Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 23rd, 2023
Mediha (Hasan Oswald, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have trauma fatigue when it comes to certain documentary subjects. But what is one viewer’s discomfort and exhaustion compared to real-world horror and its impact on survivors. Assuming I am not unique in my aversion to repeated exposure to tragedy, I urge everyone to steel their nerves and gear up for another narrative of kidnapping, abuse and rape. Fortunately, director Hasan Oswald’s latest film, Mediha, also comes with much joy and a message of hope.
The titular protagonist, like that of the 2021 Sabaya, is a Yazidi Kurd, stolen from her village in northern Iraq by ISIS terrorists when she was 10 and rescued 3 years later by members of her community. In that time, she was bought and traded in a system of slavery that traffics women and children for exploitation and profit. Her father is presumed dead, and her mother and youngest brother Barzan are, as the film begins, still in ISIS custody. Two other younger brothers—Ghazwan and Adnan—are now once again with her, also rescued.
The folks working tirelessly to free Yazidis like Mediha and her siblings are truly heroic, risking their own lives by going into the Al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, which is basically an ISIS fiefdom. There, they hope to locate missing persons old and young, whose names may have been changed. Complicating matters, many of the women now have new children, born of rape by their captors. This could fill them with shame, making return more difficult, despite the families waiting for them.
Such is most likely the case with Mediha’s mother, Afaf, now renamed Um Sana. Undeterred, rescuers Bahzad and Bashar (same name, but not Mediha’s brother), along with, travel to Syria and Turkey (a country with many ISIS members hiding in plain sight) to track her down. It’s a race against time.
We cut back and forth from these efforts to the lives of Mediha, Ghazwan, and Adnan, recovering from their ordeal. The boys seem to be doing better than Mediha, whose travails were no doubt worse. She has PTSD, but there are therapists to work with her, as well as anti-anxiety medications. Now a teenager, she balances her own health with her role as big sister. Little by little, she tells us the horrific details of her captivity.
Mediha is not easy viewing, but it is a necessary watch. Human-rights abuses happen all around us, and ignoring them won’t make them go away. It is heartening to see that suffering need not lead to irrevocable damage, however. Healing is possible. And through a combination of cinematic empathy and restrained filmmaking, Oswald (Higher Love)—who often allows Mediha and her siblings to record the footage we see—presents a moving treatment that celebrates human resilience. Life is hard, but is also beautiful.
[Mediha just had its world premiere at DOC NYC, for which I watched the film online.]