'Theo Who Lived': Film Review

Theo Who Lived - still 1 -  Theo Padnos - H 2016
Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
A standout in the current crop of docs emerging from Middle East conflict.

Theo Padnos, the American journalist kidnapped by Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, tells his survival tale.

An account of captivity and torture unlike most that have emerged from recent conflicts in the Middle East, David Schisgall's Theo Who Lived finds, in freed journalist Theo Padnos, a man with surprising empathy for those who beat and nearly killed him. Though no apologist for the Al Qaeda faction that kidnapped him in Syria in 2012, Padnos's rueful and sympathetic storytelling exhibits the kind of cultural understanding that drew him to the region in the first place. Framed thoughtfully by Schisgall, it should earn respect in a limited art house run and on video.

Padnos was a struggling freelancer living in a $20-a-month room in Turkey when he met a group of students who agreed to help him cross the border into Syria. He intended to cover the country's civil war, convinced that his intimate knowledge of local language and customs gave him an advantage over most Western reporters. But he didn't know that the interview those "students" had arranged was an ambush. He was kidnapped immediately, tortured and held hostage for nearly two years, threatened with death if he wouldn't "admit" he worked for the CIA.

(At the time of his capture, Padnos went by the name Peter Theo Curtis. The doc doesn't address the discrepancy, but news coverage indicates he had changed his name so he could work in the Muslim world despite having published a potentially controversial memoir under his birth name.)

A smart and self-aware New Englander, Padnos admits up front that he holds himself accountable for what he and loved ones endured, and for the trouble various governments went to on his behalf. "I committed suicide, but I'm still alive," he recalls thinking as sat at the mercy of the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. Beginning the film in Antakya, the Turkish city where he was based, Schisgall's crew proceeds to find or build locations that resemble each stage of his captivity in Syria, from rotting houses to the tiny cinderblock-and-steel heatbox where — with his head poking through a small portal in the door — Padnos recounts the 200 days he spent alone in just such a cell.

Schisgall worked for some time with Errol Morris (producer Amanda Branson Gill did, as well), and seems to have picked up some of the master's canniness about dramatizing a nonfiction narrative. Here, the right light and setting make staged reenactments not just unnecessary but unwanted: Padnos is too engaging a storyteller to be shunted offscreen in favor of actors, even when certain episodes — dramatic escapes and recaptures, for instance — might seem to beg for such treatment.

Padnos's mother and a cousin are the only other interviewees here, talking of the long effort to cope with ransom demands and get help from U.S. authorities bound by a directive never to negotiate with terrorists. Their personalities shed some light on the prisoner's own, and their suffering gives weight to his regret over having gotten himself in such a fix. But Padnos could easily have held the screen for an hour and a half all by himself.


Distributor: Zeitgeist Films

Director-Screenwriter: David Schisgall

Producer: Amanda Branson Gill

Executive producers: Evgenia Peretz, Dan Cogan

Director of photography: Timothy Grucza

Editor: Jane Jo

Production Designer: Knox White

Composer: Byron Estep

In English and Arabic

85 minutes