Four Emmy nominations reveal perhaps more about the quality of this documentary than a thousand words. We are proud to have been part of this team which managed to give a voice to the people of Syria so that they could tell their story of the never-ending conflict. Executive producer and postproduction supervisor Tomas Srovnal and producer and editor Aaron I. Butler, ACE discuss how the film was created.
How did the story behind this film come together?
Aaron: Evgeny Afineevsky, the director, obtained approximately 20 TB of footage from Syria, most of which the world had never seen before. We wanted to tell a story that no one knew. You would hear little snippets about Syria in the news but no one was telling the whole story of what happened. So we took the 20 TB of footage and wove it together with all of the interviews in order to tell the story of the 5-year revolution in Syria.
Did you only interview people from Syria?
Aaron: We decided to focus on first-person accounts. There are no academics, no experts in the film, just Syrian people telling the story of what happened to them. We interviewed about a hundred Syrians and wove their stories together in order to try and untangle the complicated situation there, and showed, step by step, the events leading up to Aleppo. Everyone knew about the bombings, but few knew the history behind them, and that was our goal.
How did you manage to get the footage from Syria?
Aaron: Just by developing relationships with people. It is one of Evgeny’s genius talents. He would meet people and impress them with his knowledge and passion and then they would introduce him to other people. He kept gathering footage as he went along and he also built a rapport with several TV stations in Syria. Eventually, he was able to track down three of the most well-known figures in the Syrian revolution, the people who were there from the very beginning. Once they got involved with the film, many other people wanted to be a part of it too.
It must have taken a lot of time to gain the trust of the people…
Aaron: There was one person Evgeny spent six months with before he even got an interview due to lack of trust in the outside world. But he took the time to develop the relationship and once he did, he finally gained their trust, because they realized that Evgeny really wanted to bring their story to the world. That is all they ever wanted, for the world to truly understand what was happening to them.
Was the footage shot before the people met with Evgeny or did he ask his sources to shoot the footage for the film?
Aaron: Both. In some cases, he had people in Syria shooting interviews and footage and sending it to us. In other cases, we were telling a story which had begun five years earlier, so we needed to find footage from an earlier perspective. A lot of that footage was from cell phones and personal cameras, recorded by Syrians who were trying to capture all of the horrible things that were happening to them. This created a sense of immediacy but it also created some problems, as the quality of cell phone footage from six years ago was not very high, which posed as a great challenge for Tomas.
How exactly did you manage to get the data ready?
Tomas: Firstly, we had to get all of the footage ready for Evgeny and Aaron so they could go through and edit it. We had to deal with various formats, codecs and thousands of unorganized videos. We had a team of five people going through the material. Time was our biggest challenge – we had 11 weeks of editing on our hands. There was no intelligent database to work with as it would have taken months and months to create.
Aaron: What would happen is that I would put the story together and say: What footage do we have of the bombings in Daraa? And the team would go through the material to find what we had. I would go through the selection and choose the best footage for the film.
Tomas: Secondly, we had to prepare the selected footage for the big screen. We had to find a way to improve and tune the image so the quality and original style did not disturb the viewer.
Did anything pose a bigger challenge than the image quality?
Tomas: Yes, the most challenging task was managing the whole team, which was working all around the globe. We had to coordinate with a director who was always on the go, our team here in Prague, translators, sound mixing in Ukraine, color grading in Prague, the film score created in L.A. – all this with a tight Sundance submission deadline. We managed to make the deadline and the movie was accepted into the festival.
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