Sundance and World Trade Center Utah Team for Symposium on Refugee Crisis

World Trade Center Utah with the Sundance Film Festival 2017, convenes a panel discussion at the S.J. Quinney Law School, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Directors include Evgeny Afineevsky, Tonislav Hristov, Matthew Heineman

On day six of the epicenter of privilege and social conscience that has come to be known as the Sundance Film Festival, a series installment from the World Trade Center Utah’s “Thought Leader Symposia” put three filmmakers and their current works on display at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law on Wednesday.

Sponsored by Zions Bank, this specific symposium featured three filmmakers who have documented the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and one woman who is featured in one of the films and has lived the experience as a daughter, mother and as an “Internationally Displaced Person,” (IDP) herself.

The three films discussed represent the stark and occasionally tender realities of a country and its people in physical and emotional ruin. It is a portrayal of those devastated by the “forty year reign of brutal dictatorship,” sustained by international politics of the highest magnitude. We know this as Bashaar Al-Assad’s Syria.

Cries From Syria is one of the documentary premieres at the 2017 festival (airing March 13 on HBO), directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. One of three directors, Afineevsky was at the symposium to discuss his experiences in making his film which utilized drone footage of the devastating impacts of war, unauthorized footage and first-person interviews, many including children in Raqqa and Aleppo.

Afineevsky’s talented camerawork (with six people credited) shows us rubble in the distraught nation that is sculptural in its own demolition, visually operatic in its own chaos, where the audience may not be sure of the potential for rebuilding in a place so crushed by war. That uncertainty is answered within the interviews. In one, a seven-year-old girl uses her considerable English language skills and pure innocence to tell the audience she would like help to return to her Syrian home and that, “If you will do this, I will thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Kholoud Helmi, a Syrian woman who now describes herself as an “IDP activist” said she has “lost all faith in government,” and is now working to tell Syria’s tragedy from her first-person point of view. “For forty years, no one wanted to leave home. Then the secret police killed our families, ISIS came and made us fear each other.”

In the World Cinema Documentary division is Tonislav Hristov’s The Good Postman, which was filmed near the Turkish border in Bulgaria. The film deals with the subject of immigration, within the context of a local, mayoral election in a rural town where an aging population is witness to an endless stream of Syrian refugees moving through the rural terrain bound for Europe. At the heart of the story is the town’s postman, a candidate for the mayorship, who “sees encroaching darkness, not in the desperate exiles filing across his land, but in his own increasingly insular and distrustful town.”

Rounding out the panel and the theme of desperation amidst strife in Syria is Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghost, in the U.S. Documentary competition where citizen journalists in Raqqa became the heroes who risked all to publish the details of the “silent slaughter” occurring when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began the systematic demolition of human rights, along with the eventual destruction of the town itself. Heineman used two teams to document the efforts of a handful of Syrians who wanted their story told and took it upon themselves to become underground correspondents. While one team worked within the country, the other would regroup and communicate from Germany and Turkey. What was produced was a record of the “sophistication of the propaganda” dispersed by Assad’s loyalists, undercutting and destroying any semblance of dignity and self worth within the nation.

Within the discussion by the filmmakers and their subjects, was a window to the world of what Afineevsky described as “a journey into the darkest part of humanity,” a subject he believes that the world should see. When asked by a reporter what makes the situation in Syria unique from other diaspora in the history of the world, Helmi said that “During World War II, Jews were killed because of their religion and sects. We only called for our freedom and basic human rights.” She continued by describing the efforts of Assad’s government to set wives against husbands, brothers against brothers and to place “peaceful demonstrators into secret prisons.” Among those assembled with the World Trade Center, Utah the event laid bare the heart-wrenching existence of man’s inhumanity to man at a time when international law is barren of positive effect as well.

The final day of the Sundance Film Festival is Sunday, January 29.

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