A few weeks ago, I saw a screening of a new documentary film called Cries From Syria. It was a punishing watch. The film is raw, emotional, and relentlessly honest about the costs of war. The director, Evgeny Afineevsky, an American citizen who was born in the former USSR, doesn’t spare the viewer any discomfort.

In one scene, Afineevsky cuts to what appears to be a basement somewhere in Aleppo. It’s minutes after a chemical weapons attack. Scattered across the floor are dozens of children, bodies convulsing violently, gasping their last breaths. The scene is short, but it feels like an eternity. The point isn’t to pummel the viewer with violence. This is a confrontation with the truth, and it’s horrifying.

“My duty is to show the true face of this tragedy,” Afineevsky told me recently. “People can’t understand an atrocity if they don’t see it for what it is.”

If his goal was to make the suffering in Syria less abstract and more concrete, he has succeeded. This film lingers long after it is seen.

In this interview, I talk to Afineevsky about the documentary, which airs Monday night on HBO. I ask him why he decided to make this film, and what he hopes to accomplish now that it’s done.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

I was surprised by the scope of this film. You made a conscious decision to analyze the broader six-year conflict in Syria, as opposed to just focusing on a single dimension of this story. Why did you feel the need to provide that context?

Evgeny Afineevsky

This is something the world hasn’t experienced since World War II. I wanted to understand the totality of this refugee puzzle, and I couldn’t do that without going deep into the history. The story of the refugees is bound up with the broader conflict, and so I had to examine all of it. I had to show the events that led up to this.

Sean Illing

You take the side of the Syrian people in this film; this is their story told through their eyes. Did you want to make a political statement?

Evgeny Afineevsky

I don’t quite see it that way. I don’t see this as a political statement. If I take the side of the Syrian people, it’s because they are the heroes and the victims. I’m allowing their voices to be heard, their story to be told. As a filmmaker, my interest was in learning about the Syrians, about their struggle. I wanted to bring their story to the entire world.

So this is a human story for me above all else.

Sean Illing

The film is relentlessly brutal. A film about war is necessarily violent, but here you very deliberately communicate the violence and brutality. Why?

Evgeny Afineevsky

I think you answered the question for me. As a filmmaker, my duty is to show the true face of this tragedy. I have to expose the truth in all its ugliness. People can’t understand an atrocity if they don’t see it for what it is. I want people who are far removed from this to know what is happening. I want all of us to learn from this historical mistake.

I don’t presume that this movie will fix anything, but if it can accomplish anything at all, I hope it brings awareness to people in the West. They need to see these things. They need to know about this suffering.

Sean Illing

Other people’s suffering is an abstraction until you see it, until you hear it. You inserted yourself into this story, and into the lives of the people enduring it, for several months. What was that experience like?

Evgeny Afineevsky

It was very difficult. I will tell you something: I had a breakdown during my premiere at Sundance. For 30 minutes, I was unable to stop crying. Reliving these moments that my team and I filmed and edited is still unbearable. Every time I watch the film, I cry uncontrollably. The pain of these people stays with me. I’ll never forget it, and I don’t want to.

Sean Illing

You made a film about the conflict in Ukraine a couple of years ago. Did that prepare you in any way for what you saw in Syria?

Evgeny Afineevsky

Perhaps in some ways. What I can tell you is that it was still very difficult to do this movie. The level of suffering in Syria is staggering. We had far more horrible footage than we showed — and we showed a lot of horrible footage — but we decided to hold some of it back. But these decisions were never easy, and the balance we struck was always tenuous.

We didn’t want to create a horror movie. Again, we want people to look this tragedy in the face and, hopefully, sympathize with the victims.

Sean Illing

Looming over this crisis — and your film — is the reality that our international system has failed. In many ways, it’s a reminder that there is no transcendent moral order, no humanitarian rights, apart from the ones we create and defend.

Evgeny Afineevsky

Many of the Syrian people feel that we’ve abandoned them. That’s what they feel in their minds and hearts. I tried to explain to them that I was there, as a Westerner, trying to tell their story. Part of the problem is that a lot of people simply don’t understand what is happening. It’s too distant, too abstract.

Sean Illing

A lack of knowledge is one problem. There’s also a drumbeat of fear coming from people who, in some cases, have legitimate concerns, and in many cases are just propagating fear. Syrian refugees are often depicted as potential terrorists first and human beings second.

Evgeny Afineevsky

No doubt our media has generated a lot of unnecessary fear over these people. The only way to counter that is to tell the truth, to help Americans and Canadians and Europeans know more about the people they’re rejecting, the people they’re saving. I believe movies like this can facilitate understanding, open hearts, and change minds.

You can’t watch this film without feeling the pain and the suffering.

Sean Illing

It’s never explicit in the film, but you seem to want Americans in particular to realize that this can happen anywhere, that a violation of human rights anywhere is a violation of human rights everywhere.

Evgeny Afineevsky

Well, I think we in the West take too many things for granted. We don’t cherish basic rights and values in the way that we should. We rarely reevaluate what we have on our own table. As a filmmaker, I’m incredibly fortunate to have the freedom of speech; it’s what allows me to tell this story. The Syrian people have no such right. They’re living in a dictatorship. They’re suffering and dying from hunger, while we watch TV and throw bread in the garbage.

I hope this movie gives people something to think about. Maybe it reminds them of what we have, of how we’re living. My ultimate hope, of course, is that it will change some hearts and souls.

Sean Illing

I watched this film, and I was overwhelmed with rage and grief. I imagine other people will feel the same way. What do you want them to do with that rage and grief?

Evgeny Afineevsky

I just want people to set aside their biases and look at this situation with clear eyes. The Syrian refugees who are trying to seek shelter are not terrorists; their lives have been destroyed. If people are feeling anger and grief, then they should express that to their government. Ultimately, it’s the people who will influence the government. It has to start there. But nothing substantial can happen without government action. The nations of the world will have to end this war — we all know that. If they don’t, the suffering will persist.

If we want the refugee problem to go away, we have to end this war. The war is the source of the problem; it’s why people are fleeing their homes. Syrians want Syria back. If this war ended tomorrow, 99 percent of them would go home and rebuild their country. So let’s help them do that.

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