It almost goes without saying that the Syrian refugee crisis and Civil War is Bad with a capital B. Evgeny Afineevsky’s HBO documentary “Cries From Syria” is broken up into four chapters. It starts with the birth of the revolution in the Arab Spring, then the start of the Syrian Civil War, the rescue efforts as the situation worsens, and finally the ongoing escape efforts from the regime. It’s a film about how revolution spreads and what it’s like to live under constant turmoil and oppression.
And the imagery Afineevsky cobbles together from raw, handheld footage from many civilians and freedom fighters on the ground are grim and horrifying. “Cries from Syria” opens with a toddler lying dead face down on a beach, the waves washing over his body. A 6-year-old has a hole in his face where a sniper bullet has pierced through his cheek. The aftermath of a chemical weapon attack in 2013 resembles Holocaust imagery. Former prisoners recount how everyone among them was raped, beaten and tortured. And in their testimonials, Syrian civilians remember how wrong they were when they thought things couldn’t get any worse.
But it’s that last bit that stuck with me most of all. “We thought that was the worst that could happen.”
Syria has been living under the Assad regime for over 40 years. Strife and turmoil has become a way of life for these people to the point that they know to expect people will die when they hear planes going overhead. One boy tells a story of leaving school early only for it to be bombed hours later, killing all of his friends. This is a beyond terrible situation, and THEN Russia starts getting involved and ISIS springs up and starts beheading anyone who doesn’t join them.
In America in 2017 under President Trump, we move from one outrage and scandal to the next within hours. Just when you think he couldn’t do something crazier, he’s tweeting about another politician, journalist or athlete and using it as a distraction from his plans to take away healthcare or rights from millions. Just when you think we’ve had more gun deaths than you can stomach, the worst one in modern American history defies everything we think we know about the issue. It’s getting worse. It always gets worse. That’s just what life is in 2017.
Afineevsky illustrates how time and again in Syria, people would condemn President Assad for some horrible act of oppression. It starts with speaking out against the government and publicly protesting, and suddenly the president is calling Syria’s populace terrorists as a way to justify his use of chemical weapons. It’s easy to see how something innocent can over many decades manifest into a truly oppressive regime, a never-ending problem and crisis. You can see the parallels of how this administration views many of its citizens in the outcry against the Charlottsville rallies.
In that lens, “Cries From Syria” should be required viewing. It’s not just important viewing to grasp the full gravity of the refugee crisis. “The White Helmets,” an Oscar winning short film from last year, is almost identical to a portion of this film, so you can find this story in many places. But Afineevsky’s film puts this pummeling, relentless, horrifying imagery into a compelling, impactful context. See it for what you can learn about America as much as Syria.
Check out my feature article from TheWrap on director Evgeny Afineevsky