Director Evgeny Afineevsky on Turning 20 Terabytes of Footage Into 'Cries from Syria'

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“I wanted to tell the story through Syrian eyes, through their voices to reconstruct the history," says the director of the Sundance doc.

Cries from Syria acts as an overview of the Syrian conflict that has plagued the country for six years. Director Evgeny Afineevsky says he wanted to make a comprehensive overview of the ongoing civil war, while highlighting the human element among all of the fighting and atrocities. 

“I wanted to tell the story through Syrian eyes, through their voices to reconstruct the history,” he explained. “They think that the world abandoned them.” 

In order to paint this broad but personal portrait, Afineevsky spoke with a variety of activist, revolution leaders and refugees, which includes Kholoud Helmi, an editor and co-founder of underground newspaper Enab Baladi, and soccer goalie turned rebel leader Abdul Baset Al-Sarout.

“It took almost two years and we had almost 20 terabytes of footage and over 100 interviews.” Despite all of the hours of footage and interviews, Afineevsky only spent 11 weeks editing the doc. He added: “My composer did a full score for this two-hour movie in seven days.” 

Afineevsky interspersed these with talking-head interviews between wrenching images from the civil war, including Bashar al-Assad’s torturers at work and bombed-out buildings that once were family apartments. Cries from Syria begins with the now infamous image of refugee toddler Alan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

"We didn’t want to scare people. We didn’t want people to leave the cinema. My editor and I decided that there needed to be a limit,” Afineevsky said. “But at the same time we wanted to show the pain and the real story of the war—the mothers losing their children.”

The director noted that the hardest balance to strike was that of horror and hope, saying, “We needed to allow the audience to breathe between all of the moments of horror with uplifting moments. We needed to show the human spirit that was still there.”  

Cries from Syria documents the Syrian crisis from the student-led Arab Spring uprisings to the exodus of refugees and the ensuing international response. Above all else, Afineevsky hopes that his documentary educates audiences that may have been otherwise unfamiliar with the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. Then, through this education, he hopes there will be a natural empathetic response. 

“Most Americans lack knowledge of what is happening in Syria because the media has only been covering the refugee crisis since 2015 in small news segments,” the director said. “Due to a lack of knowledge, they have a fear. I am trying to stop this fear. When you understand, then there is no fear.” 

He concluded: “People can learn from this movie a great historical lesson. Because this can happen anywhere in the world, including the United States.” 

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