Like many people, I struggle to situate daily headlines into a broader historical context. In Syria, say, why is Putin allied with Assad? What distinguishes the Free Syrian Army from ISIS? What exactly are the Syrian refugees fleeing from?
Evgeny Afineevsky’s superb documentary “Cries from Syria,” now available for home viewing on HBO, travels far in answering these questions and many more. “Cries from Syria” is admirable in its clarity, offering a straightforward explication of events in that country since 2011. Afineevsky’s previous full-length work, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” garnered an Oscar nomination; this latest film is equally worthy.
Broken into four chronological chapters, “Cries from Syria” opens with the peaceful protests in the southwestern city of Daraa, prompted by the torture and murder of kids who sprayed anti-Assad graffiti onto the walls of their school. Afineevsky’s film shows how demonstrations then spread across the country, with their homicidal suppression by Assad’s forces transforming peaceful resistance into outright civil war.
Assad consistently chooses unrestrained viciousness and cruelty over a lighter touch, electing to bomb civilian dwellings and schools, deploy chemical weapons indiscriminately, and blockade rebellious cities, resulting in the starvation deaths of numerous innocents. (It’s been estimated that 600,000 Syrians have died, with 7 million displaced – including 2.5 million children – since the start of the civil war.)
We witness how the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forms by way of mass defections from Assad’s military. Foreign involvement leads to more casualties and destruction, as Russian ordnance exponentially increases Assad’s capacity for mayhem (as an example, Doctors Without Borders reports the joint Russian/Syrian bombing of 22 hospitals just in Aleppo).
ISIS, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, also enters the fray. Initially uniting benignly with the FSA, their own divisive and sinister intent only gradually becomes plain.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky and his skilled editor Aaron I. Butler tell this story primarily through footage taken by ordinary Syrian citizens and activists, as well as interviews with such folks. This choice gives “Cries from Syria” an immediacy and intensity that a more academic or merely cerebral approach would’ve lacked.
This also produces a stomach-twisting and traumatizing quality that may make it too violent for some viewers. Afineevsky doesn’t shy away from footage of torture sessions, dead and nearly dead victims of chemical warfare, the pulling of bodies from exploded buildings, and the dangerous Mediterranean crossings of refugees.
However, I would argue that these images are absolutely necessary for the emotional and intellectual comprehension of events in Syria. Though “Cries from Syria” wrecked me more than any documentary I’ve seen in the past year, I now appreciate far more deeply why Syrian refugees are evacuating their homeland. Afineevsky and Butler also stay on the right side of the line – so easy to cross – that can make violence glorious and thrilling. The suffering witnessed here is devastating and profoundly tragic, never titillating.
Afineevsky also discerns when to pull away and give us a bigger picture. Interviews with Assad interspersed with the ground-level footage belie Putin and Assad’s claims that they are innocently fighting terrorism. Animated maps of the entire country reveal the spread of the protests in 2011, as well as the numerical and geographical scope of Assad’s deployment of sarin and chlorine gas attacks on civilians.
One pitfall of documentary filmmaking is privileging simplicity over truth-telling. Having just finished reading “A Rage for Order,” Robert F. Worth’s award-winning book on the Arab Spring, I can say that “Cries from Syria” makes no such concessions. Perhaps Afineevsky could’ve done more to show how turmoil within the FSA has hobbled their efforts, or how the Syrian civil war is yet another instance of the cynical proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran that fester across the Middle East. But these are very minor quibbles.
Watching “Cries from Syria” naturally filled me with revulsion for the barbarity of Assad, Putin, ISIS, and their zealous executioners. However, I also came away with admiration for the courage of the activists who have risked everything (and often lost numerous loved ones) and the white-helmeted members of Syria Civil Defense who rush to extract victims from the rubble of bombed buildings. The sacrifice and anguish of these good people is manifest in their tears, their quavering voices, and their frequent inability to maintain eye contact with the camera while bravely sharing their horrible stories.
As an American, “Cries from Syria” only added to my mortification over our buffoonish leader’s adulation for genocidal butchers like Assad and Putin (remember, Trump praised Assad during the presidential debates, long before he impulsively fired a few dozen missiles at one of his airfields). How I long for a Congress and commander in chief with the moral and mental capacity to formulate a coherent response to the ongoing human rights tragedy in Syria.
As a humanist – hell, just a human being – one would have to be stony-hearted to walk away from this documentary unwilling to do everything within our power to ease the travails of the Syrian people. Muslim travel bans and xenophobic horror of refugees have no place in a compassionate embrace of the world. Please make it a priority to see “Cries from Syria” if you have any doubts to the contrary.
Patheos gives “Cries from Syria” 4.5 out of 5 stars.