Cries From Syria, a Scorching Documentary

Shocking Images, Compelling Stories

Syrian Refugees
Refugee children come together in a classroom while coping with life as a child of war and conflict. The Za’atri refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan hosts tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the violence unleashed by Assad.   Photo credit: United Nations Photo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The ongoing carnage in Syria is impossible to ignore for anyone who makes the least effort to keep up with world news. Yet it is hard to react with sustained outrage to an ongoing tragedy so remote. Or perhaps it is simply too painful for us to contemplate — especially if we feel there is nothing we can do about it.

But film can bring the reality home like nothing else. Several recently released documentaries warrant high praise for doing just that. One is Cries from Syria, which I saw during the Sundance Film Festival — jarringly up close, in a private home, at a screening hosted by the organization FiReFilms. By the time the final credits roll, one feels, well, violated. And that’s the intent.

Unbearable to Watch, Impossible to Turn Away


Cries from Syria is the most harrowing depiction of violence and tragedy I’ve seen in a long time. It is so horrific that at multiple points it seems almost impossible to continue watching, yet few would dare get up and leave. And that’s a good thing.

Taken from hundreds of hours of war footage shot by Syrian activists and citizens, Cries from Syria is a comprehensive account of the brutal, intramural five-year conflict. This documentary, aired by HBO,  illustrates a side of the war to which very few viewers have been exposed. From the moment early on when we see a closeup of a drowned child, we know the filmmakers will not stint on showing us the unvarnished truth.

Perhaps worse than seeing the aftermath, we see horrors — in the process of happening. It is almost unbearable to watch a father as he tries to save his children on a rickety boat and sees them drown one by one. Next, a school is destroyed by a missile, followed by a town that is wiped out by a chemical attack.

Before our eyes, one atrocity after another is visited on the populace, each more appalling than the last.

Who is doing what to whom? In this multi-sided war of attrition, it is difficult to identify the players. Almost overnight, old alliances dissolve and new ones form. Members of one anti-government faction often hate those of another rebel faction even more than they hate the pro-Assad forces. And the hate is as searing as a blow torch.

Some groups seem to favor a particular style of atrocity. There’s the astonishing savagery of Assad’s forces, who appear responsible for unleashing poison gas (sarin) and barrel bombs (cheap, crude kegs filled with explosives, oil, and shrapnel). ISIS seems to specialize in beheadings.

And then there is the general mayhem created by all the rest —  rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, Iran-backed Shia, pro-Assad Hezbollah, members of Al Qaeda and Al Nusra, and of course Russia and the unconscionable, relentless air strikes we are told are its handiwork. None seem to spare women, children, babies, the wounded, ambulances, or hospitals. 

To be sure, one must be cautious about affixing blame or intention in such a complicated, fluid situation with so many unknowns. Nonetheless, the Russian angle is especially interesting because the film was made by the well-respected Evgeny Afineevsky, who was born in Russia, and then lived in Israel and now in the US. He also made a powerful film about the “Maidan” uprising in Ukraine, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.

What makes Cries from Syria so potent is the combination of verite footage, as the bombs drop and the people die, and the heart-rending stories told by victims — remarkably resilient, articulate, stoic people who recount kidnappings and torture, and the fallout from those chemical attacks and barrel bombs.

Narrated by renowned English actor Dame Helen Mirren, the film features Syrian journalist and activist Kholoud Helmi. The 33-year-old Helmi, who now lives in Turkey, shares her personal story of watching her brother being arrested and taken from their home. Five years later, Helmi does not know if he is still alive. But she has learned that an uncle and many cousins and friends have been killed during this seemingly endless conflict. Helmi had been brought to the screening in beautiful and serene Park City, Utah, where the contrast between film and setting could not be more pronounced.


A problem with this production, as with so much movie-documentary storytelling, is that the connections between the on-screen human story and the geopolitical backstory remain invisible. Yet the backstory is the cause of the human story.

What’s missing is any sense of the US’s role in opening the floodgates, creating the conditions whereby Assad, his back to the wall, has nothing to lose by inflicting the heaviest possible damage on rebel areas. For another perspective on the backstory, please read these previously-published WhoWhatWhy articles: here, here, here and here.

Yet the film’s powerful presentation of the on-going horrors of war reminds us that we need to do much more to learn what our government is doing in the world with our tax dollars — and that “out of sight, out of mind” on matters like this is not acceptable. If Cries from Syria makes more people see the Syrian victims of the war as fellow human beings to whom attention must be paid, if it makes clear that the refugees from this monstrousness are in fact deeply our responsibility, then it has served its purpose.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Cries From Syria (

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13 responses to “Cries From Syria, a Scorching Documentary”

  1. Eric_Saunders says:

    Is WhoWhatWhy getting some funding from strange sources? I notice that there’s been a number of articles that are pretty close to towing the imperial line on Russia/Syria, etc…

    • KevinChamberlin says:

      Exactly, My comments on this article with facts about Russia and Syria have been censored.

    • Comments editor says:

      Thankyou for your comment here.

      Please be aware that your earlier comment has in fact not been censored: it is currently awaiting the moderator, which is different. It is not always possible to deal with comments as soon as they reach us, hence the delay.

      Yours faithfully,
      Comments Editor.

    • Comments editor says:

      Thankyou for your comment here.

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      It appears that you are new to the site, and you are welcome to read about the origin and purpose of the site at this link –

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    • Eric_Saunders says:

      I am not at all new to the site. I have followed Russ Baker since Family of Secrets. But some of the stuff in this piece is egregious: “Assad’s forces […] appear responsible for unleashing poison gas (sarin)”

      I have to believe that he is familiar with the reporting of Robert Parry at Consortium News and of others who have cast serious doubts on the US version of events re: BOTH alleged chemical weapons attacks. Additionally, the elephant in the room is that the rebels/terrorists are largely financed by the West which essentially makes this a proxy war and a war crime by the UN Charter.

      Because Russ is so wise about these things, I can only speculate as to why he writes a piece with such glaring faults.

    • Comments editor says:

      I stand corrected – I can go only by comments history, and apart from your comment earlier today, there were none.

      Yours faithfully,
      Comments Editor.

  2. Miggy says:

    Moral teachings from HBO?

    Surely you jest. But we must look beyond the hypocrisy in order to advance the narrative, correct?

  3. KevinChamberlin says:

    There you go again Russ Baker. In a recent article, you stated that Russian military forces were in Ukraine, while the US/CIA regime change government was carrying out military aggression against the Donbass region. Document that. There is no responsible documentation of Russian forces in Ukraine. You have stated that Russia seized Crimea. Crimea was a part of Russia back to the nineteenth century. Krushchev, as premier of the USSR and a native of the Ukrainian state, removed Crimea from the Russian state in the 1950s and incorporated it into the Ukraine state of the USSR. It is the home of a Russian naval base and the only warm water port connected to Russia by land. The inhabitants of Crimea are primarily Russian speaking and culturally attached to Russia. In the election, the people of Crimea voted over 90% to join with the Russian state.
    There are no documented facts or evidence that the Syrian government utilized Sarin gas in any incident. This is certainly true since, in 2015, Syria gave up its CW. As for the incident in Idlib on 4/17, that was most certainly a false flag. On the week previous, Trump had announced intentions to not engage in regime change in Syria. The Syrian government was winning the war that is being fought by foreign mercenaries funded by the US and the Gulf States. There was an international conference to be held on the issue. Dr Postol of MIT has provided evidence that it was not a plane that dropped any CW bomb. The White Hats were filmed without the proper gear to handle a CW attack. Refer to Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley to get the truth about who are the white hats and their allies, Jabhat Al Nusrah. The CW false flag benefits those who wish to have the gas pipeline from Qatar built through Syria. Also, it benefits Israel. Israel wants to steal more Syrian land, especially the Syrian land that is full of oil and natural gas. Israel wants to continue with the balkanization of the ME so that Israel will be the power in the ME. That balkanization and destruction is made possible by the wasting of the blood and resources of Americans and the Muslims of Iraq and Libya.

  4. FamilyForce6 says:

    cui bono? The 2013 chemical attack that was immediately credited to Assad has been found to be false and the most recent one looks very similar. It took all of 2 hours to decide who was responsible for the attack? What did Assad have to gain by attacking his own people with chemical weapons? Assad forces were advancing against rebels in the area with little resistance. The white helmets assigned blame, but they are rebel (terrorist) supporters. Don’t be so quick to believe the “official” (propaganda) line given by MSM. Funny how the response to this attack was praised by politicians on both sides of the aisle…

  5. morbius63 says:

    “…unleashed by Assad”? Without Assad there’d have been no civil war?

  6. Martha Bartha says:

    Assad sure wants to hold onto power so bad he’s willing to kill his own people.

    • Disenfranchised says:

      Or…. The US wants Assad out of power so bad we are willing to lie about Assad killing his own people.

    • morbius63 says:

      So did Abraham Lincoln. Slavery came as an adjunct.