“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” (2017)

OVER THE COURSE of a film in which the makers show the charred bodies of young children killed and air strikes and the public beheadings of perceived violators of Shariah Law, it might come as a surprise to hear (or read) someone say that the most memorable part was Sebastian Junger’s narration at the end. As he laments––not without sympathy, I might add––the awkward political situation and cultural anxieties the refugee crisis has produced in Europe and elsewhere, he reminds us that ‘whether or not you care about human suffering, human suffering affects you.’ It’s a truism, perhaps, but one cheerfully forgotten, and reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens’ advice that “you can’t give up politics, it won’t give you up”. Our distracted culture might bear Mr. Junger’s words in mind.

Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State. Junger and his co-director Nick Quested chronicle Bashar al-Assad’s declaration of war on his own people following the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and the subsequent topplings of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi during the Arab Spring. Assad’s deeply held belief that he was next to go, the filmmakers argue, was the motivation behind the strategy of uncompromising and brutal repression that he pursued, and it was into this swirling vortex of blood and smoke and rubble that a Salafi jihadist militant group, following a fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam, moved.


Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State.


But Junger, you feel, is a journalist first and a filmmaker second. He isn’t afraid of pointing fingers at the U.S., for example, for its foreign policy blunders, including the de-Baathification law put forward by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American leader in 2003. Echoing Middle East correspondents such as Liz Sly of the Washington Post, Junger suggests that the upper echelons of the defeated Iraqi army were to find employment, if that’s the word, in the nascent Islamic State. (The second cataclysmic error in American judgement, as Junger sees it, was Obama’s failure to follow through with his promise of intervention were Assad to use chemical weapons.) But the filmmakers are equally critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “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.”


The filmmakers are critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. The U.S., Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “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.”


Junger and Quested were denied access to Syria for filming, but dramatise the implosion of Syria using a range of talking heads, including the British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of Burning Country, and the footage of Middle Eastern news outlets, activists, witnesses and citizen journalists. The effect may in fact be superior to that which would have been produced were the pair to do the filming for themselves: there is a brutality to Hell on Earth that is separate from the destruction and misery it depicts. The filmmakers do not shy away from that misery. “Hard-hitting” seems a woefully inadequate way of describing the scale and violence of the murder and torture––both physical and emotional––that Junger and Quested depicts.  When an image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Bodrum prompted an international outcry and renewed debate over the refugee crisis, the boy’s aunt said that “God put the light on that picture to wake up the world.” Junger, whose film Restrepo was praised for ‘forsaking narrative structure for pure visceral power’, has a deep understanding of the force of an unsparing image.

In September last year, headlines declared that Bashar al-Assad had finally “won the war” in Syria, citing heavy Russian involvement and U.S. “indifference”. But the fighting is still ongoing, and a refugee crisis still exists. If there is a single thing that Junger and Quested wish to convey in their depiction of the victims of both, it’s that those people could be us or our families or our friends, and we should treat them accordingly.

Comments are closed.