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Battling ISIS, seeking converts, imagining Armageddon, singing together

A scene from "Sabaya."MTV Documentary Films

Though scarcely remembered now, the 2014 massacre of thousands of members of the Yazidi religion by ISIS, on Mount Sinjar, in Iraq, remains one of the most barbarous acts of genocide of recent years. In addition to these killings, ISIS abducted thousands of women and children and forced them to become sex slaves. As seen in Hogir Hirori’s “Sabaya” (the title is the ISIS term for these victims) many of them are still unaccounted for. Volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center — including freed sabayas, who infiltrate the dens of suspected ISIS cells — are determined to track them down and return them to their families. They focus their search on Al-Hol, in Syria, one of the most dangerous refugee camps in the Middle East.

Hirori follows these determined men and women as they trace leads and search the camp’s labyrinth of tents and shacks, inhabited by 73,000 ISIS diehards. At first the rescuers seem in over their heads, equipped only with cellphones, flashlights, handguns, a few AK-47s, a battered van, and piles of photographs of the missing. But they are fearless, organized, and relentless in their pursuit. When they succeed they bring the freed women and children back to the center, where they are treated with kindness until they can be restored to their families. The traumatized survivors relate their years of captivity, during which they were raped, tortured, sold, forced to bear children for their abductors, and witnessed the murder of fellow captives.


With the suspense and tension of a real-life “Taken” (2008), the documentary shows these heroes — though they don’t have any set of particular skills — persevere despite the threat of reprisal from ISIS. In one scene a vehicle follows their van and they engage in a gun battle. The rescuers are unfazed. No doubt it’s not the first time they’ve dodged bullets. Meanwhile the pile of photos of missing victims keeps growing.

“Sabaya” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room beginning Aug. 6. It screens at the Brattle Aug. 7 and 8. Go to brattlefilm.org/coming-soon.


A scene from "Pray Away."Courtesy of NETFLIX

Conversion disorder

The myth that being LGBTQ is a choice of “lifestyle” persists. The program Exodus International, founded by gay Christians in the 1970s, helped perpetuate belief in that myth and pushed the policy of “conversion therapy,” a faith-based method of prayer and quack psychiatry that was supposed to cure such sinners of their deviant ways. These gay healers became superstars in the homophobic evangelical universe. The problem was that they couldn’t practice what they preached. Being gay was not a choice, it was their nature.

Interviewed years later in Kristine Stolakis’s “Pray Away,” those involved in that movement acknowledge their folly, denounce it, and express guilt over their role in a program responsible for much suffering and many suicides among the 700,000 who were victims.

But they, too, are victims. In order to conform to their faith, they suppressed their true nature. Their churches embraced and exploited them, compelling these vulnerable members to spread their twisted message while denying their souls.

“Pray Away” will stream on Netflix, beginning Aug. 3. Go to www.netflix.com/title/81040370.

A scene from "The War Game."Pathé Contemporary Films/Getty Images

Not a drill

The special effects are minimal, but the emotional impact of Peter Watkins’s “The War Game” (1966) remains overwhelming. With its stark voice-over narration (”Within this car a family is burning alive”), the BBC production follows with chilling immediacy a hypothetical scenario in which a Chinese incursion into the Vietnam War unleashes a domino effect of escalation and, ultimately, Armageddon. By limiting itself to a few small communities (as ABC’s “The Day After” would do, in 1983), the film reduces to a human scale an unimaginable, universal catastrophe. It was too disturbing for the BBC, which didn’t broadcast it. It won an Academy Award for best feature documentary,


At one point, Watkins’s film breaks away to experts speculating that with the current rate of nuclear proliferation the outbreak of World War III might be expected by 1980. That prediction did not come about, but complacency does not change the fact that today several nations possess arsenals vastly more powerful and efficient than those in 1965.

Massachusetts Peace Action is sponsoring a screening of “The War Game” at the Regent Theatre at 7 p.m. on Aug. 6, the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Nobel Peace Prize winner Ira Helfand.

Go to regenttheatre.com/details/hiroshima_day_screening.

A scene from "Soy Cubana."Woods Hole Film Festival

Vocal heroes

With the recent anti-government protests in Cuba and their harsh suppression by the Cuban government and subsequent US sanctions, the celestial harmonies of the Afro-Cuban female a cappella quartet the Vocal Vidas seem an echo of a paradise lost. Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov’s “Soy Cubana” captures the group in better days, when the Obama administration had begun to take down the barriers between the two countries and the singers could expect crowds of visiting American tourists at their concerts in their hometown of Santiago de Cuba. They could expect to sell DVDs and receive tips, which during a good month would earn them all of $30. These were joyous occasions — in one scene they sing the spiritual “Plenty Good Room,” which an older Black American tourist recognizes from his youth and then gives a mellifluous rendition of his own.


The singers’ dream of performing in the United States looks like it will come true when they are invited to play some venues in Los Angeles, including one that seats 3,000. But this opportunity comes just as the Trump administration has entered office and reversed Obama’s Cuban policies. So the group applies for their visas with trepidation.

Prospects look dim. But the music is still radiant and uplifting. Ungar and Getov wisely let the group perform songs in their entirety and their intricate and soaring harmonies prove that music is one of most powerful means of resolving differences between nations.

“Soy Cubana” can be streamed as part of the Woods Hole Film Festival, July 31-Aug. 7 and will screen Aug. 5 at 8:30 p.m. at the Falmouth Academy Simon Center, in Falmouth. Go to www.goelevent.com/WoodsHoleFilmFest/e/SoyCubana.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.