When the Ukrainian crisis erupted, and Russia started letting its old Cold War freak flag fly again, the effects were felt beyond the borders of Eastern Europe, and the unwitting side effect was that it sweeped another pending humanitarian crises right off the front page of the Western world’s newspapers. The problems in Syria haven’t gone away in the last few months, and are just as bad as ever. While world leaders struggle to find diplomatic and political solutions, hundreds of people continue to die, thousands continue to be wounded or displaced, and millions remain in refugee camps, living in a kind of limbo. What can two people do in all this madness?
The answer, it turns out, is quite a bit. Red Lines, named after the term frequently bandied about by President Barack Obama as the point at which foreign military intervention in Syria would be inevitable, follows a pair of activists who are trying to make a difference, and in some ways are succeeding. Razan works on the ground managing a network of people who co-ordinate smuggling operations in and out of the country, while Mouaz, a former lobbyist, works connections in Washington and tries to raise awareness about what’s really going on in the country.
What separates Red Lines from the average politically minded documentary is a factor that’s hard to create genuinely: danger. The cameras of co-directors Andrea Kalin and Oliver Lukacs follow Razan behind the borders of Syria as smugglers deliver medical supplies and move material between refugee camps. Reversely, footage is smuggled out to show the full extent of the damage, both the structural and human varieties, in what must be great danger to the people shooting said footage. It paints, somehow, an even grimmer picture of what’s going on in the country, a certain kind of hopelessness that makes you wonder what kind of good that anyone can do.
Razan and Mouaz go further though, and we follow Razan as she undertakes a dangerous mission to meet a potential leader for a free and democratic Syria. The man that she meets is clearly ambitious, but it turns out that he has no more authority than the average warlord, and it’s not too soon before Razan comes to that conclusion as well. The crew goes to tremendous lengths to surreptitiously film what’s going on, despite the danger and the security concerns. Not only is it kind of eye-opening to know just how opportunistic people are in spite of the graver concerns of Syria, but it will have you on the edge of your seat as well.
If there’s one misstep in the film, it’s that Red Lines seems to infer that the problems in Syria can be resolved pretty handily with greater involvement from the West. The geopolitical situation is certainly complicated, and it’s one of the many reasons that there’s been caution about getting involved in the Syrian Civil War, but given adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, is there anyway that a U.S. led mission to Syria can end in a positive outcome? Mouaz gets support from U.S. politicians, like John McCain, but while he may consider it a hopeful sign of broader assistance from the United States, let’s be honest and admit that McCain has never met a way he didn’t like.
But if the point of the film is to spur people to want action by appealing to the heart, then it does a heck of a job. The combination of the cold facts, like how 60 per cent of the hospitals in Syria have been destroyed, and the graphic imagery captured, like one soldier whose guts were being kept thanks to medics wrapping his wounds in bread bags, is enough to make a provocative case for action. As for Razan and Mouaz, their passion for their cause is obvious, and their disappointment that things aren’t going better is palpable. It’s been said that one person can’t make a difference anymore, and if that does so happen to be true, I think Red Lines makes a compelling case that two people certainly can.
The question the documentary leaves us with is what kind of difference can we make, collectively, here in the West? When we hear our government talk about the Syrian conflict, a number of factors come into play, but Red Lines tries to break through all that and get you to focus on just one factor: people are in need, and we need to help them. At times it seems like the big issues of the day are so massive that if you can get your head around them, you don’t know where to begin, and what you need is an intermediary. Well, Red Lines gives you two. You may not know the answers, but you at least know the right questions.
Red Lines paints a compelling picture of the situation in Syria, for all its danger and opportunities, through the eyes of two inspiring activists.
Red Lines Review [Hot Docs 2014]