You’ve seen the pictures. Two of them, specifically. You’ve seen the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down, dead, on the shores of a Turkish beach, lifeless in a bright red shirt and blue shorts. You’ve also seen five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, painted grey in rubble and caked with blood against the stark orange backdrop of his chair. It’s quite startling, then, when these images begin to move — when the waves keep crashing into and passing over Kurdi’s body, when Daqneesh absent-mindedly picks at the blood on his face and examines his arms and feet.
“Cries From Syria,” Evgeny Afineevsky’s (“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”) new HBO documentary about the ongoing Syrian Civil War, is bookended by the footage from these two viral moments. It’s fitting. The youth — and, by extension, Syria’s increasingly uncertain future — are the focal point of Afineevsky’s unsparing film, the prism through which he frames each chapter and political development. Children, the movie argues, are the ones who have lost the most in this abhorrent humanitarian crisis (one of the world’s largest and most urgent), and it’s they who stand to gain the most if peace is to be achieved. In the documentary’s most disturbing scene, the aftermath of the sarin gas attack in Ghouta is laid bare for the audience to witness: Teenagers, toddlers, infants choking and unable to breathe, piles of convulsing bodies strewn about a chaotic hospital floor, children whose pupils have rolled back into their heads as their mouths foam viciously. It’s unwatchable, horrific, utterly depressing — and, at the risk of sounding too cliché, morally necessary.
Indeed, “Cries From Syria” is, at its most basic level, a profoundly graphic visual document of the atrocities of war. It is not a political film, insofar as its producers do not posit a critique of the Syrian opposition’s treatment of religious minorities or suggest the refugee crisis as an indirect result of American foreign policy. The movie is obviously positioned on the side of the Syrian Free Army, but its point of view is purely ground-level; the only voices heard in interviews are Syrian activists, refugees and defected army members. Outside of a particularly scathing segment critical of Putin and Russian airstrikes, the film doesn’t aim to persuade viewers on one political ideology over the other.
Rather, “Cries From Syria” subjects its audience to two hours of relentless carnage and bloodshed, focusing on the war as, objectively, a sickening global crisis. It sounds brutal to watch — and it is — but as the film makes clear, there is no other option. You have the luxury to gripe about having to endure two hours of misery on your TV screen — imagine that as your everyday, lived-in reality.
In fact, what’s most remarkable about Afineevsky’s documentary is that, well, it’s not really his. The footage is almost entirely amateur video from activists and citizen journalists as the events took place, and consequently, the film doesn’t pretend to be concerned with artful camera angles or an overproduced score. Save for what one assumes was a grievously difficult editing assignment, the documentarians recede into the background, silent, instead letting the cruelty of war and those who suffered — and still suffer — speak for themselves.
And as the film is structured chronologically, the final chapter ends, elegantly, with an honest look at the refugee crisis in our current political context. Each chapter, from Al-Assad’s appalling cruelty in Ghouta to ISIS’ barbaric takeover of Raqqah, has constituted a broad, forceful argument to bolster this declaration: A piercing portrait of families stranded, separated, displaced and utterly, completely abandoned. There are no easy answers, but it’s clear compassion is the only way forward. Yet as thousands of women and children are rejected, rounded up, or forced on to the streets by supposedly developed countries, we hear testimonials from a number of young orphans. Their families ripped apart, these children have no other outlet with which to air their titular cries.
It is sobering, to say the least, to confront your own inaction. Once you remove political inclinations and theorizing from the equation, you are left with nothing but a stark portrait of people less fortunate than you, and for whom you have done so shamefully little to help. What Syrian children, what Syrian women, what Syrian men, what all victims of the Syrian Civil war have endured is, for the most part, a concept in the abstract for many of us, a reality so far removed from our own that to even consider the possibility of a government using chemical weapons on its own citizens is to entertain the ludicrous. When the dust settles, then, when the picture is clearer and the gasbag rhetoric deflated: We will be remembered for a systematic dehumanization of a people who have done nothing but suffer; we will celebrate whatever supposed progress the world makes in the coming years, and it will be irrevocably tainted by the unequivocal shame of Executive Order 13769; we will confront, without pretense, our refusal, both collective and individual, to fight for children who could be our own but, unfortunately, whose names sound too different and whose prayer rugs look too Middle Eastern; we will be forced to reckon with the profound idiocy of categorizing refugees as the terrorists they so desperately seek shelter from; we will, eventually and much, much too late, come to terms with the sadistic moral calculus our leaders feel the need to compute to determine who is worthy of safety and who is deemed a threat to this ethically bankrupt nation. The children of Syria have suffered, and we have ignored them; the cries have fallen on deaf ears, and indifferent hearts.