"CRIES FROM SYRIA," AN UNFORGETTABLE ACCOUNT OF THE FIVE-YEAR SYRIAN CIVIL WAR FROM THE INSIDE, DEBUTS MARCH 13 ON HBO
CRIES FROM SYRIA is a searing account of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the devastating civil war that has defined the country over the past five years. Drawing on hundreds of hours of war footage from activists and citizen journalists, as well as shattering images and testimony from protestors, revolution leaders, ordinary citizens and children, many of them witnesses to unspeakable atrocities, this harrowing film tells the story of a people who, despite great suffering, have never lost hope for a better tomorrow.
Directed by Oscar(R) nominee Evgeny Afineevsky ("Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom"), the documentary debuts MONDAY, MARCH 13 (10:00 p.m.-midnight ET/PT) on HBO, coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Helen Mirren narrates.
The film will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.
CRIES FROM SYRIA takes the audience on a unique journey, from Syria to Turkey, through Jordan, Lebanon and Europe. In many instances, Afineevsky filmed in war-torn areas at great personal risk.
The documentary reveals how efforts to demand basic freedoms and civil liberties from President Bashar al-Assad led to unexpectedly widespread acts of carnage, not only by his brutal Republican Army, but later by his Russian allies (who indiscriminately bombed and killed innocent civilians in cities like Aleppo) and by ISIS (who took advantage of the vacuum of power when the Free Syrian Army advanced against Assad's forces to gain a stronghold in the country), sparking one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times.
In March 2011, on a school wall in the city of Daraa, a group of boys spray-painted "It's your turn, Doctor," a reference to Assad's training in England as a physician. Their subsequent arrest, torture and, in some cases, murder became the catalyst for enormous demonstrations against the government. When thousands of peaceful protestors were then met with violence, it sparked the call for revolution. "We demonstrated holding roses and bottles of water and he [Assad] called us terrorists?" says activist Kholoud Helmi.
Leaders emerged, including famous soccer player Abdul Baset Al-Sarout and peaceful activist Ghiath Matar, "a young Gandhi," whose death at the hands of the regime created an international stir. Horrified by the regime's use of violence against the opposition, a number of high-ranking officers and soldiers defected to form the Free Syrian Army, aimed at overthrowing Assad. Hadi Al Abdullah, a journalist reporting on the war, says, "Some of the soldiers from Assad's army simply left because they are honest and free people. They refused to obey the orders and be part of the regime's crimes."
The government responded by launching military attacks across the country. Tanks rampaged through Daraa and other major cities, blocking supplies and causing starvation, extreme malnutrition and death from hunger among civilians. Ro'A, a young child caught in the conflict says, "Some people died of hunger. And some people slept without eating, and some people slept and didn't wake up."
Aleppo was split between the Free Army and Assad's army. The regime soon started targeting homes and schools and using chemical weapons. After the 2013 attack on Ghouta, in which sarin gas killed and injured thousands of civilians, the international community demanded Assad hand over all chemical weapons, but inspectors were allowed into just a handful of storage locations. The attacks continued with chlorine weapons instead.
When a number of cities were liberated by the Free Syrian Army, Assad sought outside help from Hezbollah and sectarian Iraqi, Iranian and Afghani militias. To further instability, he also released Islamic fundamentalists from Syrian prisons. In the escalating chaos that followed, Islamic groups like Jabhat al-Nusra entered the fray, but quickly clashed with the objectives of the revolution.
Soon, ISIS gained a stronghold in the Eastern city of Raqqa and began a brutal reign of terror, beating women who failed to cover themselves completely, luring and forcing young men into their ranks and terrifying locals with public beheadings. Ordinary citizens found themselves trapped between two deadly opposing forces.
Russia's involvement on Assad's behalf brought the conflict to disastrous new levels, maximizing damage with cluster and phosphorous bombs. The "White Helmets," an unaffiliated "civil defense" group of teachers, doctors, carpenters and other civilians, whose mission is to save as many lives as possible from under the rubles, was the only chance to survive.
Stranded and suffering, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, seven million have been internally displaced and more than five million have desperately tried to survive by fleeing the country. Two-thirds of those who have fled to date are women and children. Those who have been lucky enough to escape still dream of going home and rebuilding in a free society, but as the situation grows increasingly worse, keeping hope alive is a struggle.
Kholoud Helmi notes, "We are not terrorists, we are not aslyum seekers, we are people like everyone in this world, with kids, with lovers, with husbands, wives, and we still have dreams like anyone else in the world. In five years, my dream was to bring the change that we all desire to my country, but now I actually don't know what my dream is."
Many of the courageous individuals spotlighted in CRIES FROM SYRIA remain in the country today, continuing to fight for freedom and human rights. Their collective stories are a desperate cry for attention, justice and help from a world that little understands their reality or agrees on what to do about it.
Making its world premiere in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Premieres section, CRIES FROM SYRIA includes the original song "Prayers for this World," written by Grammy and Emmy(R) winner and Oscar(R) nominee Diane Warren, and recorded by Cher along with The West Los Angeles Children's Choir.
HBO Documentary Films presents CRIES FROM SYRIA; directed and produced by Evgeny Afineevksy; produced by Den Tolmor, Aaron I. Butler; executive produced by David Dinerstein, Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine, Tomas Srovnal, Chamsy Sarkis, Bohdan Batruch; co-produced by Shahida Tulaganova, Sergei Zhuravsky, Jawad Sharbaji; edited by Aaron I. Butler; music by Martin Tillman. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.