Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky logged countless miles to make his latest documentary, Cries from Syria—with the passport stamps to prove it. “[I] was in Jordan… Lebanon and Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah territory,” he tells Deadline of the places where he shot material for the film. “I was in all European countries because I was following the refugees.”
He recounts spending time in Southern Turkey in the midst of shelling and, with the help of smugglers, crossing the Turkish border into Syria itself. “Most of the journalists, if they need to cross the border, they’re using smugglers,” Afineevsky notes. “I made a lot of friends in Germany who as activists did the same route. It is the only option to see what is going on [in Syria].”
Afineevsky, who was born in Russia and now holds American citizenship, recorded interviews with nearly 100 Syrians—activists, Free Syrian Army officers, and men, women and children who have survived the destruction of their country. Some of the interviews were conducted with refugees who escaped the mayhem to Turkey; he did others in Syria, he said, while maintaining a low profile.
“All the filming I did specifically with small camcorders—very expensive and good quality camcorders that don’t look like professional cameras,” he recalls. “For me, it was really important to play the ‘cool tourist’ [rather] than to emphasize that I’m a filmmaker… You are trying to do as much as possible that will not bring attention to you.”
The director said he began researching his film in 2015 and with the help of journalists made contact with Syrians who had witnessed bloody assaults by government forces that inflicted hideous suffering on civilians. Many were reluctant to cooperate at first, Afineevsky says.
“[Syrians] were questioning me, ‘Why should we tell you this story now? Nobody wanted to stop all the atrocities and now you come from the West and are asking us to tell the story,’” he recalls. “I was trying to explain to them, ‘No, I want to tell your story to the world and bring attention to it… It’s not that we are ignorant or cold people. We just don’t know anything about what’s happening in Syria.’”
Earlier this month, Afineevsky shared Best Director at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (he tied with Frederick Wiseman, director of Ex Libris: The New York Public Library). And earlier this week, Cries from Syria earned a nomination for the Producers Guild of America’s top documentary honor.
Despite that acclaim, the director has faced criticism in some quarters for his extensive use of video shot by others in the middle of the Syrian conflict. Afineevsky responds by pointing out that his film begins with a disclaimer about his video sources, which reads, “The majority of the footage in this film was shot by Syrian activists and ordinary citizens.”
“I’m not trying to hide that most of the movie builds on the footage taken by the people who’ve been on the ground,” he says. “From my side, I directed the drone in Aleppo. I interviewed all of the people… I found my characters and asked them to tell me their stories, and I covered this basically with the footage I received from these activists.”
Matthew Heineman, whose City of Ghosts tells the story of citizen journalists who documented ISIS atrocities in Raqqa, Syria, also made use of video shot by locals (for a Western journalist to enter Raqqa at that time would have constituted a suicide mission).
Afineevsky expresses solidarity with Heineman and Syrian director Feras Fayyad, whose Last Men in Aleppo likewise raised awareness of the brutal toll of Syria’s civil war, as well as Sebastian Junger & Nick Quested whose film Hell on Earth detailed the damaging influence of ISIS on the country.
“At the end of the day we are all freedom fighters and we are all trying to tell the people what is happening in the world,” he insists. “We filmmakers want to bring the stories that can not only change minds and hearts but can make a call for action—to do something after watching the movie.”