir Hirori received “written, verbal or filmed consent from everyone who appears in our film,” as well as from the legal guardian of a young girl who is featured.

He added that the film, a Swedish production which received funding from the Swedish Film Institute, follows Swedish law, which according to Merenda, states that written, verbal or filmed consent are equally valid.

“Consent forms were provided in both Arabic (the official language in both Syria and Iraq) and English,” he said.

“The response from the women whom we feature in the film has been filled with gratitude and appreciation for exposing the atrocities from which they have suffered,” Merenda continued. “Hogir (who I should add is a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan married to a Kurdish refugee from Syria) still maintains regular contact with all the main female characters in the film.”

The film follows the efforts of a team that attempts to free Yazidi girls and women held captive as sex slaves by ISIS in Syria. According to the Times piece, several of the women in the documentary told the paper, under the condition of anonymity, that they did not understand what the footage being shot at the time would be used for. The piece also claims that some participants received consent forms electronically and in English, after the film had screened.

Sabaya had its world premiere at Sundance in January of this year, where it won the directing prize in the world cinema documentary category. It has since gone on the screen at several festivals, and is distributed in North America by MTV Documentary Films and internationally by Dogwoof.

Besides the Swedish Film Institute, other backers included SVT, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Film Stockholm/Filmbasen, YLE and VGTV.

Merenda’s statement also included testimony from someone identified as the “main female protagonist” in the film, although her name isn’t shared due to safety concerns. Translated from Kurdish, her statement read in part: “[Hirori] explained to us all who he was and that he was making a documentary and told us what it was going to be about. I gave him my consent there and then, and I didn’t witness any of the other girls objecting to being filmed during the whole film process. He even let us try filming with his camera. Then Hogir accompanied us to the Syrian-Iraqi border where he gave us his phone number and told us to contact him if we had any questions or concerns. We all told him that we consent to everything and that we didn’t have any concerns.”

She added that an unnamed “organization” has repeatedly tried to persuade participants not to consent to being filmed, adding: “the leader of the organization and her team have tried to contact us girls that are in the film telling us not to sign any consents, not to participate in the film, not to let Hogir film us, and to try to convince us not to participate in this project.”

The released statement also included words of support from female Syrian/Kurdish filmmaker Guevara Namer, who worked with Hirori for part of the film shoot.

In the wake of the controversy, a planned screening of the film by the International Documentary Association has been cancelled, with the organization stating: “In the days following the publication of the [NYT] article, our team has engaged in due diligence through a process of communicating with the filmmakers and key stakeholders. Due to potential safety risks involved for some people portrayed in the film, we have chosen to remove the film from our 2021 Screening Series. Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided not to amplify the film at this time.

“In addition to the immediate concern of safety for at-risk individuals, we recognize that questions of informed consent, on both legal and ethical levels, are of vital importance to our documentary community,” the IDA added. “We last convened on this topic at [IDA conference] Getting Real ’20. The lack of shared standards in our field around these issues, particularly in conflict-driven situations, merits an ongoing nuanced discussion.”

(Photo: Lolav Media, Ginestra Film)

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