NEW YORK – Inspired by the infamous Caesar photographs, filmmakers Sara Afshar and Nicola Cutcher decided to investigate the allegations of mass arrests and torture in Syrian government-run detention centers.
For more than two years, they researched the centers, interviewing survivors, families of detainees and defectors from the regime. The filmmakers tracked the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an independent group of legal experts that holds and analyzes hundreds of thousands of files smuggled out of Syria at a secret location in Europe.
The result, “Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad,” aired March 23 on British television’s Channel 4.
Syria Deeply spoke with Afshar and Cutcher about their documentary – and the work that people like CIJA founder William Wiley and the former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, are doing to document these alleged war crimes.
Syria Deeply: When and how did you first get in touch with Wiley and Rapp? How did you convince them to be part of the documentary?
Sara Afshar: I started working on this film in autumn 2014, and Stephen Rapp was one of the first people I got in touch with. He was the U.S. Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice at the State Department at that time, but he was incredibly open with me. In our first conversation he spoke to me for an hour and then he put me in touch with more people. He stayed in touch with me from that moment on and told me about all the legal developments that were taking place.
A few months later I got in touch with Bill Wiley’s group, the CIJA. I talked to them for a long time, telling them this is a long-form documentary. We built a relationship. In the end they were prepared for us to film the documents, and actually gave us a lot more access than we could have hoped for. There were times when they would tell me things that would have been a story to put on the front page of a newspaper. But I didn’t go down that route because I was making the film.
Syria Deeply: How did you vet and verify the Caesar photographs?
Nicola Cutcher: The biggest thing for us was the fact that hundreds of Syrian families have identified people in the photographs. An organization called the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees has published all the headshots of around 6,700 individuals on their website, and a few hundred families have recognized their loved ones. Crucially, the details on the photographs tally with the fact that their relatives were arrested and which detention center they were taken to.
For example, Mariam, who’s featured in our film, heard that her son was held in Detention Facility 215. Later in the Caesar photographs, his photo shows that he has a sticker on his forehead bearing the corpse number 320, belonging to Detention Facility 215. We feature [Mariam’s family’s] story very prominently in the film, but we’ve spoken to many families that have similar stories. That’s a huge part of verification.
Afshar: We spent a long time on this and we looked through a lot of the photographs.
Cutcher: And we haven’t included the worst ones. That’s really important. The photos are horrifying but there are a lot more horrible pictures in that set. We’ve published what we think an audience can take. We’ve chosen pictures that are representative, but they’re not the worst.
Syria Deeply: As journalists, how did you manage to maintain objective, unbiased reporting on a subject like this?
Afshar: When Nicola started working on this full-time as well at the end of 2015, we really wanted to dig deep into the authenticity of the story and just try and see how far we could get with evidence-gathering. So we approached it in an objective way. What we’ve gathered along the way is so much material and so much evidence. I’ve never worked on a story where I have so much evidence – in this case, of mass atrocities. What you see in the film is as much as we could fit into 48 minutes. But we could write a whole book on this. We have so much testimony, so much other corroborating evidence. Nicola has also spoken to many defectors, too.
Cutcher: We treated everyone with skepticism. We verified these accounts, especially of the individuals that appear in the film. Their accounts are consistent with the testimony of hundreds of other people who have also talked to the United Nations, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. If you step into this arena you have to be really sure of what you’re saying.
Syria Deeply: You met Caesar, the Syrian military defector who smuggled more than 28,000 photos out of the country. What can you share about meeting him?
Afshar: At the time, I think we were only the second and third journalists in the world to have met him. It took a long time to arrange that meeting, and we finally managed it in 2016. We spent all day with him; he was very hospitable and friendly, and we chatted a lot. But I pretty much knew from about half an hour into the meeting that he wasn’t ready to do an interview then.
Cutcher: I think he felt that he had done enough, that the photos should speak for themselves. In the end that’s the conclusion we came to with the film: It’s not about one man, it’s about the scale of the atrocities and the evidence.
Syria Deeply: How did you find and choose the characters in your documentary and were they willing to talk to you straightaway?
Afshar: What distinguished [Syrian activist and torture survivor] Mazen Alhummada from people that I had interviewed previously was that he was willing to be incredibly open about every aspect of what happened to him.
Cutcher: A lot of people are massively traumatized, so they might tell you what happened, but they might freeze and then they can’t talk about it any more. Or they’re just not willing to. Mazen was unique in his openness.
It’s all about getting people to trust you with their stories because they’re very personal. Being tortured like that, or being held in detention for that period of time, is a life-shattering event. Especially towards men, there’s a lot of sexual violence.
Mariam distinguished herself by her incredible efforts to document what had happened to her son before she ever found the Caesar photograph. She was looking for him when he was missing, trying to find out where he was being held, anything she could, and eventually got a number of records, including a death certificate. She managed to, extraordinarily, get a document that actually acknowledged that he had died in detention.
We interviewed a number of people on background that had identified people in the Caesar photos. A lot of them can’t talk [publicly] because they still have relatives in Syria and are scared that there could be repercussions from speaking. What’s tragic about most of the people in our film is that they’re only free to speak because they’ve lost so much.
Syria Deeply: What do you think will change with this documentary, particularly as Spain’s National Court hears the first case ever brought against Syrian officials in a western court?
Cutcher: We hope this documentary will raise awareness about what goes on in [President Bashar] Assad’s detention centers and the scale of alleged crimes against humanity. Hopefully he’ll have to answer to that. I hope that there will be more focus on the detainees, because they’ve really been sidelined in a lot of the talks about Syria and Syria’s future.
There’s clearly a momentum building in terms of the legal cases. A case has just been filed in Spain, but it looks like more are coming in Germany, maybe France. So there is a growing momentum to send a signal now that there has to be justice and accountability, whatever happens in the political process.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the U.K. the documentary can be viewed on Channel 4 on-demand.
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