No less than three documentaries about Syria premiered in Sundance this year. Director Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts looked at the citizen journalists reporting from Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS in Syria. Last Men in Aleppo, from Feras Fayyad, looked at the so-called White Helmets in Aleppo, a group that goes in after every air raid in the Syrian city under siege to help save victims from the rubble. Both documentaries had a rather narrow focus that allowed them to explore the human impact and dimensions of a small part of the conflict.
Evgeny Afineevsky, who directed Cries From Syria, does the opposite, packing an overview of the entire six years of the complex conflict into a film of just under two hours in an approach that’s strongly reminiscent of his Oscar- and Emmy-nominated film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Essentially a primer for those who haven’t watched or read the news from a reputable source since 2011, this compact and more than occasionally gruesome item is especially strong for its first three chapters, before it tackles the Syrian refugee crisis in too superficial and sentimental a manner.
HBO picked up this Sundance documentary title and has slated it for a March 13 debut. Outside of the U.S., Cries From Syria will similarly have festival life before segueing to broadcasting.
The film is divided into four chapters, which cover the hope for a revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring; the Syrian civil war that resulted from the clash between the army of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and the protestors-turned-fighters; the foreign interventions in the conflict and especially the constant pummeling from the air of civilians by Russian forces; and finally the resulting refugee crisis and its spread towards Turkey and Europe.
The film consists of a lot of talking-head interviews, alternated and illustrated with footage shot by Syrian activists and citizens on the ground. No attempts are made to censor all the death and destruction encountered, turning the film into a necessary but frequently hard-to-watch account of an ancient country’s descent into a modern hell. Defected army generals, leaders of the resistance and citizen journalists all help shed a light on the atrocities committed by the Assad regime (also like in Winter on Fire, the documentary very clearly picks one side and doesn’t hide this fact at all).
Of the interviewees, Kholoud Helmi, an editor and co-founder of underground newspaper Enab Baladi, is the standout. Her interviews contain at once a sense of relative objectivity and lucidity about objectives, movements and possible causes and effects — no doubt due to her journalistic background — and a sense of the deeply personal, as her country’s recent history and her own story constantly overlap and intermingle. That said, Afineevsky never quite makes clear what her day job is, which seems like an odd omission. Nonetheless, mainly with Helmi’s guidance, the film paints an impressively complex picture of how a kerfuffle over some anti-government graffiti at a school in Daraa could spiral into a full-scale war involving Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Assad and opposing local forces and also give rise to ISIS.
What is noteworthy is the large amount of children and youngsters that the director interviews throughout. They are, of course, both the future of the country and might offer a semblance of relative innocence and truth in a heavily politicized and propaganda-heavy conflict, so the choice makes sense. And of course it is heart-wrenching to see the little ones talk about having their schools bombed, losing family members or dealing with the fallout of chemical weapons. But the tactic backfires in the film’s last part, when only preteens — and not a single adult — are interviewed about fleeing to Turkey, Greece and the rest of Europe to the point where one gets the impression they are being used as tear-jerking propaganda tools themselves.
Indeed, the film’s fourth and last chapter is its weakest, remaining frustratingly superficial in its coverage of how millions of Syrians have been displaced, leading to this century’s biggest refugee crisis. It doesn’t help that there already are excellent feature-length films out there devoted to just this subject — the Oscar-nominated Fire at Sea comes to mind — but this is also true of much of the material treated earlier (indeed, Aleppo and Raqqa, as seen in this year’s other two Sundance documentaries about Syria, also make appearances here). But while Afineevsky generally manages to pack in a lot of detail, analysis, nuance and humanism, this is largely absent in the last chapter, which feels like it was rushed together at the last minute and didn’t receive the same amount of time, care and thought as the film’s previous chapters.
Production companies: Afineevsky Tolmor Production, Cinepost Barrandov, Enab Baladi, Smart News Agency
Director: Evgeny Afineevsky
Producers: Den Tolmor, Aaron I. Butler
Executive producers: David Dinerstein, Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine
Cinematography: Ahmed Barakat, Alaa Break, Evgeny Afineevsky, Faris Al-Shawaf, Khaled Eissa, Mahmoud Al-Saadi, Moaz AlShami, Mohamad Aljunde, Monzer Al Hallak, Mustafa Anas, Mustafa Kanli, Samir Al-Mutfi, Sultan Kitaz, Tamer Eker, Raed Fares, Yaman Marwah
Editor: Aaron I. Butler
Music: Martin Tillman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Sales: Content Media