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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

Gerald Schmitz


Syria’s agony must challenge our collective conscience


Cries from Syria (U.S./Syria/Czech Republic)
Little Gandhi (U.S./Syria/Turkey)
Last Men in Aleppo (Denmark/Syria)
The White Helmets (U.K.)
City of Ghosts (U.S.)

Good movies offering entertaining diversions are fine with me. Comedy can be therapeutic. The new Lego Batman Movie provides wonderful animated enjoyment. Science fiction can transport us to imaginary universes. But there is also the cinema that is necessary viewing precisely because it confronts us with unpleasant realities rather than offering a fleeting escape from them.

That is the case with five documentaries that bring urgent attention to the world’s worst humanitarian situation at a time when the fears it has generated are being exploited by unscrupulous politicians. There is no bigger fearmonger than U.S. President Trump, whose legally challenged executive order would indefinitely bar entry by Syrian refugees ostensibly to “keep America safe” from terrorist threats. (It’s worrying that a mid-February Angus Reid poll found one in four Canadians agreeing that Syrian refugees should be banned.) The irony is that these displaced Syrians are the ones who have suffered the most from terrorism. It’s a classic blame-the-victims scapegoating tactic. They are an easy target for Trump who says nothing about the Russian pilots following Putin’s orders in Syria, committing war crimes by bombing civilian areas including hospitals, schools and humanitarian centres.

As Trump’s extreme order was announced in January, three remarkable films on Syria were premiering at the Sundance film festival. The most complete picture of the conflict is Russian-American director/producer/cinematographer Evgeny Afineevsky’s Cries From Syria, which will have its first television broadcast next week on HBO (see

This is also a social-media war. There’s a warning about disturbing graphic images — many involving children as captured by activists and citizen journalists on the ground — the showing of which Afineevsky defends as necessary to bring home the full impact of what is happening. He contends that the reasons behind the humanitarian and migration crisis need to be better understood, with the voices heard of a “lost generation.” A passionate intensity propels the narrative which he calls “a tribute to the Syrian people, and their bravery in the face of unspeakable tortures, horrible massacres and foreign invasions. As they continue their fight for freedom and democracy, they are an inspiration for all humanity.”

Why has a country that was an ancient cradle of civilization descended into barbarism? A brief background describes the Baathist dictatorship and the dashed hopes that current president Bashar al-Assad would bring about reforms. Instead, repression grew worse. The breaking point came in the short-lived “Arab spring” of 2011 when public protests erupted. This March marks the sixth anniversary of the first peaceful mass protests centred in the city of Daraya near the capital Damascus as young activists drew inspiration from the toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The arrest and torture of children, the killing of peace activists and human rights defenders, turned these into huge mass demonstrations demanding the fall of the regime. Martyrs were created.

Among them was the charismatic Ghiyath Matar whose seminal role is the focus of Little Gandhi, directed by Syrian-American Sam Kadi with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre. The film’s subtitle, “The Lost Truth of the Syrian Uprising,” emphasizes the early commitment to non-violence that included gestures such as offering flowers to soldiers and police. The Assad regime’s response was savage suppression. Matar’s torture and murder in September 2011 was a pivotal moment, with traumatic effects evident in the testimony of surviving activists, some now refugees. Comments by former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014, indicate the conflicted nature of the western response — sympathizing with the opposition to Assad but unable or unwilling to prevent the carnage.

In Cries from Syria we see how the regime’s unrelenting violence, which attacked all protesters as “terrorists,” provoked an armed resistance. Groups of rebel fighters joined with a Free Syrian Army formed by military defections that included high-ranking officers. Cries is unsparing in showing how Assad then waged a campaign of total war on his own people: using barrel bombs, starvation, chemical weapons (crossing a “red line” with only muted international response), torture and executions (as detailed in Amnesty International and other human right reports).

In 2012 the war came to Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, divided between a government-controlled west and rebel-held east. In the midst of this horror, much of it inflicted on women and children, radical jihadists such as the Al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaida moved in to take advantage, attacking rebel fighters and the free army in order to assert their dominance. The worst manifestation of extremist violence was that of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). An outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq, it advanced rapidly to grab part of northern Syria in 2014.

What Afineevsky’s film makes strikingly clear in a chapter called “Outlanders” is how the threatened Assad regime assisted the advance of Islamist extremism, both by releasing radical jihadists from its prisons (some to become ISIS leaders) and inviting armed help from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. The success of Islamist terrorists owed much to the desperation of a terrorist regime to hang on to power. The key intervention of Russian airpower, including the use of phosphorous bombs, has been aimed at the besieged populations of opposition-held cities and towns resulting in apocalyptic scenes of destruction and death. The claim that Russia is there to fight ISIS is denounced as “the biggest lie in human history.”

All this is the backdrop to the displacement of many millions of Syrians and the perilous journeys undertaken by those seeking asylum and sanctuary abroad. Canadians will recognize the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body at the water’s edge that spurred this country’s conscience in 2015. It is but one of the millions of stories in a continuing tragedy that demands an international humanitarian response and action against war crimes, not misplaced fear of refugees and counterproductive travel bans.

Turning to a more specific situation, Last Men in Aleppo (, directed by Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen, zeroes in on the work of civilian defence first responders, the “white helmets,” during the siege of eastern Aleppo, now back under regime control after intense bombardments. Recipient of the Sundance grand jury award for world cinema documentary, it’s one of the most devastating and moving films I’ve ever seen. Enormous risks were taken during 2015-2016 using handheld cameras to capture closeups of rescue attempts amid the rubble.

The focus becomes intimate and personal as it follows several founding members of the white helmets: the charismatic Khaled Harah, a father of two young daughters who rallies the group’s spirits; two brothers, Mahmoud and the younger Ahmed. Through them we witness the hellish daily atrocities and also the fragments of humanity to hang on to as when someone, perhaps a baby, is pulled alive from the wreckage left by Russian bombs. We see the bonds of familial love, the occasional relief of laughter, of a wedding celebration — defiantly human moments in the midst of the great evil that targets the defenceless and indeed the white helmets themselves.

These are ordinary men who have decided to put their lives on the line to help others. They are tempted to leave, but who will replace them? Accepting the reality that death may come at any time does not make it any less terrible or shocking. I cannot get the images out of my mind. Last Men is an astonishing and unforgettable tribute to its subjects.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning 40-minute documentary The White Helmets, which can be viewed on Netflix, adds valuable context to the story of these remarkable civilian defence volunteers formed in 2013. Their motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” As a former rebel fighter explains his decision to join them, “better to rescue a soul than to take one.” There are some 2,900 white helmets operating out of 120 urban centres which have become targets of attack. At least 130 men have been killed in the course of saving an estimated 58,000 lives.

Several of the white helmets speak about their mission directly to the camera. One describes a feeling of “incredible happiness” when a precious life is saved; another expresses hope that “justice will prevail one day.” Such is the human response they inspire as we witness the scenes of extraordinary courage in action.

Last but not least is director-producer Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, which draws on the death-defying work of citizen activists from Raqqa, since 2014 the proclaimed capital of the “caliphate” proclaimed by ISIS (or “Daesh” to use its Arab title). Under the banner “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) their efforts are aimed at showing the world what is really happening to their hometown. Explains Heineman: “The contrast of ISIS’s videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns.”

Given that ISIS targets these activists and their families for death, even those operating outside Syria in secret safehouses, are at constant risk. It’s a stressful existence to say the least. One living in Germany also relates the distress of seeing how right-wing “populist” movements, some neofascist in nature, try to stir up anti-Muslim and anti-refugee fears. Like Trump’s ban, this plays into hands of Islamist terrorists looking for anything to portray the West as the enemy of Islam and all Muslims.

The film’s deeply personal moments amplify the impact of what we see — the horror of ISIS execution videos, but also the joy that comes from the birth of a child. The anguish and fragile hope bring home that military force cannot restore a society so savagely ripped apart. As one says: “Bombs will not fix this. Getting rid of ISIS will not fix this.”

The warmongers and fear-mongers offer only more violence and suffering to the Syrians who have inspired these urgent films and to whose voices we must listen.