Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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)
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. Dalai Lama
Henry Naylor has written two works that are not only complex, but compelling. Among the myriad subjects contained in both Echoes and Angel are many of the current issues we read about daily in the news: the Middle East, Islam, ISIS, radicalism, and jihadism. There is also strong focus given to the equality, or more accurately lack of equality, between women and men in the Middle East and the subsequent restriction and violence imposed on women.
Echoes is the story of two women living in Ipswich, England 175 years apart. Both leave their homes at the age of seventeen to marry and to fulfill their chosen missions in life. Tillie (Rachel Smyth) lives in the Victorian era. She is a Christian, and wants to produce children for the Empire. Samira (Serena Manteghi), a present day Islamist school girl, wants to build a Caliphate–a Muslim political-religious community as originally created following the death of the prophet Muhammad. The outcomes of their missions are remarkably similar and it is the events leading up to these outcomes which comprise the story of Echoes.
Anita Lvova in Angels
Angel is based on what were likely, to some extent, real events. According to legend, the Kurdish freedom fighter known as The Angel of Kobane shot and killed at least 100 ISIS fighters in Syria. Rehana’s (Avita Lvova) strength, determination, and fearlessness are testimony to the inherent power of all women.
The performances of the three actresses are superlative. The depth of research which clearly went into the creation of each role is remarkable. The honesty of each portrayal of present and past events, including the other characters involved, is without fault.
Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi
The role of Tillie as portrayed by Rachel Smyth is a challenging one. The character demands a restraint and quiet demeanor that make it difficult to counteract the more overt power of Samira. The actress remains true to her role.
Michael Cabot’s direction of Angel and Emma Butler’s direction of Echoes miss neither a beat nor a nuance. Reality is maintained without ever lapsing into melodrama or shock for the sake of shock.
Both works are filled with pathos, violence, and moments of humor and, perhaps most important, reality. They demand the complete focus and involvement of the viewer and, though sometimes disturbing, they should not be missed.
Angles & Echoes Produced by Redbeard Theatre in association with Gilded Balloon Productions 59 East 59th Theaters 59 East 59 between Park and Madison Running through May 7 with performances Tuesday through Friday at 7:15 p.m., Saturday at 2:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3:15 p.m..
In the early-70’s, I spent over three months on a kibbutz in the Negev. It was an amazing experience in many ways, but the food was not among the highlights. Breakfasts consisted of “Israeli salad,” yogurts, bread, tea, and something we called, “chocy sauce,” a pre-curser to Nutella. Dinners were a monotonous and not very adventurous boiled chicken.
In the Kitchen
So when I heard that there was a new film about Israeli food, I was intrigued. What could a 94-minute documentary possibly have to say about a cuisine of almost no note? To my surprise, the answer is “a lot.” In the skilled hands of director Roger Sherman and the warm embrace of chef and James Beard Award-Winner Michael Solomonov, also the on-camera host, the film opened up a whole new culinary world to me. And it went well beyond just humus and falafel.
In the Tomato Field
Traveling up and down this tiny [the size of New Jersey] but incredibly diverse country, viewers are introduced to Israel’s history, culture, and religions. Michael meets chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, and journalists and delves deep into the origins of the foods they grow and cook, their families, and the immigrant experience. And what an experience it is. This “new” cuisine draws from thousands of years of history and over 150 different countries and cultures including Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. All of them celebrate the bounty and abundance of the local products around them. As one chef says, “It’s the flavor of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.”
With the Cheesemaker
The film is also a heartfelt reminder of Solomonov’s own heritage. He was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh eating his Romanian grandmother’s cheese and potato “borekas,” a dish he recreates on camera. During the production, he also visits the place where his brother was killed during the Yom Kippur fighting in 2003. That history led Michael to re-examine his own Israeli/Sephardic roots; and ultimately to open his restaurant, Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew.
Fishing in the Galilee
From a filmmaking standpoint, this doc is a lovely little gem. The pacing and editing is spot on; the chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs are passionate and articulate; and the scenes of the landscapes are stunning. Kudos also to the light, atmospheric touch of the music created by Amit Gur and Moshe Da’aboul.
So what is Israeli Cuisine? Like any good recipe or great dish, it is a subtle and ever-changing mosaic of rich and colorful flavors; full of history and personal stories; and all of it touched with love.