The conflict began six years ago with a peaceful uprising — hundreds of thousands of people demanding democratic reforms only to be met by pro-government thugs and a sniper’s bullets. What’s known about Syria is it’s the place where refugees come from, and where terrorists now live, Syrians themselves serving only as b-roll footage for a non-Syrian expert.
A remarkable thing about director Evgeny Afineevsky’s new documentary, "Cries From Syria," is that not only does it put in historical context a people’s struggle more often reduced to numbers — 11 million displaced and half-a-million dead — but it lets Syrians do this themselves. The result is that when it premieres March 13 on HBO, those watching “Cries From Syria” won’t be presented with crusty old men with a few pithy lines of received geopolitics, but those who took part in a revolution-turned-civil war sharing their own stories of resistance and survival.
Many featured in the film were just children in 2011, when mass protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa. Their youth has been spent watching their country’s hereditary dictator have his security forces, backed by Russian bombs and Iranian militias, follow through on a threat: “Bashar al-Assad or we burn the country.” The promise of revolution, meanwhile, has been destroyed not just by barrel bombs, but betrayed by the rise of extremists, some released by the regime at the same time it arrested, tortured, and killed pro-democracy protesters en masse; once freed, these extremists effectively continued the regime’s work under the guise of Islam.
That’s context that often doesn’t make it to cable news.
“We have a lack of knowledge — a lack of simple, basic knowledge about the history, and specifically about the dark side of Syrian history,” Afineevsky said during an interview at ATTN:’s office in Los Angeles. “People don’t have any clue about these things,” he said. “We fear Syrians. We fear Islamic people — [at least] we fear them in [the] West. But do we know of anything about them?”
He didn’t set out to make this particular movie, but once he got started he realized no movie could be made without turning to the source material.
“My initial idea was to do a story about refugees in the European Union,” Afineevsky said. “And I realized that the answer isn’t there — the answer is not in the European Union.”
The answer was in Syria, with Syrians, who are the only ones who speak in this movie about their country.
“I think we as filmmakers today have a responsibility and obligation to go learn the stories, meet the people, learn about them, investigate, and put it in a comprehensive story,” he said. “It was absolutely my decision to go after the icons of the revolution, who’d been there, who can tell their story, who witnessed the atrocities. I needed the firsthand accounts that I collected to tell this story and bring it to the world.”
With one of the youngest populations at the start of the war, the median age just 21 (compared to 29 for the world), it figures that many of these featured in the documentary are children.
“It started from them,” he said. The documentary early on notes the March 2011 arrest of over a dozen kids in Daraa — a small working-class city home to thousands displaced by drought and neoliberal economics — over their anti-regime graffiti: “Doctor, You’re Next.” (Bashar al-Assad was trained as an ophthalmologist in London, but his father chose a different career path for him.) Those children were tortured, spurring protests that eventually spiraled into a massacre by the government, which killed hundreds well before the Syrian opposition took up arms in any organized fashion.
“War was never our choice," one activist in the film says. "We were forced into war.” And the cataclysm of war has brought with it all the evils humanity has to offer, including the threat not just from the state and its allies, but extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who the documentary shows kidnapped and tortured revolutionaries just like the regime.
Afineevsky said he met refugee children who had been “brainwashed” by these groups.
“They’re the easiest target,” he said. “And they’re the easiest to become a terrorist because you know what? They need to survive and they don’t have a choice. And the brainwashing system — the brainwashing machine — of the fundamental religious radical groups is amazing.”
Children, then, are both “the heroes and the victims” of Syria’s war, but Afineevsky said it’s not all a story of loss and despair. “I met a lot of kids who were orphans,” he said, “all of them still dreaming about Syria. They’re still believing they will rebuild Syria.”
First, the war must end. And most refugees say for that to really happen — for the root of the conflict to be addressed and for them to return — the man who started it all, Bashar al-Assad (“responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties,” according to the United Nations) must go. In that respect, the film counters a mainstream focus on bearded extremists and their self-styled caliphate, the target of more than two years of U.S. airstrikes, by making the point that some butchers wear suits to work.
As one mother dryly recounts after receiving her daughter’s corpse, recovered from a school bombed by the Assad regime: “She came with a different foot from another body.”
Why bother caring, though? It is, after all, over there, far removed from the daily lives of most people in the United States with problems of their own to worry about. Afineevsky, born and raised in Russia, has an answer: It could happen here — and this documentary shows that all authoritarians rely on the same playbook.
He pointed to the mass protests against President Donald Trump, whose participants are labeled by the commander-in-chief as the agents of shadowy interests. And look at one of the causes: his legally challenged executive order banning refugees from Syria.
“You’re learning what can be the consequences of allowing a dictator to be a dictator,” he commented. Truth as an objective value to be upheld is discarded by a head of state who purports to be under siege from the people, while having all the best weapons.
“The main thing for me… is to reevaluate what we have now,” Afineevsky said, “and to cherish things — not to take things for granted, and to fight for what we have now.”
If his movie demonstrates anything, he said, it’s that freedoms lost aren’t so easily regained.