This is one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most eye-opening, important, and memorable.
The documentary chronicles the Syrian civil war and the downfall of its society, which led to the rise of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. But it is so much more layered and so much more complicated than those few words can convey. Pulling from over 1,000 hours of footage from the front, news clips, firsthand accounts, and iPhone footage, filmmakers Sebastian Junger (award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and best-selling author) and Nick Quested (Emmy-winning filmmaker and director) bring viewers the real story from the ground, and from the people living the nightmare.
This is not Junger’s and Quested’s first foray into war-torn areas. Their films, The Last Patrol, Korengal, the Emmy-nominated Which Way to the Front Line From Here? The Life and time of Tim Hetherington, and the Oscar-nominated Restrepo all delved into conflicts around the world. Their mission was always the same, according to Quested. “We were always looking to find the humanity in the darkest places. There’s no darker place than the Syrian civil war at the moment.”
IRAQ: A young refugee child inside the Debaga Refugee Camp. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)
But explaining the story of this country posed a special set of challenges. There is a long and complex history behind the civil war, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination not to go the route of his Arab Spring predecessors like Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. The calculated and relentless incursion of ISIS into the area on both an economic and ideological level created another story. And then physically getting access to the people and the front line amidst changing allegiances was another obstacle. It took the filmmakers a year and a half and 39 trips to the area to make it happen. During that time, their network of contacts grew to include other journalists, fixers, activists, human rights workers, politicians, army commanders; and even former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. They have seamlessly knit together these disparate bits and pieces to create a clear picture of a complicated tale.
TURKEY – The Mohammad family on one of their many attempts to cross over the Mediterranean into Greece. (Photo Credit: Junger Quested Films LLC/Radwan Mohammad)
But the heart of this film lies with the ordinary citizens caught in the middle. The scenes of dozens of young children laid out in rows, dead from a gas attack are horrifying; the lone mother in the middle of the town square calling out for her kids after an attack is heart-wrenching; and then there is the story of the Mohammad brothers and their families. They were first robbed of their rights by Assad and then bombed into submission by him. For a brief period, it looked like the “people” might actually be winning this war with the help of the Syrian Free Army. But then ISIS took over and imposed a new set of rules and a religious fanaticism that included public beheadings in town centers with the dead being left there as a warning. That is when they decided to leave Syria.
The film tracks the brothers’ frightening journey from Aleppo to Turkey to Greece and back, with the Mohammad’s doing the actual filming. They were given a two-page set of instructions on how and what to shoot, according to Quested. He coached them, saying, “Try to focus on your feelings and your children’s feelings and try to give us a sense of your environment.” The result is raw, intimate, and emotional … as is the film.
When asked what he wanted people to take away from the film, Junger said, “We wanted to humanize America’s view of people who have to flee violence. This country is a beacon for people who are hopeless and desperate. We are hoping that our country can continue to be that.”
Hell on Earth will air globally on National Geographic in 171 countries and 45 languages starting Sunday, June 11th at 9 p.m.
Top photo: QAYARRAH, IRAQ – After leaving Qayarrah, ISIS sets oil fires as a parting gift for the villagers. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)