The documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is an attempt to place the conflict at the center of American consciousness, to show that the Syrian civil war and ISIS are inseparable.
At the center of the extraordinary new documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” débuting this Sunday, at 9 P.M., on National Geographic, a Syrian family tries to make sense of the disaster that has overtaken it. Two brothers, Radwan and Marwan Mohammed, along with their wives and small children, are holed up in a cement room somewhere outside of Aleppo, forced by Bashar al-Assad’s government troops and then by ISIS to flee the city. As the film chronicles with relentless power, Syria, outside the family’s miserable shelter, has fallen into chaos. The two brothers don’t appear to be political people; they are eager to raise and educate their children. As they recount their humiliations, they are not without grim humor: “This is the dining room,” Radwan says, pointing to an area of the floor where his kids eat some mushy white stuff in the midst of family belongings strewn all over the place.
Four hundred thousand Syrians have died since the civil war began, in 2011; millions have been displaced, and approximately a million refugees have landed in Europe, with disruptive effects that are now familiar. ISIS is an obsession for American citizens and politicians, but the Syrian conflict, which partially gave rise to ISIS, has only barely registered. This documentary is an attempt to place the conflict at the center of American consciousness, to show that the Syrian civil war and ISIS are inseparable. Families such as the Mohammeds have been ensnared in a cascading series of power grabs that have overwhelmed their hopes for a normal life.
Sebastian Junger, who co-produced the documentary with Nick Quested (the head of Goldcrest, a documentary-production company in London), narrates “Hell on Earth,” which he also wrote. Junger points out that foreign players (Iran, the Kurds, Turkey, Russia, America) have all pursued their own interests in Syria. “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop,” he states. The trouble is, not only does foreign involvement keep the war going, the war itself comes back and bites its enablers. American politics has been materially altered by the fear of ISIS and of Syrian refugees. Our hopes for a normal life have been dislodged as well.
In 2010, Junger and the late Tim Hetherington made the classic documentary “Restrepo,” a portrait of an American combat unit in Afghanistan. After Hetherington was killed, in Libya, Junger refashioned the “Restrepo” outtakes into another strong movie, “Korengal,” in 2014. For those films, the two men did the camera work themselves. But Junger and Quested couldn’t get into Syria, so they adopted a different strategy. They drew on various media sources (network news, Human Rights Watch, ISIS propaganda), and they interviewed a wide range of experts (including the British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab and, in a lucid moment, Michael Flynn). The core of the movie, however, was shot by Middle Eastern news outfits, and by activists, witnesses, and citizen journalists. Most of this footage is devastatingly effective. The participatory camera has become commonplace, but you don’t often see one (usually a cell phone, I would guess) being carried into a tumultuous firefight or threading through the shocked, incoherent wake of a bomb blast. Or capturing shots of panic as a crowd falls under open fire. Or sharing eloquent views of rubble-strewn streets and grieving relatives. The movie dramatizes the destruction of a society from within that society. Watching “Hell on Earth” is not an easy experience; I can’t recall another documentary with so many corpses. It’s a grief-struck history of cruelty, haplessness, and irresponsibility—a moral history as well as a history of events.
Except for the family scenes, these are not home movies. On the contrary, the physical and emotional commitment behind the footage, which is palpable, is driven by professional skill or by serious ambition—or at least by the desire to bear witness. As many have said, we can be desensitized by seeing too many horrifying images; but each significant image in this movie hits hard. In many cases, the victims are the young—young men and women who join the anti-Assad resistance and, over and over again, children who just get caught in the violence. Both the best and the worst of the country’s young people have been pulled into an unending maelstrom.
Junger and Quested also tie together the historical fragments. In 2011, some teen-age boys in Daraa wrote anti-Assad sentiments on the wall of their school; they were arrested and tortured. One of the boys narrates the events, and we see a picture of him, battered, when he was released. (He seems to have since recovered physically.) It was the time of the Arab Spring, which began in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as protests, initially peaceful, against corruption and oligarchy. In Syria, the Assad crackdown that followed produced larger and larger protests. A ragtag army of rebels—the Free Syrian Army—grew rapidly, fuelled by defecting Army regulars and foreign fighters. The Assad regime released imprisoned jihadis into the rebel force, in part to discredit it—one result of which was that the Obama regime was wary of arming the rebels, lest the arms fall into the wrong hands.
The Americans, in Junger and Quested’s estimation, made two colossal errors. The first was to completely disempower the Sunnis in Iraq after the American invasion, in 2003, with the result that many Iraqi Army officers, with nothing to gain in a Shia-dominated Iraq, joined ISIS. The second, of course, was Obama’s claim, in 2012, that the use of chemical weapons would serve as a red line, only to refuse to counterattack when Assad crossed that line in August, 2013. The Saudis were ready to join the U.S. in intervening against Assad. When the U.S. stood down, they stood down, and any chance of stopping Assad was likely lost for good.
The second half of the film chronicles the way ISIS rose out of the disorder in Iraq and the vacuum in Syria. This material is more familiar, in a dreadful way—the ineffably vicious recruiting films, the beheadings and other threats, the looting of ancient artifacts, with the intent of destroying the cultural heritage of a people and then the people themselves. As the movie makes very clear, ISIS’s spectacular brutality is not merely the expression of human degradation; it’s a very calculated effort to intimidate and control local people and to lure outsiders with the excitement of total domination.
At this point, the delusionary caliphate is no more. ISIS is surrounded in Mosul and Raqqa and may eventually be scattered and ended as an effective fighting force in the Middle East. But Assad, backed by the Iranians and Russia, will likely control more and more of his shattered country, and the human and political wreckage of the war will continue to roll across Europe. We don’t know whether Radwan and Marwan and their families ever made it out of the Middle East; they tried, at one point, to get to Greece, and were turned back. Other families have suffered worse (the Mohammeds at least escaped Aleppo alive) but their situation makes its tragic point: Their modest hopes and their claim on survival are what is left of the Syrian future.