Now that the daily reports of babies being dragged from the rubble aren’t part of the daily news, it makes sense that the 21st century’s greatest humanitarian crisis, the decimation that’s happened in Syria, should be the subject of a stream of new documentaries. This year’s Oscars included three short films that focus on the crisis: Watani: My Homeland, The White Helmets and 4.1 Miles (the latter of which is about refugees coming to Europe). This year, director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) will come out with City of Ghosts, about the renegade journalists from that region. As will Feras Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo, both of which premiered at Sundance. A couple weeks back, Vice featured a powerful segment on Syria — its greatest strength was that, in addition to portraying the war-ravaged country, it featured those untouched by the devastation, who are blissfully sunning themselves on the beaches, pledging allegiance to Bashar al-Assad.
Next up is another Sundance doc, Cries From Syria, which begins airing on HBO Monday, March 13. Director Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom) has taken the documentary coverage to another level, having produced the most graphic documentary I’ve ever seen. There are bloody beheadings, limbs held aloft, children convulsing from sarin poisoning. I’ve never closed my eyes during a film before this one. The disturbing imagery in Afineevsky’s film might not warrant discussing if the film itself wasn’t also a top-notch production: it contains a well-crafted, heartbreaking narrative that (hopefully) shakes audiences to the core. It also casts in clear relief how immoral it is for our country to be increasing restrictions on refugee immigration rather than opening its gates.
But the film’s graphic nature begs certain questions: when is too much, too much? Is it a filmmaker’s responsibility to accurately represent horrifying events even when it might be too disturbing for audiences? Is there a new standard of graphic imagery being set? Will other doc filmmakers follow? Or is this merely due to the particularly atrocious situation in Syria and the availability of cameras?
Those were the questions running through my head as I watched Cries From Syria. I asked Afineevsky some related questions about his film, which I encourage everyone to see. Just be prepared.
I cleaned up some of Afineevsky’s responses for clarity.
How did you choose the subject of Syria for your latest film?
Coming out of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, I was exposed to the headlines coming from the EU screaming about huge waves of refugees, that the world had not experienced since WWII. It was a scream from the fear of all these people. This captivated my attention so I went to the EU to learn more about the roots of the humanitarian crisis and Syrian refugee phenomenon of our days.
To my surprise, I immediately learned that only 27 – 30 percent of all EU refugees were from Syria, but were still called by the public and press, “Syrian Refugees.” I decided to go and uncover the roots of the events, that put Syrian people in such desperation that they had to leave everything behind and flee their homeland. This journey took me back to the Syrian borders, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, where actually I was able to find my first subject of the investigations. I started bit by bit, story after story, to discover and learn about the Syrian uprising that became a civil war and later, with too many interventions from different sides, became a major war of our time. As a result, it has created a huge refugee crisis, which the world has not experienced since WWII, affecting us all.
Please explain why you chose to show such graphic imagery.
During the editing process, we were carefully choosing what to show and determining what might be the turning point to the audience. I can openly state that we chose not to show some footage that was 100 times more graphic than what we included in the movie. I’m sorry to say that these images are the light version of what these people have lived through. I feel, being a filmmaker, responsible to tell the truth, and at the same time allow my audience to be “there” with my subjects, I needed that authenticity. This obligated me to keep a specific level of graphic imaginary.
Do you know of other docs that contain similarly graphic material? Maybe one that depicts the Holocaust. Would you agree that your film is one of the most graphic that has been available to a popular audience?
You are probably right. But in order to make people feel something, to reevaluate their values or even learn from history, we need this. So this will not only be the experience of watching a two-hour movie, but it will stay with the audience afterward and make them think, re-evaluate, learn and take action.
By using such powerful imagery and never hiding from your POV, the film is in danger of feeling propagandistic. Even if you’re right, might that diminish the audience’s ability to be galvanized by the film?
The word propaganda was created by those who also brought us fake news. Harsh reality and images are the hard truth, and only those who want to hide the truth or are afraid of truth will call this propagandistic.
Do you feel that your previous film achieved what you’d hoped it would for the people of Ukraine?
Yes. I witnessed how much it changed some people’s minds and hearts. I saw people reacting to it and learning a lot from it. I saw real actions taken by government officials after watching the movie.
What do you think is needed to turn the tide in Syria?
Open minds! Open hearts! Being able to learn from what happened and being ready to look at the facts, investigate the roots of terrorism and separate such issues like Assad / regime, Syrian people / rebels, Islam / religion, radicals / ideology. At this point, all these elements are mixed up in people’s heads, making the world fear Syrian people. And then to listen to what they are asking and want they want. Listen to the people, who since 2011 had a dream of change and fought for freedom of speech, democracy and human rights.
Have you or HBO tried to get the film seen by anyone in the Trump administration?
Yes, we are working on that. It’s our next step in the outreach and educational program.
Cries From Syria premieres Monday, March 13 on HBO. Check your local listings.
Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.