Evgeny Afineevsky is sitting with me in a Hollywood restaurant on an October day in LA that feels as hot as July. I’ve barely touched the lunch I ordered. Instead, we’ve been talking about his filmmaking and Afineevsky’s documentary Cries From Syria. He points that he hopes I’m not going to waste my food as he’s seen children starving and eating leaves for a meal. I tell him I wouldn’t dare waste food.
Afineevsky takes us where news channels don’t in his latest documentary Cries From Syria. It is a riveting look inside the Syrian conflict that puts us right on the streets with needy children and that activists who are trying to help them. Cries From Syria is an often harrowing to watch as we see children dying from chemical attacks and listen to other children talk about trying finding their next meal, wanting to flee Syria. Afineevsky gives us the complete picture, delivering insight and an understanding to those of us on the outside. We talk about how news tends to focused on nothing but recent protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. “This began before that,” he tells me. “It goes back to 2011 and 2012.”
Cries From Syria opens with the now iconic image of Alyan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose body washed up on the beaches of Turkey, drowned while his refugee family tried to reach Europe. We’re shown more footage never before seen, hours upon hours pared down to tell the story about people who, despite the unending tragedy going on around them, never lose hope. Afineevksy says as difficult as it is to witness, it is vitally important for us to see what was happening. With the stories of Syrian children serving as the focal point throughout, he travels through Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, Austria, risking his own life to tell their story. He wants their voices and stories to be heard and if he can save a life, if he can make a change, he says, his job as a filmmaker will have been achieved.
Have a read of our in-depth conversation below:
One thing I’ve noticed since moving to LA is that American news rarely covers anything about Syria.
We live in a bubble. For the last few years, I think it’s become this place where we turn the TV on and we can see what Trump has done or tweeted but we don’t know what’s happening in the world around us. It becomes this problem because we isolate ourselves. One of the reasons there’s fear in the world is because we don’t know about things about other people.
As a filmmaker we have the opportunity to go and do research and learn about these other cultures and put these stories together. I put a comprehensive story together that has been a small story in the news. The news stories since 2015 were directed at Syrian refugees and how they were coming into other countries and “taking over.”
The European media didn’t report on the other refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Egypt. It was the media that recreated this misconception that the refugees were only from Syria. The media also reported that everyone was fighting the Aleppo rebels and there’s such negative connotation with that word, “rebel.” If we look at American protesters, that was also a rebellion. At the end of the day, the media created that misconception and as a result, we created these incorrect images in our mind and as a result, we fear these people because of lack of knowledge unless we educate them.
It’s our job as filmmakers to take these voices and stories and bring them to the rest of the world. That’s why it’s so important.
I can openly state that what I saw in Syria, in Ukraine, can happen here. American people don’t realize it but what we see in Vegas and in Charlottesville, that’s a civil war. We are in a civil war, we don’t have cities on fire or bombings, but we are in a civil war. To awaken people, we need to show people what war means these days. It’s important to bring these images from Syria and to tell these compelling stories that show why people are fleeing their homes. We have to remember that this started as peaceful protests against their president.
It’s important to show people that something given to us by our founding fathers can disappear just like that, we can lose human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech in a heartbeat. That’s exactly what they are fighting for in Syria and the people are paying the price. We are lucky enough that we don’t have to pay that price because our founding fathers paid the price. The only way to remind them is to show the harsh reality of what it means to fight for it. I saw some harsh realities.
I was just trying to think the last time we saw Syria on the news and what was happening there.
It was when they had the chemical attack, but let’s go back. There were over twelve chemical attacks this year and we only saw one moment when our government reacted. The rest wasn’t sellable enough for it to be repeated on the news. Trump is far more sellable. Syria and Yemen aren’t sellable. The news doesn’t show how dangerous the rest of the world is, instead they keep us in this bubble and it’s wrong to do that.
Take me back, when did this begin for you?
I actually saw a Syrian flag in Maidan. It was the square where all of the protests happened and it became this symbol of the uprising. At that time, I was focused on Maidan and working on Winter on Fire. I started talking to Syrians and learning about children there, and it was the research that took me to the borders of Syria. I started collecting footage and looking for characters who were part of the resistance and I also found five kids. I found three in Syria, one in Jordan and one in Austria.
I found that Syrians were isolated in their own country when the revolution started because Bashar al-Assad was controlling the media. It was one-sided.
When I was talking to people, they were under the impression that the first chemical attack was in 2015, but it wasn’t true, Assad actually started using chemical weapons in 2012 on Homs. Homs is the capital of the revolution, it’s where the siege started. For a lot of Syrians, it was an amazing discovery for them to learn through the movie that the chemical attack started earlier than they thought.
You talk about the children. We see their resilience. They’re strong and determined.
But that was an issue from the beginning. The children were resistant to me when I first started because they felt humanity had betrayed them. They felt the US betrayed them.
I told them to allow me to bring their story to the world, but they asked why they should trust me. Winter on Fire is about the uprising in Ukraine. It inspired Venezuela and it inspired Brazil last year against their President. It’s funny how Latin America was inspired by the spirit of the Ukranians, and that in the end, helped me establish the trust with the kids. It helped them see that I was on their side and that I wanted to tell their story to the world.
I earned their trust, more people started showing me their footage and it became a monumental project where people were showing me their images and where they were sharing their stories and what they went through.
Was that the same for the activists?
It all started there. They trusted me because they had seen and heard of Winter on Fire and they saw the reactions to that documentary.
You’ve talked about the horrors you saw. How traumatic was it for you?
Just last week I was with the psychiatrist who said I still had PTSD that started in Maidan. I can’t treat myself because I don’t have time and I’m still living through it. It’s a part of life. It’s the price I pay for doing this stuff. My life is dedicated to telling these stories. My goal is to bring change if I can save a life or change a life, it’s worth it. Do you know how proud I am of that? That this changed the world and how it impacted Brazil and Venezuela.
How long were you there for?
I was back and forth over the border, in Turkey, Lebanon and other places that have ISIS cells and generally not nice places to be. I also shot for a while in Greece, Germany, Austria because people had left Syria and were scattered across the EU.
When you’re a filmmaker, you need to have a beginning middle and end. The endpoint is the refugees fleeing Syria, but no one knows why they’re leaving and the cause of it. You’re missing the beginning and the middle. it was important to tell that story in the most comprehensive way possible because the media only shows that one part.
How do you find the balance of showing the horror with the hope?
Remember the three stories. The image of Alyan Kurdi symbolizes the death of the young generation, the image of Omran Daqneesh symbolized struggle and survival, and the end the image symbolizing hope. I always try to balance things with hope. We showed kids looking for food, but we showed their amazing spirit.
Most Syrians are in the Middle East because it’s closer to the border and what people don’t understand is they’re not trying to take over the cities, they’re not terrorists. They just want to go home. If you ask any Syrian what they want right now, they’ll tell you to leave their country and they’ll find their destiny. Or they’ll say to help stop the war so they can go back home.
The imagery of the American flag features in the documentary, but at the time Trump wasn’t president and his hate had not spread. So the flag has taken on this new meaning.
The kids see that Americans were helping Libya and Tunis. At the end of the day, they hoped Obama would come, but nobody came. On one side, people were embracing Trump for bombing the chemical factory. There are people who support him because they see he was able to get some action.
We just claimed Raqqa and it was in the New York Times, that we liberated Raqqa. What we don’t understand is that ISIS is not a religion, it’s an ideology. I can see the difference. It’s something that has existed for ages and is used to poison people. Syrians thought that ISIS was coming to help, but they were wrong, they were their biggest enemy.
How did you find your subjects?
It was important for me to find the true leaders. When we talk about danger, Abdul Baset Al-Sarout who is in the movie, he survived three assassination attempts, so being with him is like being under the gun. Hadi Al Abdullah survived an assassination attempt. That was the challenge; to keep yourself safe. They told me from the beginning that I could get in a car with them and the car could explode. I knew I was taking chances with them.
You find activists. I spent Ramadan with Baset Al-Sarout, we became friends and buddies. Now, they’re just like family and they come to trust you.
Everything we witness in the documentary is a journey into the dark side of humanity. It’s about everything that’s happening and we close our eyes to them. It’s happening everywhere. We only see it when we have a Vegas, but that’s come and gone and we don’t learn a lesson. Nothing has changed.
What did you take away?
We need to reevaluate things. We need to remind how to cherish what we have. Everything you see in the movie — hate crimes and the rise of hate crimes, all the protests we are seeing — happened in Syria. Don’t forget there were five states that wanted to arrest the protesters and people in marches almost became criminals and our freedom of speech was almost threatened.
On August 20, Nikki Hayley deleted her tweet.
I saw that.
It’s not that it was my movie, but she said something and deleted it. Why? Because someone said to her that we couldn’t have any tensions with Russia. At the end of the day, our freedom of speech is becoming a challengable issue in this country and it’s another sign of what’s happening that can get us to where Syria and Ukraine are right now.
Movies need to be seen and need to be exposed and people need to learn. This movie is a call to action. We’ve screened this for the Department of Homeland Security where I was doing a special sensitivity program training asylum officers. It’s important because they don’t know how traumatic the experience is for the refugees, it helps them understand what they’re going through.
How did Diane Warren get involved in writing the song for the film?
Diane Warren and I talked and we’ve been friends. I called her when I was making the movie, the first thing she said to me was she wanted to write a song, and she wrote this beautiful song that Cher sang. She did it for the kids. Sheila Nevins from HBO wrote to me and she sent me this email.
“Painful. Hopeful footage of human suffering and survival,” is how Sheila Nevins describes your documentary. It is hopeful. You show us what the news does not.
The problem is our media is focused on the wrong things and it’s something as filmmakers that we can do, we can change lives, and if I can do that, then it means a lot to me.