Cries from Syria, a documentary that premiered at Sundance and now streaming on HBO, will likely stand for years to come as the definitive document of the Syrian crisis. I interviewed director Evgeny Afineevsky just prior to a special CAAMFest screening. Afineevsky, an immigrant from Russia, also directed the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary about the Ukrainian conflict, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. He told me that he, the film’s editor, and two assistants viewed 20 terabytes of footage (probably hundreds of hours) in 11 weeks to produce the two hour film. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell me about the process of making this movie?
But you see, it’s interesting because we assembled a movie in 11 weeks that nobody can believe that was done. Because to edit such a movie in 11 weeks is absolutely impossible. But, you know what, working like 24/7, like all together, we did it. It was also interesting process because we had like…the entire office was like desks where we had laid the maps of the movie and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do. So it was interesting.
The events you depict were obviously very traumatic for the Syrian people but I imagine that it could have been traumatic to even watch the footage. I can imagine vicarious trauma being an issue in making films like this. Did this come up for you and your team?
I think we all have secondary PTSD. That’s something…the terminology that you know better than myself… (I used some techniques provided by a psychologist to cope) because I was exposed to trauma in my Ukrainian film WINTER ON FIRE. So I still was kind of recovering from the previous trauma, and I jumped into this one. So I knew how to cope with PTSD but also the pace that we were going through helps us to go through this thing.
But trust me – a lot of tears, a lot of breakdowns. I had a personal breakdown at Sundance because I guess everything was compressed inside. And all of a sudden you’re realizing and you’re seeing the movie on the big screen and you’re seeing the reaction and you’re seeing the people who want to support and opening their arms, all together. But I think it was a traumatic experience. But it works because you’re doing something for the humanity, you’re doing something for the people. You’re educating people, you’re enlightening people, you’re reminding people about values that do not need to be forgotten. Like Americans need to be reminded that they cannot take for granted simple things like freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom of speech, human rights, that our founding fathers in the United States stood for, gave their lives. And this, for what the Syrians are fighting since 2011, that basic things like food on a table are sometimes taken for granted. And people need to be reminded about all these things. I think Steven Spielberg had trauma after he did ‘Schindler’s List’. Some people have a professional disease that you’re gaining by doing special things. So it’s a part of the process, but you know what? You’re not thinking about the negative side. You’re thinking about positive outcome.
Sure. I appreciate that. I know that for me, just watching the film, I pretty much cried for two hours straight just watching the film. And I had to kind of resort to my own Buddhist training to mediate and to recover from that experience. How did you deal with it?
I think for me because of the pace, the crazy pace that we were doing the movie, we did not have time to recover. We were like going through the hoops…jumping through the hoops to deliver the movie as quickly as possible because I wanted to enlighten the world. Because, you know what, when I started two years ago, I saw how much fear goes across the European Union and the world from the Syrian refugees because everybody, they were looking at them as a terrorist and as invaders. And so on, and so on. And I wanted to find the light. I wanted to find the knowledge to bring to the world because small segments that people saw on the TV screens about the war in Syria and the ISIS, kind of everything was mixed together in the news and people didn’t know anything.
So I wanted to bring this knowledge to the people in light, to fight the fear and darkness. And I don’t think that I’ve had even time to cope with my situation or treat this. Right now, I think my team, they are able to breathe and take this slowly and kind of recover. I’ve also started slowly to recover. But for me, the fact that I can do something positive to this world, it changed somebody’s lives and probably saved somebody’s lives, makes me to feel happy. And step-by-step I will be recovering. It’s tough. I still have nightmares. The same night after the premiere at Sundance, I was in the middle of Aleppo in the war. And it’s tough. But in the same time, I’m always looking in the bright side of what I, as a filmmaker, am able to achieve. And if I’m able to change lives, to bring some positive things to this world, I’m the happiest person. And I think that is my goal.
Well, thank you for all your motivation to make this extraordinary film. A buzzword in academic circles right now is “precarity” or the precariousness of life. What’s your take on this concept, from your experience as a director in making this film?
Listen, first of all, I want to allow these kids, the lost generation of the Syrians to tell their story. And I think, for me, the fact that they want to go home, they don’t want to be invaders, the fact that they have hope despite of these atrocities. The fact that this is completely different, what we saw in the news, like media using the word “rebel” in a negative connotation and it’s a completely different thing. Because rebels are the same people like all of us. People like in the last two months were protesting in the United States against the government, it’s the same people protesting in Syria. So at the end of the day, it’s the same people like you and me and any other civilians who stood for their rights. And for me, it’s important to tell these stories.
For me, it’s important to show what is the real situation, when you are between life and death, to show the reality that Syrians don’t have choices in Syria. Their choices are to die from the horrible torture in prisons, to die from the chemical weapons, to die in the ISIS camps, to die from the bombings of Russia and the regime. And they’re trying to flee because they’re trying to find the shelter. As just an American citizen who is painfully observing what’s happening, you’re realizing that they’re seeking shelter and we’re just closing the door in front of them.
So again, I think we need to reevaluate a lot of things as Americans. The world needs to reevaluate a lot of things and understand that these people are just trying to seek shelter. They don’t want to die because they want to go home at some point and rebuild their own country. They want their home back. My main character, Kholoud Helmi, said an interesting sentence at Sundance. She said, “There’s no home like home.” And it’s true because they all want to go home and rebuild it. And that’s why, I guess, we as filmmakers, we have obligation right now, when media were able to cover enough of the situations like this, because we in the United States, for the last two years, what was covered? Trump and Hillary. What is covered right now? Trump.
So we have the obligation and we have the duty –and I’m talking about filmmakers right now – to go and do the research. And we have the luxury of time. We’re not working for the networks. So we have the luxury and freedom. Freedom of speech that actually belongs to this country. And we need to cherish this ability, that we have this freedom of speech and tell the truth to the world. So we need to exercise this so we can learn and we can learn their stories, learn about them, collect this, and allow the world to hear that. And that’s why I try to put a comprehensive story versus small segments of news and tell to the story, everything about life, about death, and about dreams, and about hope. And I think for the first time, I could show the shocking images. And you just said that you were watching and you were crying.
The world learned about Syria through a couple of images. Aylan Kurdi, who was found, a three-year-old child onto the shores, September 2015. Then was the image of Omran Daqneesh, whose image in an ambulance was shown in the agents of August 2016. I was actually on the Syrian border that day. These images shocked the world. And for the first time, I as a filmmaker put all these images together in one context and through them, told the story of Syrian people.
That’s very comprehensive.
And, you know, the image of Aylan was for me, actually, the image of the deaths of Syrian kids. Exactly how the revolution started. The image of Omran, for me, became this image of struggle and survival of the Syrian kids. And the image of Bana Alabed, became a symbol of hope of these kids. And it was important for me that despite all these three images, they are far from each other, different places, different circumstances. But I’ve put it through them the whole story and all six years. And it was important for me because this is the lost generation but it’s the generation full of hope. It’s the generation that still has hope and light and believe in this dream of a free Syria future, that they’re going to be building.
What did you learn about resilience and hope in making your film?
You know what, it’s interesting to see in the movie how creative these kids are. For example, they’re born, and the next day they’re already grown-up adults with a lot of wisdom. For example these girls whom we see in the movie, despite that they’re not eating, despite the whole difficult situation, you can see they’re full of optimism, they’re full of hope and energy. They’re looking for the food in the garbage. They’re eating leaves of the trees or hauling water up to the second floor. They’re doing things like our…I don’t know, prehistoric parents were doing.
So it’s interesting how they’re inventing things and being creative and doing things that usually grownups need to do. All these kids in Aleppo, they’re burning tires in order to cover the city with the smoke so the planes can’t target schools or hospitals. It’s amazing to see this wisdom of these kids and the energy and spark and the…it’s just, you know, amazing, just to observe this amount of creative energy and optimism and hope. I think it was something that’s inspiring you to relive, to fight, to be resilient towards the whole atrocities.
Okay. My last question, in one scene, you show an exhibition of children’s paintings and scenes of carnage sitting next to scenes of hope in their images. The American flag, I noticed, is featured as a prominent image in many of the pictures. What do you think America means to those Syrian children?
You know what? When I originally started to talk to these Syrians, they all were hoping that in 2013, when Obama drew the red line, America will come and interfere. But that never happened. They had a lot of disappointment. And the biggest disappointment for them was that they were thinking that we, as a super country, abandoned them, neglected all their atrocities. And I was trying to explain to them that it’s not true. It’s not true because we all lack knowledge. We are not ignorant people as Americans. We have a lack of knowledge because we are wrapped up with our own problems here, with our own issues here. And that preoccupies our minds. And my hope that this movie can open the brains, open the minds, and bring humanity back in us, in Americans. Because we can reevaluate the values, first of all. You can’t help to others before you’re reevaluating things around yourself.
So for me, it’s important that Americans reevaluate things that we’re taking for granted. From food on the table to the values that we are having here. And when we’re starting to respect our neighbors, when we start to respect our religious things, when we stop hating and we stop crimes of hate and when we will be able to spread the love, then we will be able to help these people. And again, it needs to start through…why I’m specifically showing…let’s put it this way. Why I’m taking my audience into the journey, into the darkest side of humanity, into these horrifying images? Because I want people to feel the pain. Pain that these mothers have. These mothers who buried their kids, I want them to feel this pain. And then, because each person here is a parent. So I want them to feel the pain. I want them to go and hug their child after because their child is safe and healthy.
So I want them to feel this, reevaluate these things, and then they can help. Because we need to spread love. We need to stop these atrocities. We need to bring humanity. Because like I said, this, for me, was the journey into the darkest side of humanity. So I think it’s important and I think this one can be done because I believe in humanity, I believe in change. And that’s why I may be harsh on my audience but it’s a necessity to through the pain, to reevaluate things. To be reborn as a nation, to being reborn as a person.
Thank you. I think your film does all of that. And I hope it does indeed touch people and change minds and bring us towards love. So thank you.
And I believe that, you know what? Our politicians, they are politicians by profession that they are choosing for them right now. But at the end of the day, they are parents. And my hope that some of them will be able to do these things, reevaluate things, reevaluate their decisions, their mistakes that they do, and being open to admit mistakes and to do some actions that are necessary to change the course that the United States are moving and do some things for these people.
I am sure all of us here at CAAMFest share your hope. Thank you for your work.
+ + +
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. When you sign up, you can get his free e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.