Comprehensive HBO doc on Syria takes an awards qualifying run in the US before hitting small screens there

Cries From Syria

Dir. Evgeny Afineevsky. US/Syria/Czech Republic, 2017, 112 mins.

Cinema’s floodgates have opened for the pain in Syria to flow through: medium-form doc The White Helmets has just won the Academy Award, but the cumulative effect of three feature-length films to premiere at Sundance will dominate the consciousness this year. Tracking the entire course of events there over the last six years, Cries From Syria is director Evgeny Afineevsky’s wide-angle take on the conflict, set to go out on HBO in the US on March 13 after a limited theatrical run in LA and New York. It ties together the country’s pain into an easily-comprehensible shout of anguish. That’s not to be confused with an easy watch, however 

Anyone wanting to view this first-person testimony, much of it from children and young adults, is going to have to brace themselves for what comes next

Cries From Syria is a hard-hitting documentary which doesn’t hesitate in the face of death and destruction. Afineevsky, who took a similarly comprehensive view of Ukraine’s Maidan demonstrations in 2015’s Oscar-nominated Winter On Fire, has spared the viewer nothing, from images of distressed and suffering children through to scenes involving the recently-deaceased. This could have a deterring effect, but it is to be hoped that audiences, buffeted by propaganda and misinformation surrounding Syria, seize this as an opportunity to better understand.

For a documentary like this, 112 minutes can feel like an eternity. Between the three films which premiered at Sundance, a full and awful picture emerges.  If one had to choose, Afineevsky’s picture takes an overall approach, from March 2011 when the Arab Spring-inspired protests broke out against President Bashar al-Assad to the horrifying events which played out in Aleppo at the end of last year. While Last Men In Aleppo, directed by Ferras Fayyad, follows the White Helmets to their tragic conclusion, and Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts takes a look at the city of Raqqa, home to Isis in Syria, Cries From Syria spans the length and breadth of this devastated country, from Damascus to Raqqa, Homs to Aleppo.

It also details the use of chemical weaponry in Syria, the involvement of other players — the Iranians, via Lebanese Hezbollah, Russian and American forces - and, eventually, tracks the plight of Syria’s refugees on the open seas.

Opening his documentary with footage of the dead body of three year-old Aylan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey,  Afineevsky sets his case from the very first frame. This will, he indicates, be an unflinching look at Syria and a flat-out, take-no-prisoners attempt to force the audience into understanding. Anyone wanting to watch this first-person testimony, much of it from children and young adults, is going to have to brace themselves for what comes next. Certainly, the journey is worth the discomfort, particularly when it comes to clearing up elements of the conflict which have become confused in Western eyes.

It could be said that, in his attempt to get the message across, Afineevsky hits his buttons a little too hard – there’s that sobbing soundtrack, for example, and the closing act sequences involving the refugees and their painful trek to Europe tofind a better life are less factually rigorous and more emotive than the earlier footage.

Afineevsky frames his piece with first-person testimony from a cast of characters including retired army generals, citizen journalists and the child victims of the conflict. Most memorable amongst them is Kholoud Helmi, who works for an underground newspaper, and she is concise, yet angry and tearful in her testimony. There’s no space here for the opposing forces, and Afineevsky’s story has clear villains who are given no quarter. This week’s news that Russia and China have further vetoed UN sanctions against the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons will seem like a painful continuation of events onscreen.

Narrated by Helen Mirren and featuring a song by Cher, Cries From Syria contains footage shot on the ground in conflict conditions which is by its very nature is of varying quality. Given the shocking and distressing nature of the images onscreen, the sympathetic and clear eyed edit by Aaron I. Butler is to be admired.

The film is called, and certainly contains, cries from Syria but in itself Afineevsky’s documentary is more of a shout, a piercing scream. As this film makes its way across the world after its US bow, it is to be hoped that audiences will listen, and act.

Production companies: Afineevsky Tolmor Production, Cinepost Barrandov, Enab Baladi, Smart News Agency

International sales: Content Media

Producers: Den Tolmor, Aaron I. Butler

Executive producers: David Dinerstein, Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine 

Cinematography: Ahmed Barakat, Alaa Break, Evgeny Afineevsky, Faris Al-Shawaf, Khaled Eissa, Mahmoud Al-Saadi, Moaz AlShami, Mohamad Aljunde, Monzer Al Hallak, Mustafa Anas, Mustafa Kanli, Samir Al-Mutfi, Sultan Kitaz, Tamer Eker, Raed Fares, Yaman Marwah

Editor: Aaron I. Butler

Music: Martin Tillman