Born in Syria: Documentary Review

Owen Hsieh

Born In Syria
Director: Hernán Zin
86 minutes

Born in Syria is a 2016 documentary from Hernán Zin, documenting the lives of the youth of Syria who have been forced to flee their country and seek asylum in the face of the terrible the civil war.

Zin is an established documentary film maker focused on social themes. Born in Syria follows on from a previous effort: Born in Gaza (2014), very similar thematically and stylistically; it followed the lives of a group of young children during the brutal siege of Gaza. His last feature documentary Dying to Tell is centred on the life and times of those engaged in the dangerous work of being a war correspondent.

Born in Syria is entirely narrated by Children of various ages and backgrounds, throughout the film we follow their extraordinary lives as they navigate a series of borders, checkpoints, and other obstacles, in travelling long, gruelling distances to try seek asylum in Western Europe.

We witness the tedious, oppressive process of seeking asylum, where families a re forced to sit in the sun and sleep in the street as they wait for hours and hours to be processed and housed in temporary refugee camps, or as they wait for transit. The boredom, the physical pain and burden of walking long distances are shown.

The children discuss dealing with terrible trauma and in some cases, express symptoms of PTSD in their matter of fact explanations of their life and times.

We see them enduring family separation, as families are unfortunately split and separated so that at least some of the family might seek safety, often children are sent abroad to seek refuge while their parents are forced to stay behind, the film displays emotionally distressing scenes when the children call home to check in with their mothers, and scenes of separation at the borders.

The film documents the lack of food and water en route, along with little access to proper sanitation and hygiene in the camps, as facilities are overstretched and underfunded in the face of this mass upheaval.

We also get a brief glimpse into their massive financial pressures, and the process of applying for asylum, these people have no stability and are stuck in limbo as the process is inordinately complicated and can often be quite expensive.

In the rare case of their arrival to seek asylum, we witness a struggle to find work and accomodation, we see the difficulty of learning a new language, cultural barriers and difficulties making new friends in a new society.

The film has minor moments where we share short moments of joy, for instance we see one family’s jubilant reaction as they receive the good news of a minor respite as their refugee status has been accepted, as two young siblings are reunited after a long time apart, or the simple act of family trip to the beach.

The film eventually concludes in showing a broad map of Europe which is used to highlight the immense distances some of them have been forced to travel, some journeys are in excess of 3000km, before providing a post script as to where they are now as the credits roll.

In the tradition of other documentarians, the film ‘bears witness’ to the human element of the story in its depicting their plight. Born in Syria provides contrasting images of the massive human migration, as these people are forced to flee war and persecution, against those of the massive devastation wrought on their former homes. The innocence of the children is contrasted against that of the brutality in the harsh system of border control.

But in documenting the lives of these children, for all its sensitivity and elements of charm, we are left with little more than a collection of injustices and atrocities leaving the viewer feeling worse for wear. It is a quite disturbing collection of images and vignettes from the lives of those uprooted by civil war.

For what point has the film been made? In its conclusion we have no better understanding of the nature of the civil war in Syria, or the punitive nature of the regime of border control in Europe, i.e. the essence the essential focus of the film.

Dramatic images aside, simply bearing witness is not enough, if we are unable to decipher and understand these phenomena, what political and social conclusions can be drawn? That it is all madness? The violence is inescapable? That it cannot be any different?

The documentary is certainly not part of the great tradition of modernism, combining the best elements of enlightenment thought, which categorically states that events can be rationally interpreted and acted upon to advance the cause of human welfare and liberty. It can rather be understood as a work of political irrationalism or postmodernism, reflecting the documentarians own glib political confusion, whatever his own outlook or intentions are, it is so. We can not shy away from a scathing political assessment where it is appropriate.

Simply stated: unless we can understand these phenomena, we cannot change anything. In this sense, devoid of any critical commentary or substantial analysis; the film is unhelpful. A scientific appraisal is necessary to convert an emotional feeling of outrage at injustice towards revolutionary social and political change.

What socioeconomic and political logic has led to these historic crimes occurring? And what far reaching political conclusions must be advanced to aid these war torn Syrian refugees?

A few brief lines here are appropriate,

These people are fleeing war and persecution in their home countries, the civil war in Syria is only the latest in a series of wars of occupation and regime change. Like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, which have been appropriately described as wars of ‘Sociocide‘, entire societies have been destroyed by imperialism, as great powers are locked in a fierce geo strategic competition as each jockey for advantage over their rivals in the pursuit of raw materials, markets and other sources of profit.

The system of border controls and checks across Europe to inhibit the flow of refugees has been likened to a ‘Fortress Europe‘. Such a barbaric system denying those seeking asylum aid and attentions, leads to desperate measures as many seeking safe refuge have died either trying to either make the treacherous ocean crossing, or traverse the land route to Europe.

Through the massive physical devastation of Syria, and the displacement of its population, some agencies and commentators have referred to the possibility of a ‘Lost Generation‘, as many of the regions youth are not attending any school, the generational impact could be very dire indeed.

To conclude: a more robust conceptual and theoretical framework is necessary to understand the tragedy of the Syrian civil war, along with its impact on the lives of children and the wider civilian population, this film does not advance that.

In summarising this documentary Marx’s famous aphorism ‘the poverty of philosophy’ comes to mind. If we are to tackle such mass injustice, directors and artists in the current period must grapple this monumental task only by taking a turn to seriously studying these questions of the day to find the inescapable political conclusions that must be drawn, and advance them. The suffering depicted here will continue until we can infer and disseminate this important information.

The author recommends:

To Create a genuine artistic Avante Garde means confronting critical historical issues, David Walsh, World Socialist Website. 2016.


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living between Western Australia and Taiwan. An avid bibliophile and book collector with a special interest in Eastern European literature and history, currently focused on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.

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