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Syrian refugees speak out at Sundance

Posted January 27

A still from "Last Men in Aleppo" by Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (Deseret Photo)

PARK CITY, Utah — The streets of Park City are packed with fur-lined boots, thick-rimmed glasses and the newest KUHL jackets as chic Sundance Film Festival-goers bustle between theaters and private parties.

On the stage inside the Yarrow Theater, it’s a different story. A woman in a simple white hijab, black dress and gray cardigan stands before a crowd of movie-watchers, sobbing as she pleads with them to care about something happening a world away.

“I keep screaming to the universe, please do something,” says Kholoud Helmi, a native of Syria who was driven from her home in Darayya, near Damascus, in 2012 by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

“Now we are refugees scattered in this universe and everyone is just not liking us. We’re just beggars to them. We’re barbarians, you know? No one touches us, we Syrians, we’re just infected. … We are university graduates. We all had a dream, same as every one of you.”

Helmi spoke on Jan. 22 at the premiere of “Cries from Syria,” a documentary directed by Evgeny Afineevsky and one of several Sundance films this year to bring the Syrian crisis to life. The film combines footage from citizen journalists and activists with commentary from Syrian citizens, including children, revolutionary leaders and generals who have defected from Assad’s army.

The premiere and Helmi’s comments came just days before the White House announced that President Donald Trump would sign an executive order blocking all Syrian refugees from being resettled in the United States.

“I never wanted to be a refugee,” said Helmi, who is featured in the film. “I lost every single thing. … We were seeking for freedom and no one participated. Now everyone is burdened by the issue of refugees. What to do with them, how to cope with this bunch of pigs, why to receive them.”

Two other documentaries on Syria also premiered this week in Sundance: “Last Men in Aleppo,” which follows two volunteer first-responders as they rescue civilians from bomb blasts, and “City of Ghosts,” a film about citizen journalists risking their lives to document the ISIS takeover of their town. A fourth film, “The Good Postman,” explores the reaction to Syrian refugees flowing into Europe, focusing on a small-town election in a Bulgarian border town.

They add to a growing list of films trying to raise awareness of the Syrian crisis, including “Fire at Sea,” just nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, along with “4.1 Miles” and “The White Helmets” for best short documentary.

Filmmakers and others involved with all four Sundance films said they hope the films start conversations among people who may not know much about the Syrian crisis or the reasons behind one of the largest human migrations in modern history.

“I hope that this movie will be a slap in the face of everyone in this world so maybe they can wake up and see that for six years we’ve been killed, we’ve been tortured,” Helmi said. “At last we had the chance to speak up in English and to have our voices heard. We’ve been shouting for six years but unfortunately most of the time we’ve been shouting in Arabic and it (sounds to) you like, blah blah blah blah blah,” she said.

What happened in Syria?

“Cries from Syria” is a primer for anyone wanting to understand the Syrian crisis. It starts with peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2010 after the government detained a group of schoolchildren and returned their corpses to their families marked with evidence of severe torture.

The film traces further kidnappings and killings by Assad forces that escalate between 2011 and 2015 into bombings of civilian neighborhoods as the Free Syrian Army forms and a full-scale civil war begins. It chronicles the regime’s use of chemical weapons and its search for alliances with Hezbollah and Iran. The turning point comes when Russia and Assad join forces in 2015 under the pretext of fighting ISIS, but instead begin flattening Syrian neighborhoods, including hospitals and schools, far from ISIS territory.

At one point, a man sobs outside a girls’ school destroyed by a Russian bomb, demanding, “Are they terrorists? Are these girls terrorists?”

The film also traces the main routes Syrian refugees began taking into Europe, hundreds of thousands of them walking for months to find sanctuary. It also highlights the efforts of activists and rescuers who stayed in Syria.

HBO acquired U.S. rights to “Cries from Syria” and will debut the film on March 13.

At the premiere, following Helmi’s remarks, the face of citizen journalist Hadi al Abdullah appeared on the big screen via Skype connection from Syria. He said reports Russia and Assad had stopped bombing neighborhoods were false.

“We are dying every day, and we have tried to seek the help of every leader, every single Arab leader or international leader, and they all failed to help us. So please be the voice of the Syrian people. You guys can be the voice of the Syrian people and you can spread the word and you can help us,” he said.

“We don't ask for too much, we are only asking to live a peaceful life, like you guys.”

Europe’s conundrum

The town of Great Dervent, Bulgaria, is one of countless towns that witnessed the flow of refugees into Europe in 2015 and 2016 after Lebanon and Turkey became overwhelmed. Refugees sought shelter in abandoned buildings and villagers shared water and food with them as they passed through on their walk to find a new life in northern Europe.

“The Good Postman,” directed by Tonislav Hristov, tells the story of Ivan, the postman in Great Dervent, who has an idea to help the refugees and save the dying town: invite refugees to live there, raise their families and revive the economy.

The small town wrestles with the same conversation happening across Europe, whether the refugees are a resource or a danger; whether they should be welcomed or shut out. Hristov said “The Good Postman” demonstrates that even when political change isn’t possible, individuals can still act outside the political system.

Asked what he most hopes people take from the movie, Hristov responded without hesitation: “Empathy.”

He decided to make the film after seeing footage of the body of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed onto a Turkish beach in 2015.

“I just had a little boy born. So actually I couldn’t breathe. I was totally smashed in the face. I felt so bad,” Hristov said. He was also frustrated by the lack of empathy he perceived from people, especially the media, asking questions about what the refugees were thinking and what they wanted from Europe.

“It could so easily happen to anyone,” he said.

Heroes of the crisis

“Last Men in Aleppo” zooms in on the stories of two men, members of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets because of the headgear its volunteer members wear as they rush to rescue people buried in the rubble of regime and Russian attacks on neighborhoods in Aleppo.

Khaled, a sturdy, fun-loving father of two girls, and his fellow volunteers scan the skies for jets and helicopters, jumping into vans and ambulances to rush to the scene as soon as a bomb falls. They dig for men, women and children — living and dead — prying them from three-story high piles of rubble on a daily basis. Between rescue missions, Khaled plays with his children, plants trees for food, helps bury the dead and tries to understand what's happening to his city.

Before the film’s premiere Jan. 23 at Sundance, Khaled was killed during a rescue mission, and his wife and daughters have joined refugees struggling for food on the Turkish border. His close friend Najib was by his side as he died, directors Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen told the audience at the premiere, and Fayyad read an email from Najib, who has now been forced to leave Syria:

“I'm Najib. I have three kids. They are my only hope and reason to continue with this life. I want to tell you that we are not okay. After we were forced to flee Aleppo, I have no home … I lost my close friend, Khaled, and that was my biggest loss. I cried a lot and hated the war more and more. … I have nothing to do with the political. I rescue people. … No one should lose a close friend like I did. I just hope that all of you who will see me in this film will stand together with us to stop this ugly war. Help us to not be attacked anymore.”

Like “Last Men in Aleppo,” the film “City of Ghosts,” directed by Matthew Heineman, also focuses on everyday Syrians risking their lives for their country. It highlights a group of citizen activists called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” who documented life under ISIS in their hometown, where journalists have been unable to enter since 2014.

One of its members, Abdul-aziz Al-hamza, attended the premiere of “Last Men in Aleppo,” making a plea to the audience after the film.

“You can do a lot of things,” he said. “You can donate to the white helmets on their website, Google it. … You can (learn) what's going on. You can tell your friends, your families what's going on. … You can put pressure on your government to make a change. … Please make pressure, yell out, shout out, do something.”

Read more about how to help refugees.

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