This is Syria, pictured from the front lines of its brutal civil war. Now in its sixth year, the conflict has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and displaced millions more.
Still, the violence and misery shows no sign of ceasing. In fact, filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested reveal in their latest documentary, the chaos has allowed an even more despotic regime to take hold in the region. Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS captures the harrowing carnage, political and social consequences, and human toll of the war in Syria, while examining the west’s role in the creation of ISIS and our own history of public violence.
Junger and Quested previously collaborated on a trio of films about the war in Afghanistan (Restrepo, The Last Patrol, Which Way is the Front Line From Here?). Unable to film in Syria themselves, the pair worked with “an army of improvised film crews”, including journalists, activists, and a family attempting to escape ISIS, to collect over 1,000 hours of visceral footage for Hell on Earth.
The film premiered in San Francisco on Saturday, at an event co-hosted by the International Rescue Committee in Oakland and the Syrian American Council. Feras Alhlou, a volunteer with the Council whose sister is still in Syria, said the film accurately represented the complexities of the war and its roots in peaceful protests against the Assad regime.
His wife, Ghaidaa Mousabacha, works with refugee organizations and Syrian families arriving in the Bay Area. “It’s very important that people see Syrians differently than what’s being shown on TV every day,” she said. “We have been affected by ISIS more than anyone else. And we want a solution, an end to this, because we have so much to give the world.”
Junger, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, sat down for an exclusive interview with the Express after the screening.
Express: Your film explores the historical background of the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the suffering of civilians. But you also ask us to consider our role in the chaos, and our own history with violence. Was that something you set out to tackle when you began to make the film?
Sebastian Junger: Early on, Nick [Quested] took the initiative. I was [In the U.S.] writing my most recent book, and Nick basically just went over there and tried to scoop up as much footage as he could get. I wasn’t really thinking about it—I gave him some direction and some ideas. But then the stuff started coming in.
The idea that people have of ISIS, which is totally deserved, is that they’re psychopaths. Which they are. But I realised that they were murderous psychopaths for a very rational reason. It worked for them. They’re not literally insane, they’re extremely sane, and it’s actually a strategy. And I felt like I had to explain why ISIS was committing their atrocities in public. What was the thinking there? And as I started to unpack that, I suddenly realised, that’s us. That’s Europe. That’s everybody. We’ve all done that, used public violence to cow the population and send a message. The awful lynchings of black men in the south, those murders could have been committed in private. They weren’t. They were done in the town square, and everyone was there to see it.
So when I realised that I thought, this film isn’t just about the Syrian civil war, in some ways it’s about the nature of violence, and how people use it. But that came during the filmmaking. I didn’t have that idea beforehand.
Did you conceive your argument that we in the west are, in many ways, responsible for ISIS, before you started the filmmaking process?
No, it came out in the interview with Ghaith [Abdul-Ahad, Iraqi journalist and photographer]. I understood, in general terms, that we had introduced a certain amount of chaos in Iraq. But I didn’t quite draw the link between the incredible violence and trauma we inflicted on the Iraqi population, the normalization of violence as Ghaith said in the film. The de-Baathification policies of [Paul] Bremer. I hadn’t put all those things together into a coherent narrative.
Included in the film are Ghaith’s photographs of the aftermath of an airstrike by a U.S. helicopter, which killed 13 civilians. There’s also footage of dead children in Syria being pulled from the rubble. What was your thinking behind showing explicitly graphic images?
We were trying to impress on people the level of depravity and cruelty without traumatising people so much that they shut down and psychologically rejected the film. There are legal boundaries and ethical boundaries to consider as well, but as filmmakers we wanted to tread that line and really confront people with what violence is. What war is.
For example, the Mohammed Merah footage. Of course, the full video doesn’t cut out [as it does in Junger’s film.] I mean, I’ve had to watch it, it’s horrible. We would never show that, for a number of reasons. One of them being the dignity of the victims. It’s a judgement call and a legal call.
How did you choose your subjects for the film, given the practical boundaries you faced? For example, the family of Marwan and Radwan who become the emotional center of the story.
I think we got lucky with them. They’re just a wonderful family. We got to them through a contact who was an archaeologist that we interviewed about the looting of antiquities by ISIS. He happened to mention he had two brothers in Manbij, and they were thinking of trying to escape. Nick was like, “Would they be interested in a little project?” So we just lucked out with that.
But also keep in mind that we did 100 talking-head interviews. We gathered 1,000 hours of footage. We’ve got whole other movies in our material. We had a lot of choices, and we chose the ones that were going to be most affecting and most illuminating.
How did you, as director, create the story that the film ends up telling?
I wanted a human storyline that served as a spinal column for the movie, and that was Marwan and Radwan. One family’s story that threaded through the entire film. And then I wanted a timeline of the events that were reported in the news, the public events. The taking of oil fields and the blowing up of Palmyra, all the things that registered in the national news media.
And then there were these segments I wanted to do, technical sections, the things you need to know about in order to understand the war. So, how is oil sold illegally from a warzone? How do weapons get into a warzone? How do you sell antiquities? How does the Caliphate tax residents? All these topics that are kind of dry. You can only dwell on a dry, technical topic for so long. So I had these two arcs, the personal and the public events, and then I slotted in these topics at regular interviews, keeping them brief.
And then the final bit was these conceptual pieces, these thought pieces. Like the universality of public violence. The shocking similarity between the very violent nasheeds—the religious war songs of ISIS—and La Marseillaise. The footage of ISIS driving their tanks through Raqqa and then the French army parading tanks through the streets of Paris. We’re basically all the same. We don’t want to think that, but we really are.
Is that what you want your audience to take away? The idea of a shared humanity, and atrocity?
You can absolutely condemn the violence of ISIS and acknowledge that western society does not have a moral superiority. At least in a historical sense. We don’t do that stuff now, but we used to. There’s a passage in the film about how every society is blind to their own violence. I mean, it’s amazing—we dropped nuclear weapons on two population centers. Nuclear weapons on people, right? It’s just delusional.
For me, partly for personal reasons and partly for the political moment we’re in, the immigration aspect of the film is really important. We did not start out trying to make a film that had a strong point about refugees, that was not our intent at all. But Donald Trump, in his odd way, created that.
Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS premieres on Sunday, 11 June on National Geographic, at 9/8c.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.