In a scene near the end of the documentary Cries From Syria, young protesters demonstrate against the Assad regime: Political change in Syria will come, they cry “with flowers, with flowers!” Six years in, that peaceful revolution is a bloody civil war, flowers and olive branches lost to machine guns and missile launchers and chlorine gas. In the film, Academy Award–nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky traces the spark for that conflict through footage from activists and citizen journalists, and through interviews with dozens of witnesses to the turmoil. Afineevsky spent two years working on the film, which he originally envisioned as a documentary about the refugee crisis. But as he started his research, he understood that to tell the story fully, he had to to return to the beginning — which, for many fleeing to Europe, is Syria in 2011. So he turned his lens to the citizens who first challenged, and later took up arms, against the Bashar al-Assad regime, and the families and children fleeing both ISIS and the bombardment of Assad and Russia. Ahead of the documentary’s premiere on HBO Monday, the anniversary of the war, the director spoke with Vulture about why he made this film, the powerful voice of the Syrian youth, and what he hopes people can learn about our political moment from watching.
I watched the documentary and it was rough — which I imagine was the point.
You can’t sugarcoat. This is the balanced version of the movie because I saw much more horrifying things. I tried to be true to the facts that I saw, and at the same time I tried to be true to my characters who were talking about these events.
How did your find your subjects?
I started to follow refugees in Europe. My goal was to translate the human-refugee problem into a visual and cinematic and comprehensive and understandable story. Then I realized that to resolve the puzzle — not to resolve it, but to try to resolve to understand it — you need to go back in time to document and to reconstruct the journey. I went back to the Syrian border, and I tried to trace the main characters who were involved in this revolution. It took me time to trace each and every character but they’re the only key to tell the story as it happened. And to make people understand what brought these simple people to revolt against the [Bashar al-Assad] regime?
You often rely on children to give their observations of the revolution, the civil war, and the refugee crisis.
No matter what you feel about the political situation, no one can deny that the suffering of these kids is inhumane. It’s the lost generation of the Syrian kids that needs to be heard. I started the movie with Alan Kurdi, who was symbolizing death. That’s the most iconic image that I think everyone in the world remembers [from] September 2015. Then I went to Omran Daqneesh, who is 5 years old and is in [the] ambulance in August 18, 2016. Omran symbolizes struggle and survival. Then as you know, I had Bana Alabed, who symbolizes hope. It was most important to give these kids an opportunity to be heard and to tell in their voices — what they see, what they feel.
Besides interviews, you used a lot of footage from activists and others inside Syria. How difficult was that to get?
I think the most important [gesture] was to gain their trust. I did all the interviews that you see in the movie; outside the movie I did over 100 interviews all over the Middle East and Europe. So my share is all these fascinating people and their voices, and their share is all the personal footage that they captured through all six years.
Were you nervous about the authenticity of any of this footage? These people are fighting for a particular cause. How do you sort through it and make sure you’re accurately representing the conflict?
Doing the movie, I was always in touch with [sources]. They were consulting [with] me. I also showed a rough cut a few times to some of my characters. One of my characters, Khouloud Helmi, an award-winning journalist and activist, she saw the movie and one of my first questions was, “Am I right in terms of what happened? And am I translating this to the Western audience language?” And she said, “You are absolutely right about this. This is how it was, and it takes me back in time.” I always was trying to be close to my characters — I am today in touch with all my characters — so I try to follow their guidelines and their voices and their story.
Russia, and its role in supporting Assad and its apparent bombing of civilians, is featured in the documentary. There really is no mention of the United States, or the West. Was that deliberate?
I don’t think that I tried to do a political documentary. Whatever was told to me by the over 100 people that I interviewed, whatever the camera captured, it’s there in the movie. Whatever was said is there.
To that point, from an outsider’s perspective, the lines in the Syrian conflict often seem blurry. You have the [Syrian] government, you have ISIS, you have the Free Syrian Army, and then you have all these other groups, some with extremist elements that can get mixed in with the opposition. How did you deal with some of that knottiness?
My movie isn’t a political movie, it’s not a political statement. It’s people who we’ve lost, the dark side of the Syrian history. The Western world has a lack of knowledge, and this lack of knowledge brings fear. I was asking [the sources] questions about them and their lives. What was surrounding them, why they raised their voices against the regime.
I do think even an ostensibly nonpolitical statement is a political statement. The movie makes a viewer think long and hard about what’s been going on. As you said, there’s a lack of understanding in the West about this and how the refugee crisis happened.
I was trying to explain why these people [are] seeking shelter in Europe. They’re not trying to take over the European civilization. The choice for the Syrian people is to die in Syria, to die in ISIS’s hands, to die under the bombs, or a chemical attack. From the Syrian perspective, they feel that the world abandoned them.
This documentary also comes at a time when Americans are debating refugees. As you said, it’s not about politics for you, but it’s hard to divorce this from politics. How do you want people to see and interpret this movie?
I think for us, Americans, this movie also teaches us one important thing: not to take for granted a lot of things. From freedom of speech and democracy that our founding fathers were fighting for, and gave their lives. The Syrian people have been fighting since 2011 for freedom and freedom of speech. I think for us, the American nation, or for the European Union — I think they need to keep in mind these values that are sometimes taken for granted. We need to start to be more respectful to our neighbors, respectful to our neighbors despite their religious views, despite the color of their skin.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.