Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
Canada’s justice system is put on trial as a defence team challenges
a mother’s murder conviction for the death of her disabled child
A Film By Sherien Barsoum
World Premiere Screening: Sunday April 30, 1:45pm – Isabel Bader Theatre
Additional Screening: Thursday May 4, 5:00pm – Scotiabank Cinema, Cinema 7
On Feb. 19, 2011 in Toronto, Cindy Ali, a Trinidadian-Canadian mother of four, phoned 911. In a panic she reported her family’s townhome was being invaded by two masked men dressed in black suits.
Finding her prone on the floor, with her 16-year-old, cerebral palsy-stricken daughter Cynara on the couch showing no vital signs, a first responder immediately treated Cindy as a suspect rather than a victim.
What follows is the story of Sherien Barsoum’s Cynara. It’s an in-depth look at a system – from first responders to police to the Crown to the Court – that often decides culpability early and proceeds with blind determination.
Eventually sentenced to life imprisonment Cindy clung to hope, with the support of her husband, three daughters and her Church.
With exclusive access to Cindy, her family, her lawyer, witnesses and court documents, this film is both a thoughtful crime story and an intimate drama about a mother trying to clear her name.
Cynara follows Cindy’s case through the efforts of top wrongful conviction lawyer James Lockyer – who is angered by the evidence that was either ignored or downplayed in the original case, and aggressively pushes for a retrial. We also meet Toronto Star reporter Jim Rankin, who investigates the conflicting details, and interviews Cindy Ali in prison.
The film personalizes those affected, spending time with the traumatized persevering Alis, and creating a portrait of a family that loved and protected their special-needs child and sibling (as evidenced by the coroner’s reports that she was well-fed and cared-for before the events that led to her death).
“Making this film was a crash course in Canadian criminal law and the system that surrounds it,” says Writer, Director, Producer Sherien Barsoum. “What I discovered were multiple failings in that system that have created astounding craters for vulnerable people to fall into.
“On the other hand and despite compounding injustice, the Alis have shown me that they are a family of unwavering love and uncharacteristic faith,” continues Sherien. “While the facts of the case are central to this film, I made it to honour this family’s experience in hopes that it contributes somehow to discourse on the urgent need for change in our justice system and the way we see disability.”
Cynara’s stellar creative team includes cinematographer Christian Bielz (Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Case Against Beverly Lynn Smith), Editor Rich Williamson (Scarborough, Take Light, Frame 394) and composer Ben Fox (One of Ours, Stateless). Legal and editorial research by Kenya-Jade Pinto, visual research by Pinto and Erin Chisholm. Cynara is Executive Produced by journalist/filmmaker Michelle Shephard and Bryn Hughes.
ABOUT Sherien Barsoum - Writer, Director, Producer
A film director and producer based in Toronto, Sherien directed and produced Cynara, Ride for Promise, and Player Zero, winning the Hot Docs Short Film Pitch and Best Canadian Documentary at NorthWest Fest. She was the producer of Dreams in Vantablack and Babe, I Hate To Go which played top festivals internationally and was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Sherien was also the story consultant on the Oscar-shortlisted Frame 394 and co-produced House of Z, the first feature bought and distributed by Condé Nast, now on Netflix. Sherien is a Producer with the National Film Board of Canada and a founding member of the Racial Equity Media Collective, which uses research to advocate on behalf of racialized creators in Canada. She is also the former Director of Programming for the Reelworld Film Festival and served as a board member of the Documentary Organization of Canada.
ABOUT Bryn Hughes - Producer
Bryn Hughes is a producer based in Toronto, and founder of the production company Frequent Flyer Films. Her most recent project, the feature doc The Perfect Story (NFB/TVO) was nominated for a 2023 Canadian Screen Award for Best Documentary Program. Previously, she was nominated for the Donald Brittain award for The Way Out (2019) and the inaugural Rob Stewart Award for Best Science and Nature Documentary at the 2018 Canadian Screen Awards for the film The Great Wild Indoors (2017, CBC); and again in 2016 for The Gorilla Doctors (2015, CBC). She won her first CSA for the history series War Story: Afghanistan. Since 2015 Bryn has taught production management and producing for documentary at the Documentary Filmmaking Institute at Seneca College. She is a board member of the Documentary Organization of Canada.
Cynara is produced in association with documentary Channel, with the participation of Canada Media Fund, Rogers Documentary Fund, and Ontario Creates, with assistance of the Government of Canada. The documentary is being distributed worldwide (excluding Canada) by Espresso Media International.
The broadcast premiere for Cynara will be October 22, 2023 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on documentary Channel.