Gilbert Speaks on “Cynara” From Director Sherien Barsoum

When a 911 call comes in about a home invasion, the first responders find 16-year-old Cynara not breathing and her mom lying on the floor. It’s not long before Cindy Ali becomes the prime suspect. Was justice served, or was this a crime of disability bias?


Hot Docs and award-winning director Sherien Barsoum bring forth all the details of this story about an immigrant family’s fight for justice. The documentary begins with the recorded message received by the dispatcher in Scarborough, Canada. On February 19, 2011, a call is made to the police from Cindy Ali. She is barely able to speak but tells the dispatcher that there was a house invasion.

The first responder to reach the house walks in and finds Cindy Ali on the floor. On the sofa is 16-year-old Cynara. The child is not breathing. While the responder performs CPR on Cynara, he becomes suspicious of the mother’s details of the supposed break-in. It isn’t long before Cindy Ali is charged with murder, even though Cindy repeatedly says that two men broke into her home looking for a mysterious package.

By all witness accounts, the Ali family were a loving, religious family. Cynara was born with severe cerebral palsy and was prone to seizures. Cynara, who was only supposed to live until three years of age, surprised everyone by reaching the age of sixteen. Cindy, her husband Allan, and Cynara’s siblings went on trips together and participated in their faith at the Church of the Rock. But, Pastor Sheela Durasami in her witness report may have caused more confusion after mentioning a conversation that she had with Cindy.

The Crown’s prosecutor led with the notion that Cindy suffocated Cynara because the family was financially strapped. The jury found this motive sufficient enough to send Cindy to prison. Cindy decides to fight for an appeal with the help of her lawyer James Lockyer and this catches the attention of Jim Rankin, a reporter for the Toronto Star. Cindy’s conviction was so troubling that Rankin led a two-year investigation to uncover the flaws in Canada’s jury selection process.


I really enjoyed watching Cynara for several reasons. Was Cindy a murderer? Whenever a child dies or goes missing, it usually ends with one or both parents having something to do with the case. My husband was a Philadelphia Fire Fighter/Medic, and I can’t tell you how many times the first responders to arrive on the scene were able to notice right away if there were any incriminating evidence. The first responder on Cynara’s case felt that Cindy was the cause of her child’s death.

If a child dies mysteriously it is usually the parent who is the perpetrator, but as we watch this documentary, we are presented with contradicting pros and cons. There is a letter that was supposedly sent by the intruders. There is an eyewitness who did see two strange men in the underground garage right before leaving to go shopping. There is also the testimony of family and friends that reveal the love the Ali family had for their disabled child.

The director, Sherien Barsoum, learned plenty making this film. She found multiple failings within the system. Was Cindy a victim of immigration and disability bias? Canada’s position on immigrants and disabilities came under fire with another case involving a university professor being denied permanent residency because his son had Down’s Syndrome.

I was flipping back and forth while watching this Hot Docs documentary regarding Cindy’s innocence. I still haven’t made up my mind. But, I would be interested in your findings after watching this documentary. If you’re in Toronto, you can find details on Cynara screenings here.

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