The Best Short Form Filmmaking on the Syrian Civil War & Refugee Crisis

I don’t play media critic very often. This week however I was truly saddened, and, frankly, a bit pissed off, at the US media when ominous tweets began filtering through my feed on Monday. Aleppo was falling—accusations of indiscriminate civilian killing, double-tap bombings, and door-by-door executions by pro-Assad forces were being circulated. I checked Nothing. Wall to wall coverage of Rex Tillerson’s nomination for U.S. Secretary of State. I tried The Washington Post. Nada. 

Syrians dying once again had, like any number of significant world wide humanitarian disasters before it, been judged to be “boring news” by the powers that be. Necessary to cover, but not enticing enough to audiences to justify really pushing. 

It’s a chicken and the egg problem in a lot of ways. I can’t blame publishers—I have yet to see a piece about the crisis go viral. Yet I think most audiences see “Syria” and skip over with glazed eyes, presuming difficult, confusing, and yes, boring, reporting to follow. That’s an erroneous assumption and it’s on media orgs for not doing a better job to correct that impression. I’ve watched hours and hours of short form work produced on this topic, and whether created by independent documentarians, or in partnership with major media organizations, I have been frequently struck by the strong presence of attributes I seek out in short films all the time: depth of emotion, inspiring characters, dramatic arcs, and powerful image-making. 

I’m not arguing that coverage of the war and the true stories of those affected should be primarily seen through a lens of entertainment, but I am suggesting that the two modes are not incompatible. Educate yourself, learn about the situations of others, and cultivate empathy, and do it through highly engaging storytelling. In that spirit, below is a playlist I’ve collected of what are the finest short films on the Syrian refugee crisis I’ve yet seen. Naturally, my tastes are subjective, and my viewing is not exhaustive, so I encourage you to use the comments section to let me know if there is work worthy of this list that I’ve missed. 

The civil war in Syria is a complicated situation, and a sense of fatalism and helplessness on of the world’s part is very much a piece of why the story has been marginalized. You do create positive value though by watching these works however—by being informed. You don’t need to transform into an advocate for intervention, or demonstrate for refugees, or even donate to aid organizations, though that’s great if you’re moved to do so. From a purely self-interested perspective of a Westerner, the refugee crisis has the potential to tilt the balance of power of governments across the Western world, and the primary tool of that campaign will be propaganda and fear. Reject the “othering” of desperate people. These works below, the best short form storytelling about the Syrian crisis that I’ve seen over the past 2 years, are an effective antidote to that at least, and their dissemination, I hope, helps to form a groundswell of goodwill that can combat fear and push for positive collection action.




Dir: Daphne Matziaraki 

The kinetic action, and heightened human drama of the boat landings has lead many, many (many!) documentary filmmakers to Greece to record the action. The island of Lesbos has become a flashpoint, and several of these works focus on native communities dealing with the influx rather than the refugees themselves. Daphne Matziaraki’s work, featured by the New York Times in its Op/Docs section, shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, and winner of Vimeo’s Documentary of the Year for 2016, has become the definitive entry in this genre. Matziaraki’s style is predominately observational, but like true masters of the style, she is able to communicate complicated emotions of her characters through framing, editing, and juxtaposition. 



REFUGE: Human stories from the refugee crisis

Dir: Matthew K. Firpo

A counterpoint to 4.1 Miles in most every way, Firpo’s work takes place in Greece as well, but focuses on the refugees themselves, and records their stories in formal sit-down interviews. More so than any piece, Refuge gives space to its subjects to tell their own stories, and covers the breadth and diversity of a group of peoples whom are often lumped together, undifferentiated, in words like “refugee”. 




Dir: Matthew Cassel

A 5-part series from Field of Vision in partnership with The New Yorker, at an hour of total runtime it is a tad unfair to include it on this list. However it is, to my mind, the most remarkable entry here: a full encapsulation of the refugee migration into Europe from origination to settlement. With charismatic subjects that you become really attached to, the scope of this work is unmatched, and the episodes themselves are well cut to create complete story arcs individually. 




Dir: David Freid

The marriage of sentiment and quirk shines a more optimistic light on the process of resettlement in Freid’s 9min short, a look at Sweden’s attempts to house asylum seekers. For lack of better options, authorities transform a Wild West theme park into temporary housing, which offers a chance for humor. While there is pathos in the back stories, on a list that can be oppressively heavy, Freid provides a bit of levity. Read Ivan Kander’s full review




Dir: Adam Loften & Mary Fowles

Similar in vein to High Chaparral, this piece from GoProject Films homes in on resettlement efforts. Mohammed Alsaleh,  a young, idealistic Syrian, abandons his quest to solve cancer after being tortured by the Assad regime. Receiving amnesty from the Canadian government, he emigrates to Vancouver, where he now works with a government agency to settle incoming refugee families in his adopted home. A bit slow in sections, this film ultimately does a better job than any other in highlighting the fundamental similarities of Westerners and refugees in our needs, wishes, and hopes. Read my review




Dir: Gabo Arora, Barry Pousman, Chris Milk

VR is continually touted by media and documentary organizations for its potential to foster to empathy. This piece, produced by Milk’s VR company Within for Samsung and The United Nations,  helps demonstrate the truth behind this supposition. In an 8min experience you tag along with a charming, 12 year-old guide as she shows you her home—a temporary camp for 84,000 refugees in Jordan. (You can watch this film on desktop or mobile in Chrome or Firefox browsers. For best effect, click through and watch in the YouTube app, while paired with a lightweight headset like Google Cardboard. )




Dir: Floor van der Meulen and Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma

This just won the top prize at the European Film Awards, and I had the pleasure of judging it at this year’s Alcine in Spain. What is unfortunate about the majority of the films I’ve highlighted so far are that they are made by Western filmmakers for Western audiences. Where are stories from Syrian perspectives? Issa Touma is a Syrian photographer and artist. In 2012, as the conflict is just beginning, he is determined to stay put in his apartment, and points his lens to the streets below his window. In the process he highlights the struggle between normalcy and war, and the surreality of ever shifting circumstances and alliances. Dutch filmmakers Thomas Vroege and Floor van der Meulen are co-credited as directors. 




Dir: Orlando Von Einseidel

Yes, we generally feature only films freely available, but if you’re a loyal Netflix subscriber, and there are over 85M of us worldwide, then watching this new Netflix Original will feel free. Shortlisted alongside 4.1 Miles for Oscar, this is one of the few shorts that gets inside Syria to address the conditions on the ground. A long one at 41min, but undeniably vital.




Dir: Daniel Mulloy

We’ll finish up with a pick that is still on the festival circuit, and is deserving of your attention should it screen near you. Daniel Mulloy’s historical short film output is one of the most sustained and celebrated in the world, and with Home he leverages that reputation to gather an all-star cast of collaborators and produce a big-budget action drama. The film recreates a refugee journey in England, but does it from the perspective of a young, white, British family. While the message is blunt, it is terribly effective for its target audience, and I’ve been in a couple of screenings where those in the crowd are shell-shocked. Partnering with the U.N., the film did a theatrical tour in the U.K earlier this year, at which time Rob Munday caught up with Mulloy for a Q&A