As Donald Trump’s presidency tries once more to pass legislation designed to restrict travel to the U.S. for citizens of some Muslim-majority countries, HBO Documentary Films gears up for the March 13 launch of Evgeny Afineevsky’s Sundance-premiering Cries From Syria, which takes a comprehensive and unflinching look back at the refugee crisis in Syria, and the barbarism of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Afineevsky, whose Oscar-nominated film Winter On Fire was an inside look at the Maidan protests in Ukraine, begins his new documentary—narrated by Helen Mirren—with the hope offered by the Arab Spring of 2011, and the peaceful protests that sought to unseat Assad and restore democracy to Syria. Detailing events as they happened, Afineevsky again relies heavily on footage shot by citizens in the country, and features interviews with protesters and activists like the 7-year-old refugee Bana al-Abed, and journalist Kholoud Helmi, who has been at the frontlines of activism in Syria since the first protests started.
“At that time we had a dream that we were going to change the situation in Syria,” Helmi told me when she visited Deadline’s Sundance Studio in January before the legislation. “We had a dictatorship and we were inspired that we were going to bring in democracy and change, and bring our freedoms back.” But, she said, “Everything turned against us, starting with the government who were so brutal against us.”
Afineevsky’s film is tough but essential viewing. As with Winter On Fire, the director is unrestrained in detailing the true horrors of the Assad regime’s retaliation, which has leveled cities, displaced citizens and caused untold death. Protesters were dubbed “rebels” and “terrorists”, “but they were demonstrating like the people today are demonstrating,” Afineevsky said on January 21st, as Chelsea Handler led Park City’s Women’s March within a day of President Trump’s inauguration. Against the Assad regime’s barbary, Afineevsky said, protesters took up arms to protect their families.
“We all need to learn how Isis happened, and how it has nothing to do with Syria specifically,” the director said. “[The people of Syria] are struggling with Isis even more than the United States.”
Helmi, who has experienced tremendous personal loss, confessed that she struggled to maintain hope. “But there is faith that we started,” she told me. “I can’t let people down. We reached a point that we simply can’t stop, for the sake of the refugees and the diaspora and the detainees in prison. If we stop, we are letting them down.”
Check out more in our video interview above. Cries From Syria premieres on HBO on March 13.