Last month, “The White Helmets” took home a much-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary Short. It’s not the sort of film that reinvents the wheel, nor is it a particularly grand feat of filmmaking. What it is is an extraordinary glimpse at an urgent and overlooked crisis, a film that manages to find the human capacity for love amid the horrendous onslaught of war. Without a doubt, it was the most important film in its category. “Cries From Syria,” is, in many ways, an expansion on “The White Helmets,” a feature-length look at the war — a film that, while not especially pronounced in its structure or technical achievements, is nonetheless timely and devastating.
At its core, “Cries From Syria” is an attempt to capture the breadth of the war and those trapped within it. As such, it starts from the beginning. The history — a long and complicated one that is condensed and simplified here — begins with Hafez al-Assad, who was the president of Syria from 1971 until 2000, when his son, Bashar al-Assad, came into power. The Bashar regime, like that of his father’s before, ruled the country with an authoritarian fist. Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and planted the seed for revolution. In March, protesters in Syria took to the streets after the regime kidnapped and tortured a group of teenage boys for spraying anti-Assad graffiti on their school. The army violently cracked down on the protests and the war began.
These facts, of course, are more or less easy to come by. What “Cries From Syria” does is piece together the story with an incredible wealth of footage captured by those on the ground. The video clips come from all over Syria and the brutality they lay bare is often painful to watch: women and children murdered, decapitated bodies, arms and legs barely visible through the rubble of a bombed home. In a way, as it goes on, “Cries From Syria” manages to turn us viewers into witnesses, and, thereby inherently, passive bystanders.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky not only has a knack for taking on timely subjects (his “Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom” came out hardly two years after the start of the conflict there), but turning complex, sprawling subjects into cohesive stories. The events of the Syrian war are far from directly causal (A didn’t cause B which didn’t cause C, and so on), and to simplify it as such would be reductive. So Afineevsky builds less of a chronological narrative, and instead focuses on the ramp-up of brutality and the horrific steps the Assad regime took: from putting cities under siege with tanks, to bombing them from helicopters, to the use of chemical weapons, and finally to Russian intervention.
The film also takes advantage of a cast of talking heads who help translate the experience of being on the ground and who articulate just exactly why so many people are willing to die for this cause. It’s the resilience of these Syrians that keeps the film from succumbing beneath the weight of hopelessness. Despite everything they have endured — the family and friends they have lost, the wounds they live with — they remain people, which the film seems intent on reminding us: these are people, human beings, that are living through this, and no matter how hard the international community tries to look away, they won’t simply disappear.
As such, “Cries From Syria” becomes far more important a document than a feat of filmmaking — though the bravery and compassion of completing such a movie is no small task. In fact, the biggest weakness of “Cries From Syria” is its sentimentality, which begs the questions: do we need trembling strings to coax hurt from us? Can’t we be trusted to infer the gravity of the situation before us when we see it?
No matter: “Cries From Syria” is a necessary film, in part because, at least in America, the outrage over the emergency there has subsided in the face of the wannabe-authoritarian we instilled here at home. The humanitarian crisis has not stopped. The millions of refugees have not yet been able to return home. And Assad is still in power. In fact, he is only becoming more empowered by his foreign allies. All of which means that the international community can’t look away. We can’t trick ourselves into forgetting. And at the very least (and it is so much more than its very least), “Cries From Syria” is a reminder. [B]
(It is worth noting that this film features footage of people being killed, of dead children and torture. It is probably best to watch it in a safe space and in the company of others with frequent breaks.)