Having made a trilogy of docs viewing the war in Afghanistan through deliberately tight frames (the first of which, Restrepo, earned an Oscar nomination), Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested grapple with a sprawling Middle East topic in Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS. A useful primer for those who haven't paid enough attention and a synthesis for those who've been overwhelmed by years of upsetting news reports, the film explains cause-and-effect relationships that, while hardly unexplored, merit continued attention. Though premiering in limited theatrical release this week, it will reach most of its audience on the National Geographic channel,
Quested, who produced the Afghanistan films, joins Junger as director here, helping deliver a film that, though drawing (as Junger’s first films did) on countless hours of you-are-there war footage, puts that material in a more conventional big-picture doc context. The filmmakers offer interviews with scholars and policymakers, soldiers and bystanders — even a recently-minted household name or two, like former Trump advisor Michael Flynn.
The film traces the Syrian civil war back to March 2011, when some schoolyard graffiti drew an outrageous response from officials and triggered a public outcry. Observing as other political leaders in the region were being deposed by newly emboldened citizens, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was determined not to follow them: He opted to crack down mercilessly on protesters, intending to crush revolution before it could erupt.
Describing the viciousness of this crackdown, one former prisoner laments, "the wardens didn't have to beat us; we did it ourselves" — packed so tightly into their cells and deprived of food, he says, inmates fought each other like starving rats.
Early in this narrative, the film introduces two brothers who would be displaced by the ensuing warfare. We meet them as they hide far from their homes in Aleppo; one, identified as Radwan, speaks to the filmmakers calmly but says "I have to smile, against my will, so my kids don't get scared." But he has little to smile about, trying to keep a family alive amid constant bombing. As Junger and Quested return to him throughout the film, watching as he finally attempts to flee to the West, one tries to imagine the American or European citizen who could watch this story and say, "I'm sorry for your suffering, but you can't come here."
Returning to the macro level, the doc explains how opposition to the Assad regime led to countless self-defense militias. Known collectively as the Free Syrian Army, they're hardly a single entity for Westerners to rally behind.
As the film charts how ISIS grew in influence, attempting to create a glorious new caliphate, interviewees explain ways the West made their job easier. David Petraeus discusses the de-Baathification he helped implement in Iraq, calling it a "huge mistake" that turned our potential allies into enemies. John McCain and others (including French government officials) take issue with President Obama's handling of Syrian turmoil.
But instead of lingering over specific political arguments, the film returns to focus on ISIS itself — watching how it behaved both as a government and as an organized-crime network, seeing how it presented itself to potential converts through propaganda. Near the film's end, experts claim that prospects aren't good for the organization, which has made "a world of enemies." But a disheartening focus on the theory of "individual jihad" shows how the group may live on, even if its enemies can take down every black flag it flies.
Production company: Junger Quested
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Director-Producers: Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Executive producers: Tim Pastore, Matt Renner
Editor: Aaron Soffin
Composer: Joel Goodman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
In English, French, and Arabic
R, 99 minutes