Cries From Syria

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Cries From Syria - this documentary attempts to recontextualise the European migrant crisis and ongoing hostilities in Syria, through eyewitness and participant testimony. Children and parents recount the revolution, civil war, air strikes, atrocities and ongoing humanitarian aid crises, in a portrait of recent history and the consequences of violence.
"Afineevsky doesn't pull his punches."

While fellow Sundance documentaries Last Men In Aleppo and Ghosts Of Syria zeroed in on specific aspects of the country's conflict - namely the work of the humanitarian group The White Helmets and citizen journalists from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently - Evgeny Afineevsky's Cries From Syria attempts to assemble the kaleidoscopic aspects of the war into an overview in this HBO film.

It's a mammoth task, covering a large amount of ground, and the director doesn't shy away from violence making this a particularly tough watch. In particular, he focuses on the experience of children, a fitting decision since it was a piece of graffiti by youngsters that triggered many of the initial protests. It seems remarkable now that a simple message scrawled up a wall to Bashir al-Assad, "It is your turn, Doctor" - a reference to the uprising in Tunisia and their president's training as an opthalmologist - would lead to more than six years of bloodshed. Assad didn't take the message on the chin, instead scooping up a tranche of youngsters and brutally torturing them.

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The authoritarian crackdown and protests that followed were, as Afineevsky's film shows, just the beginning of a conflict that would spiral into civil war as splinter groups including so-called Islamic State began to seize parts of the country. As things escalated, Assad stirred the pot by releasing extremists from jail, and, latterly, the populace have also faced bombing forays by Russia.

Afineevsky doesn't pull his punches. Much of the footage here is very forceful - and likely to prove too much for some audiences - including horrendous documentation of starvation and death. Among the talking heads that intercut with the footage, our chief guide is journalist Kholoud Helmi, whose observations are from the heart but measured and insightful. This is more than a simple primer, though, digging around into the detail, including chemical attacks and IS atrocities to guide us comprehensively through the conflict.

Generally speaking, Afineevsky keeps his focus on children, making the subject matter all the more emotive and this feels somewhat heavy handed as the film progresses to talk about the refugee crisis. Where early sections of the film are carefully curated to ofrfer maximum information, the later segment on the thousands who have been displaced is much less tight and more concerned with pushing emotional buttons than hard facts. The decision to cap it all off with Cher and a children's choir singing Prayers For This World, is nothing short of mawkish - especially, when Politics For This World are surely what is needed.

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2017
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Cries From Syria packshot
Overview of the conflict in Syria.

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Starring: Bashar al-Assad, Abdul Basset Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, Zaher Al-Saket, Kholoud Helmi, Ghiath Matar, Suzan Matar

Year: 2017

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US, Syria, Czech Republic

Festivals:

Sundance 2017

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