March 11, 2017
Inspired by the political revolution and events that took place across North Africa in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, in 2011, a group of Syrian teenage boys decided to exercise one of their own fundamental human rights as a citizen – the freedom of expression. They wrote graffiti on their school walls in the city of Daraa “It’s your turn, Doctor,” a reference to Assad’s training in England as a physician. Upon notice by the school administration, the teenagers’ simple expression denouncing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad government regime’s authoritarian and undemocratic rule was viewed as civil disobedience by the school and was reported to the Assad government, who arrested, jailed, tortured and killed some of the teenagers.
That event sparked outcries and public protests from the Syrian people who were already tired of living under oppressive regime and dictatorship for more than 40 years. Their peaceful protests demanding civil liberties and freedom of expressions were met with military attacks by the Assad government, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians.
That scene and events, which first took place in 2011, have since escalated into a full-blown civil war that has left thousands of Syrians, including children, dead, injured and millions homeless while fleeing the Assad’s regime and their homeland to seek shelter and safety in Europe and other parts of the world.
Consequentially, the on-going six-years civil war in Syria between the government and people also has precipitated the largest refugee crisis Europe has ever experienced since the end of World War II, which in turn has led to widespread fear and discrimination against Syrian refugees and people of Islamic faith. These series of events serve as a premise for “Cries from Syria,” the latest documentary film from “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” Oscar nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky.
Narrated by Academy Award winner Helen Mirren and told through film footage collected from activists, citizen journalists, as well as testimonies from child protestors, revolution leaders, human rights defenders, ordinary citizens and high-ranking army generals who have defected from the government, the film takes the audience on a unique kaleidoscopic journey over five years, from Syria to Turkey, through Jordan, Lebanon and Europe, layered with rich cinematic textures that captured the fractured dreams and hope of the Syrians people that have been decimated by the civil war. Audience get to see the situation from the inside out, through the eyes of those trapped in-between– many of them children in harsh environments –and experience their suffering, bravery, struggle, survival and hope.
Two questions echo throughout “Cries from Syria”: Where is humanity in all of this? How long can hope survive against human atrocities.
While there are no easy answers to those questions, Grammy and Emmy winner and Oscar nominated Diane Warren’s song “Prayers for this World,” recorded and sang by American singer Cher accentuates the yearning that somehow hope will survive.
The film was recently screened at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York prior to its premiere on HBO.
I spoke with the director, Evgeny Afineevsky, shortly after the screening about his latest work to find out what inspired him to do “Cries from Syria,” and what he hopes to accomplish with this latest work. The following Q&A is the edited version of our conversation.
THEAFRICABAZAAR – What was it from your experience or background that inspired you to do this documentary about the Syrian civil war and the current refugee crisis in Europe?
Afineevsky – It has nothing to do with my background or experience. There is no connection. I just feel like in our days, and as a filmmaker, some people would say it is the best ability of filmmakers to help people tell their stories and being an American filmmaker who has freedom of speech, and can tell such stories to the entire world, I feel I’m obligated to do this sort of [film] and this was the type of situation where I felt I as a story teller and filmmaker, this story needs to be told. That’s why I did the film. And being an independent filmmaker and artist and not being part of the media network, I have the time and freedom to take the time to research, find and meet these people and document their stories.
And just to remind you, these people [Syrians] have been fighting for their freedom of expression, freedom of speech since 2011. I felt the need to tell their stories because the world has a lack of knowledge about them and that [lack of knowledge] makes us to fear them and be afraid of them. Everything in our minds is mixed together – terrorism, refugees, Syria – people who wants to invade our country – but it’s not true. They don’t want to invade our country. They don’t want to take over our lands. It’s one of the reasons I started looking for these people, and decided to bring their stories to live and shed light on their stories.
I think it’s fair to say there’s a common element- the Russian government- in this documentary and your last documentary -“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”, which focused on the situation in Ukraine. You were born in Russia and started your documentary film career at an early age while still living there before you emigrated to the U.S. and later became an American citizen. When I asked what was it about your background and experience, as an independent filmmaker you have the choice to choose and pick the movie projects you want to do- why do you pick subjects, films that involved Russian government? Is that some sort of subconscious renouncement of the Russian government’s inhumane actions?
Afineevsky – You’re right, I was born in Russia, and started to do documentary at a young age. Movies are always a fascinating thing for me and I have been doing it for a long time. I love doing movies because for me it’s something that I create and they live for eternity. Movies are some type of monuments that continue to live after us and that’s why I love movies and I have been doing for so long.
I did the Ukrainian documentary and immediately after, I went to Europe to do the Syrian documentary because I wanted to learn more about the Syrian people and tell their story to the world.
My motivation for doing this movie is after I finished the Ukrainian documentary- there was a huge crisis about refugees in the European Union and I wanted to learn and understand why these huge amount of people are fleeing their homes and country and going to Europe. I was interested specifically because the press were painting them as invaders of European Union and invaders of privacy, depicting them as people who want to impose their religion [Islam] on the European people and the western world. And here I’m paraphrasing quotes from the media, that the European Union people are afraid of the Syrian refugees and that the Syrians are terrorism.
I wanted to learn more about that and whether that was true or not. So I went to Europe and found out, (a) what the press is reporting is absolutely not true. These people [Syrians} are not trying to invade or take over Europe and implement Islam upon the EU. (b) These people are not terrorists. I found out instead that they are victims of an inhumane regime and they are trying to look for shelter and a better life away from the civil war in their country. That’s when I realized that to tell their story, I have to restore and reconstruct the history from the beginning from when [the civil war] started, and what led to it, which will help me answer the question of why these Syrian people are fleeing their homes.
I traveled to the Middle East and went over to the Syrian border and started to reconstruct the narrative by interviewing people, collecting footages and continuing with my research and slowly, the whole narrative started taking shape and within two years, I found what I was looking for- the answers I want. This movie helped me to answer these questions and at the same time to bring knowledge to the people around me. And right now, with the help of HBO, I am sharing that knowledge with the world.
The current refugee and humanitarian crisis in Europe is not just singular or unique to Syrians. There are humanitarian situations and refugees in some African countries – in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Kenya, Chad, Niger. In Eastern Europe, there is the situation in Ukraine. Similarly, we saw what happened in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the early 1990s. All of these crises, though happening across the world sporadically, are synonymous with oppressive regimes, authoritarians and dictatorships. After the Holocaust, the world said never again. Yet, the types of atrocities committed then against humanity have persisted in different forms from ethnic cleansing to genocide. For example, the genocide that took place more than 20 years ago in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Darfur and during the Bosnia war, the current famine in South Sudan, just to named a few. It seems like the world in some ways has become sort of immune to these horrific events as a result of being overwhelmed by sordid images, and stories arising from those situations. As a filmmaker, how can you reawaken or call attention to what’s going on right now?
Afineevsky – First of all, there are so many places where people need help. We want to emphasize [through this documentary] that whatever happened there can happen here or anywhere else in the world. People need to start respecting their neighbors more. People need to start re-evaluating their values and the way we’re living. We need to not take things for granted. There is a lot that I want people to learn form this movie- but definitely – each and every person in the room can learn something from this movie.
Tell me, during the process of researching and producing this documentary, what was that process and journey like for you?
Afineevsky – For me, it is the journey to the darkest side of humanity.
What do you mean by “the darkest side of humanity”? What was it about this film that was different from your previous films?
Afineevsky – This movie is specifically, to describe it in one sentence, is the darkest side of humanity.
Why would you describe it as “the darkest journey to humanity”?
Afineevsky – In doing this movie, I didn’t see any humanity reflected. From the point of, specifically, from the point of the regimes of Assad and Russia, there’s no humanity reflected from them [governments] to the Syrian people. What is going on in the country [Syria] is completely inhuman from when the Syrian government started to torture and kill children for the simple willful act of defacing walls by writing graffiti on the wall their school. As punishment, the Assad’s regime tortured the kids, killed some of them and when the public protested against the regime’s brutality of the children, protesters were met with bullets and soon after, buttressed by the Russian government, the Syrian government’s action have escalated to using illegal chemical weapons against its own people, killing thousands of innocent people. What is happening in Syria is not to the level of any human being.
What moment or moments stood out the most or affected you the most while producing this film?
Afineevsky – When I started to do research and learn about the Syrian refugees, I found out that most of us knew little about them, so I wanted to educate people.
In “Cries from Syria,” you told the story from the perspectives of the children. Why do you put the focus on them?
Afineevsky – The Syrian people have lived under dictatorship for 40 years. In 2011, the regime began opening torturing children. This was the final straw for the Syrians and started the revolution. As the Assad regime continue to brutally attack its people, and people rebel against the regime, as we saw in the film footage from testimonies of the people I interviewed, the suffering of Syrian children did not only continue, but their condition began to deteriorate. No matter what you think or feel about the political situation of the country, no one can deny that the suffering of these kids is inhumane, inhuman.
The voices of the lost generation [children] in Syria needed to be heard and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to focus on them by allowing these kids to speak for themselves and using footages of the three most iconic images of children that have appeared in the press. Many people think the civil war in Syria is between men. But as we saw from this movie, this is not always the case. The death of 3 years old Aylan Kodi, injured five year old Oman Danqneesh sitting in an ambulance after being rescued from a bombed building debris, and then Bana Alabed. For the first time, putting these horrific images in one context creates a comprehensive look of the Syrian civil war by connecting all its lost points across from the torture of the children by the regime to its use of bullets and chemical weapon attacks on the protesters, the rise of ISIS, and the biggest refugee crisis EU has ever experience since the end of WW II. That’s why I focus on the kid and why it was one of the essential elements of this movie.
Since 9/11, there is fear, blatant discriminations, and outcries against majority of the people from the Middle East and muslims in general, and this is not not just among Americans. In general, most people feel and are rather very fearful when the word Syria is mentioned or when Islam is mentioned or when the word Muslim is mentioned. In your view from documenting the Syrian stories, would you say the current negative reactions toward the Syrian refugees, – the U.S.’s travel ban, are justified or somewhat impetuous?
Afineevsky – First of all, at the end of the day, we have a situation where the government and the press have created more fear toward these people [Syrians] by giving mixed messages. But it is a mixed message, remember that. I am not a Muslim, but I think during the political season in the U.S., and I’m taking about right now, it’s easy to create Islamophobia based on the idea that all Middle Eastern or muslim people are terrorists. We have to change that narrative to help us understand these people and their parts of the world and this movie help us do that.
What do you hope people will take away from this film and what can people do to help?
Afineevsky – Open their heart and reevaluate values around them. Rethink things and learn from historical lessons . Learn that these people are victims and not terrorists. Learn about the root of terrorism. What is the difference between the Syrian people, Islamic radicals who are operating not under Islam but under a different set of rules and theology deviated from the religion. Based on the facts presented in this movie, people can begin to reevaluate the Syrian stories by separating these refugees from the terrorists who have invaded their home and led them to seek shelter elsewhere and look at what we stand for. The most important thing Americans can learn from this movie is to reevaluate their own values and what they have at hand. We have our freedom and freedom of speech, freedom of expression and we have our democracy. Now, people in Syria are fighting for their freedom of expression and speech and democracy. They have been fighting for it since 2011. We have it here in America because our founding fathers understood how important these values are and implemented in our constitution. This movie reminds us to not take these values for granted but to cherish and to protect and respect what we have.
The other thing is we need to reevaluate that we have food on our table, have luxury of food. We sometimes waste and throw away foods, whereas there are so many people around the world starving. We have to protect these values and things we have because it is easy to lose than to regain these values.
People who wants to help can go on our website for more information. Or to help us bring this movie to other part of the world and the country.
I know you’re a filmmaker and not a politician, However, I have to ask you this, given the research you have done in producing this movie, what suggestions, if any, would you have for the United Nations or the American government?
Afineevsky – This movie is a reminder of past historic events. As a citizen, I did my best to bring the lessons I have learned to the public. We are working on bringing the movie to the United Nations, White House and schools across the United States to help educate people.
The documentary film, Cries from Syria will be shown on HBO on Monday, March 13 and will be available subsequently on HBO On Demand and HBO Go.
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