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PART 2: Faked scenes in Sundance-winning documentary

Yesterday, Kvartal revealed that the heroes of the internationally lauded SVT (Swedish Television) documentary Sabaya forced several Yazidi women to give up their children, falsely promising they would later be reunited. Instead, the children were offered for sale to ISIS.

In the second part of Kvartal’s investigation, we show how director Hogir Hirori fabricated several of the film’s scenes. 

Furthermore, the director now admits that the dramatic rescue of Leila, the female protagonist of the documentary, was filmed with an entirely different woman.

– I think this damages the film’s credibility, says Axel Arnö, commissioning editor at SVT and responsible editor for Sabaya.

Read the first part of Kvartal’s Sabaya investigation.


Av Ludde  Hellberg | 27 maj 2022
Ludde Hellberg är Kvartals vd.
ProfilLästid 14 min Skärmläsarvänlig
I korthet
SVT documentary Sabaya, which has won awards both at Sweden’s Guldbagge film gala and the internationally prestigious Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of two men’s struggle to rescue Yazidi women from the infamous al-Hol camp in Syria, where they have been living as sex slaves for ISIS terrorists. 

In the first part of Kvartal’s Sabaya investigation, we revealed that the two male protagonists forced the Yazidi women to leave their children behind, tricking them into believing they would later be reunited with the children. After that, the children were offered to ISIS for sale.

Sabaya was primarily financed through Swedish taxpayers’ money, having received financial support from the Swedish Film Institute and been co-produced with SVT, the Swedish public service television company.

One of the production companies behind the film is Ginestra films. They also produced the SVT documentary Abolis resa (Aboli’s journey), which Kvartal revealed major flaws in last autumn. Our investigation then showed that Aboli, the protagonist of the film, had applied for a Swedish residence permit using two different identities, which was not made clear in the documentary – and that there are clear signs that vital parts of the film’s narrative are fictional.

– A documentary is a personal narrative; it’s her [editor’s note: the director’s] perception of reality, said producer Antonio Russo Merenda to Kvartal at the time. He also said that documentary filmmakers do not need to ”be objective”. Russo Merenda is also the producer of Sabaya.

Faked scenes

Kvartal can now show that director Hogir Hirori, who filmed all of Sabaya by himself on location in Syria, fabricated several scenes in the film.

Sabaya tells the story of the two male protagonists, Mahmud and Ziyad, entering the highly dangerous al-Hol camp to rescue the enslaved women. The film’s description reads: ”With only a mobile phone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad, and their group risk their lives to try to save Yazidi women and girls who are being held captive by ISIS”.

The nighttime rescue raids are dramatically depicted. Mahmud and Ziyad load their guns and set out into the al-Hol camp to find the Yazidi women and their children and bring them to safety in the Yazidi Home Center, which the protagonists themselves run.

The female protagonist is rescued

The female protagonist of the documentary is called Leila. She is the first woman to be rescued in the film, and the rescue operation to save her is by far the most dramatic one. With guns drawn, Mahmud and Ziyad manage to find her in a tent, take her to their car and drive out of the al-Hol camp. Suddenly, just outside of the camp, something happens: Someone is following them. It’s soon clear that ISIS is chasing them, and they now have to flee for their lives in a seemingly fatal car chase under a rain of bullets. The protagonists make a narrow escape from the terrorists. The rest of the film shows Leila recuperating in the Yazidi Home Center in Syria, where she and the other women are taken to recover and rest after their captivity before reuniting with their relatives in Iraq. 

The dramatic rescue scene is a principal element of the trailer for Sabaya, and several reviews have also singled it out, both in Swedish and international media, for example, in Variety. Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet writes:

”One of the most potent sequences is the rescue of Leila. She cries behind her niqab while the organization’s minivan is being chased and shot at – the area they’re driving through is still ISIS-friendly. The morning after, she’s lying on the floor, still crying”.

He tells the story in a BBC interview

In many interviews, Hogir Hirori has been asked questions about the dramatic rescue scene. 

In an extended interview with the BBC, he talks about the night he filmed the rescue of Leila. He says:

– Leila was very frightened when I first met her. She was very nervous and she could hardly walk because she was so scared. We all got in the car to go back to Mahmuds home, it was a very dangerous road. There are land mines around, and as we were driving, another car started chasing us. Then they started shooting at us. […] Filming while we were being shot at was a harrowing experience. It was very important for me to document it as it was happening. Because that’s the reality, Hogir Hirori said at the time.

The BBC reporter then describes how the film follows the rescue party to the home of protagonist Mahmud and how Leila changes clothes, from her all-black niqab to pink and red garments. And how the audience sees her beautiful face for the first time. Then, the reporter asks what it was like for Hogir Hirori to see this transformation.

– To see Leila transform the way she did gave me so much hope, Hirori answers the reporter.

The scene was filmed with another woman

But Kvartal’s investigation shows that the dramatic rescue of Leila must have been filmed with a completely different woman – and that Leila was rescued long before the first time Hirori came to the Yazidi Home Center. We can verify this using text messages written by Hirori, what he has stated in interviews, a date-stamped digital photo of Leila, a news report from a Kurdish news agency, and first-hand information from one of the women who stayed at the Yazidi Home Center at the same time as Leila. In conclusion, Hirori could not possibly have been present when Leila was rescued.1

This means that the arguably most important scene in the documentary has to be a sham. It is either a dramatic reenactment filmed with an actress after the fact, or it shows something completely different from what the film and its director claim it does.

Regissören Hogir Hirori började först filma på Yazidiska hemcentret den 30 juni 2019, visar Kvartals granskning. Sabayas kvinnliga huvudpersonen Leyla flyttade därifrån fyra dagar senare – ändå påstår Hirori att han följde hennes förvandling på centret under lång tid.
Kvartal’s investigation shows that director Hogir Hirori first started filming at the Yazidi Home Center on June 30, 2019. Leila, the female protagonist of Sabaya, left the center just four days after that date – yet Hirori claims to have followed her transformation at the center over a long period of time. Click the image to enlarge the timeline.

Shortly after Kvartal has sent Hogir Hirori questions concerning Leila’s rescue, he contacts Axel Arnö, the film’s project manager and responsible editor at SVT. Arnö confirms this call. Hogir Hirori now tells the responsible editor of the film that the dramatic rescue of Leila was, in fact, filmed with another woman.

– Hogir called me up and told me this after he had received your questions. I did not previously know about this, no, says Axel Arnö.

The woman is fully veiled during the entire sequence, so her face cannot be seen. In the last part, when Leila has been brought to the safety of the Yazidi Home Center, the power goes out just as the veil is lifted from her face, so she’s not visible there either.

Responsible editor: ”This is serious.”

Axel Arnö tells Kvartal that Hogir Hirori should have informed him and SVT about this earlier. 

– Yes, he should have done so, says Arnö, who, having read through Kvartal’s investigation, believes that the credibility of Sabaya has been damaged.

– Well, of course, the credibility of the film is being questioned now, and when a film loses its credibility… I think this is a serious matter.

Do you think this makes the film lose credibility?
– Yes, I think it does. And then there’s a judgment call as to whether it needs to be remade, Axel Arnö says and continues:

– A documentary can be anywhere on the scale from short film to wholly investigative journalism and everything in between. This is a storytelling film that seems to have used creative editing. I manage a department where subjectivity has a place, but documentaries should be true. A documentary film should never lie.

Does Sabaya lie?
– I’m not going to answer that now. I’ll have to think about that. But I do think what they’ve done here damages the film’s credibility, Axel Arnö states and adds:

– Hogir Hirori is an established filmmaker, and we have had a lot of trust in him. I can’t imagine that he has purposefully aimed to distort reality. But I need to talk this through with him before I can give you an answer.

More falsehoods

The day after Hogir Hirori tells Axel Arnö and SVT that Leila’s rescue was filmed with another woman, he writes this in an email to Kvartal:”The woman in the rescue scene is not Leila”. He gives no further comment on the matter.

Answering the question of how long he was following female protagonist Leila, he writes in the same email:”I followed Leila for several weeks up until her journey back to Iraq”.

But this is not correct, which Kvartal can establish using the same information. At most, Hogir Hirori could have followed Leila for seven days and filmed her during four of those.

Yazidi woman: ”A lot is fake.”

A Yazidi woman also rescued by the Yazidi Home Center tells Kvartal that there are several fabricated scenes in Sabaya. Among other things, she says, the night-time rescue raids where Mahmud and Ziyad enter the al-Hol camp are not genuine.

– A lot in the film is fake. When they entered the camp, they were accompanied by many members of the Kurdish forces. For example, when they took me out of the camp, the camp security guards came to my tent and got me while Mahmud waited at the camp office. They couldn’t enter the camp, the woman says.

When Kvartal asks her about the scenes where Mahmud and Ziyad enter tents with their guns drawn, she starts to laugh.

– Haha, no, they were not allowed to do that independently. They couldn’t do that. They did help us, they did a lot for me, I lived in their house for a month, but the reality is that they couldn’t enter the camp without the Kurdish forces.

Fabricated scenes

Kvartal can establish that other scenes in the film are unquestionably fabricated.

Through text messages sent by Hogir Hirori that Kvartal has seen, we know that he first came to the Yazidi Home Center on June 27, 2019.2 We also know for a fact that Leila and several of the other women left the Yazidi Home Center to move back to Iraq on July 4, 2019, which has been documented on video by Kurdish news agency Hawar.3

Sabaya’s opening scenes show the protagonists on a car journey, listening to a radio broadcast breaking the news that ISIS has been defeated. While the news crackles out from the car radio, a woman in the backseat stares out over the vast landscape. In actual fact, Kvartal’s investigation shows that this news report was broadcast on March 23, 2019 – more than three months before director Hogir Hirori arrived in Syria and first met the documentary’s protagonists. Therefore, the sound must have been edited in after filming.

Leila is rescued around 20 minutes into the film. In the first scenes at the Yazidi Home Center, she talks about everything being dark, saying she ought to be dead just like her father and brother and that she no longer wants to live. The film then lets us follow her recovery. Scene by scene, she grows stronger, and one hour into the film, she smiles for the first time. One hour and ten minutes in, she’s sitting on a chair while Mahmud listens to the news on his phone; ISIS has bombed a Syrian prison, and five dangerous ISIS terrorists have managed to escape. Leila stares into the distance. The terror cult that enslaved her is still at large.

But Kvartal’s investigation shows that the news report about the prison bombing was broadcast on October 11, 2019 – over three months after Leila left Syria and the Yazidi Home Center. Another fabricated scene with the sound edited in after the fact.

Misleading news reports

A further two minutes into the film, a smiling Leila tells us she has received a phone call from her sister, who says many people home in Iraq are longing to see her. The depression seems far away, Leila has recovered, and she’s finally getting to return home. At the same time, Mahmud’s colleague Ziyad is taking a walk around the home center with another of the freed women, and it’s clear that several of them are now going to return to Iraq: ”Sometimes we want you to stay longer until you feel better”, Ziyad tells the woman during their walk. She smiles in answer.

Day turns into night, and this same woman sits on the stairs. At the same time, Mahmud listens to another news report: Erdogan, the president of Turkey, has announced the launch of ”Operation Peace Spring”, the Turkish offensive into the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Syria. 

But Kvartal’s investigation shows that this news report was broadcast on October 9, 2019. Three months after Leila and the other woman left Syria and the Yazidi Home Center.

The film continues. Mahmud paces back and forth before sitting down on the living room floor to watch the TV news report on ”Operation Peace Spring”, where several people are already reported dead. Seamlessly, the report segues into another one – three car bombs have detonated in one day in the city of Qamishli. However, Kvartal’s investigation shows that this report was broadcast on November 11, 2019 – over a month after the report on ”Operation Peace Spring”. Yet, the Mahmud manages to watch both reports in one TV session – while the women, who in fact were taken back to Iraq four months earlier, are still in the house, according to the documentary.

Director declines interview

Night turns into day, and Leila, the other woman, and several others get into a minivan. They are driven to the Syria-Iraq border to be handed over to their relatives. The date is July 4, 2019 – we know this since this occasion was documented on Youtube by news agency Hawar. Yet, at this point in the documentary, the film protagonists have heard and reacted to significant news events that will not actually happen for several months.

And although this is the end of Sabaya’s long story, which took six trips and six months of filming according to director Hogir Hirori, at this point, he has followed the protagonists of the film for a maximum of seven days.

This means protagonist Leila’s entire recovery, from the traumatized sex slave we met at the start of the film to the smiling, rejuvenated girl we saw at the end – was filmed over just a few days.

Kvartal has tried to contact Hogir Hirori multiple times, but except for the short answers via email reported in the article, he has declined to be interviewed by us. He did, however, participate in Tuesday’s edition of Swedish Radio’s Studio Ett, where he rejected the information put forth in Kvartal’s first investigative article on Sabaya.

Mahmud, one of the male protagonists of Sabaya, passed away last year. Kvartal has tried to contact Ziyad and female protagonist Leila, to give them the opportunity to comment on the content of this article.

Kvartal has also sought contact with the film’s producer, Antonio Russo Merenda of Ginestra films, to give him the opportunity to comment on the content of this article.

Ludde Hellberg is an investigative journalist and Kvartal’s editorial staff member.

Translated from Swedish by Charlie Haldén.

Se noter Visa mindre


1) On July 4, 2019, Leila was sent from Syria to her relatives in Iraq, along with the majority of the women who the Yazidi Home Center rescued. We know this with certainty as there was a press conference in conjunction with the women being handed over, and Mahmud, one of the Sabaya protagonists, spoke there. This press conference was documented in a news report by Kurdish news agency Hawar, and this report can be found on Youtube.

Kvartal has also seen text messages written by Hogir Hirori in preparation for his first visit to the Yazidi Home Center to start working on the documentary. On June 24, 2019 – just ten days before the documentary’s female protagonist was sent back to Iraq – Hogir Hirori writes this in a message: ”Ticket is booked and ready, flying tomorrow evening”.

He then describes his travel plans and says he wants to try to get to Rojava, the Kurdish part of north-eastern Syria, on the morning of June 27, 2019. At this time, Hogir Hirori had never visited the Yazidi Home Center or met the male protagonists of Sabaya, which is clear from the text messages Kvartal has seen.

This means that the earliest date Hogir Hirori can have arrived at the Yazidi Home Center is June 27, exactly one week before Leila, the female protagonist of Sabaya, was handed over from Syria to Iraq. We also know that Hirori did not start filming the documentary as soon as he arrived. In an interview with the website Cineeuropa, Hirori is asked how he went about approaching the men at the Yazidi Home Center, and he answers:

– I visited the center and told them after only three days about the documentary project, and that’s when we did the first short interview. In the beginning, they didn’t trust me; they were suspicious. But after spending day and night together, the trust started building up, Hogir Hirori tells Cineeuropa. He also outlines the process of getting permission to film inside the al-Hol camp:

– It was necessary for me to get permission to film inside and outside the camp. I had to use my contacts in Syria and Sweden to achieve it. 

At the very earliest, Hogir Hirori arrived at the Yazidi Home Center on June 27, 2019. According to his own words, he didn’t even mention the documentary to the center’s owners until three days later, when he did a first short interview.

We also know that Leila was at the center as early as July 1, 2019, through a date-stamped digital photo of her taken at the Home Center, which Kvartal has seen. The photo was taken in the daytime – the sun is shining. The rescue scene in Sabaya happens at night.

To make the timeline work, the dramatic car chase must then have been filmed during the night of June 30, 2019 – the same day Hogir Hirori claims to have first told Mahmud and Ziyad about the film project. Let us assume for a moment that only a few hours after this first conversation, Mahmud and Ziyad brought director Hogir Hirori with them into the al-Hol camp for Leila’s rescue and the subsequent dramatic car chase – even though this directly contradicts Hirori’s own statements about it taking a long time to build trust with the protagonists and needing special permits to film inside the camp.

Even if we make those generous assumptions wholly to benefit Hogir Hirori, we have to conclude that his entire story of the spectacular rescue of Leila and her subsequent recovery takes place over only four days. Despite the story making up almost the entirety of the documentary.

But that doesn’t add up either. We know that Leila spent significantly more than four days at the Yazidi Home Center. Kvartal interviewed another of the women rescued from the al-Hol camp by Mahmud and Ziyad and brought to the Yazidi Home Center. When she arrived at the center, Leila was already there and according to the woman, had been there for several months.

– When I arrived, Leila had already been there for a long time, the woman says. She can also tell us details about Leila’s time at the center.

In conclusion, Hogir Hirori could not have been present when Leila was rescued.

2) See note 1.

3) See note 1.

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