Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

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Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!