“The New Barbarianism” opens with panning shots of shelled rubble, all that remains of the once-thriving city of Aleppo, Syria. The camera moves from overhead pictures to zoom in on destroyed medical facilities and dispirited doctors. The scenes in this documentary belie the lesson its creators and supporters hope to pass on: even war has rules.
A screening of the documentary, followed by a discussion with the film’s executive producer as well as its writer and director, was hosted by the Humanitarian Innovation Initiative and The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at The Warren Alpert Medical School yesterday.
The documentary’s makers hope that showing their creation to students will begin to address “a real knowledge deficit among the American public,” said Justin Kenny, the director and writer of the film and former senior foreign affairs and defense producer and editor for PBS NewsHour, to The Herald.
The film depicts the recent and rising disregard for international humanitarian law throughout ongoing conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. Specifically, the film aims to document an increase in the deliberate targeting of hospitals, doctors and humanitarian workers in conflicts across the globe.
In Syria, more than 800 medical professionals have been killed since the beginning of civil war in 2011, the documentary’s narrator explained. “Many claim that the collapse of medical infrastructure in Syria propelled the mass exodus” of refugees to surrounding countries and the European continent, he said, his voice narrating clips of shelling, dust-covered bodies and frantic medical operations.
Experts such as David Miliband, former foreign secretary for the United Kingdom, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Joanne Liu, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres, affirmed the film’s central theme — attacks on doctors and medical facilities represent a dramatic increase in the hostility toward non-combatants.
“It is very striking that we’re living in an age of bombing U.N. convoys… (and) hospitals,” Miliband said in the documentary.
A health crisis has also struck Yemen, where another civil war backed by two warring nations, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is ravaging the country. Many of the country’s children are malnourished, more than half of the population has lost access to health care and a cholera outbreak has expanded to more than one million cases — one of the largest and fastest growing epidemics in modern history, according to the documentary.
In spite of this reality, the Western public is largely ignorant of the details of the war and crises in Yemen, said J. Stephen Morrison, executive producer and director of the film and senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We are one of the few organizations to show what’s going on in Sana’a (Yemen’s capital city) … because it’s virtually impossible to get in and virtually impossible to get out,” Kenny said. The documentarians partnered with underemployed filmmakers in Yemen to visualize the situation in the country for an audience with little to no knowledge of the conflict or the nation.
In Syria, the team partnered with the Aleppo Media Group, which shot much of the drone footage seen in the film. In addition, the team bought some of the group’s previously archived footage to show the devastation in Syrian hospitals, Kenny said.
Much of the discussion following the film centered on the role of the United States in both causing and resolving humanitarian crises. “The United States has the capacity to be a force for good,” Kenny said. However, the U.S. government funds the weapons used by Saudi Arabia in indiscriminate bombing of Yemen’s land, and “we really should not have our hands involved in that,” he added.
Rashmi Sharma, the University’s disaster medicine and emergency preparedness fellow, reminded the audience to always reflect on the U.S. role in a conflict. “All of us have to be aware of international humanitarian law, and we need to stick to those rules,” she told The Herald.
Melissa Godfrey GS and Anna Makaretz GS, both students at The School of Public Health, are enrolled in PHP 1802S: “Human Security and Humanitarian Response: Increasing Effectiveness and Accountability” and were motivated to attend the screening by their professor.
“We don’t talk a ton about the realities in the field” in the class, “and so seeing this depiction is horrifying. But it’s also such a stark comparison to what we learn in class,” Godfrey said.
“In class, we’re learning that if you do A and C and D,… you are going to provide great humanitarian care. But it doesn’t work like that in reality,” she added.
Makaretz agreed, adding: “It’s very formulaic. And it doesn’t work like that.”
Kenny hopes that educating students at the medical school will increase awareness of situations faced by doctors in these global conflicts. “The American medical community has been pretty silent on the issue,” he said.
The documentary will be screened at The Hague in May and the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland in June, Morrison said.