“Cries from Syria” is a depressing yet sincere look at the resilience of the human spirit.
How do you encapsulate one of the worst civil tragedies happening in the world today in a two-hour documentary? It certainly is no easy task and one that requires an overtly objective look to make any argument as palpable as possible. It’s a project that would emotionally drain you, leaving your sense of humanity rattled, scarred and disturbed. But for Academy Award-nominated documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky (“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”), this need to unfold the human condition under extreme duress is a filmic mainstay—one that he exceedingly excels in.
Since the beginning of the Syria Civil War in 2011, nearly half a million denizens of the Mediterranean-bordering nation have died and a staggering five million have been forced to flee their homes. Stemming from nearby Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and other Arab League countries, Syria was soon swept by the jubilant aura of freedom. Inspired to follow in the footsteps of their neighbors, Syrians felt emboldened to rise up to the oppressive regime of Bashar Al-Assad and fight to declare their nation free from despotic rule.
But of course, nothing goes according to plan. In a matter of months, Al-Assad had demonstrated his cruel intentions, repressive policies and systemic brutality that had seldom been seen in any of the other Arab Spring uprisings. Determined to fight back, the undeterred Syrian rebels dug their heels in, losing their lives and sanity along the way. And as the civil war raged on, the Islamic State and other groups began filling the empty vacuums of power left behind, instilling their own brutal ideals and policies that are as brutal, if not more so, than the Al-Assad regime.
Sliding into inhumanity, the Syrian Civil War has become an anachronistic conflict. When World War I-inspired trench warfare and chemical weapon use combines with the extreme vividness of high quality cellphone videos, the complex conflict seems to occupy two epochs. The laws of civility expressed in the Geneva Convention and other acts are nowhere to be found here. Instead, Syria has devolved into a frenzy of violence, destruction and ruthlessness—a frenzy that Afineevsky has attempted to portray as honestly as possible.
Playing like a real-life version of “Battle of Algiers”, “Cries from Syria” explores the Syrian Civil War in a new, refreshing light that does more than emotionalize its viewers to the atrocities occurring in the country. While the shots of starving children and chemically-burned families serve to create a palpable sense of heartache, it is nonetheless a brutally honest look at the Syrian crisis. From the personalized first-person accounts to the DIY cellphone footage showing rooms full of deceased people, Afineevsky constructs a film that attempts to provide a primary sourced multifaceted portrayal of the complex conflict.
But while these atrocities caught on camera are somber and devastating, they are nonetheless reliant on emotionality to provide the facts—a quality that documentarian purists could find unethical. It’s hard to call Afineevsky’s work emotionally manipulative for many of the absolutely horrendous actions in the film are ones that were caught with DIY cellphone footage. However, much of the film relies heavily on telling the story through the heart-wrenching perspective of the innocent children caught in the tumultuous world.
But the film’s narrative dependence on youngsters ultimately cannot be called manipulative for the essence of the conflict—in all its complexity, intricacies and multiple perspectives—is its ultimate futility. Gaining freedom and breaking from the shackles of oppression is a noble cause. It is one that marks the time of heroes, compatriots and martyrs. But when the country you’ve fought so arduously for looks more and more like Dresden after a bombing-run, one must ask oneself—what is it all really for now?
“Cries from Syria” deals with a deeply troubling issue, one that has many sides, questions, nuances, perspectives and problems. Unfortunately, Afineevsky is forced to paint in broad strokes as he prepares to summarize an ongoing six-year conflict in a little less than two hours. And while Afineevsky realizes that a chapter-based pacing is appropriate, it is not enough to unfold the complicated conflict in a satisfying manner. Perhaps more appropriate for a miniseries, Afineevsky’s film does not have enough time to allocate to the details, leaving one yearning for more.
Catch “Cries From Syria” when it premieres on HBO March 13.