NEW YORK – After being nominated an Academy Award in 2016 for “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky turned his lens on the conflict in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis. His latest documentary, “Cries from Syria,” which premieres on HBO on Monday, traces the past five years of war in Syria and follows the journeys of those who fled the fighting for Europe.
In his film, the Russian-American director highlights a number of Syrian opposition voices, including citizen journalist and activist Hadi Al Abdullah; journalist, activist and co-founder of Syrian newspaper Enab Baladi, Kholoud Helmi; former Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Asaad; defected Syrian general Zaher al-Sakat; and former Syrian soccer player and rebel leader Abdul Baset al-Sarout. Afineevsky described his interviewees as “icons of the revolution, real characters that have been there and participated in the events.” Emphasizing their “iconic value for the revolution” was an essential part of his storytelling.
Afineevsky could not go deep into the war-torn country, so he met his subjects at the border. Others, including refugee children who Afineevsky interviewed as they made the perilous journey to Europe, were already outside of Syria. Syria Deeply spoke to Afineevsky about why he made this documentary, how he collected the footage and the challenges he faced telling these stories.
Syria Deeply: How did this documentary come about? Why did you decide to make it?
Evgeny Afineevsky: When I was finishing “Winter on Fire,” my previous movie, I started to follow all the news coming from the European Union about the refugee crisis. I wanted to find out how, in the 21st century, we could have such a huge humanitarian crisis. I went to the European Union, started to research, and then I found out that the answer was not there. I decided to find out what led to this crisis and went to the Middle East. When the striking images of the [drowned Syrian toddler] Aylan Kurdi found on the shores of Turkey [went viral], I was on the Syrian border. I decided to reconstruct the history and look for the characters that had been at the beginning of this event.
Syria Deeply: How did you collect all the footage?
Afineevsky: Step by step, I was introduced to people, gained their trust and created connections. People were willing to share what they documented. Also, my co-producers and their teams, like the underground newspaper Enab Baladi and SMART News Agency, and all the activists I met, saw hope in me to bring this story to the world. They saw what I had achieved in my previous movies. For them, I brought a new wave of hope that the world that had neglected Syria, that kind of abandoned Syria, could learn about Syria and maybe do something. This is what helped me to collect almost 20 terabytes of footage. I also shot almost a hundred interviews on my own.
Syria Deeply: Were the interview subjects willing to be filmed right away? How did you approach them?
Afineevsky: It took some time to get to them, to trace them, to get connected with them, and at the same time to build their trust and explain what I could do with the material that I would be filming. In the relationship between director and characters, trust and connection are important elements. It was important to me to have these characters on camera because they were evidence of all these atrocities. It took time, with every character it’s different. With [former Syrian international goalkeeper] Abdul Baset, it took much longer to establish our connection, but we are best friends now.
Syria Deeply: When you compare it with your work on the documentary about the Ukrainian revolution, where do you see similarities and where do you see the biggest disparities?
Afineevsky: In both situations, people came out in peaceful protest. They were asking for freedom, freedom of speech, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights. In both situations, they were fighting against a dictatorship. In the Ukrainian situation, I was able to follow the events [in the field]. Here [for “Cries from Syria”] I was reconstructing the events. I think in Syria, it’s effectively a war that transpired to affect the entire world. The beginning [of both revolutions] were similar. Approaching both movies was different, and the consequences [of the revolutions] are different. The Syrian situation is larger in scope. When I showed [“Cries from Syria”] to my Ukrainian team who had been with me in the Maidan, they were shocked and said that what’s happening in Ukraine is not even close compared to what Syrian people are going through.
Syria Deeply: Some of the footage that you got from the people there is pretty hard to watch. How did you cope?
Afineevsky: My team and I still have PTSD and we get specific treatment for it. The footage you see in the movie is the censored version. We tried to balance between the horrifying atrocities and the things we can show to people, so people don’t leave the movie because it’s too graphic. So that human beings can watch this and understand what’s going on.
My goal as a storyteller is to take the Western audience and [put] them basically on the ground in Syria. To allow them to feel what these kids feel when they lose their parents, what mothers feel when they lose their kids. To allow [the audience] to have this journey into the darker side of humanity, to understand what makes these people flee and seek shelter. I think everyone needs to see this.
Syria Deeply: What conclusions would you like people to draw from this documentary?
Afineevsky: We need to re-evaluate what we have. Stop abusing, neglecting and taking things for granted, like the freedom of speech we have. Re-evaluate simple values like food that we have on our table because somewhere in Syria kids are starving.
Then [we need to] learn about these people. We have a lack of knowledge about Syrian people and that brought a lot of fear. The political climate of the United States right now is troublesome. This movie brings knowledge about refugees, about the roots and rise of ISIS. Knowledge is powerful: [with it] we can look at these things in different ways and be more open and receptive towards these people. We are all human beings, and it’s important to bring humanity back.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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