It happened in the Ukraine. It’s happening in Syria. And now it’s happening in the U.S.
Evgeny Afineevsky, the director of the HBO documentary “Cries from Syria,” has seen the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad label the country’s peaceful protestors as terrorists. And now he says it’s happening in 2017 in America.
“People came out to the streets against President Trump. People who came out in Syria came out against President Assad. They came with water and flowers, peaceful demonstrations. Their government pronounced them terrorists,” Afineevsky told TheWrap’s Editor-in-Chief and CEO Sharon Waxman during a Q&A at the outlet’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series on Thursday night. “The word ‘rebels’ is something the media gave a negative connotation. So in our minds, we see rebels as something negative,” he added while speaking at the screening held at The Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles.
“Cries from Syria” tells the story of the Syrian refugee crisis in four chapters: the birth of the revolution in the Arab Spring, the start of the Syrian Civil War, the rescue efforts as the situation worsens, and, finally, the ongoing escape efforts from the regime. It’s a film about how revolution spreads and what it’s like to live under constant turmoil and oppression.
“I saw the screaming headlines saying these people are bringing Islam into our countries. These people are taking over our cities, and everyone was afraid of Syrian refugees,” Afineevsky said about the media in the European Union as he finished his previous film. “I wanted to tell the story of refugees, but I can’t talk about refugees if most people don’t know what happened and why these people are fleeing.”
He captures their story in especially grim detail. “Cries from Syria” opens with a toddler lying dead face down on a beach, the waves washing over his body. A six-year-old has a hole in his face where a sniper bullet has pierced through his cheek. The aftermath of a chemical weapon attack in 2013 resembles Holocaust imagery. Former prisoners recount how everyone among them was raped, beaten and tortured. And in their testimonials, Syrian civilians remember how wrong they were when they thought things couldn’t get any worse.
Afineevsky says there is a real misunderstanding of the refugee crisis in the media and among our politicians. Afineevsky described screening the film to a bipartisan group of Congress back in 2015 and realized the work that needed to be done.
“I was asked by every Congressman I met, ‘What should we do?’ They saw the movie, and for them it was like Columbus discovering America,” Afineevsky said.
Instead, the director has taken his efforts to the streets and to the people in need, earning the trust of Syrian freedom fighters on the ground by explaining how as a storyteller, he could take their story and expose it to the world.
“I explained to them, we lack knowledge. We are in the darkness in our media. Media never exposed what happened from 2011, up until 2015. It was the screaming headlines of ‘Here They Come,’” Afineevsky said. “As the doctor who wants to treat the disease, I can’t just treat the symptoms, I need to treat the disease. So I need to tell a story that has a beginning, middle and end.”
Afineevsky said it was his “happiest moment” to learn his last film “Winter on Fire” was shown to underground rebels as a means to fuel the opposition. He says “Cries from Syria” can do the same.
“When you take a risk, going across the border knowing you can be killed, you do it because you know you can save someone’s life or change someone’s life,” Afineevsky said. “As a filmmaker, I not only change history, I inspire the people.”
“Cries from Syria” is available on HBO Now and HBO Go.