A documentary depicting the story of Yazidi women from the eyes of a genocide survivor who becomes a fighter for freedom, Hêza (“Strength”) by Derya Deniz, won the Don Quixote Award at the Melgaço International Documentary Film Festival (MDOC) in Portugal.
The title character Hêza witnesses the genocide of her people as she is enslaved by the jihadist Islamic State (ISIS) in their attack on Iraq’s Sinjar region on 3 August 2014, which the Yazidis have dubbed the 74th Massacre (Firman).
The story follows Hêza’s challenging journey to her salvation, away from ISIS barbarity, as she manages to escape from captivity and come back as a fighter to avenge the horrors Yazidi women have lived through.
Saying Hêza is an expertly written, interpreted and shot documentary, the festival organisers also speak of Hêza’s award-worthy proficiency at “transporting the audience to the depths of the heroine’s drama through touching images and an engaging soundtrack”.
Hêza has already received six more awards, including Best Feature Documentary in the Los Angeles Independent Women’s Film Festival, Best Feature Documentary in the Boden International Film Festival and Best Documentary in the Druk International Film Festival, as well as the Amnesty International Human Rights Award in the Sicily Ambient Festival in July.
Deniz was working as a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Firman, she told Özgür Politika. “The Sinjar Genocide is a wound shared by all Kurds. The stories of the abducted women, the tragedy that still lives to this day, needed to be heard, seen and pursued more,” she said.
“Each woman who found the strength to tell her story was a scream for the thousands of women whose fates remain unknown still,” she continued. “They were shouting at us to reach out, touch these women’s wounds, and to show the whole world this atrocity. So I pursued this.”
Deniz headed to Sinjar in 2019 to meet with the Yazidi Free Women’s Movement (TAJÊ), who introduced her to the Sinjar Women’s Units (YJŞ) fighters. She met Hêza there.
The real-life Hêza was abducted at 14, sold off as spoils of war, and raped. She attempted to escape, and failing that, to take her own life. Hêza lived in captivity for two years, taken from Mosul to Raqqa. In the last house she was sold to, she managed to escape with help from a Kurdish family.
When Hêza arrived back in Sinjar, she saw that a self defence force had been formed. She joined the YJŞ to rescue other women from ISIS.
“Filming was quite painful for Hêza. She was taken back to those nightmare days. I would often find her sobbing,” Deniz told the newspaper. “There were always two Hêzas with me: One desperate little girl who was enslaved by ISIS, and another strong fighter woman who swore to defeat ISIS and their ilk.”
They filmed while Turkey was shelling Sinjar and sporadic clashes continued in Raqqa. “But I was never alone,” Deniz said. “Everybody gave their all so I could finish this documentary. Everybody who heard Hêza’s story wanted the whole world to know.”