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)
Daniel Silva’s new Gabriel Allon mystery, The Black Widow, is not for the faint of heart. Think we’re safe? Think again. Silva pulls no punches and by the time you’ve read the last page, you may want to rethink those vacation plans or even that restaurant reservation. And if you live in Washington, D.C., the plot will hit (quite literally) very close to home.
Silva has been writing the Gabriel Allon series since 2000 when he first introduced us to the art restorer/secret agent/assassin. Allon’s first wife, Leah, was injured and their son, Daniel, killed in a car bombing. Leah now suffers from severe PTSD and memory loss and Allon visits her often in the care facility where she lives, not far from the Jerusalem limestone apartment building where Allon and his second wife, Chiara, reside with their infant twins, Raphael and Irene.
The Black Widow is Allon’s 16th outing and there are hints that supporting characters will take center stage as Silva moves forward. Allon, tapped to become chief of Israel’s intelligence service, will now be spending more time directing the action rather than being in the middle of it. While Allon fans may be disappointed, those poised to take over – Mikhail Abramov and Dina Sarid, two reliable members of Allon’s team, and Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a French-born Jew who is also a doctor – are compelling enough that the series will probably not miss a beat.
Before Silva was a novelist, he was a journalist, at one point serving as UPI’s Middle East correspondent, reporting from Cairo. His experience covering that volatile area of the world informs his novels. Silva was born a Catholic but converted to Judaism when he was an adult. Through Allon Silva conveys his affection for the Israeli people and his admiration for the Israeli secret service. Intelligence officers from France, Britain, and the United States, are portrayed as naive, ill-informed, and ill-prepared to face the new world order. In The Black Widow, the West, particularly the U.S., pays dearly for underestimating the enemy.
The Black Widow opens with a vicious attack in Paris that claims the life of one of Allon’s friends, Hannah Weinberg, leader of the Isaac Weinberg Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in France. The bombing was carried out by Safia Bourihane, an Algerian who was living in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a banlieue north of Paris. After her Tunisian-born boyfriend was killed in a coalition air strike, Bourihane was dubbed the “black widow.” Although she had been under French surveillance as a “ticking time bomb,” the authorities felt she was no longer a threat after she stopped associating with known radicals and even ceased wearing the hijab. “Which is exactly what she was told to do by the man who masterminded the attack,” observed one of the French security officials. That mastermind, known only as Saladin, becomes Allon’s next target.
The real Saladin was a Kurd, born in 1138, who beat back the Christians, slaughtering many of them, to reclaim Jerusalem for the Muslims. The ISIS terrorist who goes by the name of Saladin was born in Iraq and was part of Saddam Hussein’s security force. His mission is now worldwide, striking targets in the West using suicide bombers and armed assassins.
To bring down Saladin, Allon plans to find and train a black widow of his own. Like so many Jews living in France, Natalie and her parents relocated to Israel, fearful of the violence being directed at their community. She needs some convincing to join the “Office,” the nickname given to Allon’s operation, but once she signs on, she convincingly transforms herself into a Palestinian, Leila, who mourns the loss of her husband and seems bent on seeking revenge by killing infidels. Natalie/Leila succeeds in her assignment, infiltrating Saladin’s network. But will her efforts be enough to stop the devastating attack that Allon believes is coming?
Silva’s characters are expertly drawn. Over the course of the series, Allon has suffered huge losses yet remains true to his cause. And while the male figures, even the evil Saladin, are very convincing, it’s the female characters that draw us into the story. We follow Natalie on every step of her dangerous journey, amazed at her courage and fearful for her survival. Allon’s wife, Chiara, is loyal to a fault, understanding her husband better than anyone else.
In Author’s Notes at the end of the book, Silva lays out a compelling case for constant vigilance and a concerted effort to defeat the terrorist group, ISIS. He blames both Republicans and Democrats for the quagmire that has developed in the Middle East – President Bush for invading Iraq and President Obama for failing to leave enough troops in the region. And while he reviews some of the recent attacks in Europe, he ends on a sobering note: “The American homeland, however, is ISIS’s ultimate target.”
The Black Widow