'Cries From Syria' Documentary Lays Bare The Conflict's Gruesome Realities
LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
The war in Syria has stretched six years and claimed the lives of an estimated 400,000 Syrians. But often forgotten is the story of how it all started with a severe crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for peaceful protests against the torture and killing of a group of young boys who were detained for spraying graffiti on a wall in support of the Arab Spring. "Cries From Syria" is a new documentary out tomorrow on HBO that aims to tell the story of the country's descent into chaos.
Drawing from hundreds of hours of footage from digital cameras and cellphones, "Cries From Syria" paints a tragic and gruesome portrait of the Syrian conflict by the American director of the acclaimed film "Winter On Fire," a documentary about the conflict in Ukraine. To hear more about "Cries From Syria," I'm joined by its director, Evgeny Afineevsky, and one of the film's main subjects, Syrian journalist Kholoud Helmi. Evgeny and Kholoud, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KHOLOUD HELMI: Thank you.
EVGENY AFINEEVSKY: Thank you for having us.
SINGH: Evgeny, the film begins with one of the stories that made the war in Syria resonate with American audiences and that was the image of the body of the toddler washed ashore onto a Turkish beach, which became the symbol of the refugee crisis. Why did you begin the film this way?
AFINEEVSKEY: Aylan Kurdi's image brought, for the first time, shock and basically shocking reality to the entire world. And I'm talking about September 2015 when this image was breaking news to the entire world. And this was one of the moments when I was already doing my research. And for me, Aylan Kurdi's body resembling the deaths of the young children of the Syrian people, exactly how the revolution started, with the deaths of these innocent kids.
SINGH: There is another central figure in this story that you tell. And that figure is Kholoud. And before we move to you, Kholoud, we wanted to play this clip. It was one of the most compelling clips of this documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRIES FROM SYRIA")
HELMI: The most difficult moment in my life ever is when the regime broke into my home to arrest my brother. That was the very beginning of the revolution. He was my best friend and my brother. After four years now in detention centers, we know nothing about him.
SINGH: Kholoud, before I talk about your collaboration with Evgeny. Tell me what you've learned so far about your brother, members of your family caught up in this terrible conflict.
HELMI: For my brother, we've never heard about him or any information regarding him since he was arrested from home. Now it's five years, and no one knows where he is or if he is alive or dead. We only heard about him after 15 days when somebody was released from the detention centers and he said that he saw him in the torture room.
SINGH: Kholoud, what prompted you to agree to collaborate with Evgeny on this project?
HELMI: First of all, it's the hope for our story to be heard by the international community. For me, myself, I've been a journalist since the beginning of 2011, and we have been reporting stories of the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and then by all the militias and then the Russians. And we've never been heard, but, I mean, the little clips that is shown on TVs for 30 seconds.
What made me agree for this is the "Winter On Fire" because the one who put me in touch with Evgeny introduced me to him as the one who did this movie that brought a change to the Ukranian people. And from that belief, I was so enthusiastic to participate and take part in telling my story to the world.
SINGH: Evgeny, you compiled a lot of footage. The material is graphic. The audience will see scenes of abductions, torture by Syrian security forces, the aftermath of chemical attacks and barrel bombs.
AFINEEVSKEY: ISIS executions and Russian atrocities. And you know what? I agree with you, it is graphic. But in the same time, you know what? We tried to balance between the real horrors and horrors that we can show because at the end of the day, we wanted people to see the movie so people can share the pain of the mothers who are losing their kids, and vice versa, the pain of the kids that are losing their parents. I interviewed a lot of orphans. Still, despite they are orphans, despite their loss of their families, they're still of full of light and hope.
SINGH: Evgeny, were you ever concerned that the amount of graphic material that you used in your documentary would risk desensitizing an audience to so many of the atrocities that you brought to light?
AFINEEVSKEY: We are so far from the war, and I think we need to feel this pain. We need to feel a lot of things that they're going through. And in my editing room, we were carefully deciding of what to show and what not to show because we didn't want it to make audience to turn back and leave in the middle of the movie. But at the same time, my goal, as the filmmaker, to tell the story as it is, to answer the simple question why are these people fleeing? Why are they fleeing homes and leaving everything behind them? Why this little child, Aylan Kurdi, was found on the shores? Because they not had chance to survive in Syria.
The chances for the Syrian people are to die in the prisons from the torture, to die in the ISIS hands, to die at the chemical weapon or under the Russian bombings. So they're trying to survive. They're trying to find shelter so later on after the war stops, they can go back to Syria and rebuild Syria. Everybody with whom I conducted interviews wants to go back to Syria to rebuild their country. They still, after six years of everything, feeling abandoned by the world - but again, abandoned, it's wrong word because they just don't know that - it was lack of knowledge for the world. And that's why I created this movie. So at the end of the day, this is the answer.
SINGH: Evgeny Afineevsky is a documentary filmmaker. His new film "Cries From Syria" is out this Monday on HBO. And Kholoud Helmi is a Syrian journalist and one of the central voices in this film. They both joined us from our studios in New York. Evgeny and Kholoud, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HELMI: Thank you.
AFINEEVSKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.